C is for Clay – The Handmade Alphabet

C is for Clay – The Handmade Alphabet
03/30/2019 Rachel
C is for Clay - Clay Lick Creek Pottery, thrown bowls and cups, leather hard
Rachel Biel working with clay, nun. 1988

Rachel Biel working with clay, nun. 1988

Photo at the top: Clay Lick Creek Pottery

I worked with clay for three years and it was one of the most fulfilling times of my life!  There is nothing quite like clay as it has so many qualities that allow for vast possibilities in terms of the material itself. Basic stages:

Slip: Watered down to a muddy consistency, clay can resemble frosting or pudding. It can be extruded using tools similar to what cake decorators use. Add stains to it to color it, paint it on and etch into it, revealing the clay body’s color. Use it as glue to join two pieces, like a handle to a cup. Create all kinds of surface textures.

Wet: Now the clay is malleable, like dough. Roll it out to create slabs. Cut them and shape them into cylinders or any three dimensional shape. Make a ball and throw it on a wheel.

Leather Hard: The clay is harder and can be carved. Native Americans who use coil building to create their pots smooth the surface with a flat stone or spoon to “burnish” it. This compresses the cells together and retains a shiny finish even after it has been fired.

Bone Dry: The clay has dried and can crack or break as the moisture has all evaporated. It can still be painted with stains and glazes. Scratch into it or sand it.  Time for the firing!

Bisque: The clay has been fired and is now functional as a hard, durable surface. Many artists use underglazes and stains before a firing and then do a second firing with a clear glaze to finish off the piece.

I used to do a lot of mixing, showing the clay body in some places, while using bright colors and shiny glazes in others. Several of our members use a technique called majolica (ma-hall-ick-a) which was perfected in Spain and Italy under the Moorish influence in the 1400’s.  Some history. The process uses a white glaze first and that is stained on top of it. The two bond during the firing and this process looks more like watercolors. There are many, many other techniques that can be employed to add color and designs to a piece.


C is for Clay - Majoleeka cups getting painted, majolica technique.

Majoleeka cups getting painted, majolica technique.

These properties found in clay made it extremely attractive as a material all through our recorded history. Some societies, like China, perfected the clay bodies and firing temperatures to create porcelain, a light and tough, sometimes translucent clay that accepts a great deal of manipulation. Fine, light pottery developed, representing nobility and wealth, while it slowly made its way into the cupboards of the gentry. See some examples on Wikipedia.

In our more recent history, large “houses” became famous for their specific lines and designs, many of which sprang out of the Arts and Crafts movement of the late 1800’s into the mid 1900’s.  Suzan Capillo of Botanic2Ceramic finds great inspiration in this period and brings her own interests of the natural world into the mix.


Botanic2Ceramic Mission Style Plates

Botanic2Ceramic Mission Style Plates

British Pathé is a wonderful video resource of historical clips that have been restored and salvaged into a visual library of topics, including many handmade ones.  Their search results for pottery on YouTube.  


Some monks:

Chinese Porcelain:


And, of course, we are just talking about decorative pottery here…  Think about how clay has shaped our world?  All of the buildings, sidewalks, architectural ornamentation, tile work…


The handmade brick:

(Did that make you tired?)


From the basic brick, clay rises in stature when in tile form, embedded ornamental surfaces that serve both function and adornment. The masters of mosaics and tile work are found in the Islamic world boasting many of the world’s architectural wonders.


Handmade Tile and Mosaics:

Marrakesh is one place where you can see clay at its finest!


Joys and challenges as a ceramic artist

One of the things about clay ….  it breaks. Wood has much more resilience and shares many of the ornamental qualities you can achieve with clay. Marble and stone are more durable, but heavy and tough to work. The ceramic artist must learn to expect the unexpected and to roll with the punches. The bust I worked on in the picture at the top didn’t make it through the firing. One of the breasts exploded! And, when we do festivals, there are always potential disasters waiting to happen. Once I was next to a woman who was selling garments and one of her customers tripped, lost her balance and fell into my tent, knocking down shelves of bowls and pottery. Luckily, they fell on grass and only a couple pieces broke. There are always storms to deal with and displays and packaging have to be well thought out. Shipping clay is also expensive for the customer, so it is a challenge to sell both in festivals and online.

I asked some of our clay members to share a bit of what they love and what they find challenging.


Clay Lick Creek Pottery

Karen Fiorino

C is for Clay - Clay Lick Creek Pottery Nature Themes

Clay Lick Creek Pottery Nature Themes

What I love the most is how I feel connected to the earthy material that clay is. It’s a media that if I mess up while still unfired, I can recycle over and over. In addition, I’m able to recycle the scraps of my trimming, making plate after bowl after mug, from the original clay straight from the bag. I also love how I create 3-D canvases for me to decorate with all the patterns in my head. I have a hang up with the 2-D blank page, and the clay blanks negate that feeling – at least for me. I also love the idea that I’m creating usable art. I feel that one should have something of beauty to eat from and everyone eats and drinks, thus the idea of having something pretty to use.

My biggest challenge is trying to balance the time to create the new ideas that I have in my head with the old favorites that are my biggest sellers in my repertoire. Another large challenge for me is to make myself find the time to do other things and step out of the studio from time to time to find the ideas that pushes my creativity forward.

