Amazing glaze – how sweet the sound

Pottery throwing class covers all the vases

By Patty Unruh

Throwing pottery calls for creativity and skill, as well as good aim. Actually, the folks who take classes at the Gilpin County Community Center don’t really hurl vases across the room at each other. “Throwing” comes from the Old English word “thrawan,” meaning “to twist or turn” and is a ceramic term that has to do with the way the potter guides the clay as the wheel turns.

I visited the class July 20 to watch these artists create. Instructor Steve Briggs, who lives in Coal Creek Canyon and has his own pottery studio, has been teaching pottery making at GCCC for about the past eight years. Steve also sells his work through the Boulder Arts and Crafts Co-Op on the Pearl Street Mall.

The class was midway through an eight-week session that began June 22 and runs every Saturday through August 10. The students are exploring various forms of pottery, including flat, round, and tall pots, plates, and covered jars. They have a variety of art backgrounds and experience levels. Everyone, from beginner to advanced student, was having a good time sharing his or her ideas.

Steve was explaining glazing techniques to the group. The purpose of glaze is to make the vase or other piece more colorful and less porous, so that water or other liquids don’t soak into the clay. Being ceramically challenged, I thought that glaze was merely a clear covering over a piece that made it look shiny, but discovered that glaze actually comes in many colors. Steve, who makes his own glazes, explained that a glaze affects the color of the piece.

For example, “Kemp” red is semi-transparent, and celadon is transparent blue-green. Green is another semi-transparent glaze. Of course, clear is also used and has lots of possibilities, Steve says. Glazes also may be overlapped for varying results. The usual methods of applying glaze are spraying, dipping, or pouring, although the artist may choose to brush it on, as well.

Steve explained that the glaze comes as a powder. Its raw materials are feldspar and silica, which is ground-up sand, and whiting, a calcium carbonate like they use to mark a football field. Different substances are added to make various colors and textures. The powder is mixed with water and has to be stirred well because the materials tend to separate. It is then applied over Kaolin clay.

Novice Peggie Kahn was busily stirring the glaze. A maker of porcelain dolls, she said she discovered that throwing pottery is much more difficult. “I started it as a way to relax, but found myself stressed after the first session,” she laughed, although she’s been getting better with practice. “It’s been quite an experience,” she says. “Everybody helps the newbies. I respect potters more now, because I see that so much goes into it. The hardest of all is centering the clay on the wheel. It helps to have strong hands. I don’t, so the others showed me a different technique.”

The potter begins with a ball of clay centered on the wheel head. Pressing firmly with both hands on the spinning clay, he begins pulling it into shape. The wheel performs the motion and the hands are kept still, one hand inside the clay and the other directly opposite on the outside.  Basic shapes are the cylinder, which is pulled straight up, and the bowl, which is flared outward.  Water is used to keep the clay moist, which is also challenging because too much water will make the clay mushy, and too little will cause it to fall apart.

The wheel itself is operated by a foot pedal.  Charlotte Fishburn, who normally operates the pedal with her right foot, was laboring with a broken right ankle and had to use her left – an awkward feeling as she worked on a cookie jar. Charlotte advises, “Throwing pottery takes lots of practice, using the hands, eyes, and foot. It’s hard to center the clay, and pots can be wobbly and fall over.” She says they keep the “cattywampus” ones to use for practicing glazing techniques. “Or to use for shooting practice!” she jokes.

Barry Freniere makes centering the clay and shaping it look easy. He states, “I have been doing pottery for seven years. I work through the studio here, but I have wheels at home.”

Once the clay is centered, the potter carefully opens a hole in the top with his or her finger, slowly enlarging the hole. Then the walls are thinned and raised. After forming the piece, it needs to dry very well, or it will blow up when fired – not at all the desired result!

Carolyn Panik says, “You wait till it gets leather hard, then trim the bottom.” When fully dry, the vase or other piece is ready to be fired at a “low” temperature of 1,750 degrees, called bisque firing. Then it is glazed and fired again at a higher temperature of 2,100 degrees. That finishes the piece.

Hand throwing is another technique. The artist may begin with a coil of clay, forming and shaping the item’s walls by pinching them. He may also use a slab roller, which is a large piece of equipment that rolls a slab of clay to a uniform thickness. This is good for making plates.

Sahari McCormick finds that hand throwing brings out her creativity. As she fashioned a tray from a single slab of clay, she explained that she enjoys making functional items. She sells some of her work on Etsy, a social commerce website that focuses on handmade or vintage items.

Martina Pernicano has been doing pottery for only about five months and wants to be a production potter. Her goal is to make practical pieces, such as the cheese mold she was working on. Another student who desires to make usable items is Holly Farmer, who was making dog bowls for a friend.

Steve states that the studio began with one wheel and one kiln. Now they have six wheels, one electric kiln in the studio and two gas kilns outdoors at GCCC.

About four pottery classes are offered each year. The Community Center also offers a class in making clay masks on Wednesdays. Sherrill Cannon is the instructor for that class.

As I interacted with the students, I realized that what Peggie said was true: there is a lot that goes into the making of pottery. It could be absorbing for a lifetime. Steve Briggs agrees. “I’ll never quit,” he said.

The artists have reserved a booth at the Gilpin County Fair, which will be held August 17 and 18, to sell their work – come check it out!

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