Sisters Blogger: Coraleigh Parker
Project: Pinch Pot from Wild Clay
You will need:
- A source of clay – a farm, a roadside bank, a river bank
- A spade and bucket
- Your hands
- Access to a commercial kiln (list provided at end)
Finding wild clay is a great adventure. Clay occurs naturally all over the earth. It is made from igneous rock, like granite, which been composted by volcanic gases forcing their way up through them. This process takes ages. The surface of the earth changes all the time, sometimes by a lot with earthquakes, sometimes a little at a time with rain. Clay moves around and gets separated and mixed around like a rubix cube. This means that we can go hunting for clay and successfully find it all over the place.
What you are looking for is a substance which is buttery. I found a seam on a bank next to a spring fed stream. This clay is white with orange specks. It can be cut with a spade into chunks which hold their shape. When you take a handful and mush it, it feels like cold palydough. In pictures 3 and 4 I am testing the consistency of the clay. I mush it to see how short (like pastry) it is and then I roll it into a snake to see how elastic it is.
After I have made a snake, I do some rudimentary tests. First I make a donut and observe how the clay bends. I look for cracks or breaking apart. If the clay is too short, as in, not elastic enough, it is hard to work with. If there are no cracks or breaks then I do a further test. I roll a thinner snake and wrap it around my finger. If I can wrap it around twice without it cracking or breaking then I find I can use it as is. I dig up enough for my project for the day and take it back to my workshop.
This is a clay from further up the path. It is not as nice as the white one. It has a lot of sand in it and is very crumbly (short) and hard. I can’t mush it and I can roll it into a sausage, I cant make a donut. It’s way to hard to make a smaller snake and it breaks straight away when I try to wrap it around my finger.
Even though this is clay, it will need to be dried and ground and have extra stuff added to make it usable. If your clay is like this, keep hunting.
When I get back to my workshop I take the clay a chunk at a time to my work table to knead it. I love breaking open the chunks and seeing all the things inside. In this chunk one side was white and the other was heavily contaminated with iron ore, which is the dark orange in picture 2. Because I wanted to make a whiter clay I left the iron heavy piece out.
I use the heels of my hands to work the clay in a spiral pattern.
Once I feel that the clay has a nice even consistency I do another quick check to make sure the whole chunk is good. I take a piece to work with, normally no bigger than what fits comfortably in one hand. I roll this and the remaining chunk into nice round shapes. I cover the big one with plastic for later, an old potting mix bag is quite good for this.
With the small piece, I pat it from hand to hand several times to compress the clay and form it into a tight smooth ball.
Once I have a nice round compact ball I push my thumb right down into it until I’m almost at the bottom. I wriggle my thumb around and then push in my other thumb and open the hole out gently towards my fingers.
I keep working my thumbs around the inside, turning the clay and pressing my thumbs into my fingers. As the form opens I use my hand to cup it and support the edge. Once I have the size that I want I use my fingers on the inside and my thumb on the outside to make sure all the sides are an even thickness. Then I use my thumb again to smooth the surfaces.
Once I have really smoothed all the surfaces and edges I compress the form gently into it’s final shape.
This shows the progression from wet clay to dry clay. It shrinks a bit during the drying process and will shrink more when it is fired. once it has completely dried it will be a lovely pastel pale version of the colour it was when wet. This process can take anywhere from 72 hours to 5 days to even more in wet humid or cold weather.
You can store pieces in this way indefinitely as long as they are not exposed to moisture.
Once you have made all the pieces you want and have dried them out totally you can safely put the pieces in a kiln and fire them.
If you aren’t planning on becoming a potter on an ongoing basis the best option is to find a local studio or friendly potter who will share with you. We luckily have many talented potters and ceramicists living locally here in the Bay of Plenty. The most readily accessible option is The Clay Art Studio located at the historic village on 17th Ave. Here they have a working studio where they run workshops of many sorts. They have a kiln and rent shelves in it for $20. This is a great option as the team there are very knowledgeable and happy to help. They also sell surface treatments like glaze, underglaze and oxides. They have lots of options to suit.
The second option is Tùrama Ahi Studio (firelight studio). They have a lovely studio just North of Katikati. They run many pottery classes and have several kilns including low-tech varieties which give spectacular visual results. They have extensive knowledge and are more than happy to set you up with what you need. Classes from $10 kiln space varies in availability and pricing, it is best to check with them at the time you want to fire your work.
Less accessible, as they aren’t set up commercially to serve the public like Clay Art, local potters have lots of supplies, contacts and knowledge. From my experience potters are generally happy to talk shop to those who are genuinely interested, but keep in mind that they are trying to make pottery for a living so be mindful of taking up their time unnecessarily. A quick google search will tell you who is closest to you and probably provide you with contact details.
As a very new, albeit enthusiastic, potter I am always happy to chat about clay but I am by no stretch of the imagination an expert. In fact I completely ignore some of the fundamental rules of pottery because I am more interested in the journey than the result. The beautiful thing about clay is that it has this great potential to be a collaborative material. Slight nuances in texture or colour can inspire new forms or shapes. Each handful of wild clay has a certain integrity to it which is hard to overlook.
My biggest and most important tip for making Things from wild clay is: Don’t try to make the clay into something that it is not. Treat it like a wild animal which you are coaxing into friendship. If you try to tame it or dominate it you will lose the wild and beautiful nature altogether.