Every once in a while I get a hankering for being crafty. For the most part I lean towards the “soft arts” of crochet and needlepoint. After this cold, hard winter we’ve been having, what I really wanted was some cold, hard, breakable ceramics to decorate.
My history with ceramics was limited to whatever Linn-Mar provided in school art classes and one instance when I was six.
My mom took my sister and me to a local ceramics studio. It was a multi-visit process. First, we picked out our pieces, then we sanded and cleaned the edges with weird shaped tools. Then we glazed the pieces and returned at a later date to pick them up. My Mom picked a large pumpkin and my sister and I each picked out small Jack o Lanterns. For several years these items were our staple Halloween decorations…until the day I dropped my sister’s Jack o Lantern. For some reason I was carrying the Jack o Lanterns outside and dropped hers on the front step. It broke. Into many, many pieces. Given that my sister and I were sworn enemies, it was assumed that I had done it on purpose. I didn’t. At least, I don’t think I did. Maybe I did. No, I don’t think I did. Let’s go with that. In any case, the loss was really mine because when my Mom decided to get rid of her pumpkin, like, 20 years later, guess who got it…that’s right, my sister. Now she has Mom’s giant, perfectly glazed pumpkin that she can display in her home year after year. And since it’s just a pumpkin, it’s suitable for displaying from mid-September until after Thanksgiving.
Here’s what I get to display:
So, I’ve been wanting to try my hand at ceramics again, if only to redeem myself from my previous clumsiness.
I didn’t have to go far to sate my ceramic appetite. Potters Obsession (1941 51st St NE) is Cedar Rapids’ only ceramic studio (or the only one I could find anyway). My crafting accomplice, Mos Steph, and I arrived at 11:00 am on a Saturday morning. On a previous solo scouting trip to Potters Obsession I had discovered a hand written sign on the door with their hours for the week. It appears that during the week their hours vary, but on the weekend they do not. Either way, it’s best to call ahead.
When we arrived we were greeted with the not unpleasant faint smell of paint and a chipper employee who offered to show us the ropes. The “studio” is large and bright, with about a dozen 4 person tables already set with water dishes, paper towels and a “helpful hints card”.
The first step is to pick what you want to paint. The west wall of the studio is lined with shelves stocked with unpainted bisque items. Bisque is a term used to describe a greenware, or type of clay item, that has been fired in a kiln at about 1000° C. This firing causes a chemical (and physical) change in the clays composition, but leaves it strong, durable and porous enough to be glazed.
The variety of items was impressive and ranged from the practical (dinner plates, platters, ice cream and cereal bowls, sushi trays, tiles of various sizes, cookie jars, utensil holders, vases, candy dishes and trinket boxes) to decorative (frogs, unicorns, dogs, cats, cheerleaders, football helmets, magic wands, penguins, turtles, horses, Christmas ornaments, Halloween items and many more).
The prices of the items varies, but were clearly posted. The small animals, quite popular with children, are $6.00 while the cookie jar is $28.00. Not included in this price is a $7.00 “studio fee” which covers the glazes and other materials.
Unlike my previous experience, all the bisque pieces are ready to go. There is no sanding or fixing rough edges involved, simply wipe the bisque with a wet sponge and glaze away!
If you find yourself in need of inspiration there are many items displayed all over the studio, and samples on the shelves of undecorated bisque too. Also, a whole array of idea books and an entire wall of finished items waiting to be picked up that could help to ignite your creative juices.
The glazes for painting the bisque are displayed on a large magnetic board, in their finished and fired form. Glaze goes on matte and sinks into the bisque, but when fired in a kiln turns a deeper color and hardens to a glassy finish. There is a significant difference between the color of the glaze out of the bottle and the color it will be after firing. All the glazes that Potters Obsession (P.O.) uses are standard undercoat glazes but there are dozens of other glazes and glazing methods. For undercoat glaze it takes about 3 coats to become opaque.
