Heading to Florida

January 13th, 2010

I haven’t posted for a while, busy end to a busy year. I’m off to Florida this weekend for one of my favorite shows of the year: The January Bonita Springs National Art Festival in beautiful Bonita Springs Florida. If you’re around, stop by and say hello.

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St James Court

October 13th, 2009

Just got back last week from St James Court in Louisville.  It’s still one of my very favorite shows.  Lots of friends, and many returning customers.  Sales were great and I was awarded First Place – Best in Show.  Just about as good as it gets!!

My son Christopher is getting married on Saturday the 17th of October, and we have quite a few out-of-town friends arriving for the celebration.  It’s nice to take a break from work and enjoy friends and family.

Next Monday I have to get back to work in preparation for the One Of  A Kind show coming up on the 3rd of Dec in Chicago.

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Etsy

September 21st, 2009

I’ve replace my shop page on this website with a link to an Etsy shopping page.  It’s much easier for me to have only one location for work for sale, and Etsy seems to have a very good capability in this regard.   To find me directly on Etsy go to:  www.creeksidepottery.etsy.com

Please send me your feedback on this change.

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It’s all happening in – Watkinsville?

August 30th, 2009

Friday night we attended the opening reception for Perspectives 2009 , a pottery invitational featuring 50 Georgia potters, in Watkinsville, GA. I would highly recommend attending if you’re in the area. Some great pots are on display in each of the two exhibitions, and it’s always amazing to see 5000 or so pots set out on tables in the old gym. Each potter showing is well experienced and there is a wide variety of work on display – wood, salt/soda, low fire, hire fire, raku etc. etc. Go if you can, I highly recommend it.

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The changing nature of things

August 27th, 2009

On a recent drive to a show in Kansas City, I listened to a terrific book, “The Lost Painting: The Quest for a Caravaggio Masterpiece” by Jonathan Harr.  The story provides some fascinating insight into the work of Art Historians, but it also provided me with a partial answer to a question that I’ve been pondering.It’s nearly impossible to have a conversation about craft without also talking about art.  What I’ve been wondering recently is when our current notions about art and artists emerged. According to Harr, and information available on the net, Western painters didn’t begin signing their work until the early Renaissance in the 15th century (much earlier in the East, where a Chinese painting by Cui Bai has both his signature and the date 1061.). Before then they were considered skilled artisans in the same vein as potters or metal workers.

It seems reasonable to assume that the emergence of a signature would parallel a cultural change that elevates painters and sculptors to a higher level in society. Such certainly seems to have been the case. It’s also interesting to note that early Greek pottery was often signed by both the potter and the vase painter, although both were apparently regarded as master craftsmen.

It’s now common and expected that people that make things sign their work. Many customers believe that the signature adds value and insist on one. I’m kind of ambivalent about it myself; my feeling is that the work itself should reveal the maker.

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Lighting it up!

August 27th, 2009

Probably the biggest challenge that I’ve experienced doing outdoor shows is lighting the work. Occasionally, electricity is available, but most often it is not. The occasional show allows the use of a generator, but most often they do not. Sometimes you have sunshine directly into the booth, but it is more common to have the booth in shade. The worst light for the work is to have strong sunshine around the booth, while the work is in the shade of the tent.

Lighting is enough of a problem that I bring lights to every show. If it’s overcast, then they’re essential and the rest of the time they’re helpful. So, with no electricity or generators available, I bring batteries to every show, and using batteries is much more complicated than you would think.

For this type of application, deep cycle marine batteries are the best option. Deep cycle simply means that the batteries can supply constant power over a long period of time, and are able to be deeply discharged repeatedly. A normal car battery is designed for surges of power with minimal discharge, i.e. starting a car. Deep cycle sort of implies that you can discharge the battery fully with no adverse effects, but battery life will be significantly reduced if the batteries are discharged more than 50% during use. While many of these batteries carry 18 month full replacement warranties, fully discharging them can significantly reduce capacity in 6 months or less. I have been able to get batteries replaced under warranty more than once, but everyone uses computer systems these days and they get smart about it pretty quickly.

Deep cycle marine batteries are 12 volt. Most lighting systems are designed for house current or 120 volt. An inverter is used to allow the use of 120 volt lighting with 12 volt batteries. Unless you want to carry more than 4 or 5 marine batteries around with you, you’re not going to get much more than 300 watts of lighting with a battery system. That’s equivalent to four 75 watt flood or spots, or six 50 watt bulbs. On a cloudy day, that’s a lot, on a really sunny day – not so much.

