Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Enough With the Life Lessons . . .

Or It's Good To Be Out Of Commissions.

Life Lessons Pictures, Images and Photos

As I posted in October 2011 (see Clay as Life’s Guru . . .), we are not in control of what happens to our clayware once it’s been put in the kiln to be fired. Yes, we can plead to the kiln gods for a good fire, but really, it’s up to the people who are doing the firing, the kilns, and how the pieces are stacked in those kilns.  I thought I had it covered relying on the good folks at the Potter’s Studio where I’ve been taking my work to be fired for years.

Unfortunately, I thought wrong.

My heart dropped into my shoes when I saw the platters coming out of the kiln that warm day last October. 

Under fired platters with Desert Blue Glaze - too much desert, not enough blue!

They had been placed on the lower shelves of the kiln (usually the coolest part, especially in older kilns) even though, knowing this, I expressly asked they be put toward the top. When Bob lifted  them out, still hot to the touch, I knew at once they had been under fired. When I questioned this, Bob showed me the bent cone he took from inside the kiln wall, trying to assure me it was a correct firing.
You see, kilns are not fired just to a temperature.  They are fired to a "cone" level, which accounts for time as well as temperature.  Think of it as heat absorption rather than just temperature.
This cone, which normally should have been bent at an almost 90 degree angle, was barely curved – more like 65 degrees. But because I had glazed the platters with a new batch of a glaze I hadn’t used that often, I dejectedly took the platters home thinking maybe the glaze was off.  If that was the case, what the hell could I do about it?

Off to Leslie Ceramics I went, where I had bought the glaze. They should know what had gone wrong. They took one look at the platters and confirmed what I suspected all along – the platters had been under fired.

Undersides of the platters - even the clay body looked under fired to me.

So back to the Potter’s Studio I went, armed with this discovery. Oh, no problem. They would be glad to refire the pieces for me.  But because of their large sizes and the fact that they don’t do cone 5 glaze firings all that often, if I wanted them anytime soon, I would have to pay for firing a whole kiln load even though it would be less than half full.

Pay again for what was certainly a firing mistake?

After all this time using them as my go to people to fire my work over the years, they weren’t willing to take responsibility for this error and give me a break.

So that’s how I found the ClayPeople in Richmond. I packed up my platters and took them there in hopes these platters could be salvaged. I also brought along a couple other pieces I felt might not have been totally fired to temp. Here were people who saw the problem and asked me how long a “soak” I might want. Soaking is when the kiln comes to temp and you hold it at that temp for some minutes, sometimes up to an hour to get the best glaze results. A SOAK!?! I had never been asked about doing a soak at the Potter’s Studio.

Well, what did they suggest? They said at least 20 minutes. 20 minutes it was then.

For the anxiety riddled week I spent waiting to hear the work was ready to be picked up, I was afraid to even THINK about praying to the kiln gods. I was just thinking, please, please, please let these platters come out OK so I don’t have to start over. I don’t know who I was pleading to but apparently whoever it was, heard me.

Another lesson learned - sometimes it pays to plead.

The platters came out perfect. The other pieces whose glazes after the first fire, were at best OK, were now gorgeous. I have found my new go-to-glaze firing people – aptly named - The ClayPeople.

The underfired platter

Same platter, now fired to the right temp.

Now the most important test would be how my friend Tina, who had commissioned them, would like them? I placed them on our dining room table and invited her to come over and pick them up. Holding my breath as she saw them displayed there, I immediately let out a huge sigh of relief when she pronounced them “stunning” and reiterated she was “thrilled” with them as we packed them up.

Finished platters on display for Tina

OK, the first lesson learned – we are not in control.

Second lesson – sometimes it pays to plead.

And last, but certainly not least – commissions are NEVER easy.

So just in case your thinking about asking me to do a commissioned piece, fuggedaboutit!  I have done my last commission. I will continue to make the work. If you like what I make, and want to live with it – terrific! But I am not interested in making a painting to match your couch or a set of exactly the same cereal bowls, one for each of your seven kids, or a vase like the one on my shelf but with a different glaze.

After working on the “Unfinished Triptych” for months and a set of 3 platters for over a year and a half, I’m out of the commission business.

But I’m still in the business of making work from the heart.

I’ll be posting more of them here as they happen. Come back and take a look.

And then check in to see if, really, lessons have been learned.

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