Sunday, September 24, 2017

The elusive Scotch Bonnet and the elusive kitchen-gadget pot

Several years ago, reading up on seashells for a trip to Ocracoke, I found multiple websites that mentioned the "elusive Scotch Bonnet." The Scotch Bonnet is a kind of sea snail, and the adjective "elusive" regularly accompanies the shell online--as though "the elusive Scotch Bonnet" is an actual subspecies rather than simply a rare find. Thus, when we go to Ocracoke, I scan the beaches not just for Scotch Bonnet shells, but for the Elusive Scotch Bonnet in particular. I've never found a whole one, for obvious reasons.

A broken Scotch Bonnet shell reveals interesting information. Unbroken shells continue to elude me.
I've been thinking of the elusive Scotch Bonnet lately as I quest the elusive Swoosh/Zigzag. I know what I'm looking for, but I can't always tell if I've found it.

When I first started making zigzag pots, I found the designs pretty exciting, in part because I hadn't seen them anywhere else, and because the spirals told a fascinating (at least to me) story about the physics of the making process, involving torque, friction, stretching, spin handedness, homeomorphic transformation. Making them better meant honing the most basic of throwing skills while focusing intently on form and proportion. Sometimes I managed to make what I thought was a particularly pleasing piece, e.g.:

2013 or thereabouts
I remember liking several things about the pot in the above photo. I liked that it was stretched so thin that, given the volume, it seemed to hardly weigh anything. I liked the balance between slipped and unslipped clay, and that the slipped layer was thin enough and the slices shallow enough that the zigzag stripes barely stuck out above the surface of the pot. I liked the curve of the bottom, the slight inward tilt of the neck, and the proportion between the neck and the base. Looking back at it now, I appreciate the openness of the stripes at the bottom, since it's hard to spread the zigzags apart at the base.

I'm becoming either more aware of what I'm aiming for or more obsessively nit-picky; I'm not sure how to recognize the difference. I suspect it isn't in my best interest to write this publicly, but I see now-familiar defects in that pot that I don't remember noticing before. Or perhaps "Defects" isn't the right word. The phrase "artifacts of the making process that I may or may not eventually avoid" is more accurate. What do I want to change, and why? What should I just learn to accept--or possibly, to embrace? Is an unbroken Scotch Bonnet necessarily more beautiful or interesting than a broken one?

Kitchen gadget pots are still among my favorite pots to make, because they're continually challenging, and every stretch-torque-transformation yields a one-of-a-kind surprise. But what's the difference between an exciting process and an exciting pot?

In trying to evaluate some recent work, I poked around online for info on self critique. I found this article by Simon Levin particularly helpful: Focusing on what I'm aiming for helps me to evaluate the pots I end up with, to recognize fortuitous detours, and to think about what I might try differently the next time--because the quest for kitchen-gadget pots that are just right never ends. (I'm certain that if I ever find an Elusive Scotch Bonnet, my immediate next step will be to start looking for another one.)

Here's my review of three recent pots:

Exhibit A:

Things I like about the pot: the gently rolling belly swoosh; the narrowness of the white slip lines compared to the wider black spaces; the way the lid mirrors, on top of the pot, the slope of the curve at the base; and the diameter of the base being roughly the same as the diameter of the unslipped clay at the top of the pot. I also like that I can see the end of the sweep of the cake-decorating comb toward the top right.

Things to improve next time: the change in groove angle about a third of the way up from the bottom, which creates a darker section between the brighter middle and bottom; the mismatch between the straightish swoosh in the the top sixth of the pot and the wavier central swoosh. (This reminds me that I should experiment with intentional mismatches--if you can't beat 'em, join 'em.)

Things I don't know yet if I mind or don't mind: the white slip swoosh line in the middle that disappears into a wider stripe of unslipped clay. Maybe that's just the way it is sometimes--an organic look--and I should embrace it--although I know I'm going to keep working on it.

Here's the same pot from a different angle:

I like the vertical line where the starts and ends of the swooshes meet--although the changes in groove angles makes this meeting look unintentionally sectioned and busy. I like the curve and proportions of the pot both with the lid off and with the lid on.

I'm not sure what to make of the bubble that stretched out and popped about halfway up the pot. At first, I didn't like that it disrupts the flow of the swoosh, but I love that it popped without making holes in the pot, that it simply shoved the swoosh lines out of the way rather than ripping across them, that it hugs the surface, and that it records what happens to a bubble as a pot is thrown and stretched without the surface being compressed. It derives from an actual defect (a bubble), but the result is pretty cool, and I probably couldn't replicate it even if I tried. Does that make it fortuitous, yet still a defect? Or simply fortuitous?

I can't fit my hand through the neck, which is potentially impractical for a functional pot. At the same time, it sure is fun to make narrow-necked pots.

Exhibit B:

I think this pot is fine, if a little heavy (which you can't see) and not very dramatic. I like the proportions, and that the lid extends the form by roughly mirroring the bottom of the pot. When I make these pots, any unevenly thick spots in the cylinder get pushed out into lumpy bulges on the exterior, especially at the base; I can see a slight bulge bottom right. I'd prefer the lip to be a little thicker, with a more intentional finish. Overall, I'd like shallower grooves and more black showing through the white. In part, this means making the white stripes narrower, but I'm wondering if the depth of the grooves goes part and parcel with how this particular clay body holds together/stretches; I can't stretch it anywhere near as thinly as the speckled brown clay shown in the first photo above.

