Earth Day 2019

As Earth Day 2019 comes to an end, there are young people around the world dropping out of their classrooms to go on ‘Extinction Walks’.  A sixteen-year-old Swedish girl, Greta Thunberg, is calling out politicians around the world for their irresponsible behaviour towards caring for our planet, what I have come to call the ‘Mothership’.  In Greta’s speech to the Swedish Parliament last year, she said:  “This ongoing irresponsible behaviour will no doubt be remembered in history as one of the greatest failures of humankind.”  I am hopeful that my grandchildren who can vote will vote and that they will have a loud voice in shaping policy in Canada towards the environment and its protection not the profits of large corporations and their stockholders.

I wear many hats, so to speak, and one of those is as a ceramics instructor at the University of Manitoba, and the other is as a maker.  Recently, I have seen other ceramists on various Facebook pottery groups ask if there is anything they can do to help the environment.  Some have shown photos of poorly made pots that broke wondering how to repair them while others wonder what to do with all of the work that they cannot sell.

Ceramics has a large footprint, and it is not ‘green’.  All the clay and Earth’s minerals (in whatever form we use them – stains, oxides, ready-made underglazes, etc. – are mined.  They are packaged and shipped around the world.  Responsible management so that none of those materials is either wasted or harm the local water table needs to be considered.  Firing.  Some regions use fossil fuels to create electricity.  We should all be aware of issues related to natural gas and oil.  How then to fire our work so that we do not waste those resources?  One way, so simple, is to make sure those kilns are full.

I am reminding myself to make sure that the first year students understand fully that greenware (before the clay is fired the first time and then it is bisque ware) can touch other pieces.  Just be mindful of weight distribution, etc.  But then there is the real question:  what is worthy of firing?  This is something that only you can answer.  But if you make more mugs than you can sell then just fire the ones that are magnificent and worthy of the resources.  The plan this year is to cut back further on what my students are firing.  They need to learn to be self-critical.  We all do!  And then there is the question of firing and to what temperature.  Wood is a renewable resource.  But what about gas kilns, LPG, or oil?  How much is saved in terms of cubic use by lowering the temperature of firing from cone 10 to cone 1?  I do not know the answer, but I am confident that if we all Googled it, we would find many answers.

As potters and knowing that our planet is in peril, perhaps we need to contemplate what we can do and how we can help others to be productive, create beautiful work while at the same time being more conscious and lowering our impact on the environment.  Maybe this year is the time for each of us to stand up and challenge ourselves over the coming year.  When I look at my grandchildren, I know that their future, the future of the animals, and our Mothership deserve it.

How great was this? Grace Han is my teacher and it is so much fun being a student.

I want to publicly thank Grace Han.  She has helped me immensely as I complete the final preparations for my residency in Scotland.  Gosh, it has been so long since I was a student that it was wonderful learning something entirely new.  Well, I shouldn’t say altogether new.  I did make some very simple moulds so many years ago that I don’t even want to think about it.  It was fun being a student again – energising was a word that Grace used a lot, and I agree.  How fortunate I am.

My interdisciplinary arts project is about transience.  One aspect of it also questions current ceramics education and making and its impact on the environment.  The conceptual basis for the proposal was strong and was a 180-degree turn from my previous practice making functional domestic ware.  I no longer do this.  There are fabulous potters in every province of Canada that make beautiful wheel thrown vessels that enliven my life every day.  I do not need to add to this.  It is time to look at ceramics production differently.

My original intention was to rent a potter’s wheel and make my ovoid bottles, to apply slip capturing the landscape at various times of day, and to place the unfired pieces along the coast of the North Sea, from Arbroath to Aberdeen.  But I could not rent a wheel.  The obvious next step was to make a mould and slip cast the bottles.  It has been some thirty years since I had lessons in mould making and, at the time, the instruction was not that good.  Enter Grace Han.   If you do not know who Grace Han is you can look back through my blogs but in a nutshell:  Grace Han is from Korea where she is one of the only women to make Onngi.  She is so good at mould making also that her professor in Korea always hired her as his assistant because of these talents.   How fortunate I am to have this energetic and highly creative person willingly gave up over six hours of her, time to instruct me in the process and to make sure that the mould I am taking to Scotland is perfect so that my residency is successful.

If anyone reading this thinks mould making is easy, it is not.  Whatever my perceptions were before we started working last night, it was clear after a couple of hours that only individuals with a great deal of patience and attention to detail would be successful.  Like all things with ceramics, you either learn patience or you move on to something else.  It is like the last 150 degrees C in wood firing.  You have to take the time to make sure that you gave it your all and pushed the energy out of those last bits of wood.

A lot of mould making is about precise measurements and bubbles.

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When I was a student at Oklahoma State University, students in the sculpture class were, on the first day, given a 25 lb bag of plaster and a bucket.  No instructions were given, but if the plaster hardened in the pail, you were asked to leave the class.  We all failed that day.  Grace’s taught me the ratio of water to gypsum; how to slowly stir the plaster once it had all settled into the water in order not to create bubbles.  By the time the third batch of plaster was being mixed, I thought I had aced it.  — Believe me when I say that it also helps not to get overconfident!  Grace took the bowl and carefully tapped the sides.  She was smiling.  You would have thought there was a heat vent like those on the floor of the ocean with all the bubbles rising to the surface.  Remember I said:  lots of patience.  The bubbles are scooped out with a big spoon and placed on the top of the glass.  Little by little they disappear.

The other bubbles have to do with the mould soap.  For those of you that do not know, you must apply a substance to keep the plaster from sticking to your original form (unless you are using raw clay).  It was unclear if the mould soap would work on the unglazed part of my bottle.  Three coats worked.  Grace has no special brush for doing this, merely a man’s shaving brush!  Whirling it around until the bubbles form and then they are wiped off.  This time you want those bubbles!

Grace Han looked more than once at the ovoid bottle I wanted to cast.

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In the end, the final mould required as many as five separate pieces with keys to lock them in place.  Grace used some high quality self-supporting flexible plastic sheets that she purchases in Korea to form the sleeve around the form.  IMG_2157

Looking down into the mould, five hours later, there are only two more pieces to cast:  the last one for the main form and the top.  Look carefully, and you can see the keys.

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Once everything is cast, you are left with something that looks like a ridiculous hat or a weird cake with its royal icing sans decorations.  To remove the original form, you have to carefully grate away the plaster until you can find the keys and the sides to each piece of the mould.

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Then with a rubber mallet, you begin tapping.  In the end, we did not need to break the original form.  It came away nicely.  The edges of all of the parts were bevelled so that you can easily take them away or put them together.  Then the whole thing is secured with the largest rubber bands I have seen and allowed to cure.  By the time I leave for Scotland, it will be dry enough for me to make my ovoid bottles.

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I am so very grateful for the kindness and patience that my former student gave to me as her student.  It is the best of all worlds when we can openly learn from one another, sharing ideas and processes without hesitation.  I know that my residency will be much more successful because of Grace Han’s generous giving of her time.  I will miss seeing her on my return.  Grace Han will be doing a six-month residency at Medalta.  She is currently preparing for a group exhibition at the Canadian Clay & Glass Gallery in Waterloo, Ontario, a show curated by my colleague, Grace Nickel.  If you live near Waterloo, check out the events on the gallery’s website and go over and have a look at the four or five large onngi that Grace Han has created.