Printing On Clay

Potters have been printing on clay in one fashion or another for millennia. Six thousand years ago the Sumerians made stamps and cylinders to impress their soft clay. Minoan and Mycenaean potters used sponges dipped in colored slips to make splatter prints on their wares (a process revisited and made popular by nineteenth century Scottish potters as an inexpensive way to decorate pottery for people of modest means). The great nineteenth century factory potteries of England perfected the art of transfer ware, creating richly detailed images on their plates and platters. Modern potters use silkscreen, photographic techniques, monotype and monoprint techniques, block prints, decals, photocopies and computers to print on their works. This year, we have three new books on the vast and ever changing topic of printing on clay.

Paul Andrew Wandless, writing for Lark Crafts, gives us two looks at printing on pottery. He is the juror for 500 Prints on Clay and the author of Image Transfer on Clay: Screen, Relief, Decal & Monoprint Techniques. 500 Prints covers a wide range of work, with luscious images of each piece. Personally, I do not think polymer clay belongs in a book like this, though I have no objections to the medium itself: it is not clay but a petroleum product. And I wonder about repurposed “post consumer” crockery.  But that’s me. As with all the 500 series, it is a pleasure to spend an hour or two going through all the photos. It is stimulating to see what others are doing, especially when it is very different from your own work. The pieces include many riffs on books, birds and oddly, guns. I like the books and birds.

In Image Transfer on Clay, Wandless gives detailed instructions for various methods of putting pictures on clay, including how to make your own silkscreens, decals, and stencils and how to cast a slab. This is a heavily illustrated, step-by-step book.

Considerably different in scope, Paul Scott’s Ceramics and Print was recently updated with a third edition. Scott was an early innovator in using print on studio ceramics and has done extensive research and experimentation. His book focuses on history and process. He tells us right from the outset, that it is not a how to book. Yet, he does share tips. In describing spongeware, he tells us that potters wishing to make sponge stamps today will find it helpful to soak and freeze the sponge in advance so that it is easy to carve.

Scott discusses everything from lithophanes to 3D printing. As you know, I have a bias towards books with ceramics history, so it will not surprise you that I liked Ceramics and Print best and recommend it even if you have no plans whatsoever to start printing on clay.

While reading these three books, I remembered a video of Kristina Bogdanov’s surprisingly simple method for photo lithography on clay using a Xerox machine that Ceramics Arts Daily posted. If you want to get started printing on clay, this video is worth a look.

Horse Tails and Ash Glazes

In her new book, Natural Glazes: Collecting and Making, Scottish potter Miranda Forrest sings the praises of the common horsetail. Not horsehairs, which are popular with potters who burnish and pit fire porcelain pots thus creating delicately beautiful surface lines, but horsetails, Equisetaceae, the flowerless plant found throughout most of the world these last one hundred million years.

High in silica content, Equisetacae have been used as scrub brushes in several cultures including that of colonial America. They are poisonous to livestock and, in many regions, considered invasive. They grow in the heavy clay beneath my pink Meidiland roses and, though a weed that I battle every summer, I do think they are pretty. I like the jointed, bamboo-like stems and the scratchy green bristles. Now there is a reason to love them.

Forrest writes, “The first test with horsetail ash alone produced a melted, creamy, greenish glaze with an optical blue in the centre, perhaps the most interesting single land-vegetation result to date. It also mixes well with other ashes and rock dusts. One of the other interesting effects associated with horsetail is carbon trapping during the firing, which gives a dark smoky colour to the glaze in places.”

Forrest, who lives in the windswept Outer Hebrides along the west coast of Scotland, has spent years collecting and testing local materials for glazes. She gathers land vegetation such as stinging nettles, Japanese knotweed, lawn grass, meadow flowers, and cereal straw, plus, from the beaches, sea vegetation like kelp. She carefully burns her gatherings to make ash, taking care not to contaminate them. She also gathers and tests stone dust such as gneiss and feldspar, and animal ingredients such as shells and bones.

Forrest keeps meticulous records of her tests, trying each found ingredient singly, and then in mixtures, sometimes using commercial additions like Cornish Stone. Though her work is intensely local, Forrest’s methods can be used anywhere with one’s own indigenous materials. She does, of course, discuss the more often written about wood ash glazes, but happily for us, she does not live in a wooded area, so of necessity she had to turn to other vegetation, thus opening many exciting possibilities for all of us.

