Clay Play

by Connie Gulick



When I mention that I "do pottery," the comment I often receive is something like, "Oh, my Aunt Louise does ceramics."


My smile grows tight over gritted teeth, and I maintain a superior, somewhat aloof, silence.  Anyone who thinks pottery and ceramics are the same thing wouldn't understand.  I don't even want to get into a discussion with such a person.  Nor do I want to try to explain my sudden stab of superior feelings.


True, the material in what we call "ceramics" comes from clay.  It is also true that pottery clay heated to a certain temperature for a certain amount of time may be called "ceramic" clay.  But notice that in this case, there is no "s" on ceramic.  The word is an adjective, as in "ceramic tile."  "Ceramics" with an "s" is completely different from the no "s" "ceramic."


Ceramics, like Aunt Louise's mushroom cups and matching mushroom-decorated cookie jar, were born in a factory and formed of clay particles dissolved in water.  This muddy substance, called "slip," is poured into a plaster of Paris mold.  I'm sure some artist created the cups and cookie jar from which the mold was made, but somewhere along the line, the figure was modified, simplified, and made generic; the mushrooms now have fewer fine lines, so that eventually the pieces will not be difficult for people to paint.


The mold is a separable block of plaster of Paris, which has a cup-shaped space inside.  The slip is poured through a hole at the top and as it slides down the inside walls of the mold, it coats the sides in a thick layer of whitish clay.  Once the slip has dried and hardened, the two sides of the mold block are pulled away from the cup.  What remains is called "greenware."  Although cast in white clay, the cup has a greenish tint because of the moisture that still remains in the clay.  The same mold is filled again and again, and the cups are multiplied so that there are millions of the same little cups with mushrooms on them and matching mushroom-decorated cookie jars lining ceramics stores all over the US.


This is where Aunt Louise comes in.  She bought her mushroom cups as greenware from a ceramics store.  She lightly sanded the cups to smooth the seams left from the mold, and then fired them slowly at a very low temperature -- about 1500 degrees Fahrenheit -- we are not talking kitchen heat here.  At this point, the cups turned white.  Some people buy the pieces already cleaned up and dried, but not Aunt Louise.  She's a true ceramicist.


Then Aunt Louise painted the cups.  The painting is where her creativity kicks in.  She just goes wild with the wide variety of low-fire paints and glazes available to her.  That's why you can find brown mushrooms on a green background, yellow and orange mushrooms on a white background, or purple-speckled mushrooms on a harvest gold background.  Unfortunately, except for color, those mushrooms are all the same.


Pottery, on the other hand, is much more complicated, requiring the potter's involvement and creativity in all the steps.  This means more risk.  There is more chance that something could go wrong.  In ceramics, pretty much all that can go wrong is the piece breaks or the color choices clash.


The potter's choices, however, can make or -- pardon the pun -- break a piece.  What can a potter choose from?  Let's start with the clay itself.  You have choices of color:  all different shades of yellow, red, and white clay.  You may also choose from any of those shades laced with little flakes of mica, which sparkle like glitter after the clay is fired.


You also may choose from a variety of firing abilities.  For example, some clays should be fired at a mid-level range, cones 5 and 6, and others should be fired at a higher range, cones 9 and 10.  You need higher firing clays if you want to make something harder and more resistant to moisture and breakage, such as porcelain.  (Bet you didn't know your toilet is made of clay!)  Low-firing clays give you more choices in paints, which are more abundant for the lower firing range.  Paints also tend to retain their colors better at a lower firing range.  The mid-firing clays make great stoneware, heavy and hard, but breakable.  And the lowest firing clays are good for clay flower pots, porous and quite fragile.


Sometimes the differences in their firing abilities are determined by the amount and type of sand mixed in with the clay.  (And you thought it was just clay, didn't you?)  Sand gives the clay its ability to stick together as it dries, so that once it's dry, you don't end up with big cracks that resemble a dry riverbed.  The other, non-clay, material, however, doesn't have to be sand.  Some potters use a kind of volcanic ash, for example.


