97. Making Clay
Every profession has its jargon, and Ceramics, being an older profession, has more than its share. “Throwing pots,” and “firing kilns” are common enough, but some people may also wonder about the phrase “making clay.”
No one actually makes clay. Clay is made of microscopic flakes of rock, shaped something like playing cards. The planet just makes clay as part of the natural weathering of rock. Because the parent rocks vary, and the travels of the particles vary, no two clays are exactly the same. Each deposit has an individual combination of particle size, physical purity, texture, color, and temperature range. For potters, this provides both an opportunity and a problem.
The problem is that clay from a single deposit is only rarely suitable for making pots. Often the clay matures (vitrifies) at too low a temperature or cracks too easily or shrinks too much. Maybe its trace impurities give it an undesirable color. The complete range and subtlety of native clays are beyond numbering.
However, the opportunity exists for the potter to alter one clay by combining it with another clay. Each clay then moderates the properties of the other. Of course, more than two clays can be used and this leads to the use of “clay body recipes.” These recipes are often exchanged and collected by potters in the same way that cooks exchange and collect food recipes. Each clay body (clay of a specific mixture) has known properties to meet known needs. The process of mixing the individual clays together to create the final clay body is what potters refer to as “making clay.”
For potters working in different cultures, making clay involves many different techniques. Most spend a lot of time digging it out of the ground, pulverizing, drying, slaking (mixing with water to a thin soup consistency), sieving out the twigs and pebbles, and eventually letting the best of what they started with dry into a consistency for making pots. Few observers pause to consider the labor that takes place before the lump of clay can be made into a pot. It is one of those unseen parts of the job.
To make our clay, we buy finely powdered clays from mines all across the country and have them shipped to us. Rather than arriving by dumptruck or wheelbarrow, the clay comes in paper bags, like dog food, each bag weighing fifty or a hundred pounds. Stacked neatly on wooden pallets, several tons can be quickly removed from the delivery truck and stored inside by fork-lift. For most ingredients the total cost is less than fifteen cents per pound.
To mix a particular recipe, the measured amounts (measured by weight) are emptied into an old industrial dough mixer and thoroughly combined. This is dusty, physical work, requiring ventilation systems, dust masks, strong bodies, and a certain willingness to get dirty. Once mixed dry, water is added and mixed in to create the desired consistency (firm or soft).
The recipe I most often use involves APGreen Fireclay (white bags with green lettering), Goldart (a bright yellow bag marked “Cedar Heights”], Ball Clay (a dull brown bag marked simply “OM4,” for “Old Mine #4”), Redart (a bright red bag), powdered Silica (often called “Flint,” in a blue and white bag), and so on. A normal batch makes about three hundred pounds of throwing clay, the amount of clay a hard-working professional potter might make into pots in a single morning.
Making clay is not a lot of fun—I don’t know anyone who looks forward to the chore—but it has its peculiar pleasures. Feeling the clay flow out of the bags, observing each clay’s individual character, listening to the mixer churn away while the dust ventilator howls, watching the mixed (and aerated) clay swirl and flow like quicksand, pouring in just the right amount of water for perfect throwing clay, none of these are glamorous pleasures. Nonetheless, to make pots you must first have clay.
Once a fellow student/potter spoke to me about his dislike of glazing. It, too, can be a messy job and physically tiring. But the comment got me thinking about all the little jobs that go into finishing the big job. Especially in ceramics, people judge the work by a small part of the total activity. Many people have no idea of what happens before or after a pot is thrown on a wheel. Perhaps they know a little about glaze, and that the pots are fired in a kiln, but most know little more than that, and nothing of the subtleties. Clearly, the more they know about the process, the better their understanding is of the final product.
This principle holds true for any profession from doctor and lawyer, through professor and business executive, to truck driver, farmer, or garbage collector. Each of us has an image in our mind of what these jobs entail, and each of us is more or less drawn to such work based on that image. But few of us really understand the practical needs and aesthetics of each job.
For instance, every Spring I fancy myself a gardener, imagining the pleasures of delicious vegetables and beautiful plants. Each Spring I dutifully re-kindle the dream, putting behind me all my past failures. I plant my little garden of hope and wait to see how things will turn out. But I don’t really understand how to prepare the soil, or fertilize, or even properly arrange the different types of plants. There are thousands of tiny little considerations which I fail to see. I don’t even have the proper temperament for long hours of weeding and watering and spotting little problems. I want the results, not the process.
Unfortunately, the world of work is about process. The final results, in any field, are a simple matter of necessity, and most often, nothing more than yesterday’s news. All the little jobs are what the work is really about, and what the professional must find satisfaction in, in order to continue.
So, I thought about my friend who hated glazing and I thought about all the parts of being a potter, from the heavy lifting and dust of making clay to the long hours and emotional displacements of selling the pots. Some jobs I just enjoyed, like making the pots, and getting them out of the final kiln firing, and using them in my own life. Other jobs, making clay, mixing glazes, firing kilns, I didn’t really look forward to, but seemed to enjoy while I was doing them. And finally, I decided that I didn’t really “hate” any of the jobs of being a potter. For me, it was all worthwhile and interesting. It was that realization, many years ago, that convinced me that my interest in ceramics had serious career potential. I knew that my ambition could not just be a matter of ‘employment opportunities’ or ‘starting salaries.’ It had to be a job (in all its parts) that I could do with real satisfaction.
Since that time, I’ve noticed other people who seem to enjoy (even while complaining) all the little jobs of their work. Each of these people seems calmer, more relaxed, and more self-confident than their somewhat disillusioned peers. They are at peace with their professions.
Of course, enjoying something, even in all its parts, does not automatically make you good at it. However, improvement in anything requires attention, patience, and the stamina to continue beyond the inevitable mistakes and failures. Without an enjoyment of the process, a love of the most unlikely things, the only emotion which can see you through to mastery is cold stubbornness.
I tell myself, with each new garden, perhaps this year’s crop will be better. And in time, perhaps I will learn to enjoy all the little jobs in the garden, and the results will then take care of themselves. One must always start with the basics, the smallest parts, the unseen chores, the grubby jobs—like making clay, and the potential to combine all those elements into something worthwhile.
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