A Love Affair with Clay: Challenges and Victories

A Love Affair with Clay: Challenges and Victories
08/20/2018 Rachel
Cheryl Wolff black pears

“We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand.” -Isaiah 64:8 (from the Bible)

I’ve always liked this verse from the Bible and after working with clay, it took on new meaning. Even though a potter does make choices about the form, clay body, function, glazes, etc, the firing process always adds an element of risk and of surprise. An air bubble may cause an explosion in the kiln, uneven clay bodies can crack, a glaze might react unexpectedly and create a beautiful new texture or color or it might even chip off. The metaphor, in my mind, means that we all start out as basic pots, but the firing process of life can make us or break us.

Those uninterested in theology will still acknowledge the importance that pottery has had in understanding our human footprint on this earth. Clay, metal and glass survived the elements over time and  provide vestiges of our past that get dug up on archaeological digs, giving us important data on what our ancestors used as their tools, food containers, perfume vials, ornaments, religious objects and so much more. One of the most fascinating discoveries, the Chinese terracotta army from the 3rd Century BC, underscores how important clay was as an art and as a core craft of the Ancient World. Over 8,000 life sized soldiers, accompanied by their horses and chariots, were created to accompany the emperor to his after-life. Each piece is unique. This is what has survived…  Imagine what other glories abounded at the time!

Terracotta Army

Terracotta Army

I worked with clay for four years back in the late 1980’s, early 90’s. Back then, we didn’t have the opportunity to sell online. We sold at festivals, through local galleries and on commission. A friend and I were both in social service and we took a class in clay as a way to relieve some of the stress we felt at work. Both of us quit our jobs and went for the artist lifestyle within months. We loved the work, the process and had a great support group of other artists who each expressed their individuality through clay in wonderful ways. There is nothing like that slippery, cool mass of earth running through your fingers and taking shape!

We worked on kick wheels and recycled our clay. Even after all of these years, the muscle below my thumb and index finger is larger on my right hand than on my left. It was huge back then, from kneading and working the clay. Working on the wheel is a full body experience, leaning, shaping, moving with what grows between your fingers. I ended up moving into building with slabs and coils, large sculptural objects in terracotta, although never as dramatic as those Chinese soldiers!

Clay is so versatile!

Depending on the water content in the clay body, it can be used in many different ways:

Greenware: Clay that hasn’t been fired yet. Even after dry, it can be thrown back into a bucket with water and become workable clay again.

Cheryl Wolff working with clay

Cheryl Wolff working with clay

Slip: Watered down to the consistency of frosting, it can be extruded in the same way and applied to create dimensional dots, lines, petals and other designs. It can be poured into molds where it will harden and take on the shape of the mold.

Plastic: The yummy place seen in Cheryl’s photo to the right. Perfect for throwing on the wheel, or it can be rolled out into a slab. At this stage, it’s easy to press designs into it. It’s soft and pliable.

Leather hard: Stiff like leather, the clay can be sliced and diced. Score the edges and add some slip and it works like glue. Build walls and structures, hard edges. Carve into it.

Bone dry: All the water has evaporated and the piece is hard and dry. It can be sanded and painted with underglazes or stains. It’s very fragile at this stage.

Bisque: Fired once. Most potters fire their work twice, applying glazes for the second firing.

working with clay nun

Me, working on a sculpture back in the early 90’s.

I often thought about all of the things we were making, our contributions to future excavations: pinch pots, ashtrays and vases…. Towards the end of my love affair with clay, I was getting into large, sculptural work that had social messages. The piece above was on voyeurism, with an indigenous woman’s torso and cartoon peeping Toms crawling around the back trying to peek at her bust. Unfortunately, one of the breasts exploded in the kiln, so I ended up gluing her back together and turned her into a nun with a fabric habit. Ha!

I loved the whole process so much! But, working with clay comes with many challenges:

Rent: Although some people do work at home in their living space, clay particles can get everywhere and it’s best to have a separate studio space. That often means paying rent somewhere.
Firing a kiln is expensive and you need to have a full load to make it worthwhile, either sharing with others or have enough of your own work ready to go.

