Cal Poly Pomona


Karen Sullivan, Lecturer
M.F.A. Ceramics (FA)

I learned throwing from a student/descendant of the Wildenhain line, Bauhaus, which has the aesthetic that if the work is well made it should look machine made...perfect. Carved, trimmed foot rings, symmetrical forms. A specific time to handle clay when finishing a piece…in the leather hard stage, when any manipulation will have a chiseled look.

I was fortunate enough to study with Philip Cornelius, who is a magician with clay. Philip did a 5-minute teapot demo in which the teapot was thrown, assembled and finished. Inherent in this way of working is a point of view about how you want the clay to respond to your touch. The softer the clay the more you will get a trail of the makers’ hand; the act of making remains visible in the work. This path leads in an entirely new direction from the deliberate one of the Bauhaus crowd.

If you can make clay look like any material that exists, then one needs to take an aesthetic stand on your goals in the use of processes and material. Given your choices about material, the kind of clay, firing range used, which are the big choices in how one works. There is a specific vocabulary of form and ideas that leave a trail of your choices and skill.

Throwing obviously has a lot of opportunity for gesture and loose marks that are potentially inherent in the process of working. You can load your stoneware with materials that will ignite the clay. Examples are granite, chunks of bone dry, green porcelain, beach sand.  Inclusions that will erupt out of the clay when it is fired. Then fire in a charcoal kiln so the work becomes about the firing process.  Charcoal firing gets close to the look of wood firing. The work becomes a purist/Voulkous/Japanese/Bizen sensibility.

I look at a Voulkous and the materiality and the vocabulary of the clay inspire me. What clay looks like when you RIP it, what clay looks like when you slide the heel of your hand along the side of a form? How the rips/cuts/slashes show energy, the trail of the maker. How to watch the process and have the wisdom to leave the material alone to be what it is, which is clay. I get ideas when I wedge… Great things happen, as the clay folds, rotates, and moves. When working on the wheel, I use a slow kick wheel and I try to remember to stop during the making of a form and assess the developing form. I watch what happens in the making and try to decide if I can back off, become less deliberate, let go more.

Porcelain is a very different material with a different response to the hand. Handbuilding with 1/8 inch thick slabs has a different vocabulary. What the possibilities are with the selection of process is like choosing a different road home. The potential of the gesture is then a matter of the lines drawn to give substance to the form in an architectural sense. There is still the opportunity for gesture, but in a quiet, delicate, thin, sometime humorous stance that is different from stoneware.

I think the range of what is possible is tremendous. The forms that clay takes begins with the process or path chosen to get there.

So one begins with choices about material…then there are the tough choices about
what to make and what ideas inspire the forms. A sense of a voice is a hard won accomplishment but it seems to me to be my path to enlightenment and joy.