Another choice you have to make is how wet and elastic the clay may be when you work with it.  If you want to "throw" pots, bowls, and plates on a potter's wheel, you need clay that is like thick mud -- thick enough to hold its form when lumped together, yet thin enough to manipulate easily.  However for handbuilding, you need a dryer clay, much the consistency of bread dough.  This kind is dry enough to hold its shape and not stick to your hands and tools, at least not much.  Finally, slip is the wettest of clay that we mentioned before.  Many potters make their own slip so that they can control the ratio of clay to water.  They grind dry clay into fine powder and mix it with water until the clay particles are suspended.


Virgil Ortiz of Cochiti uses slip in the way his mother and grandmother taught him.  He starts with a red clay and forms by hand one of his famous figurines, often a sitting bear.  Then when the figure has dried for several days and he has sanded it smooth, Virgil pours a white slip over the bear and slides it into a warm oven.  When the slip has dried, Virgil pours another layer.  Each time, the figure gets a little fatter and a little whiter.  The Ortiz family may repeat this process ten times on one figure.  Then Virgil paints red, black, and white over the figure and finally fires it in a hot outdoor kiln (Ortiz).  I've tried to do this, and I can tell you it is difficult.  If the slip is too wet, it becomes absorbed almost immediately into the base clay, causing the figure to expand in places, distort and crack.  If too dry, the slip globs on and doesn't cover the figure evenly.


These are examples of what can go wrong.  All this in just creating the figure.  In contrast, the ceramics painter has chosen her figure off the shelf.  Attempting to form select shapes from clay is taking a great risk.  The clay has a mind of its own (ask any potter) and cannot be dictated to.  A final figure turns out formed through a marriage of the artist's fancy and the clay's own ideas.  It may be ugly; it may not "work."  That's the risk.  Through that piece is some expression of self, and by making such a piece, you open yourself up to someone else's ridicule.  On the other hand, if the piece comes out "right," the reward is much greater than for a ceramic pieces coming out "right."  The clay itself seems to affirm your worth.


There seems to be little risk of a form coming out wrong in ceramics.  It's already done for you, and it is not yours, but someone else's expression, and one reduced to political correctness. 


That's all fine and good, you may say, but where's the risk in functional pottery?  It's true some shapes may be dictated by their function.  For example, cups need to be generally cup-shaped to hold liquid; plates should be fairly flat.  Yet even within those limitations, the possibilities for self-expression are infinite.  Who says a plate, or a cup for that matter, has to be round?  You, the artist, may choose the size.  You may alter the angle, the slope, the ridges; you might even vary its symmetry.  Several Pueblo women make pots with steps cut into the rim so that one side of the rim is higher than the other side.  You might create a repetitive texture as background, such as the "corrugated" pottery of the Shituva family of Acoma (Trimble 78).  You can decorate the functional pieces by carving designs in the clay or by adding shapes on the outside.  I like to put lizards on the handles of my cups.  Lizards are known as guardians of water; where better to put them?


Even if a potter chooses to make simple classic forms -- a cylindrical cup or a round plate -- there's risk.  In a way, the risk is even greater.  Flaws and lack of symmetry are more obvious in classic forms.  How amazing it is, therefore, that Pueblo potters can make perfectly round, perfectly even pots with perfect slopes, all without the benefit of a wheel but rather by hand building.


I really don't want to put down Aunt Louise.  What she's doing is good.  At least, I'm sure it's fun for her.  But there's no way you can equate what Aunt Louise does  with what the Pueblo potters do.  For that matter, just try matching one of the worst potters around (me) with one of the best ceramists.  I think you'll see that because of the risk, doing pottery is much more creative and rewarding than doing ceramics.


Works Cited

Ortiz, Virgil.  Personal Interview.  December 1992.

Trimble, Stephen.  Talking with the Clay.  Santa Fe, NM:  School of American Research Press.  1987.