Part I of II: Are apprenticeships realistic in 2008?

Yesterday I rendered into reality a triple firing failure. I had three storms that were ready to be bisqued, and wanted to take care of that before some upcoming show deadlines and a trip to California that’s going to cut into my studio time. So I ramped up the heat in my old electric kiln very slowly — hoping to drive all of the moisture out of the larger pieces in a very humid post Tropical Storm Ike atmosphere — and hoped for the best. The kiln was at ~ 200 degrees for roughly four hours.

And still I got the worst.

All three pieces self-destructed like a mission impossible mission. That kiln full of shards represents about 30 hours of sculpting. I normally don’t cry over things like this. I’m the kind of person that fully understands that we learn more from our mistakes than our successes. However, my lament goes back to the very limited time I have to be in my studio as an artist with a day job.

After doing a little research online I realized I’ve been overlooking something. I thought, in my reentry ignorance, that as long as I warmed the kiln up slowly enough I’d be able to drive all of the water out of the work before everything hit 220 degrees. Apparently some air bubbles, however, are too deep (when clay is as thick as this was) to find an escape route without help. I hadn’t provided the necessary avenues to release the water vapor in any of these pieces.

In a flurry to add said avenues to already drying pieces, I began stabbing and drilling (if the clay was too hard to stab) into the greenware laying about the studio. I pray my morning strafing allows these other pieces to survive a firing.

I’m also wondering if my methodology needs tweaking. I start with a large block of clay from which I rough out a shape and then get into details. I do hollow them out, although apparently not well enough. Could I coil these things into being? Would slabs work? I’m not really a fan of either of these processes for this kind of sculpture though, and in fact am very much in tune with the process I’ve been using.

At this point, I’m going to stick with my carving method and be much more careful about hollowing the pieces out and stabbing them to give the steam a way out during firing. I think I can make this work. Further, I’m becoming faster at the process and even if I lose one or two (a year?) in the future it won’t be quite as much of a time investment lost.


About pcNielsen
Paul Nielsen founded The Aesthetic Elevator late in 2005. He owns a piece of paper, located somewhere in his house (not on the wall), stating that he earned a B.F.A. from the University of Nebraska around about 2001. While there, he studied studied architecture, graphic design and ceramics, graduating with a degree in studio art. Paul presently serves as communications manager for a small non-profit doing their print design and marketing. He spends as much time sculpting in his studio as possible — which is not nearly enough. Visit his website at

5 Responses to Part I of II: Are apprenticeships realistic in 2008?

  1. suburbanlife says:

    Sorry about your kiln disaster!
    I have several questions about your method of construction:
    `Do you start with a block of clay that is right out of the bag, unwedged? If so, there will be a lot of airbubbles left in the block of clay as it is extruded and bagged for shipping. One way you might try to get all the airbubbles out is to wedge the block by repeated throwing onto the floor, for many minutes – constantly changing the position of the block as you throw it down.

    When you hollow out the clay form of the storms, do you inadvertently leave trapped a large airbubble that is not connected to all the hollowed out channels? Maybe that is what causes the blow-ups.

    In hollowing out the sculptures do you slice the form apart – hollow by section to make sure all the walls remain even and then reconstruct by scoring and slipping the cut apart sections carefully? You might need to do this while the piece is leatherhard, although the surface clays might be at a different stage of leatherhard than the interior of the piece so to reconstruct without the sculpture slumping might need for you to wrap with moisture the outside portions as you wait for the base area to harden up before. reassembly.

    It is heart-breaking to lose work you have laboured over and got to like in a kiln accident. If you break down the formation process initially before getting down to refining the surfaces of the storms and solving potential structural problems in the initial stages, you should arrive at a fool-proof working method.

    Clay is wonderul, but can be so unforgiving. I always had bad things happen whenever I was in a particular rush to get the final product.
    I like your storms and wish you great success with them. G

  2. pNielsen says:

    “you break down the formation process initially before getting down to refining the surfaces of the storms and solving potential structural problems in the initial stages, you should arrive at a fool-proof working method.”

    That’s the crux methinks. I do use bagged clay, can’t get anything else, and usually wedge it what I think to be pretty well. Sometimes I slice to hollow out, but more often than not I just turn them over and start digging. I just didn’t dig enough in this case. I spent what time I could in the studio today digging out more from the three pieces that are currently drying. One in particular is a very dynamic shape and judging the wall thickness here and there was near impossible. I ended up piercing it in some places. Some of the holes I left (which fits with the cloud form) and others I patched.

    In all honesty I’m not very far into this particular vein. These were only the 2nd, 3rd and fourth in the series. I’m probably being over-dramatic, thus, but it (dare I say it), it’s how I feel :p

  3. Pingback: Part II of II: Are apprenticeships realistic in 2008? « The Aesthetic Elevator

  4. Julie says:

    It’s utterly possible to fire THICK clay. Like 4-6 inches. I think your hold at 200 was way too short… would’ve let it go for 12-24 hours, do another hold when you’re driving off chemical water, another at quartz to let the heat soak through the pieces. The other thing you might do is fire off a few tests, just take a few 4x4x4 chunks of clay, let them dry for a week, then fire each one on a different schedule. You might be able to search for a more exact schedule online. If you can’t program your kiln, that’s another matter…

    Bagged clay should (should!) be good, it’s generally pugged and de-aired really well. I don’t wedge mine before I handbuid.

  5. pNielsen says:

    My old kiln isn’t programmable; I have two sections with High/Med/Low. I was using a kitchen thermometer to keep it below boiling temps :p A month or so ago I almost bought a high temp thermometer on Ebay but it didn’t come with the right stuff and I couldn’t afford to get the right stuff.

    The new clay I’m using has as much grog as any my local supplier carries. I hope this helps a little too, but I haven’t actually fired any of the particular clay yet.

    Testing is a good idea . . . hadn’t thought of that.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: