Ceramics with me, myself and I – on chaos, transformation & experimentation
Revisit clay with me for the wrap up of Season 2 of the show! I share what I’ve learned over the past year in the ceramic studio; we explore the properties of clay, the firing process and the properties of plaster for mold-making. And of course, the materials bring us deeper… to focus on personal growth, failure and patience. I also share some exciting news about my Etsy shop Waveform Ceramics and my newsletter, Rabbit Hole Buffet, projects I’m excited to share with you as I craft Season 3 of Material Feels, to be released in 2022!
FEATURED IN THIS EPISODE
Ceramic studios in the Bay Area: Kids ‘N’ Clay, where I work as a kiln tech, and Merritt Ceramics, where I am a member <3
Waveform Ceramics, my audio-themed art shop open now on Etsy
Rabbit Hole Buffet, my monthly newsletter
The concept of a Quartz Inversion
The process of pouring plaster for mold-making
I feel like turning pieces of audio into a story is similar to reclaiming clay and getting it ready for the wheel. It’s always a mess: your hands are covered, the clay is lumpy and varied with different consistencies and qualities. It takes time to dry out a bit, and then you wedge it (which is a process where you press and rotate the clay rhythmically on a surface, an action similar to kneading dough). You wedge it to get pockets of air out, to align the microscopic particles and to fortify your material.
Once you get the right consistency, you can center it on the wheel.
Centering a mound of clay on the wheel requires you to be both relaxed and focused. There is an “aha moment” I still enjoy, when the clay smooths beneath my hands. The particles that make up the clay body align, and a form is ready to be created. From there, it’s a series of movements. A fluid dance of push and pull: pressing down, pulling outward and then up. When I’ve taken the time to go through the wedging and centering process, these motions come easily. I know I got this. I can sit back, turn the music on and get in the zone.
Thanks for coming to the finale of season two! I’m excited because we have come full circle since the pilot episode of Material Feels to focus on clay as a material, again. Over the past year, I’ve spent time in two studios: Merritt Ceramics in Oakland and Kids ‘N’ Clay in Berkeley. I also have a table-top wheel in my home studio, a Christmas present from my buddy Steve. Three creative “homes” to connect with clay in different ways, as a kiln tech at Kids ‘N’ Clay, a member at Merritt and a free agent in my own garage. I’ve grown a lot as a maker… and I’ve learned so much more about my first love!
This episode is an opportunity to share what I’ve learned recently with you. In the pilot, we focused on the act of throwing and the way the clay behaves when it is at its most malleable. This time around I’ll share some fun facts about the processes of firing the clay, and pouring plaster for mold-making – processes I had shied away from in the past because of my love of the wheel and my… less affectionate feelings towards electrical systems and precise recipes. But as I’ve rekindled and deepened my relationship to clay, I find myself more confident, fascinated and supported; I can engage with processes that once intimidated me.
Before I talk about some new lessons in clay, some news.
I have started my own business! CXM Productions is an art-flavored audio production company. I offer audio storytelling workshops that incorporate creative practices into the process of telling a tale, and have I just opened up Waveform Ceramics, an online audio-themed ceramic shop on Etsy!
Check out the links to the shop and my website in the show notes at materialfeelspodcast.com or on social media, or visit www.CXMPRODUCTIONS.com to get connected and learn more about my work.
I’ll be working on Season 3 of Material feels over the next year… in the meantime, I’ll be posting shorter episodes, bonus material and sneak peeks, so we’ll still be in touch.
I also have started a monthly newsletter through Substack, called Rabbit Hole Buffet. Subscribing to the newsletter is a great way to stay in touch with me, hear how I’m doing and continue to enjoy my wacky storytelling style while I hunker down and produce Season 3! The link to that is in the show notes as well, or on the show’s social media – we are on Instagram, Facebook, and even Twitter!
Okay, so more about the shop, Waveform Ceramics. I never thought I would sell my pottery … but after spending two years listening to the wise wise words of creative people, I kinda started to re-evaluate how I spend my time, and why.
You might know the story by now: I’ve been throwing on the wheel since I was 13, when the painting class was full so I got put in a Ceramics class. Turned out, clay was my first love. I flirted with pastel, watercolor, collage and graphite… but I fell hard for clay. Clay was a bit of an outcast, to be honest. My parents didn’t really want me hanging around with them: clay was the kind of babe to go off into the woods of Vermont and live like a hermit: no 401k, no internet, no resume. I kept clay around, but never fully committed.
