Do You Believe in Sanding?

When most people think of ceramics sanding is not the first thing that comes to mind. Yet, it is really an integral part of the ceramics making process. I have fuzzy memories of the first time I learned about how my work could be smoothed of rough spots, but the first time I ever taught it to my own students is crystal clear.

It all started when one of my students asked about how to prevent the work he was making from scratching his table. I told him I would show him how to correct for that issue in the next class’ demo. I gathered up some of my own work that had recently been glazed fired, wet/dry sandpaper and a big bowl of water. At the time I had three classes back to back and I covered the pros and cons of sanding at each stage of the clay process. Other than making a mental note to include it again in future sessions, I figured that was that.

Boy was I wrong!

Apparently, my innocent little demo on sanding had spread like wildfire throughout the studio. Just like it hadn’t occurred to me before being asked, it hadn’t occurred to any other instructor either to cover with their class. The fact that those of us who sold our work sanded every single piece blew the minds of some of the studio members. Not in my class, these studio peeps didn’t get the benefit of the before sanding and after sanding work I passed around for folks to examine, leading one to ask my student, “Do you believe in sanding?”

It still makes me laugh to this day just thinking about it. The phrasing did and always has struck me as so funny that every time I sand pots I’m reminded of it.

So, why do I (or why should you) sand ceramic pots?

Basically, clay shrinks. My work, which is fired to cone 10 or 2365º, actually shrinks three times. First, during the initial drying process as the water evaporates from the piece before the first firing. Second, during the first firing, otherwise known as bisque, much of the organic materials burn away further condensing the clay. Last, during the glaze firing when the clay vitrifies and any porous aspects of the clay close up. It’s always startling to folks new to the medium how much smaller their work gets.

The shrinkage is important to note because modern clay bodies are typically not a single type of clay, but rather a mixture of various types combined to support easier construction. Oftentimes this mixture includes sand or grog (among other additives) to help provide strength during the forming process. Both sand and grog (which is pre-fired clay ground up) are already shrunk when they are added to the clay mixture. Each successive firing of a piece pulls back and condenses the clay and brings the sand and/or grog to the surface – hence the need to sand what otherwise seemed a smooth surface.

For the ceramic artists out there, here are some tried and true tips for sanding your work.

  • Sanding greenware, or unfired clay, is usually not worth it since the piece is so fragile at this stage. If you feel you must, then the drier the piece the better. Be sure to do it in a well ventilated area, preferably outdoors, wear a dust mask/respirator and use scotch brite pads.
  • Sanding bisque ware is typically only valuable if you notice a previously missed sharp or rough point on your work – remember it’s only going to shrink again in the glaze fire. Wet/dry sandpaper of typically any grit will work and be sure to get the piece and sandpaper thoroughly wet to prevent dust.
  • Another good time to sand bisque ware is if you need to level the bottom of a piece. It is an ideal time since the partially fired work is still soft. Thoroughly wetting the sandpaper and the piece are necessary. Tape the wet sandpaper to a table if you have no one to hold it in place for you and move the piece back and forth to level.
  • After glaze firing, sand the bottom or any raw clay portion of the piece using a rough grit wet/dry sandpaper (the lower the grit number the more rough). Be sure to get the piece and the sandpaper thoroughly wet to prevent dust. I do this even if I’m working outside so I’m not breathing in all of the dust.
  • After glaze firing, sand over a glazed surface using a fine grit wet/dry sandpaper with a grit of 400 or higher. Using such a fine grit sandpaper will allow you to sand the glazed surface without scratching it. Again thoroughly wet both the piece and the sandpaper to prevent dust … did you get that part about preventing dust yet?
  • Technically any kind of sandpaper will work, but wet/dry sandpaper is made to be used when wet and will last longer. Regular sandpaper will fall apart quickly when used wet.

Here’s a little behind the scenes of my own sanding process this week. I use a big five gallon bucket to wet each piece and the sandpaper before sanding and again afterwards to rinse the pots off. I typically let them dry overnight.

See my work all sanded smooth and ready for sale online in my shop!

Lasting Impact

As some of you may know, I spent over 12 years in the corporate world in Human Resources. It is a world that I am very comfortable interacting in and one in which I had already overcome any insecurities about my abilities. It was safe.

Even when I left the corporate world five years ago, I kept my hand, so to speak, in HR by volunteering through an organization that matched professionals with non-profit organizations for free consulting services. It was through actually my work with this organization that something happened that had a lasting impact on me.

A year or so after I left the corporate world, I attended a a mixer with other professionals, who like me, volunteered their time. While there, I met a woman who was in marketing. I spoke to her for five minutes, maybe ten. At one point during the conversation, she told me that I should talk about my work as a ceramic artist with the same confidence as I talk  about my HR experience.