This spring, I not only look forward to the emergence of the daffodils in our fields, but, and this is a first, to the return of the stinging nettles and horsetails! Fortunately, Japanese Knotweed has not invaded my gardens yet, but I know where there’s a patch nearby.

Woody Guthrie On Adobe

When Woody Guthrie, the great American folk balladeer who gave us This Land is Your Land, the musician who influenced Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger and many others, discovered adobe during the troubled dust bowl years, he became an evangelist for building with mud. Huddled with his young wife and daughter in a Texas panhandle shack  made of wood lined with old newspapers against the wind, whipped by a blizzard of brown snow, he dreamed of building an adobe house so they would never feel the bitter cold again.

Guthrie first saw adobe while in New Mexico and was intrigued with the longevity of the thick walled mud buildings, the coolness inside in the summer and warmth in the winter. The US government at the time liked adobe too, and explained how to build your own adobe buildings in USDA Bulletin Number 1720. Guthrie obtained a copy of the bulletin (it was 5 cents) and when he read that anyone, with very little skill or money, could build with mud he got very excited. As he sang in Bling Blang:

I’ll grab some mud and you grab some clay

So when it rains it won’t wash away.

We’ll build a house that’ll be so strong,

The winds will sing my baby a song.

He also wrote a novel, House of Earth, in which the protagonist obtains a copy of USDA Bulletin Number 1720 and carries it with him every where, in hopes of one day building a mud house for his family. Though Guthrie wrote and published several books in addition to more than three thousand songs, this was his only novel and it was not published. He hoped it would be made into a movie but that didn’t happen either, and the manuscript languished.

Now, thankfully, with Douglas Brinkley and Johnny Depp (!) as champions, House of Earth is at last available Brinkley and Depp have written a wonderful introduction, putting the book in context. The novel itself stands up well, written in Guthrie’s folksy, passionate style. It’s a love story, a protest against banks and greed and agribusiness. But most of all, at the center, is the promise of adobe. Who would have thought that the iconic Woody Guthrie was a mud man!

A PDF scan of the bulletin is available online for download (warning: the download is slow that I could not even put the link on this page). It is fun and useful to read. The intent seems to be to not only show how to make and use adobe, but to convince the readers of its superiority. Clearly, it convinced Guthrie and through him, Tike Hamlin his character.

I love stuff like this. Don’t you?

Must See DVD of Indian Potters

One of my favorite books is Traditional Pottery of India by Jane Perryman published in 2000. Organized by region, the book looks at the extraordinary (and endangered) work of India’s many potters: cookware, ovens, houses and staircases, cupboards, and elaborate figures for shrines. The photos are excellent, and reading Perryman’s descriptions is almost as good a visiting oneself.

Now Perryman is offering a DVD, Pottery Traditions of India with video shot by her friend and colleague Indru Bhatia who died prematurely in 2002. The DVD is a nice compliment to Perryman’s book. Watching it, I long to have a collection of Indian pottery. One of the enormous horses would look nice in my woodland walk, and an elephant by the back door. But most of all the pots, I covet the pots, many of which are thrown on a wooden wheel and then refined and enlarged by beating.

From the video, it is clear that being a potter in India is hard and dangerous work. There is no attention paid to dust protection. We see potters tossing ashes and rice dust with abandon. Preparing the clay is done by hand, with perhaps a wooden club for breaking up rock like junks. Pots are fired with armloads of rice straw or sticks. It is rigorous, physical labor. Still, it is sad that as people turn to plastic and metal for their households, they no longer desire the wares of their local potters. Even sadder, younger folks are going off to do other things. Potting skills developed and passed down for generations are being lost.

In addition to admiring the extraordinary beauty of Indian pottery, both the plain pots with perhaps only a fire cloud as decoration, and the intricately decorated wares, I admire the ability of seemingly everyone, men, women and children, to sit cross-legged on the ground for hours without the slightest difficulty. How do they do that?

