- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 1, 2006

A lump of clay spins underneath her hands as student potter Ellen Turnbull pulls and shapes it into a vase.

The potter’s wheel where she sits has, for her, become a means to an end. She wants to carve the vase and other pieces of pottery she makes and do some sculpture, she says.

“It’s just a skill on the potterer’s wheel. You learn it and go from there,” the Alexandria resident says.

Pottery students like Mrs. Turnbull have a few options for learning the craft. They can take a workshop or class at an art center or studio, college, university, museum, or parks and recreation center; or they can get information and project ideas from books and magazines on ceramics and pottery.

A form of ceramics, pottery tends to describe objects used for food service in the kitchen or dining room, says Bill van Gilder, owner of Frederick Pottery School Inc. in Frederick and a columnist for Clay Times Magazine in Waterford, Va.

Pottery can be hand-built or thrown on a potter’s wheel. Most wheels used today are electrically operated and work on centrifugal force to spin a metal plate called a wheel head.

Throwing, which involves shaping a lump of clay into a bowl, vase or other form while keeping the clay centered on the wheel head, is one of the hardest skills to learn, Mr. van Gilder says.

“It takes some eye-hand coordination. It takes balance. It takes perseverance, but like riding a bicycle, once you get it, you’ll never forget it,” he says.

Learning hand-building is a good place for the beginning potter to start, says Gail Adkisson, co-owner with Edward Bull of Creative Clay Studios in Alexandria.

“It takes fewer tools and is a more basic approach, because you don’t need a wheel,” Ms. Adkisson says.

Pinch, coil and slab are the main hand-building methods. Pinching involves pushing the thumb into the middle of a ball of clay and turning and pinching it to even up the walls. The coiling method takes rolled strings of clay, spirals them on top of one another and presses them together. Slab involves throwing down a piece of clay onto a canvas board to stretch and flatten it, or using a slab roller or rolling wheel to roll over and flatten it.

Lorraine Oerth, an instructor at the Art League School in Alexandria, is teaching the students in her nine-week tile and mosaics class how to do slab work. On the first day of class last month, she demonstrated how to cut a tile, add colored slip, which is a liquid form of clay, and carve patterns into the clay.

“The look after it’s fired is really pizzazzy,” Ms. Oerth tells them.

In another room at the Art League School, pottery instructor Nathaniel “Nat” Duffield is teaching his intermediate and advanced students hand-building and wheel-throwing techniques.

“I’m trying to get people to refine their techniques, so they can produce work more easily and smoothly,” Mr. Duffield says.

The first step in wheel throwing is wedging and kneading a ball of clay into a round shape free of any air bubbles, says Sherman Hall, editor of Ceramics Monthly, a publication of the American Ceramic Society.

The clay is placed on the wheel head, which is spun at a high speed, and formed into a dome shape, Mr. Hall says.

“It’s the starting place for any form that you’re going to make,” he says.

The clay is centered as it is shaped, so that it moves evenly and smoothly, Ms. Adkisson says.

“It’s an incredible feeling of the clay moving around your wet hands. Once you feel that feeling, you feel centered, too,” she says.

The clay is opened up by pushing a hole, or well, into its middle, Ms. Adkisson says. The sides are lifted and pulled up to raise and narrow the walls of the piece, leaving a half-inch of thickness at the bottom, she says.

“You pinch the ring of clay between both hands and pull it up,” says Jenna McCracken, editorial assistant at Clay Times Magazine. “From there, you can shape the cylinder into any shape you want.”

Throwing takes concentration and patience, Mr. Bull says.

“It’s coaxing the clay to ask it to become a shape by gentle persuasion,” he says.

To do this coaxing, the hands need to be thought of as a tool, Ms. Adkisson says.

“Your hands work together as a tool, so both of your hands are always touching in some way the entire time you’re throwing,” she says.

A few other tools involved in clay work include sponges for wetting the clay, ribs for shaping and smoothing it, knives for cleaning and cutting it, needle tools for measuring thickness of the bottom of a piece, wire tools for slicing clay, and trimming tools.

“When you’re working, you find the tool that fits your need, and you grab it. There’s tons of ways you can apply these tools,” Ms. McCracken says.

Throwing clay, Ms. Adkisson says, is like learning a dance and doing the same steps over and over again.

“When it comes together, you have a flowing, twirling, beautiful dance. It becomes a fluid motion instead of step by step,” she says.

Once the piece is thrown, it is dried, preferably underneath plastic, and monitored for uneven drying that could cause it to crack or warp, Mr. Hall says. Clay, he says, shrinks during the drying and firing processes.

The greenware, the term for clay before it is fired, is fired twice, typically in a gas, wood or electric kiln.

The first firing is a bisque firing at a temperature of about 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit to drive off excess water and make the piece durable so it can be glazed, Mr. Hall says.

“Most beginners won’t deal with glaze formation or mixing glazes,” he says.

The piece is porous after being fired, allowing for the application of glaze, which consists of clay, silica and metal oxides that add color, Mr. Bull says.

The second, or finishing, firing is done at a higher temperature when the piece is bone dry. The firing can be done in a variety of methods, such as by kiln, pit or raku firing. Raku firing, for example, involves moving the piece of pottery when red-hot from the kiln to a contained environment, where it is submerged into combustible materials to trap carbon on the unglazed parts of the pot, turning them black.

Each firing in an electric kiln takes at least 12 hours with another 24 hours for cooling, but the times can vary, Mr. Hall says.

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