Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Big Fish

One of the lessons I learned through my Penland experience last summer was to take advantage of the clay workshops offered closer to home--cheaper, faster, and easier to access (albeit not as scenic, and without the great food). I've taken three excellent workshops at Claymakers since then: one with Susan Feagin on screen printing and slip transfer, one with Kent McLaughlin on hand-making brushes (lovely brushes with bamboo handles and--oy--bristles cut from sanitized, neon-dyed deer tails from tackle shops; no matter how well cleaned or fluorescently colored, deer tails still feel and smell like deer tails and probably would have benefited the deer more than me); and one this past weekend with Alan Bennett on sculpting and raku-firing fish.

In about 30 hours, Alan took us from wet clammy clay to finished fired fish. We sculpted fish Saturday morning into early afternoon, encouraged them to dry in front of fans while Alan demoed glazing, and then gutted the fish from behind to thin their walls. They went directly into the electric kilns to dry, were bisque fired overnight, and remarkably came out mostly whole the next morning. We glazed and raku-fired Sunday afternoon, and everyone left with finished work by early evening. My main take-aways: how to make eyeballs and eyelids; how to sculpt a fish in under two hours; how to gut a solid form; and the knowledge that fish have eyelids, nostrils, lips, and ears. (As my friend N commented, "imagine that--it's like they have entire FACES!"; yet even with a tank full of fish at home, I'd never looked closely enough to notice anything but the lips. I now notice their nostrils, but remain unconvinced that they have eyelids.)

One of my fish--the last one I made, so the wettest on Saturday evening--cracked widthwise, from the dorsal fin through the tail and into the belly. He became my glaze test tile. I think the colors look a little too paint-by-numbers-ish, although friends in the workshop pulled out photographs of fish that have similarly discrete color transitions.

Fish two was a quick expendable extra--a whistle, to see how whistles make it through raku. The unglazed portions of clay blackened as the piece cooled outside the kiln in sawdust (when the sawdust burns, it creates a reduction atmosphere around the clay). The eyeball whites and the fangs, made from porcelain, were brushed with a solution of gerstley borate to keep them from blackening.

I saved the largest fish for last. It was the first one I made on Saturday and consequently had enough time to dry prior to bisquing that it didn't crack. I worked harder at blending the colors on this guy. It's hard to see in the photo, but there's a lovely fluid transition on the body from red to yellow to vaguely green, with no crackle on the spots and lots of crackle on the belly. The head merges from blue at the nose to greenish with hints of red and yellow at the gills.