Then I met audio a few years ago, and sparks flew.
It all made sense: my dream to be on Broadway, fantasies of stand-up comedy, obsessing over playlists to match every mood and activity, sad ballads on the piano and silly songs on the guitar, making up jingles on the spot for my students in the art classroom, my love of storytelling, timing and sensation. Aha! I am a performer and composer!
Clay raised their eyebrows at me. That’s cool, they said. I know your love for me runs deep. Enjoy audio, and don’t forget where you came from.
Audio sweeps me off my feet, but understands I am, at heart, of the material world. They led me through pigment, paper and glass. They took me down conceptual rabbit holes, unraveling time, ritual, ceremony, emotion, love. Clay walked along with us through the woods, quietly observing, turning on the wheel now and then to ground me in the sound of spinning earth.
If clay is my home, audio is my sustenance. It is how I fill my cup.
Which leads me to… the first product line currently offered in my Etsy shop, Waveform Ceramics!
FILL YOUR CUP
Fill Your Cup is a line of functional pottery created to remind us to protect our energy and fill our cup however we need. The idea for this series came to me when I finally realized how much of my to-do list centered around others. I was doing things for other people, or doing things for external validation to achieve a fleeting feeling of productivity and success.
My sweetheart often asks me, Did you do anything just for you today? And I would look back on my day and see barely anything.
There will always be more work, more chores, more little things that you can do to improve other people’s lives. The list is infinite. Carving out significant chunks, not just 5 minutes here and there, can feel selfish to some of us.
What does it take to fill your cup?
The Fill Your Cup series is available now out of Waveform Ceramics on Etsy; I created each vessel as a physical intention for us to fight for the things that bring us Joy, frequently and unapologetically. And lean in to relationships and environments that naturally encourage us to fill that cup.
I’ve got a few more creative projects cooking that I’ll be releasing over the next few months. In the meantime, I’d love to hear what you think of Waveform Ceramics and the Fill Your Cup series.
CLAY BODIES / A NOTE ABOUT MINERALS
So, let’s get more intimate with the material I’ve been hanging out with lately: clay.
What is it?
Clay exists in almost every region of the world. It is aluminum silicate mineral kaolinite, and can be formed by natural process, or manufactured using raw materials. Ways clay can form: sediment in bodies of water, rocks breaking down and combining with other minerals, dry materials measured out in a manufacturer setting.
Clay is a flexible, malleable material ideal for sculpture and ceramics because of its microscopic composition of tiny disk-shaped platelets.
Once you fire it, clay transforms into ceramic. Different clay bodies have different properties: for instance, earthenware is more porous when fired… see the terra-cotta pots you put your plants in! Stoneware, on the other hand, is more vitreous: meaning it is more like glass when it’s fired – water-resistant and non-porous.
In addition to clay, I’ve also been spending a lot of time with plaster.
Plaster is a dry powder, made from alpha gypsum, a mineral that can look like a white stone, or a badass looking crystal. The alpha gypsum is heated up, dehydrated under pressure and ground to a fine powder. The particles have a loose crystalline structure and are highly soluble in water; the powder, when mixed with water in the correct way, becomes liquid and then sets into a solid that is very strong and ever so slightly absorptive.
Plaster is used for building walls and ceilings, and for mold-making in ceramics.
Mold-making is process I’ve shied away from in the past because it required me to think about the three dimensionality of an object that already exists; you pour liquid plaster into a container, and you put an object in it so when it sets, you pull the object out and the imprint of it is cast in solid form. Or you pour the plaster on top of a surface and it sets around that object or on that surface and captures all the details. Once the plaster cures you can fill the imprint with liquid clay, called slip, or press solid clay into the textured surface. Plaster allows you to replicate whatever the object is or the texture is that you were so enraptured by.
I really had trouble understanding that as a teen and in my twenties; I learn by doing, and when things are described to me, sometimes I get lost in all the words…honestly, explaining it eve now verbally is kind of painful, so if you think you’re interested in mold making I would recommend looking it up on YouTube and watching a video of it…
So I’ve been learning how to work with plaster, and requires you to be very detailed oriented, very patient, but also intuitive and quick to react. I find it really challenging because it’s not just finding a ratio of water to plaster and going with it.