I am glad that through her book and DVD Perryman has preserved and documented India’s pottery. Her video is available directly from her on her website: I will be viewing it

The Last Sane Man

These past weeks of silence on the blog, I have been immersed in Tanya Harrod’s monumental biography, The Last Sane Man: Michael Cardew, Modern Pots, Colonialism and the Counterculture. It is not a book to be read quickly or lightly. Harrod, an art historian and the author of The Crafts in Britain in the Twentieth Century, spent a decade researching and writing it. Cardew was a lifelong diarist, a prolific letter writer and the author of two books, Pioneer Pottery his elegantly written and highly technical opus, and Pioneer Potter, his autobiography, plus essays and lectures. He was written about, filmed and covered in the press. Many of the potters whom he influenced are still living and working. Harrod had an abundance of sources to consult and indeed her acknowledgements read like a who’s who of twentieth century ceramics.

Michael Cardew was by all accounts charismatic. He was photogenic even in old age. And he made beautiful pots, perhaps some of the most beautiful pots the world has seen, that, even more important than their beauty, connect emotionally with the beholder. He has mythic status amongst potters.

The outlines of his life are widely known. Born into a musical family (he played the recorder throughout his life), the middle of five tow-headed brothers, he received a classical education. Arthur, his father, collected pots made by Edwin Beer Fishley and would take the whole family on summer expeditions to Fremington to purchase his pots. However, the senior Cardew was not pleased when his son chose to become a maker of pots himself. The young Cardew sought out William Fishley Holland, Edwin Beer’s grandson now at Braunton, to teach him to throw. While there, he learned of Bernard Leach’s pottery at St. Ives and asked to come work with him. They formed a life-long friendship and appreciation for one another.

After leaving St. Ives, Cardew purchased an abandoned pottery and opened Winchcombe, where he produced exquisite earthenware, though not without many tribulations. Here, Elijah Comfort came to throw for him, and Ray Finch came and eventually took over for him. He then purchased an old inn and built Wenford Bridge, but left for the first of two lengthy stays in West Africa, in the Gold Coast (now Ghana) and later in Nigeria. There, he turned to stoneware, and of necessity, became deeply knowledgeable about geology, glaze chemistry, clay and all the technical aspects of ceramics. He returned to Wenford Bridge periodically throughout his stay in Nigeria, and, upon leaving Africa for good, remained at Wenford Bridge. By then, he was a legend, much sought and admired. He took in his first students since his return to England, Svend Bayer and then Todd Piker, and made several lecture tours in the US.

“Michael Cardew’s life and work,” Harrod writes, “represented a creative response to an increasingly mechanized society and took the form of a desire for authentic, lived experience.” She focuses as much on Cardew’s personal life as on his art, writing extensively about his boyhood tryst with a fellow Exeter student, David Owen, and heartbreak at being abandoned; his unusual marriage (that lasted until his own death) to Mariel Russell with whom he had three sons; his role as an often absent father; and his overwhelming love for Clement Kofi Athey. At times, Harrod seems determined not to let us put or keep Cardew on a pedestal, and points out how difficult it must have been for Mariel to be married to him, though she quotes frequently from Cardew’s many letters to her. She questions some of his actions in the Gold Coast and Nigeria and his complex relationship with imperialism. She tells us that he burst into rages and shed tears easily. He liked to share red wine with friends, often quoted Blake, and was moved by Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

Cardew made pots up until his death by stroke at the age of eighty-two. After the slipware of his early years, he produced tall stoneware cider jars, African inspired stools, casseroles, bottles and jars with working screw tops, great platters and rose bowls, all with his unmistakable seemingly simple designs. He lived aesthetically but always surrounded by beauty, part of his attraction to generations of admirers. Who has not been moved by the now famous photos of his long, wooden eating room table at Wenford Bridge, his pots on the windowsill, the whitewashed walls?

An informed society should have a richly detailed, carefully researched biography of an artist of Cardew’s stature and now we have it. Bravo. But Harrod admits that it is a book he did not want written. The title comes from a 1978 review the novelist Angela Carter wrote of Garth Clark’s monograph on Cardew in which she called him, “The Last Sane Man in a crazy world.” Harrod points out that there are many who would agree with Carter, “in particular the students who worked with Cardew at Wenford Bridge in Cornwall after his return from West Africa in 1965.” She continues, “I interviewed many of them and when they recalled the 1970s and early 1980s spent in Cardew’s company, learning about quality in pottery and in everyday life – thinking back to that period of no compromise, of life lived at its purest – all were visibly moved, several of them to tears.”

There are ample black and white photos throughout the text and a section of color plates. The notes are thorough but I would also have liked a bibliography, though the absence of one was likely not the author’s choice. The index is superb.

