It’s All About the Clay

Hello, my name is Holly River Moon, and I met Karin last year during my first go at a writing challenge another mutual friend got me into. While writing has become quite a new passion for me she asked me to stop by and talk a little about some of the crafty things that I do.

While I dabble in many various crafts, like knitting, crocheting, needlepoint, baking and a variety of other things my two passions are collecting, growing and maintaining my succulent and cacti garden and ceramics. Today I was going to talk about my succulents, but then I looked around my den and saw all these random pieces of ceramics that I’ve done over the years that I changed my mind. So today I’m focusing on my ceramic art.

Marbled clay with clear glaze.
Marbled clay with clear glaze.

I began working with clay almost seventeen years ago and I don’t feel like I’ve nearly scratched the surface of what a person can do with clay. Not only are there at least forty to fifty different commercial blends of clay that can be either thrown on a wheel or used in hand-building, but many potters have created their own proprietary blends as well.

Then there is the decoration of the pieces after they have been kiln dried. There are a variety of techniques that can be used to decorate pottery, from simple glazing, to complicated wax paintings, paint like pigments and other techniques to make each piece unique. But I get ahead of myself, first we have to shape the clay into the form we want, and the two ways to do that is using the pottery wheel, or simple hand-building. While I have built several pieces using hand-building, which is either rolling the clay out in large sheets then cutting out shapes, or panels then putting them together to make other shapes. I’ve built boxes, used coils to make vases and other techniques that don’t require a wheel, but I really do prefer to throw on a wheel.

What do I like about clay and using a wheel to shape it? That is a good question. There is something almost primal about getting my hands into a beautiful new clump of clay. First kneading it to work out any bubbles that might have gotten into the clay during commercial extrusion.. (The process where they make the twenty-five pound blocks that go into each bag to be sold.) It’s sometimes a workout, even five pounds can give your arms a good workout. Then sitting at the wheel and attaching this big lump down onto it, adding water to keep the clay slick and easy to work with, turning it on and letting it spin at upwards of 25,000 rpms.

Now, to anyone that is just starting out, this can sound very dangerous, and every potter is very careful around a wheel. One wrong move and you can scrape your skin, tear a nail or all kinds of accidents can happen. Its why you learn to gradually work up to a full spin on the wheel. So, now we have our wheel spinning and this lump of clay spinning on it, what do we do now? What shape will it take? A Bowl? A cup? A teapot? A plate? There are so many things you can do from here with that lump of clay it can sometimes be daunting. Often when I first start out I throw a few easy forms. Maybe for the first hour I will throw a bunch of bowls, or even some small tumblers. Then when I get warmed up and in a groove an idea will form in my mind. Maybe a teapot, or a nice tall vase. Or, I could throw a lot of little pieces, let them dry slightly and turn them into an interesting sculpture.  I knew one potter who threw v shaped tumblers, then used them to sculpt the most interesting horse sculptures I’ve ever seen.

Raku Crackle glazed bowl
Raku Crackle glazed bowl
Raku glazed Vase
Raku glazed Vase

Maybe I’ll make a sake set, which are usually my most popular items when I’ve sold pieces in the past. Or, I can hand build a tray and make a full tea setting. Truly your imagination is limitless when it comes to getting your hands in a new wonderful lump of clay.

Okay, now we have the clay on the wheel and the wheel spinning. I get my hands wet, have a sponge in one hand to keep a slow steady stream of water so that I can work with the clay, getting it pliable enough to start what’s called centering. This is the process of making the clay move into the center of the wheel so that it can be thrown. Now, while I have purposefully thrown pieces off center for effect, it’s not what you want to do when you are starting out. Centering is highly important to keep the clay in a position to shape it how you want. I think it’s this process, the centering, then the opening of the clay that is one of my favorite things to do. I often fall into an almost zen like state during this process and all my troubles of the day start to melt away and all that I care about is me and the clay. Plus, I get really dirty and that is just plain fun. My husband often laughs at me when I get home because I’ll have clay covering me from top to bottom and I’m in heaven.

I think it’s also that clay is from the earth and I just love to get my hands digging in some kind of dirt. Potters often joke that clay is ‘clean dirt’, and essentially it is. When commercial clay companies mix their clays they often put it through a pasteurization process to kill any germs, bacteria, like E.Coli, and any tiny critters that might infest the clay when it is mined. So, when the potter picks up that twenty-five pound bag, it truly is ‘clean dirt’. And damn if it isn’t a whole hell of a lot of fun.

Now, we have our shape, a nice eight-inch vase. We’ve thrown it, cleaned off a lot of the excess water and beveled the bottom. Now what? Now, we take it off the wheel and put it on a clay board (basically any piece of wood plank can be used. But it needs to be wood. It helps to draw out the moisture and dry the piece at a nice slow pace). Then we let it sit for a few days wrapped in plastic so that it dries at that same slow pace. Too fast and cracks can occur in the firing process. This is what we call greenware. This is also where we get to have a lot of fun. Carving can be done at this time as well as adding colored slips or waxes for effect. After that the piece can go for it’s first firing.

Unglazed Pitcher
Unglazed Pitcher
Unglazed teapot
Unglazed teapot

When it comes out, then we can add our glazes. Either clear, or colored. Layered or single. This too is open for a lot of creativity. Glazing helps to set the piece and harden it.

22' Tall two piece constructed piece.
22′ Tall two piece constructed piece.

There are many other techniques I didn’t even touch on, like wood burning, beehive kilns. Low-fire, raku, earthenware, terracotta ware, Sagger firing, crystal glazes, crackles, and much, much more. Ceramics encompasses a huge variety of techniques, glaze styles, firing styles that one could go their whole lives immersed in it and still never learn everything about it. I know I still have a lot to learn and I happily give myself the chance.

So, what am I reading now? Currently I’m delving back into my Hellblazer comics. I adore John Constantine. The tortured hero that tries to always do the right thing even if he sacrifices other to do it.  What is my favorite book? That question is much harder. I don’t necessarily have one single favorite book, my three  favorite series are the J.D. Robb In Death series, Kelley Armstrong’s Women of the Otherworld series and Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series. All of these I love because they each have very strong female leads. Each of the women are beautiful, flawed, heroic, but also show their vulnerable sides. They love and grow and learn to open themselves to those around them. I always am a sucker for good strong female protagonists.

Here are some links to the author sites and a wiki for the Hellblazer series

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Well, it has been a pleasure. I hope you enjoyed reading about one of my favorite passions in life and if you ever get a chance to take a ceramics class, please do, you never know what might happen.  

If anyone is interested my blog is, I have a lot of my writing as well as posts about writing and fandom. Soon I should have a gallery of my succulents, and better pictures of my ceramics. Thank you for reading, hope you enjoy.


3 thoughts on “It’s All About the Clay

  1. I knew there was a reason I liked you, Holly 😉 I adore the Thursday Next series. Jasper Fforde is a master at story telling as far as I’m concerned. After reading The Eyre Affair my whole view on reading (and writing) kind of got completely turned on its head and I couldn’t be more pleased about it 😉
    Also, those pieces of yours look amazing. I’m in awe of your skills, lady. Thanks so much for stopping by and sharing!


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