When you sprinkle plaster into water, you sprinkle it slowly in a circle and in the center of the bowl, evenly distributing the fine powder until the plaster forms these islands in the water that are slow to absorb, which indicates it has reached the full capacity of absorptiveness and you got the right ratio of water to plaster. You can measure it out beforehand you can try to get it right but and it’s kind of finicky… maybe there is a little bit more moisture in some parts of the plaster in your bag then other parts or maybe the humidity that day is different, the temperature of the water impacts it… EVERYTHING and ANYTHING can impact your process, and so in addition to all the measuring and slowness and trying to control it you might not be able to figure it out at all, you have to just roll with it, when you start seeing those islands form and when it stops bubbling, and hopefully it’s not bubbling too much, and the moment you put your hands in to mix it, the moment your fingertips break the surface of the water and disturb the particles of plaster and start mixing, a chemical reaction begins and it’s going to start to heat up and then it’s going to start to set. You only have a couple minutes to do this.
You want to mix it properly without creating more bubbles, then it’s time to pour, it’s time to pour it slowly but surely and then you can’t spend too much time vibrating your surface (which I hope you leveled) to get bubbles to come up you got to move on and clean up your stuff because if the plaster sets on all your tools and in the bowl it’s really hard almost impossible to clean off.
I’m going into detail like this for you on purpose. Because my experience with plaster has taught me a lot about myself and the way I can approach my life, and it’s all in the details, and repeating the process over and over and over.
Pouring plaster requires you to pay attention, to slow down but also act fast, and really observe what’s going on. You can’t be distracted, you can’t forget what you did; every single second is valuable in this process, whether you completely mess it up or not.
The recipe for mixing plaster requires ratios and weighing and measuring; I use the scale and hope that I get the measurements right… Learning about the chemical reactions between plaster and the water, and learning more about the sensitivity of the material of clay to temperature, time and additional ingredients, has me thinking more about other things that I measure (or don’t measure) in my life. And the chemical reactions that I play close attention to vs. the ones I ignore repeatedly.
For instance: nutrients, and the food I eat. I’m a vegan leaning vegetarian who eats fish and eggs because I’m hungry all the time, but not dairy or meat because I’m grossed out by the concept and the food system that produces those types of food.
I have always very proudly ignored calories. I do not count calories, I do not go on diets, no shade to anyone who engages with that stuff, but my adamant middle finger to diet culture has made my life better… but it also means I’ve not really paid attention to nutrition in general. This is also because I’m often too distracted by creative projects, chores or my own thoughts to eat. If I’m not careful, I whirlwind through a day and flit from place to place, thing to thing, running on a bowl of oatmeal and a banana.
And so I’ve started learning more about minerals and the way they interact to create different substances in the ceramics studio, I feel like it is one of the first times since I was a kid in science class that I actually FELT a connection between a chemical process and hard realities of my own body.
This might be obvious to you, but this is a revelation to me. The intimacy of combining minerals, water, heat, time, all that… doing it over and over with determination, precision and intention… has me noticing how little I pay attention to the materials of my own making: my self. If I put that much energy into measuring out my sustenance and preparing them and enjoying them my day to day would be verrrrry different.
And then, what if I apply that attention to the less tangible material processes and chemical reactions that make up my being:
the emotional labor I do (or don’t do) for myself and others,
the responsibilities I take on and the ones I shirk…
the people I allow close to me and the people I don’t,
the information I share or keep private,
the feelings I process…
All these materials, and the way I handle them, make up Me.
THE QUARTZ INVERSION
As you are probably realizing, there is so much chemistry involved when we start talking about ceramics. Chemistry was my worst subject in school, so I honestly hid from the chemistry aspect of ceramics for along time…. I have always wanted to focus on the feel of the clay on the wheel that visceral squishy sensation…
But being so open to learning about the materials in watercolor, in paper, in wax, I’m starting to peel back the layers with clay and I am feeling really jazzed about it. I feel like it’s magic. It’s alchemy. I feel very honored to get to work with clay.
I’ve also become much more familiar with the way kilns fire ceramic work. A kiln is basically a very fancy oven. It is about the size of a squat water heater, with coiled wires that circle the circumference, which are conductors for the heat. It has thermometers spaced vertically throughout, brick-lined walls and a lid for dispersing the heat evenly and metal sheets on the outside to wrap it all together like the foil on a burrito. The kiln is hooked up to an electrical system where you can program the timing of each segment, controlling the rate at which the heat goes up, holds and comes down.
So without getting too technical… remember how each clay body is a little different? There are high fire (stoneware) and low fire (earthenware) clay bodies. A kiln operates a lot like the convention ovens in the Great British Bake-Off in that you might have different programs for different firings, so a potter might go really slow and take their time if they know that the work is really delicate, they might go a little bit faster if they feel more confident with certain work that they know and won’t crack or shatter or melt.