The suggested P.O. process involves writing down what glaze colors you want to use by their number and keeping that handy. Then you grab a tile with 6 little circles on it and squirt the glaze from the bottles onto the tile. P.O. highly discourages the wasting of the glaze and a small sign even warns that you will be charged for wasted glaze. Mos Steph likened it to many of the local Chinese food buffets who like to post passive aggressive signs regarding food waste.
Right away I could see the importance of writing down the glaze numbers. On the horse and on large chair we both quickly ran out of glaze and had to refill our trays. Even after a few minutes of drying the glaze color radically changed and with about 5 different shades of brown offered I would have been screwed had I not noted the number. Also, this is where the rule about the amount of glaze you start with was worthless. Steph had to fill a whole tray with little green dots many, many times in order to cover the bisque chair three times.
Now, I want to make a few things perfectly clear. I don’t really like horses. I’ve only ever ridden a horse once but over I have developed a highly technical socio-anthropological classification called “Horse People.” I can usually pick them out just by looking at them. It’s a gift. More than once in conversation I have said someone looks like “a horse person” and this has nothing to do with them looking *like* a horse (unlike my sister’s “horse dance” in which she does look like a horse prancing) but more that they look like the type of person who would enjoy and own horses. An excellent example would be:
On the Dotzenrod side of my family tree there are many horse lovers, horse owners and horse riders. My stepfather owns a horse, Memphis, as do several of my uncles and cousins. I couple of them even look like “horse people” and it suits them very nicely. Last November my Mom was riding a horse, lost control of it, fell off and broke her back. I thought it would be funny/cute to paint a ceramic horse for my Mom and stepfather. I tried to paint it to look like Memphis but my memories of him a vague so I just winged it, giving my horse a white patch on his chest and on one foot, just like my sweet pug Paxton has.
It very quickly became clear, as I worked on the horse, that I was being entirely too ambitious with my bisque choices. Given the detail that I would want to give the octopus and the unicorn, along with the 3 coats they would require for each glaze color I knew that I’d be there until closing time. I decided to abandon the other animals in favor of a large cereal bowl.
Throwing caution, and possible dirty looks from the employee, to the wind, I brought my glaze choices to the table. For the outside of the bowl I picked pink and for the inside I picked the same pink color morphing into green. I found it easiest to squirt the green glaze right into the bowl and brush it around. After my 3 coats I decided to jazz the bowl up a bit by pouring the black glaze directly over the rim of the bowl and letting it drip organically. I used a brush to even out the glaze around the rim and to give the drips additional coats.
One cool thing that P.O. offers is the use of tiny little bottles of glaze with pin sized applicators. These can be used for very find detail work, making near perfect polka dots and lettering. I used one of these little bottles to help with my drips.
Mos Steph had picked the big comfy chair bank for her husband who is OCD about his own big reclining Grandpa chair, and she used 3 colors of glaze to create a plaid pattern on the chair. She did all the stripes by hand but only gave them 1 coat so that they would be more subtle than bold.
She got a little creative with the T-Rex, making it more like a T-Steph, complete with signature headband, cardigan sweater, flip flops and pretty painted toenails.
After all the glazing comes the hardest part, the wait. P.O. keeps your piece to fire in their kiln and a pick up date of about a week later. We had to bid farewell to our masterpieces and hope that our layers of glaze were adequate. We assured my horse and T-Steph that they would not end up abandoned like so many of their brethren.
Probably a horse person.
Feeling extra anxious, when Friday rolled around I gave Potter’s Obsession a jingle, hoping that maybe, just maybe, our pieces were done early. Score! They were! Superfro and I hightailed it over there and I was stunned to see how awesome all the pieces turned out. They were shiny and bright and I really enjoyed showing them to Superfo.
Here is the horse. The white patch on his chest came out really nice, as did his ears and hooves. The dark spot om his face wasn’t quite as blended as I would have liked but the rest of him makes up for it.
I like everything about the cereal bowl except for the blending from the pink to the green on the inside. I won’t be trying that again. I love the drips though. I think I’ll be making some matching items on further trips to Potter’s Obsession.
If any of this ceramics thing sounds fun to you and you would like to check out the Potter’s Obsession, please let me know, I’d love to tag along!