To understand deep cycle batteries, it’s important to understand amp hours, or how they measure capacity. An amp hour is just what it sounds like, amps times time. Amps are watts divided by volts. So, to calculate the battery capacity we need for 300 watts for 8 hours, divide 300 watts by 12 volts to determine amps. You might think that you would divide by 120 volts because of the inverter, but voltage is provided by the 12 volt batteries, and the inverter is just another device using power. 300 watts divided by 12 volts is 25 amps. To supply 300 watts of power for 8 hours then, we need 200 amp hours. While this might suggest that 2 125 amp hour batteries would suffice, you need to double that to account for a 50% discharge factor to preserve battery life. This is about what I get, although it gets a little worse every show until the batteries are replaced. I think that this probably has to due with occasional discharge below 50%, which is difficult to determine.

I buy 125 amp hour deep cycle marine batteries from Wal-Mart, which has them for about 75$ each. I use a 400 watt inverter; my assumption is that larger inverters waste more power, although I haven’t done the math. I connect the inverter to an individual battery with cables with alligator clips, and just ordered a new bigger cable to reduce the heat at the inverter. I recently burned an inverter up, so this seemed prudent.

It’s possible to set up a battery bank in series ( i.e. 2 6 volt batteries) or parallel (i.e. multiple 12 volt batteries). When in series, the voltage is added and amp hours is constant, and in parallel the amp hours are added and voltage is unchanged. I have run multiple batteries in parallel, and did not see any advantage in terms of amp hours achieved, I did have quite a bit of trouble with rust on the negative cables.

I keep looking for a better solution, and am encouraged about newly developing LED bulbs, once reliability gets better and cost comes down. I’ve tried Compact Fluorescents with minimal success. I’ve found the light to be too diffused to be of any real value outdoors. Obviously, if the sun goes down, a 23 watt CFL can light a booth pretty well, but with strong ambient daylight, it will be almost unnoticeable.

At the end of the day, the main question is “did any of this make a difference in sales at the show?” For me the answer is sometimes yes and sometimes no, but if I’m going to pay a $500 booth fee and drive 600 miles to a show – I’m taking lights.

General

Material values

June 16th, 2009

The pricing of objects that you make is one of the most difficult aspects of being a working potter.  When you begin to produce and sell, any amount that people are willing to pay to buy one of your items seems wonderful.  I still am amazed and humbled when people are willing to trade their hard-earned money for one of my pieces.  It is, in fact, the ultimate compliment.  That being said, it’s still necessary to price the work, and attempt to earn the best living that you can.

I firmly believe that the pricing of an individual piece must make sense within the framework of how the rest of the work is priced.  I don’t price based solely upon materials cost or time to produce.  In the final analysis, it’s a judgment of the “market value” of the individual piece, within the context of the body of work being shown.  For a customer to decide to purchase something, I think that they must both like the piece and believe that it represents a good value.  The more unique that the work is, the less influence other potter’s pricing has on the buying decision.

That being said, I believe that there is a strong influence on pricing that stems from a cultural bias towards materials.  To be more specific, I believe that in the US, people perceive glass, for instance, as having a higher intrinsic value than clay.  Two bowls of equal quality and uniqueness, one of clay and the other of glass, could carry an identical price of say $300.  I believe that most people would believe the glass bowl to be inexpensive, and the clay bowl to be pricey.  That’s not to say that all glass costs more that all clay, but after many years of observation, I believe that a hierarchy of intrinsic value exists.  The exact hierarchy may differ by culture; in Japan, for instance, ceramic objects are more highly prized that in the US.  I think that this hierarchy extends to virtually all media: oil vs. acrylic vs. watercolor vs. pastel vs. pencil etc…  If you were to be able to quantify this cultural hierarchy in a scientific way, I believe that you would find clay to be close to the bottom in terms of the public’s perception of the value of the material.  I find this to be particularly ironic because of the technical challenges associated with making pottery.

I suspect that Dale Chihuly is single-handedly responsible for raising the perceived value of glass and all things made from glass, and more power to him.  While we have our superstars in clay, I don’t think that there is anyone working in clay today that has achieved Chihuly’s level of popular awareness, desirability, and brand identity.  His acceptance and the price points that he has established have benefited all glass artists and craftsmen by extension.  Hopefully education and discussion will,over time, enable designer craftsmen working in clay to positively influence this materials bias and drive a greater appreciation for ceramic objects.

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Skutt KM-1027 – cracks in the bisque

June 10th, 2009

I fire a reduction kiln for glazing, but do my bisque firing in a Skutt electric kiln.  For quite a while after I first got it I fired in “cone fire” mode in which you just set the cone that you’re firing to and the speed (slow, medium, fast) that you want.  I had a problem with cracking when firing platters, plates, and large bowls when I stacked them in the lower 1/3 of the kiln.  When I have a problem like this, I try and analyze the problem, propose a solution and then test the solution.  Usually I try dozens of wrong solutions before I find something that works.  In this case, the solution that I finally found was to use the “Ramp/Hold” setting to build a better firing and cooling cycle.

