Monday 21 June 2010

Full of Beans

The sunrise on the Summer Solstice is grey and damp. "Tsuyu", the Japanese rainy season, in full swing. After the breakfast rush and getting the kids off to school with "Obento" lunch boxes, we set about our own tasks for the day.

I am packing my kiln at the moment, but the weather is affecting my work cycle. Because I do not bisque fire my pottery, and apply the glazes raw, the pots must be bone dry. A difficult task when it is humid one moment, drizzling the next! (The leak in the studio roof doesn't help much either!) There are sometimes breaks of sun for just a few hours though, so last week I managed to get the pots outside to dry properly.

The kiln shelves are cleaned and coated with a fresh layer of kiln wash. I lay them out to dry on bamboo poles that I harvested in winter with the boys. I lash bamboo poles to the old pipes, from the gas kiln I had in Nanai many years ago, to span across to the edge of the garden terrace. The boys use the pipes for a soccer goal, so I dismantled the structure at the end of the day. Raising the pots up into the air away from the damp grass helps them dry faster, but that is not the main reason for this contraption.

The last thing that I need is pussy foot prints in broken pottery shards. The four kittens we currently have cavorting about the garden are full of beans, but not yet big enough to venture up to the terrace. Most of the time they spend occupying my shoes.

Mid afternoon the rain began, big fat drops sent to reconnoitre at first, then an onslaught of cats and dogs, followed by a persistent skirmish of drizzle. If one drop of rain lands on the raw glaze it will lift away from the clay leaving a crawling scar in the finished glaze surface. There is twenty metres of open ground between the studio and the kiln shed.... Packing the kiln will have to wait until tomorrow.

After cleaning up and taking a coffee break with Mika, the kids start arriving home from school. Homework and dinner preparations begin in earnest. We have the first batch of string beans from the garden to add to the main course, but today I have a special treat in store...because last Sunday was Fathers Day! The family surprised me with an Ice Cream Maker!

I am using it for the first time, so I decided to stick with basics; Vanilla. I just happen to have some Vanilla pods in the cupboard (as one does!), so here it goes.


200 ml Milk
200 ml Cream
Half a Vanilla Bean
1 Whole Egg
2 Egg Yolks
80 grams Sugar

Split the Vanilla Bean down the centre and scrape out the seeds with the point of a knife. Mix the cream, milk and Vanilla pods and seeds together in a saucepan and simmer gently for 20 minutes. Blend the remaining ingredients in a separate bowl till ivory coloured and creamy. Pour half the simmered mixture into the bowl and continue blending, then return the whole mixture to the saucepan and heat gently till thickened like custard. Chill this mixture in the fridge and remove the bean pods before placing in the Ice Cream Maker.

Serve with a sprig of fresh mint.

Without a doubt, this is the best Ice Cream I have ever had. The family, especially the kids, agree, and now, like the kittens, the coffee, the ice cream and the garden, we're all full of beans.

Wednesday 9 June 2010

Surface Tension

We take the forces at work around us for granted most of the time, hardly realising that everything in nature, even a drop of rain, is as it is because of universal forces. Forces and structure pressing outward, weight and pressure pressing inwards, and the point of balance between those forces, the border line that defines a form, we call the surface.

When forming clay on the wheel, it is the task of the potter to remain still while those forces work against our hands and find balance in the shape of a pot. Once taken from the wheel and allowed to dry partially, the clay shrinks and there is a certain tension in the surface when the pots are returned to the wheel for trimming. The trimmed surface is therefore different in character than the unaltered thrown surface. I have always found the play between these surfaces delightful. I therefore try not to interfere with that too much by cluttering it with decoration.

When doing a collaboration with a french restaurant a few years ago, however, I needed to add a rim motif. I am not one for drawing pictures of things on pots, so I created a small design which extends the idea of surface.

If one scratches a line in leather hard clay, the edges will tear, leaving a jagged and messy edge. If you cut the same line with a sharp tool so as to pare away the clay the edge is sharper and far more energetic. Using a hoop tool with an acute angle I cut an exclamation mark. Below that I add three dots, compressed with a cone shaped wooden tool. As the clay from the dot is not removed from the surface it moves into a raised crater like edge, giving these indentations a different textural character than the cut mark.

Beside these incised and compressed marks I add, literally, a drop of slip. Slip, or engobe, is a liquid clay used for decoration. In order for the slip to be compatible with the clay I use the same porcelain for the slip as that which constitutes 75% of the clay body. The shrinkage of the slip is, therefore, exactly the same as the clay, so there is no chance of cracking or flaking. One slip I make fairly viscous, and add 2% of Copper Oxide. I apply this with a thin metal rod as a single drop, touching the end of the rod to the clay surface and allowing surface tension to pull the slip into a circular droplet on the rim of the bowl. I prepare a second engobe which is thinner, with 2% of Chrome Oxide, and, using the same metal rod, I touch a droplet to the surface of the pot then flick the end of the rod away, once again using surface tension to create a dynamic elongated tear drop shape.

These applied engobes give a raised pattern which counterpoints the intaglio incising and impressed marks on the rim. When fired, the pure porcelain of the engobe becomes slightly glassier than the clay body. The Copper becomes red in the reduction, a form of "Shinsha" glaze, and the Chrome becomes green. Combined with the flame colour of the clay, the Igusa straw markings and tenmoku glaze, this small motif adds a subtle and dynamic accent to the rim of the vessel which is rich in visual and tactile information.

We interact with nature and the world around us on many levels, and tactile beauty is just as important in art as visual beauty, more so for those without the gift of sight. By utilising surface tension and the forces of nature, energy and tension can be expressed intimately in the surface of a vessel.

Saturday 5 June 2010

Through My Son's Eyes

One Sunday, 2010


I am sitting on the bench on the hill in front of our house. Dad, my little brother Sean and I are eating potato chips together while we drink cocoa. The cocoa that I am drinking, from a mug which Dad made, is warm, it’s flavour mellow and slightly sweet, it’s fragrance soft and gentle. Absolutely delicious.

The vegetable beds were tilled yesterday, and beyond our garden I can see rice paddies, further yet I see hills and forests. I can see far, far into the distance.

Brown soil, green leaves, yellow, pink and pale mauve flowers. The clear blue sky and pure white clouds reflect on the surface of the water in the rice paddies.

The sunlight on the vegetable garden glares brightly, but where I sit now on the bench is dappled with a pattern of shadows from the leaves of the trees.

The harsh voices of a blue heron, flying across the sky, and a white heron, walking through the rice paddy, echo on the gentle breeze.

It may not have been anything special, but I enjoyed it and it’s beauty.

The crumbs of potato chips that have fallen on the ground are being cleaned up for us by the ants. The last mouthful of cocoa is cold, but still delicious.

I am very grateful.

Translated from the diary of Rohan Craig, age 8

(The original Japanese can be found on my Mika's blog