Some things stick with me. Thoughts, comments, casual encounters—there often seems to be no order or reason at the moment of occurrence. But occasionally an obscure bud, indistinguishable from other mental bumps, busts forth with flowering insight years later.
Back in the late seventies, Sandy Simon titled an article in “Studio Potter”, “I Like Porcelain Because Blood Shows Up On It” <1>. I liked that phrase. I can’t remember a thing about the article and even had to look it up to learn the author, but I did like that phrase. And now, twenty years later, I am beginning to understand why.
I didn’t spend years trying to rid my clay of impurities because, like Jack Earl, I wanted it to be “white and hard”<2>. No, I had far more precise expectations. I wanted a clay that embodied a purity that would transcend white. I wanted whiteness to melt into light itself.
Coming out of a glass graduate program, I knew the path to follow—keep removing minerals and oxides en route to an essential silica base. I don’t enjoy chemistry so my chosen method was more akin to the kitchen than the classroom. Testing testing, testing. I studied mineral formulas searching for the errant chemical that would opacify, tracked down color producing agents and removed them with a relish. Finally I had it—a clay in name, but containing only 25% kaolin. Fundamentally silica and feldspars stuck together with artificial binders. Not a potter’s cup of tea by any means. Virtually unworkable by traditional forming methods; prone to cracking, and foolishly fragile when green.
But, what went into the kiln an ugly duckling came out a swan. Fired to 8, this clay glistened unglazed. Translucent-not transparent-it captured rays of light and held them, illuminating the inner reaches of the clay wall, tempting and tantalizing with glimpses of what lay just beneath the surface. Out of reach and obscured from clear sight, images within this new porcelain are bathed in just enough light to leave viewers in wonder and enchanted with the challenge to visualize the images that peak through the surface.
So I had my material. A wonderful porcelain, hovering elusively between clay and glass and full of challenge and possibility. And here is where Sandy Simon comes in.
This porcelain was white. Inviting, luscious, ripe with potential. Like fresh concrete to a kid it called; “touch me”. But how? I developed techniques to handle it. Learned its many idiosyncrasies so my efforts could make it through the firing. I looked and thought. Thought and looked. And, after many white pots, realized that for me this whiteness was wasted on itself. I needed a little color to balance the clarity and pristine quality of white.
Knowing that blood burned off, I tried other coloring agents. Pretty much all the chemicals I initially removed came back. Only now these earlier impurities were purposeful. Randomly dispersed no more, these colors gave raise to shapes and images that speak in a language more complex than the hushed whispers of white. Lines, patterns and pictures grow on the surface, always dependent on a white subsurface for a luminous and unobtrusive origin, but with a message of their own.
I love white. It is at the heart of my creative expression. White centers me and reminds me that beneath all the color and pattern lies a bed of simplicity and opportunity. Virtually invisible in the end, the essence of every piece I make is that same encouraging whiteness; empty, open and always calling me to spill a little blood to bring it to life.
1.”Studio Potter”, Vol 6 Number 2.
2. “American Porcelain: New Expressions in an Ancient Art”, Lloyd Herman. Renwick Gallery, National Museum of American Art