Karen’s latest idea:  Bacteria Series


Clay Lick Creek Pottery bacteria series

Clay Lick Creek Pottery bacteria series


Clay Lick Creek Pottery bacteria series, fired

Clay Lick Creek Pottery bacteria series, fired



Sue Capillo

Botanic2Ceramic Leaf Plates

Botanic2Ceramic Leaf Plates


Everyone has their “zen” time, doing something they love. Mine is working with clay. Time slips away when my hands are working in porcelain or stoneware. I used to be a wheel thrower and loved that when I was younger, but I evolved into hand building during the last 20 or so years. I prefer the slower pace that hand building gives me. I can work on a piece, wrap it up and come back to it day after day for months if I choose.

TIME is my greatest challenge!
I work 25 hours a week at a college as a ceramic studio technician. This means I load and fire kilns, make glazes, organize, clean and generally keep the students and faculty happy. I also babysit my active 2 year old granddaughter 2 days a week. I love both those jobs, but between them I’m busy over 50 hours a week. My ceramics get slotted in any available time that I have left. Even though I am busy everyday from 7 AM to 11 PM, I would not change a thing.


Botanic2Ceramic frog handle mugs, leather hard.

Botanic2Ceramic frog handle mugs, leather hard.




Karen Baker


Majoleeka Chicken and Eggs Tray

Majoleeka Chicken and Eggs Tray

What I love about working in clay is that there are so many directions you can go with making. Just pick a type of clay, decide what that clay will become and how to make that creation a collaboration of who you are, and what you want to communicate. I spend some time in learning about techniques and materials so that I can get the best and desired results. I have been painting most of my imagery for the last 30 years. A lot of whimsical sentimental subjects. I will continue to do that and explore more three dimensional imagery. After taking a week long workshop at Arrowmont that allowed me to push myself into learning about making a sculptured, self portrait bust, my mind is still turning the information over and over.

The challenge for me is mostly having enough space to spread out all that I want to do. So I work in stages. I think it slows me down a bit. That could be bad but it could also be good. My philosophy is: With what I have now, what can I do?  Just being practical with a sense of aesthetics and design sense.

Majoleeka Bust

Majoleeka bust from class Karen took at Arrowmont.


Keepers of History

Collectors play an important role both in supporting living artists and in preserving the past. Unfortunately, the trend seems to point to a disinterest in the past as key hubs like Santa Fe struggle to survive in the face of an aging population that dies off or seeks to downsize. Younger generations don’t seem to have the same love for the story and the art as there was in the 70’s and 80’s. There is also a tension between the abuse of history, of a shame and hesitation related to all of the plundering and theft that happened from the Victorian times to the present, where the indigenous, tribal and village craft is valued in the market, but not in its context. We see these people speaking up in defiance, pointing to cultural appropriation, asking for acknowledgement and royalties, so we tread in this field with trepidation and care.




Dennis Brining is one of the keepers who has a passion for both the product and the people. He has amassed a tremendous collection available for purchase on Etsy and tells the story, in depth, of each piece. He has traveled the world, supported many causes, and continues to give back to the indigenous community that he represents, largely in the American SouthWest.


Acoma Pot with Deer, collected by CulturalPatina

Acoma Pot with Deer, collected by CulturalPatina


Dennis talks about what this path has meant to him:


Dennis Brining of CulturalPatina studying one of his pots.

Dennis Brining of CulturalPatina studying one of his pots.

Culturalpatina strives to find only the best, historic, vintage and newly made Pueblo pottery. I might look for days going over collections offered to me, or that are for sale from multiple sources from around the world before I find pieces that meet my standards. I only acquire pieces that are in near perfect condition, no matter how old. If they have cracks or chips I am not interested in adding them to my extensive collection.

Once I acquire a piece, my interest is in educating the public that follow me from around the world, as to the culture, artist, provenance or process involved in making the piece. So few people really know how much work goes into making the pieces that I collect. The majority of the folks that follow me, like culturalpatina for taking the time to do this for every piece in the collection. This is considered the provenance of the piece as it continues to change hands in the future. So, I not only become the collector, but the curator for the pieces. My love for pottery started when I was in the Indiana Jones phase of my life, collecting historic pieces of Kumeyaay pottery in Baja and Southern California and continues for selected cultures from around the world.




If you ever get a chance to work with clay, do try it! I think it is very healing to do any creative act, but there is something special about clay. I met a nun once who had a workshop in Chicago where she worked with mentally ill people. They met daily in a studio and created the most amazing work! They were quiet and concentrated deeply. There were all kinds of one-eyed monsters, angels, and strange creatures that came out of these troubled minds…  I read once that if you can name the pain, it becomes less and that is what was happening with them, an exorcism of sorts.


Support handmade!

I recently read this article: Arts Sector Contributed $763.6 Billion to U.S. Economy—More Than Agriculture or Transportation

This includes the movie industry, I believe, but there is no doubt that having a healthy creative economic sector brings life to a community in a way that mass produced factory products just can’t. If you have the means, buy art. If you have the time, learn something and make something.  🙂
Art makes the world come alive!

Artizan Made is a collective of handmade shops. We welcome studio artists, ethical vintage dealers and fair trade groups. Visit our Member Profiles to see our other talent and if you are interested in joining us, learn more here.

Visit our Ceramics Section in our Market to see more clay. Most of our shop items link over to the member shops on either Etsy or their own sites. We do have a few members who use our cart to sell their work.

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