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Baleia Blu Ceramics

Handmade by Adette Contreras in Brooklyn, NY. Inspired by a big blue whale and our little blue planet.


Designing Time

Designing Time

It's Thanksgiving week, and I'm so grateful for the down time. We always joke that Q4 for TINSEL is like someone sadistic taking your blood pressure... they squeeze until you can feel your own blood pumping through your veins, and just when you think you're about to pop a vessel, hisssssss, and some of that pressure is released. Thanksgiving week is that slow hissing release. 

So, of course, I lock myself in the ceramics studio. Wanted to go away for the week since it's the only time we'll get any type of reprieve until Christmas... and the end of year holidays have a way of bringing its own, shiny type of pain. Since going abroad this time didn't seem feasible, I began looking into pottery and meditation retreats upstate, then realized, I can do that here. I have my studio membership, so I can be in that studio 24/7, if I wanted. The only thing I'd have to do is consciously make time to be alone, instead of filling it with work, meetings, catch-up dates, and all the stress that comes with it. Time for that quiet little hissing release...

Studio days are always so refreshing, and I've learned that you have to design your time there. Just like everything else in life, there's a flow that naturally makes sense. I design my time every day, to make sure that I'm scheduling tasks and meetings that naturally fit with how my energy levels vary during the days and evenings. Also, clumping quick, low-brainpower tasks (like emails) are an easy way of using up loose ends of time (like 30 - 60 minutes), while saving larger chunks of time for more heavy-duty brain functions like design, strategy, and predicting the future. (These tasks are best attempted over 2 - 4 hour chunks of time.)

The ceramics studio is the same. Usually, you've got a few batches of pieces that are in different phases of the process, and there's a natural flow to what makes sense in the studio, depending on where the clay is at. Minimum time spent with any one studio visit should be around 2 hours, especially if you want to throw. Here's how I flow with the clay:

STEP 1: CHECK FOR NEWLY FIRED PIECES.

Newly fired pieces are like new little presents. It's always exciting to see what the kiln spits out, and it doesn't always turn out how you'd expect. That's what I love about the firing phase: you have to surrender to the unexpectedness of the elements. It's all fire and air at this point, and that volatile mixture can yield something beautiful, or it can destroy a piece you've painstakingly worked on for months. The faceted bowls I tried last week came out, and they're gorgeous as unglazed bisque pieces. White on white, and the shadows are so pretty. This means that I can gear up for glazing today, so I'll take that into consideration as I inspect the other pieces. (Also, glazing is my least favorite part of the process, so knowing I have to glaze today is bittersweet. Excited to get to that final phase before the finished pieces and eager to get it over with. But also, ugh–I have to glaze today.)

STEP 2: CHECK IF PIECES ARE DRY ENOUGH FOR TRIMMING.

Trimming is generally my favorite part of the process. The clay is leather-hard at this point. Still pliable, but strong enough to retain its shape with gentle handling. Sometimes, the clay isn't stable enough and still too wet to turn upside down and trim, so they'll sit out, uncovered, to dry while I do other things. Today, they're almost at that ideal trimming point, so I'll leave them out for a bit and throw in the meantime. While I throw, I can think of how I want the feet to be and if I want to do any type of ornamentation on these new bowls. The faceted bowls turned out well, and those little divots were carved during the leather-hard trimming phase. So might be good to try those again on these larger pieces when they dry a bit more.

STEP 3: THROW.

Throwing is the most fun phase, naturally. It's also the most time-consuming. Set-up takes a while (wedging, wedging, wedging) and so does the clean-up (wiping, wiping, and more wedging). I don't like throwing clay if I know I have to wrap up the pieces immediately after and go. The pieces are too wet to comfortably handle, so it's easy to do some damage as you wrap them up. They're still super vulnerable. Today, I've got all the time in the world, so it's best to throw in the early part of the studio day, so that you can set out the pieces to dry a bit before wrapping them up and putting them on the shelves. Today, I have trimming to do and glazing after that, so it's perfect. Throw now, trim and glaze after. 