Typically you fire your work twice.
The first time you fire the work it is greenware: it is the clay that you either threw on the wheel and trimmed, or it’s something hand built that you scored and slip together, it is leather hard now which is exactly what it sounds like, it’s kind of like leather, kinda hard, you can press your fingernail into it and make a mark but it’s not sticky or slippery. From there you can put the work in the kiln and candle it; candling means warming up the kiln so that it removes all the moisture from the clay, close to about 200°.
Once you have ensured that everything is bone dry you can fire it and turn that clay into ceramic. Basically the clay undergoes a chemical change at a certain temperature, and here is where it gets really interesting. This moment is called the Quartz Inversion: at 1063.4 degrees Fahrenheit the particles in the clay are at their most variable. They expand, and if heat is not evenly distributed in the kiln they can shatter if a piece is unevenly heated or if the kiln cools down too fast. When you fire something you’re essentially transforming it bit by bit and applying change to each particle in the clay body until the object as a whole becomes earthenware or stoneware.
This term, Quartz Inversion, has kept coming back to me this fall.
You know how I imagine that audio is a material just like clay, when I’m fortifying it and watching and getting ready to put on the wheel that’s when I’m sort of sitting with all my tape and beginning to craft the narrative beginning to think about what I want to say… but now I realize, my favorite part of the process is actually farther down the line when the piece is already kind of cooking, and it is sort of out of my control. Things are heating up, particles are expanding and interacting with each other and it’s kind of chaotic.
It’s that that unknown where the material, the guest’s life experience, my personal reflections, my feelings and then your potential reaction, your imagined presence and your actual presence, all interact at once. That’s usually around the 40 minute mark of an episode. It’s the section where we connect the dots and go even deeper. And while I’m making it, I do not plan this moment… and timing wise, it can take hours, days or weeks for it all shift into focus and make sense to me (this is why a monthly show works better for me…).
Anything can happen at that point.
Maybe the material shatters, maybe it explodes, maybe it melts, maybe it fires into a full thought… but either way everything that led up to that is important even if it is a total shitshow in there. Whatever material you work with, whatever process you’re trying right now I hope that you make it to the Quartz Inversion. I hope that when you peek in through one of the peep holes in the side of the kiln and you see the red hot forms that you have been working on in your mind, with your friends, with your loved ones with your community and whatever happens… I hope we can let that moment be whatever it needs to be. When you open up the kiln and everything’s exploded, what you did to work up to that point is still important. And if you open it up and it’s a surprising glaze, a surprising color, a drip or no drips at all, you have the opportunity to let it cool and share the story of that work with someone else. Shattered, cracked, intact or not… I think the sharing of it is what’s important.
When you engage with anything… whether it’s learning new information, building a project or concept, working on a relationship with yourself or someone else, you’re experiencing Quartz Inversions over and over throughout the process.
How often do we acknowledge the properties and capabilities of the materials we work with?
Can you identify a Quartz Inversion you may have gone through recently? Maybe you didn’t even realize you were going through it… How would you tell that story?
My goal for Material Feels is to create an opportunity for myself and others to connect to their creative spark and honor the material world. A show that explores the world around us as well as our internal landscape: our bodies and spirits.
Becoming attuned to the microscopic world of chemical elements and crystalline structures… I’m thinking more calmly about the elements and structures of my reality as a whole. And now that I’m thinking about chemical reactions within and between us, I am starting of observe what feels good and what hurts. You can discover pillars of strength and sheets of thin, fragile coping mechanisms.
And so, until next time… I wish you a Quartz Inversions or two, and the peace of mind to observe it with an open mind. I hope you will fill your cup. Slow down to celebrate where you are feeling powerful and strong, and take notice of the more precarious regions in your world that may need more time and attention.
Thanks again for being a part of the Material Feels community. I’ll be making Season 3 for the foreseeable future (I wanna say the next year?) continuing to stock Waveform Ceramics on Etsy and running my art-flavored audio storytelling biz, CXM Productions. If you or your organization would like to book a storytelling workshop with me, please reach out; you can find my contact information on my website at www.CXMPRODUCTIONS.com. Subscribe to my monthly newsletter, Rabbit Hole Buffet for extra treats including updates about the Waveform Ceramics, hot goss from the material world and some fun experiments from my summer residency!