June brought the beginning of finals and critiques for the students of Alfred University and the associated New York State College of Ceramics. Studios were flying with clay scraps, glaze conundrums, and creative quandaries. Study groups coagulated.
In the kiln room of the Ceramics School, clipboards were attached to forty kilns of various fuels, sizes, and atmospheres. The schedules on lined paper, listed the dates and time of the ceramic artists who would load, fire, and unload their thesis show or undergrad gallery exhibit. Posted notes on these boards from students, begged for this kiln on that date and this time. Many lines were crossed out and new names written, often dependent on the relationship, regard for artistic content or craftsmanship. Talent or knowing the right people could propel an artist far, in many ways, at the New York State College of Ceramics.
Waiting at the entrance to the ceramics library to return a book, Jennifer looked down at the carrel. It was a wheeled cart, of birch wood, holding books for re-shelving. She reached down and picked up the top volume, “Schematics of Geological Upheavals” by Milton Uershank. Pushing it aside, she unearthed, “Gladding and Mc Bean – Architectural Ceramics.” Placing her book for return under her arm, Jennifer picked it up. Reaching the checkout desk, she returned her due book and checked out Gladding and Mc Bean.
Wow, she thought, with my architectural studies at The Evergreen State College and my education here, I could be Gladding and Mc Bean all over again. In an appropriately equipped facility I could make parts of buildings – tile, toilets, fountains, sinks! In order to make those I would need more engineering courses on raw materials and firing science.
The wheels turned in Jennifer’s mind. Before she walked home she searched for the jigger in the engineering hall. A ha! It was by the plaster labs. Discovering the vacuume pug mill chamber, she found a metals engineering student who would make fittings for various sizes of tile to fit onto its mouth. Her price for this service – a dozen large beer mugs.
The next morning before studio, Jennifer retrieved fifty pounds of high temperature porcelainous clay in two, twenty –five pound bags from the supply store, cutting and wedging it into five, fifteen-pound mounds and five one pound balls. Throwing a fifteen pounder onto her wheel, she wrestled it to center. Achieving balance, she felt how the clay connected to her solar plexus. Once Jennifer’s mind had traveled to her belly and her hands began manipulations, she was in the zone.
Not thinking, feeling her hands on the clay, pushing in and pulling out. Slowly sensing the thickness, plasticity, and weight of the mass between her fingers and palms.
A large bowl was forming, thinning upwards, ten inches high and fourteen inches wide, thicker at the base. Judging with her gut, the cool, slippery, whirling cylinder, Jennifer rippled the clay through her stiffened fingers. Walls rising and widening, opening into her imagined form. She tamped the rim and slowed the wheel, regarding its profile. With a flat, rubber, rib tool she bore gently down on the edge, producing a two- inch wide, slightly slanted rim for counter support.
Not bad, she thought. A drain cup could be turned for the bottom. And an overflow tube attached over the drain holes she would punch through the sink walls when they were leather hard. O.K. do another few so I can make mistakes.
After creating a total of four sink bowls successfully out of five, Jennifer began throwing five overflow drain cups, and then began on the tubes. Making them ten inches high and four inches wide. It was more difficult than she thought. After a couple collapsed, she wiped the clay slop off her hands, washed them at the sink in her cubicle, and took a breather. Walking past Roxy’s cubicle, the artist, in blue and white striped overalls, bent over her project, red hair in a messy topknot, scoring slabs with a fork to construct some wild and crazy idea she was known for.
“Hey Rox,” stage whispered Jennifer.
All art students knew it was important to wait until a creator was finished with a stroke, piece, or movement, before getting their attention. A rowdy greeting while a ceramicist was working at the wheel could shock them into ruining their whirling piece. Though most of Roxy’s friends ignored that respectful act when Jennifer was working and demanded her attention for an important Roxy communication.
Roxy looked up, fork in hand, “Hey, fire queen.”
“Howdy, I need to make a ten-inch high, four-inch wide tube. Any ideas off the wheel?”