We must thank Harrod for her good work. I highly recommend taking the time to read her book. And you know what – I never had the opportunity to meet him except on paper and seeing his pots, but Michael Cardew is still on a pedestal for me.

Ethel Sets the Table

Edwin Beer Fishley bowl

The third and last of the books I ordered from Cotswolds Living in the UK is Michael Cardew, Ethel Mairet and the New Handworkers Gallery: The Hill Collection, again by John Edgeler. In this monograph, Edgeler looks at the collection of pots, originally amassed by Ethel Mairet but passed into the hands of her heirs the Hill family, residents of New Zealand.

Mairet was a weaver. She married Ananda Coomaraswamy, an art historian and philosopher but the union was short lived. She then married Philip Mairet, a draughtsman, and together the couple built a comfortable Arts and Crafts style house called Gospels. She was an excellent weaver, studied the weaving of many other cultures, and wrote articles and books.

What makes her interesting to us is she was deeply appreciative of not only her own craft, weaving and spinning, but in everything handmade. She had an eye for excellence. She set up a gallery in her home and sought out talented craftspeople. She was particularly interested in pottery, and ended up deeply influencing three of the most influential potters of the twentieth century; Bernard Leach, Shoji Hamada and Michael Cardew. She did this by serving dinner.

The country potter Edwin Beer Fishley, whose shop was nearby, was one of Mairet’s friends. She collected and used his pottery and, when she later became friends with Leach and Hamada and Cardew she introduced them to his work. She invited Hamada and Leach to dinner at her house. She set her large oak table with pitchers of various sizes, oval dishes, and green plates, all made by her friend, the slipware potter E.B.Fishley. It was a table setting the men never forgot and which Hamada still exclaimed over years later. When Hamada was about to return to Japan, she gave him a woolen suit she’d sewn from cloth she’d woven, seen in many subsequent photos of him. And he brought English slipware to Japan so he could continue look at it.

Leach declared Fishely the “last peasant potter” and praised him in his books. Cardew wanted to make pots that were as strong, and asked Fishley’s grandson, William Fishely Holland to teach him to throw.

The book is actually a catalog. Many of the photos are of early Cardew pots, which dominate the collection. The Cotswolds Living books are small, nicely produced affairs with good quality photos. Reading the book, I liked being reminded what an impact a table set with beautiful handmade dishes can have on the dinner guests.

Dreaming of French Country Pottery

A book I often take down from my bookshelves and reread is The French Country Table: Pottery & Faience of Provence by Bernard Duplessy with photos by Camille Moirenc. I never tire of looking at Moirenc’s photos of rustic French pottery in tiled kitchens. I dream of flying to France to see these pots for myself. I want to pick them up and run my fingers down their sides. I sit at my wheel and wonder; can I infuse my own work with such vigor?

Duplessy, though his writing is a little too snappy for me, gives us a brief history of pottery in Provence, going back thousands years. Then he takes us on a tour around the kitchen, describing the various culinary vessels. Moirenc’s lush photos of these wares grace nearly every page. We see the sartan (skillet); pignate (stew pot), tian (bowl or gratin plate); oule (stew pot) pégau (potbellied, one handled pot with a pouring spout); plus storage jars; cheese strainers; and even roof tiles. I skip past the highly decorated faience at the end of the book. It’s the partially glazed pieces that call me.

I love the section on skillets in which Duplessy tells us that experienced cooks “’baptize’ the skillet with hot water and ‘anoint’ it with oil before each use, as well as to allow it to gradually grow accustomed to the heat.” I think the fat bodies and thick rims of the large storage jars (doliums and jarrons) are just the right proportions. And oh, the pitchers! Splashed with green or yellow glaze. Deep orange ones. Best of all, wet ones, fresh off the wheel!

Interspersed with all the photos of pots, are photos of potter’s workshops and well-stocked showrooms, potter’s hands at work, boards of drying pots, and glimpses of the potters themselves. Since the book is written for decorators and collectors more than potters, it is all presented in the most romantic fashion.

We are told that we must visit the potters’ festival in Cliousclat in June. Duplessy assures us that there are so many potters in the region it is a “republic of potters.”

There are lists of potteries and their addresses and phone numbers at the back of the book. Since it was published in French in 2002 and in English in 2003, just as the web was really taking off, we are not given websites or email addresses. That’s ok. The photos in the book are enough clay porn for me.