Carved Vessels: A Brief Look at Technique and Collector Value

All of my pots start out as a ball of clay wedged up on the clay board to make sure that all the air bubbles are completely removed. The clay is a mixture of different clay bodies depending on the type of pot I am throwing at the time. The effigy pots are mostly paperclay , a mixture of clay and paper pulp that reduces warping and cracking when pieces of clay with dissimilar thickness are assembled in one form. After wedging they are thrown (or pulled, depending on the term you prefer) on a potter’s wheel. Once the basic shape is made in this fashion I must let the pot set and dry to the point that it can be handled without either easily deforming the pot or sticking to it. This is a state short of the one termed ‘leather hard’, which is too hard for my purposes. At this point the fun begins!

If the pot in question is a vase, pitcher, or other form that is only to be carved I can begin doing so once it has reached this handling state. I trim the foot of the pot and add the handles, if they are desired. Then I put the pot on the sculpture’s stand, look it over to envision the design that I will carve on it, deciding where to begin and how to run the carving across the pot. Often I use a geometrical shape to ‘structure’ the design or contain it in the area of the pot that will be most visible to the observer. Once I am satisfied with the design idea I take a stylus and lightly ‘draw’ in the outline of the design. The next step is to take a tool with a tiny loop of wire on the end and go over the outline giving me the depth that I want to carve. Then, using different wire looped tools, I remove the ‘background’ clay from around the design before I give the design itself dimension by removing some of the clay within it. Once the rough carving is done I take a ‘smoothing’ tool and go over the carved design smoothing out the unwanted textures while I also give a little extra depth to parts of the design by pushing the clay inward gently.

The effigy pots take a little more effort. (Effigy means ‘in the image of’ and refers to pots that are made to look like animals.) The pot that is to be the body of the animal must dry more than the thrown ‘heads’ so that the body will not be deformed in the process of putting the two together. This is particularly crucial in the oil candles as it is extremely difficult to reform the pot from the inside once it has been tragically depressed. Once the parts have reached their varied stages of desired hardness I assemble the main parts of the pot together in what is hoped to be the correct ‘attitude’ for the animal in question. Very often the ‘neck’ of the pot must be cut and bent so that the ‘head’ will sit at the correct angle. Then the eyes and other details of the animal are added to the body of the pot so that it attains the look of the animal I desire it to be. At this point the pot must be set aside to dry further because it can not be carved easy at this degree of wetness and I like for the moisture in the claybody to become more uniform before I do the last step. The last step is to take the carving tools and delineate some of the muscles that the animal would have while putting in the texture of hair and other little details that make the animal more ‘alive’.

Whether it is an effigy pot or a more simply carved vessel all the pots must be fired twice. They are dried and fired the first time in a ‘bisque firing’. This is to aid in the application of iron oxide and glaze. The iron oxide is applied to the carved surfaces (except in the cases of animals that are to be given a color with stains) and then the excess is wiped off so that the oxide brings out the detail of the carving. White glaze is put on the inside of teapots and creamers. Carved vessels are glazed inside and on the tops and handles with the desired glazes to create the color I want. All the claybodies and the glazes are non-toxic and can be washed in the dishwasher.

These pots are durable and each unique unto itself. Although I may use the same basic design on more than one pot they never come out identical to each other as they are all done by free hand without stencil or mold. Each pot is signed on the bottom by the artist and dated to denote the month and the year that it was made. You could say that they are all an edition of one.