Roxy thought for a couple minutes, “ Hand built? Use the slab maker. The pressure would solve the platelet alignment, no cracking problem. Or… extrude it! You know Pete Colman in the graduate department? He’s extruding clay tubes for musical instruments. Just returned from the Amazon on a Fulbright. Fascinated with pan pipes and long trumpets.”
“Where can I find him?” asked Jennifer.
But she’d just made the acquaintance of a tool and die maker in engineering. He might have a plate for a tube extrusion in the vacuum pug mill chamber. It may be more reliable to deal with an engineer than an artist.
“Oh, his studio is next to Judith Salomon’s, beyond the salt pile.”
Hoo, boy howdy, Jennifer thought.
Walking along the beige painted concrete block hallways of Invers Hall, Jennifer scanned the studios and storage spaces of the graduate students – the giant glaze room with tidy bins and barrels of ingredients on one side and across the passageway, the salt pile, twenty-five pound bags of salt for the salt kiln in the middle of the huge room for firing. A few renegades stocked a smaller pile of ten-pound baking soda bags nearby. Their kiln was built among the circular arrangement of firing units in the round room.
When salt kilns were fired, one-pound packets, wrapped in small paper bags, were thrown into four special ports of the structure. At 1956º Fahrenheit, they ignited and immediately turned into vaporous sodium and chlorine gas by the catalytic heat, toxic fumes exiting quickly into the stack above the kiln. The sodium wafting lazily through the heat, seeking the silica in the clay body of the pots, to form a glossy covering with occasional luscious peach and pink fire licks.
Soda firers were aware of the growing environmental movement and the hazards of chlorine. Which killed scores of seventeenth century German potters. These young ceramicists invented a high temperature, hi silica bodied, two-cup receptacle. Positioned beside the burner ports, a pressurized unit sprayed the liquefied soda, Na CO2 , into the fire from the burner. Carbon dioxide, harmlessly exited into the air as the sodium danced, making its way to the silica molecule for sublime effect.
Jennifer stopped in front of Pete’s studio noticing the wall mounted extruder box and turned towards him. His back was towards her, hunkering over a book in front of him.
Jennifer cleared her throat and said softly, “Howdy, Pete.”
He turned and looked at the curly headed, clay spattered, bespectacled woman in front of him.
“Speak up, I worked in a planning mill to afford college. Those machines cut my hearing in half.”
Jennifer regarded him more closely. A dark mopped head, with a blue denim work shirt and jeans, Pete impressed her as a workingman from another era.
“I’m a student in the undergraduate department of ceramics. I need to extrude a clay tube three inches in diameter and ten or more inches long. Roxy recommended you.”
Pete smiled wide, “You know Chris Guston?”
“A little,” said Jennifer thinking of her dinner at Roxy and Sabine’s.
“Well what’s your pleasure?”
“I need a clay tube, at least twelve inches long, for a project I’m creating. I notice you have an extrusion box for making those. What diameters and thicknesses are your metal dies?”
“You know die making?” Pete raised one eyebrow.
“I know of it.” Jennifer countered.
“What do you need?”
Jennifer was surprised at his directness, “Extruded from my clay body, two, ten-inch tubes, three-inches in diameter, three-eights-of-an inch thick?”
“Can do,” Pete responded, “let’s go.”
“Now?” responded Jennifer.
“Get your clay.”
Jennifer ran to her studio, grabbing a bag of clay, lugging it back down the halls. She put her material into the extruder. Pete put pressure on the lever. Out of the long metal box, extruded, a long clay tube of her desired dimensions.
Jennifer‘s mouth was wide open, “Where’s the canvas board I can put it on to keep it straight?”
“OOPS.” Pete lunged for long boards he kept for his projects.
Jennifer scrapped the first one. They worked in tandem, guiding the long clay tubes onto canvas boards and loading them onto benches.
“Thank you Pete. What do I owe you?” asked Jennifer.
“Do your architectural do-dads and I’ll be happy.”
Jennifer looked at him in shock, “How do you know I’m doing architectural fixtures?”
“Saw you throwing the other day as I visited with Roxy.”