That simple observance had a profound impact on my life. She was absolutely right. I needed to make that change when I was talking to people about my work.

Sitting here, several years later, I feel good that I’ve made a lot of progress in this area. I put myself and my work out into the world more for exhibition opportunities and events. I’ve developed good conversation openers for shows when interacting with customers.

While this self-described introvert could probably always be better in this area, I think of that woman’s words to me all those years ago often. Its been a great reminder for me on my artistic path.

I recently ran across this TED Talk by Drew Dudley about Everyday Leadership and he talks about the impact that all of us can have on others everyday. Often times this small acts of leadership are completely unknown and unnoticed by us despite their impact on others. I took his advice and reached out to that woman from that networking event to say thank you for her words to me.

I’m grateful that I able to reach out to her after all this time. I think I might have made her day. I know, she’s often helped to make mine better.

Deja Vu

“The advice I like to give young artists, or really anybody who’ll listen to me, is not to wait around for inspiration. Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and get to work. If you wait around for the clouds to part and a bolt of lightning to strike you in the brain, you are not going to make an awful lot of work. All the best ideas come out of the process; they come out of the work itself. Things occur to you. If you’re sitting around trying to dream up a great art idea, you can sit there a long time before anything happens. But if you just get to work, something will occur to you and something else will occur to you and something else that you reject will push you in another direction. Inspiration is absolutely unnecessary and somehow deceptive. You feel like you need this great idea before you can get down to work, and I find that’s almost never the case.” – Chuck Close

I recently ran across the above quote from Chuck Close a few weeks back and it absolutely describes my work process. Yes, there are times when I get inspired by things outside of my work process, but when it comes to the actual translation? The actual piece I create to convey my idea? It is absolutely always found through the act of making.

As I sit back and look at all of the plates I created this past month for a show, I realize that so much of what was created was born out of all of the months of making that came before them.

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Take these plates shown above, all of them have shoe prints. In fact, a good five or six plates from this most recent group have shoe prints … most of them my shoe. Using the textures found on the bottom of shoes started for me years ago when I first came across the work of Jim and Nan McKinnell. They used shoe prints for texture and I had all of my students making “tramp” pots of we called them.

I’ve made shoe print based work off and on over the years and in January installed a show of plates with all of them based on collected shoe prints. Its actually one of my favorite ways to work when I can start from a place completely out of my control. I have no idea what people’s shoes look like before they step on the clay. I have no idea how they’ll step.

Here I am creating plates and patterns, because I do now have a specific pattern for my own shoe, very intentionally from shoes in the studio.

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Then there are the plates like these three above that feature tire tracks, bottle cap stripes and pinstripe lines just like so many of my planters. I felt during the making process for so many of these plates that I was often drawn back to many of the textures I used on my planters. I might have used them in slightly different ways. They might be combined and mixed with my past favorite patterns.

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Or these plates that are definitely a throw back to my series inspired by watch gears from last year. All of my plates for that series were round to echo the circular nature of gears, but I find I like the off-center slices of these texture patterns. We never quite see the whole thing and are left to wonder what we might be missing.

Its so interesting to be able to look back and see how your past work has influenced your current work. I can tell you that its not even intentional. When I’m creating, its only in rare cases that I specifically work a texture design into a new piece. More often, its a melding, a remixing of old and new. Each time I work with clay whether its as a demo for one of my classes or creating my own work a mental sketch book page gets added for future use.

Did You Wax Your Hair?

At the studio where I create my work and where I teach an adult handbuilding class, we have a closet door literally covered in small pieces of paper.  Each scrap features something that someone said that taken out of context is rather … well, strange and maybe, just maybe a little bit funny.

The other week in my class there were so many, “That’s one for the door” statements that I thought I’d share a few of them (recent and past) with you.  Don’t worry, I explain them too!

“Make Sure to Put a Hole in Your Head” – When creating hollow forms, e.g. heads, it is a good ceramics practice to have you pierce the form to allow the trapped air to escape.  Air expands when its heated, so if the air has nowhere to go when it expands (see science in action!) during firing the piece will explode.  Yep, that’s right explode.

“Wipe Your Bottom” – A classic usually heard when glazing a piece.  It refers to the need to have no glaze, at all, on the part of a piece that will touch the kiln shelf during firing.  Glaze is glass, so any remnants will fuse the piece to the shelf destroying the art work.

“Butt Hole” – Truly PG, well, mostly PG, it is a common practice to place the hole for a hollow form somewhere that makes sense in the form.  In the case of an animal sculpture this sometimes means that the animal gains a butt hole.  One never really outgrows potty humor.