I tracked the cracking to cooling dunts, or too rapid cooling of the kiln after firing.  By using “Ramp/Hold”, I could control the cooling process and avoid the dunting cracks.  The schedule that I use may not work for everyone, or be the “best” or most optimal firing cycle, but it works for me and I’m posting here as a starting point for others with the same problem.  If the work is a little damp, you can vary the hold times for segments 1 and 2.

Segment Deg/Hour Temp Hold Time
1 80 160 0.6 2.13
2 125 250 0 0.72
3 300 1000 0 2.50
4 150 1150 0 1.00
5 250 1694 0 2.18
6 120 1946 0 2.10
7 300 1500 0 1.49
8 150 300 0 8.00
20.11

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Great Clay

June 3rd, 2009

It’s been nice to get back to throwing again after a few weeks of glazing and doing shows.  Every time that I start back after such a long time off, I have kind of a slow start getting back in the groove.   It just takes me a couple of hours to get the feel of the clay and be reasonably efficient.  I’m not a production potter, and I tend to work 6 to 12 similar pieces at a time.  I’m not concerned at all about making identical pieces.  When, as I did over the last few days, I’m making teapots, I caliper each one to make an individual lid.  I don’t make all of the lids the same size.  I want to look at each form independently when I’m working on it, and make subtle variations accordingly.  This approach supports the evolution of the form over time, as I see new possibilities and directions to explore.

Just a couple of years ago, it could take me a day or two to get comfortable throwing after a week or two doing other things.  Part of the reason for the improvement is that I’m now throwing with clay bodies of much improved consistency and plasticity.  I use three bodies: B-Mix; Anapau (a cone 12 variant of Coleman Porcelain); and a 50/50 blend of the two.   I never throw with clay right out of the bag, and all clays for throwing are pugged in my VPM-20 Peter Pugger.  Before I got the pug mill, I would never consider blending clay bodies because processing by hand would have been prohibitive in both time and effort.  Reclaiming used to be a real problem also, and I would regularly spend a day or two a month trying to reclaim clay.

I originally bought the pug mill so that I could stop wedging.  I throw with a relatively stiff clay, and the wedging was causing me real pain in the back of my right hand.  After using the Peter Pugger for the last year or so I can say that the pugged clay is simply the best, most consistent and plastic that I’ve ever used.  Surprisingly, de-airing has a significant positive impact on plasticity and produces clay that is much more plastic than if it were simply wedged.

The only time that I use clay out of the bag, is if I’m going to running it through my slab roller.  Otherwise, I take the clay out of the bag, cut it into sections and allow it to stiffen overnight.  Then the clay is pugged and extruded, and sections are cut to length for throwing.  Most of the time now I’m throwing with the blended body, and I mix the B-Mix and Anapau by weight into the pugger.  I clean the pug mill before switching bodies.

In any case, I’m a fan of the Peter Pugger.  It really can process bone dry clay in around 45 minutes, and the tech support has been excellent.  For more info on the VPM-20 go to http://www.peterpugger.com.

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Firing today

May 27th, 2009

When I began firing my reduction kiln, I had some difficulty in determining the correct amount of reduction for my glazes.  I struggled with it for a couple of years, with uneven results, and then I purchased an Oxy Probe.  The probe is a device to provide information on the amount of reduction or oxidation during each stage of the firing cycle.  Initially I found it useful, but it broke after about 2 years – I fixed it, and then it broke again about a year later.  They’re pretty expensive to repair, and I decided to change my firing cycle so that I began reduction after dark.  While firing at night can be inconvenient, I now feel that I get a better sense of the reduction from the color and intensity of the flame at the ports, than I did with the probe.  I can also monitor the burner ports to ensure that the damper setting doesn’t cause the flame to back up out of the port.

I begin reduction at about 012 on the bottom and 010 at the top, and continue a medium (no smoke) reduction until 09 is down at the top.  My kiln is a Bailey 18 cubic foot stackable forced air kiln.  It tends to fire hotter at the top during oxidation and hotter at the bottom during reduction, so when I begin reduction the top is a bit hotter and after reduction the bottom is somewhat hotter.  When I shut it down after the final clearing oxidation, it’s usually 10 flat at the top and 1/2 at the bottom, sometimes a bit closer.  I’m generally happy with the results, but then again, I’ve grown accustomed to the issues of a forced air kiln which I will discuss in a future post.

So for today, it’s firing, paperwork, and clay preparation.  I need to begin making new pieces tomorrow.

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