I can't fit my hand inside this one either.

I think this pot looks more energetic in person than in the photo.

Exhibit C:

I like the narrowness of the blue stripes and the variation in the width of the black spaces; I especially like that some of the blue stripes resisted pulling apart (something I used to see as a negative but now enjoy).

As in Exhibit B, I could have given the rim here a more intentional finish. The unslipped foot is a little uneven. The diameter of the base and the lip match nicely when the lid is off, but the lid itself looks a little wide relative to the base. I like the shape of the cap lid, but it could fit more snugly.

Aaaaannd...I can't fit my hand inside this one either.


I wrote this post a few months ago, but didn't want to publish it then, because I had submitted all three pots for consideration in a national juried show. Two were rejected. The one that made it in won an award. Which of the three was the Elusive Scotch Bonnet?

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Total eclipse roadtrip 2017

On Sunday, we drove to the mountains in western NC to view the total eclipse. We camped with friends on a hillside between Black Balsam Knob and Sam Knob. Here's a view from early Monday morning:

In the morning, C, S, and I hiked down into the meadow below our campsite...

...and then up Sam Knob to scope out the view, thinking it could be a good spot for all of us to watch the eclipse. There were already lots of people on Sam Knob--hiking up, hiking down, camping, picking huckleberries, setting up telescopes, and enjoying the views.

Then we hiked back down to the meadow, and around the knob to Flat Laurel creek.

There were already lots of people at Flat Laurel Creek, hiking east, hiking west, camping, picking huckleberries, setting up telescopes, and enjoying the views.

See the ukelele slung over the hiker's shoulder?

I asked him if he was heading up to Black Balsam Knob to join the band, and he looked at me like I was from outer space. There were already lots of people up near Black Balsam Knob, playing guitars and drums and smoking weed and otherwise preparing their spiritual musical selves for the eclipse. One of the vans parked in the lot had the Pink Floyd "Dark Side of the Moon" rainbow prism painted on it.

Ultimately, we decided the best spot for viewing the eclipse was our campsite. Here's a view of the easy little tent S and I shared. My, tent technology has changed since the six-person tenting days of my childhood. See that thing floating in the air in the top left corner of the photo?

That's a butterfly. They were plentiful, thanks to abundant thistle blossoms. To pass the time between hike and eclipse, I took a couple hundred photos of butterflies and bees. Here are a few:

Note the hovering bee!

Of course, because we recreational eclipse-watchers can't spend all of the time during an eclipse watching the eclipse, I took more photos of butterflies and bees during the eclipse too.

Traffic jam

My favorite

Here are some scenes from our eclipse-watching experience. It had been on-and-off cloudy most of the morning, and the eclipse started with clouds...

...but they cleared away about 30 minutes in, giving us excellent views.

As the eclipse neared totality, the clouds closed in--as though materializing from thin air.

I like to think that we were experiencing eclipse-induced weather--i.e. that the drop in temperature changed the dew point in our humid corner of the world. That would help me feel not quite as sad that we missed seeing the Sun's corona. (I sent a message to one of the local TV weather casters to ask if that could have been the case, and will update this post if he responds.)

Then, approaching totality:

And totality: sunset colors all around the horizon, and much glee among the many viewers on our hillside. We were near the northeast edge of the totality zone, so only had about 45 seconds of night-in-day, but what an amazing 45 seconds they were!


Post totality, we enjoyed the strange light and views of the crescent Sun through the clouds:

And then the butterflies, which had disappeared as the light left, were back:

Thanks for joining us, C, E, J, R, J, J, M, and Z!

(Camping with that many friends, one might expect the occasional conversation to get a little heated. I will simply leave this here-- a reminder that I will bake a cake--or Torte--there's a forthcoming Wadlstrumpf blog post about the difference--if one of those conversationalists can come up with a pun in German that's actually funny.)

Friday, June 2, 2017


Fang (formerly FindusBabyCatBiteyBeauDrJekyllandMrHyde) is turning into a schmusiger Kater.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Sodium silicate

A few years ago, I played around a bit with sodium silicate on my pots and thought it looked "meh," so I didn't pursue it. Last month, I pulled out the congealing jarful so my class could experiment with it. Oh, what a difference a cake decorating comb makes! (I'm still feeling "meh" about the combination of sodium silicate + ravioli wheel, but will delay final judgment until the tests have been fired.)

White slip on ER

Blue slip on LL

Detail. SS was thinned with a little water; slip was heat-gunned for ease of SS application.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Because who has the time, right?

Back in 2010, I wrote about the News & Observer's coverage of Drive-thru Easter at two NC churches, and I proposed that the Chosen People keep pace with a Drive-thru Seder. That hasn't happened yet, as far as I know, but thanks to an N&O report on Drive-thru Ash Wednesday, I'm reminded that there are still 5.5 weeks for synagogues to prepare to keep up with the Joneses. "Next This year, within driving distance!"

(Revisiting those old blog posts, I am disappointed to discover that the online presence of newspaper articles is apparently less than seven years. That should teach me to write in more detail rather than rely on links, but I'm a slow learner, as this post attests.)

Monday, February 27, 2017

Fleeting camellias

This February, Durham set a new record for the greatest number of days over 80oF in the last 130 years. Our camellia bushes have responded by bursting into bloom--and then wilting in the blink of an eye. Below are some of this year's fleeting camellias, perched in non-fleeting double-walled camellia bowls.