“Did You Wax Your Hair?” – Melted wax is an extremely useful tool in ceramics.  It can help keep your bottom clean when glazing.  (See!  That’s exactly how it happens!)  Wax can also keep delicate portions of a piece, e.g. hair, from drying too quickly and cracking off.

“Just Write a Note That Says, ‘Please Fire on Chuck'” – I got no end of razzing the first time a student heard this one from me.  A “chuck” is not a person, but instead a somewhat cylindrical form used to trim the bottoms of narrow neck vases on the wheel.  Since they are made out of clay, chucks can also be used to fire work that needs a broader base to support the piece.

“You Need a Cookie” – Nope, it’s not a chocolate chip cookie.  This type of cookie is a flat piece of clay with a layer of kiln wash on one side.  Cookies are used to prevent rogue glaze drips from making it to the kiln shelf.  They also make it easier to fire super delicate work since the person loading the kiln can pick up the work by the cookie instead of a breaking off a delicate piece.  It throws new students all the time.  Fun fact – the penalty for failure to use a cookie under a glazed pot that sticks to the shelf is to bring the Studio Director a batch of homemade (real) cookies!

There you have it.  A little bit of ceramic humor to brighten your Monday!

Five Things That Define My Teaching Style

My students have been cracking me up the past week in class with their spot-on descriptions of me and my teaching style.  Even the first timers in my class already have me pegged.  So, here is what my students already know, but you may not, about me.

1) “Sure!  Of course we can do that!”

My typical response to almost every project suggestion or idea my students bring up to me.  I’m a firm believer that things are never as complicated as they seem and nothing is out of reach to achieve.  It might not be the easiest thing they’ve ever done, but its important for everyone to know that they can create whatever they set their minds to making.

2) There are no rules.

Well, okay, there are some rules around good clay construction practices.  However, my classes are not about doing exactly what I do.  I teach techniques and methods.  Then I give my students the freedom to translate it into their own ideas.  In fact, nothing makes me happier then seeing them create something completely their own.

3)  I’m a little bit, okay a lot, cheesy.

Part of that is simply my personality, but the rest is about creating a safe and comfortable environment for my students.  I want them to feel they can have fun and take risks.  In addition to telling bad jokes, I take them on field trips and organize crazy events like clay pumpkin carving contests and plein air underglaze painting.

4)  I’m fearless.

This statement is in fact a direct student observation.  Pretty on the mark though.  I don’t worry about something not going right in a demo or demoing on demand in response to a question.  I think showing that its okay to take risks and its okay to fail is important.  Its a good reminder that perfection is not the goal.

5)  I love doing new things.

This shows up most frequently in my project lists each class session.  I work really hard to not repeat a project.  It works out great for returning students because it allows them to continue to grow in their clay skills, so we all benefit.

So, there you have it.  My teaching approach summed up in five statements.  Thinking about taking one of my classes?  You are now forewarned and forearmed!  : )

Wondering how cheesy I can be?  A cheese cheese tray from a demo the other day.

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Those Who Teach, Can

I began teaching handbuilding classes to adults about a year and a half ago.  Since that time I’ve taught clay techniques to all sorts of people from as young as six up to as wise as eighty.

The decision to teach is, and was, an easy one.  My past corporate life gave me tons of teaching, or training as we called it, and course development practice.

Yet, despite how easy it was to begin teaching, a niggle of doubt pokes up it head up every once in awhile.  “Those who can’t, teach” says that voice inside.  An old saying, so old there is no way it can be untrue says that voice.

It’s a voice that never reared its ugly head when I was in human resources.  Teaching was just one aspect of my job.  Being good at it wasn’t even a critical criteria for achieving good performance reviews.

Everything is different now.

Teaching clay feels like an admission of failure.  Instead of being one aspect of my job (and an aspect I thoroughly enjoy), it feels like I’m giving up on selling my own work or not selling enough.

The reality?  I sell more of my work now then I did before I started teaching.

Teaching students stretches me constantly.

It reminds me of techniques I’d let fall by the wayside and renews my enthusiasm for them.  (My students would be shocked to learn I’ve only recently become a coil building fan.)

It exposes me to new methods and ideas … construction methods I would never have before contemplated, mediums I wouldn’t have sought for inspiration.

It deepens my own knowledge of clay construction tips and tricks.  I learn new ones during every single class session.

It reinforces the playful side of clay and pulls me out of the “blinders on” of production.

In short, it takes everything I thought I knew and turns it upside down.  All of this, and more that I probably don’t even realize, is reflected in the work I create now.

I would assert that the saying really should say, “Those Who Teach, Can”