STEP 4: TRIM.

After wedging, throwing, and setting those pieces off to the side to dry, it's time to trim, trim, trim. Lots of pieces to trim. The plates have been drying for months, and I'm excited that they're finally stable enough to flip upside down without warping or caving in on themselves. Really happy with how the shape is turning out, though. This has been what I've been chasing for a year now. Lost those plates from last year because I wasn't paying attention, and this low, low cylinder shape is so pleasant to me. 

STEP 5: MODIFY.

I had this idea to start with a thrown piece, then use the pinch technique to combine wheel-thrown and hand-built. That way, I'd be able to start with the consistency and uniformity of a wheel-thrown piece then add the nuance and charm of something that's pinched, to add variety so it all doesn't look the same. I took a look at the pieces from last week and was so happy with how they turned out that I didn't want to touch them. The surfaces are just so smooth and pleasant that I didn't want to mar them in any way. As I carefully unwrapped the bowls that were still to wet to trim, I gouged one of them with my thumb. Marred. Guess that settled that then. So, I started to pinch the piece that I clumsily poked and pinched it all the way around, thinning the walls of the bowl as evenly-uneven as I could. This piece was still too wet to do the same faceted finish from last week, and also, the walls were too thin to make that happen without carving a hole straight through it. Here's how it turned out. Still on the fence about it, but it's a good experiment. Måns has lovingly nicknamed it my Hippie Bowl.

STEP 6: GLAZE.

Time to glaze. This is one of those tasks that you always think will be quick, but it's prudent to save about 45 minutes - 60 minutes for glazing, if you've got 4 pieces. Rushing this process is going to end in disaster, and this is the last step before a finished piece, so stakes are high. It's a very tedious process, which is why it's my least favorite part. Although, more and more, I'm growing to like it. You have to be very deliberate and very present for glazing, almost as present as you have to be for throwing and trimming. One wrong move with the wax resist, and that's a bald spot on your bowl. Not cute. During this part, it's also important to give the glaze some time to dry, especially when you're layering with a couple of different colors, like I am. So, after the first dip (in glossy white), I set them on the counter to dry a bit while I start to clean up the wheel area and inspect the other pieces some more. After about 10 - 15 minutes of drying on the counter, I'll clean off the feet (where the wax resist is doing its thing), and dip it a second time into the blue glaze. More drying time while I clean and wrap up the other pieces, and back to cleaning it off and making sure I've got enough clearance around the foot to ensure the pieces don't stick to the kiln when the glaze runs. I take tons of photos during this phase because I like to see exactly how runny the glazes are. Some run more than others, and it also depends on which two you layer on top of each other. The Ocean Cups that I've made are only dipped at the top, for a couple of centimeters, and the finished pieces are covered in blue for much more than that. It's fun to see how the drips turn out after a kiln firing. Again with the kiln, it doesn't always turn out as you'd expect. 

STEP 7: WRAP UP AND DOCUMENT.

While the bowls are drying from their 2nd coat of glazing, I clean up the wheel area and wrap up the pieces. Documenting is always important, not just for these journal entries, but also so I know which pieces I've got. In a public studio, sometimes things get shuffled, and sometimes, you just simply forget what you've been working on, so the photos help me recalibrate every time I'm back in the studio: to see which pieces were left to dry, which pieces were trimmed and probably ready for firing, and which pieces have been fired and are waiting to come out from the kiln. Now that I'm figuring out my process and getting more methodical about how I approach the wheel, it's also fun for me to look back at the data so far. For example, plates take FOREVER to dry (it's just an eternal process...), and if you try and dry them quicker than they're ready, they'll simply crack in two. (Plates are temperamental and dramatic.)

Also fun to look back and see how a piece has evolved, from clump of wedged clay to mud that's little better than a puddle to bone dry bisque-fired all the way to finished, glossy, faceted bowl.

Photoshoot & Processing

Photoshoot & Processing

Getting Braver

Getting Braver

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