Chemistry: I never learned the chemical or technical sides of glazing or firing. This takes the kind of brain that likes science. I liked the building and used commercial glazes, which end up being costly, so I was always dependent on other people to fire my work.

Art fairs were getting expensive and are a chunk of change to this day. Most festivals have deadlines that are often six months ahead of the show time and it’s tough to shell out the money if you are doing the starving artist routine. I also went through several natural disasters at festivals where the weather changed suddenly, storms broke out, winds knocked over shelving and hard work was shattered to pieces.

Shipping ceramics is challenging and demands adequate protective packaging which can also become a big expense and take up space. It’s heavy and often customers don’t want to spend the money on shipping costs.

Happy Clay ceramic tumblers

Happy Clay ceramic tumblers

I finally had to call it quits as did most of my friends who had a love affair with clay, although I don’t think any of us ever quit loving it. We just couldn’t make a living at it. It’s a sad state of affairs in our world where choosing the life as a maker comes with so many hurdles to overcome. I moved into textiles and love them, too. I believe that everything we learn is carried on to the next project. In fact, I believe that I learned to sew by working with clay. I was able to see in a new way when I built my sculptures and vessels and once that imprinted itself in my brain, it didn’t matter what the materials were anymore. Since then, I have found that there is a special connection between the clay and fiber world. I have found so many who do both. We all love and cherish the other traditions as well, but it seems like there are many more artists who have stepped fully into the fiber/clay world than other combinations. Every home that I have visited of a textile artist, also has ceramics prominently displayed. Perhaps wood and metal share the same synchronicity.

Vintage clay bowls from Afghanistan, Afghan Tribal Arts

Vintage clay bowls from Afghanistan, Afghan Tribal Arts

The field of contemporary ceramics has evolved into a dynamic place with a wide range of materials, techniques and lending themselves to functional and conceptual work. Our focus on Artizan Made revolves around functional work for the home, along with vintage works that celebrate our history as makers. The past always informs the present as what we do today will also inform the future. We look for ethical people who work to preserve cultural and historical craft traditions within their business practices. Afghan Tribal Arts and Hot Moon Collection both carry vintage work in clay along with metal, wood and textiles.

Hot Moon Collection African Senufo pot

Hot Moon Collection African Senufo pot

I also have a personal interest in ceramic tile and how it can be used in our homes. Perhaps it comes from growing up in Brazil where the Portuguese brought with them the wide use of tiles both inside and outside of the home. Traditional bathrooms and kitchens in Brazil are covered with tile, making them easy to clean and protecting from mold. Old colonial churches and buildings have the Portuguese style blue and white tiles depicting religious and historical scenes, but the tile business in Brazil has always had a vibrant history. Modern homes usually have some kind of decorative tile embellishing walls, murals or flooring. Most cities now have “tile museums” where salvaged tiles can be purchased for new projects. Personalizing spaces with handmade work adds so much warmth and expression!

The image below links to a Brazilian design blog posting about how to use ceramic tiles in the home. Click on it to see more images.

Casa Das Amigas post on salvaging old tiles

Casa Das Amigas post on salvaging old tiles


As you can see, my love affair with clay continues! It has been so much fun to re-connect with this world through Artizan Made! I admire the process and results immensely. I have found most potters to be patient people, often loners, but community minded. There is great pleasure in supporting this group, thinking of all the steps it takes to finish that tile, the knowledge that goes into the firing process, which glazes to use, how to keep them non-toxic, and most of all how to express a unique voice in a long line of historical imprints. When you lift that handmade mug up, raise it a bit higher as a salute to the dirty hands that made it!

Supporting our Artizan clay shops by purchasing from them means a great deal! You are helping these people pay for real costs, keeping food on their table and hopefully allowing them to thrive in what they do best. My hope is that they have the means to continue their love affair with clay without the barriers that I had. Much success to them all!


Click on the images to visit their shops!


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