Thirty-four years ago, astronomer and Cosmos host Carl Sagan made his famous claim:
“If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.” – Carl Sagan. “The Lives of the Stars.” Cosmos: A Personal Voyage. PBS. 1980.
Sagan could have been talking about making anything from scratch. His goal was to convey that everything on earth, everything in the universe, is made up of precise combinations of the most basic elements, and those elements were created in stars’ nuclear cores. We could also say, “If you wish to make a pot from scratch, you must first invent the universe.”
These star-forged elements combine to form all the components of ceramics: the different strains of clay (silicon and iron), the water used in throwing (oxygen and hydrogen), the arboreal ingredients of glazes (calcium), and even the potter himself (carbon). Entire books could be written focusing solely on one of these ceramic elements.
Copper, for example. Copper red glazes have been meticulously pursued and produced since the fifteenth century in China. The new host of Cosmos, Neil deGrasse Tyson, often analyzes the concept of a “Goldilocks planet” – a planet which has the precise conditions for possibly sustaining life. A successful copper red glaze is a “Goldilocks glaze.” Everything in both the recipe and the firing must be perfect.
As Sagan and Tyson have taught us, science is found in everything we do. Baking an apple pie from scratch, developing a new drug, and mixing and firing glazes all rely on experimentation, creativity, and chemical reactions. A potter doesn’t need a degree in chemistry, but he uses some pretty cool science to produce copper red glazes.
Nowadays, gas-fired kilns produce the best conditions for copper red glazes, but ancient Chinese potters created their beautiful pieces using only wood-fired kilns. Many potters do not have regular access to gas- or wood-fired kilns, and use electric ones instead. Electric kilns eliminate the need for constant temperature monitoring, but they are unable to create the atmosphere copper red glazes require.
Copper red glazes need to be fired to a temperature called “cone 10.” This photo shows three cones (small pieces of clay), set up inside a gas-fired kiln. Each of these pieces is made from a different factory-produced type of clay formulated to melt at a certain temperature. A device called a pyrometer can be used to measure the temperature of the air inside the kiln, but what really matters is the temperature of the clay, hence the use of cones. When cone 10 melts, the potter knows the clay is roughly 2345 °F.
Even inside the same kiln, the atmosphere unavoidably varies. The pots below all had the same glaze and firing, but were placed in different areas of the kiln.
The green color on the right also occurs when firing a copper glaze in an electric kiln.
Color, just like copper, depends on the stars. Light from our sun strikes objects on earth, and those objects absorb some wavelengths of light and reflect others. The wavelengths they reflect are the colors we see. As Tyson puts it:
“Color is the way our eyes perceive how energetic light waves are.” – Neil Degrasse Tyson. “Hiding in the Light.” Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey. Fox. 2014.
Thankfully, potters did not have to create the universe to make pots from scratch. Their ingredients are already present in the cosmos, swirling in the air and lurking in the earth, waiting for them.
Hannah Anderson worked as a “Pottery Marketing Intern” this semester. She is a senior Art major at the College of St. Benedict/St. John’s University. In this post, she describes our semester long task of trying to define the role of pottery in the contemporary art world.
Throughout my internship with Joel, we had many discussions of “high art” vs. “low art” and where his pottery fit into the mix. High art, one could argue, is not functional for the consumer. Traditionally, the function for this type of art is to sit in a museum as a masterpiece, observed through this elevated status. Low art is generally mass-produced, inexpensive, and far more available to the public. In my critical theory class, we discussed how museums have opinions on high and low art as well, and can influence how people view artwork by either appearing intimidating or more approachable.
The terms “high” and “low” art should be reevaluated and adapted to today’s contemporary art world. Words that correlate with high art seem far too Renaissance or Baroque in feel, such as “master of art,” prestige, traditional, western, still-life, landscapes, portraits, and, my favorite, original. This particular word poses the question: can high art even exist anymore? I would argue that it certainly still exists, but not in the same light in which it was originally established. High art and low art should be adaptable terms for each new generation of artists. Low art has synonyms such as: consumerism, production, affordable, advertised, ordinary, etc. This is a challenge many artists face today, and it creates a huge imbalance in the art world.
Joel poses the question, “why are we making and selling pots?” He gathers a lot of insight from potter Warren Mackenzie, whom also has a lot to say about art as a functional vessel vs. sitting in a gallery space. Warren is an 89 year old, world-renowned artist. He is most at ease with his work when he knows it is being used, handled everyday and looked at often. Pottery has the potential to be the most intimate of artwork, because it’s users have constant contact with it. Clay is not expensive and is made from the earth, so when does it make the transition from low to high art?
Price plays a factor into what is high and low art. Warren says “A 10 dollar pot, now that’s affordable.” He says that if it breaks, then it is not a huge loss. This is interesting coming from a renowned artist, because his philosophy conflicts with his position in the art world; his pots resell on Ebay.com for hundreds of dollars everyday. Mackenzie says, “Unfortunately, now I only sell through galleries.” His philosophy seems more focused on low art, but his standing is high.
I like to think that many artists in today’s art world present a mix of high and low art, and it is perhaps just difficult to find the balance. Right now, an imbalance is evident in Joel’s artwork. His pottery is functional, consumer-friendly, priced lower than most professional potters, and is meant to bring a comfortable aesthetic to anyone’s home. His online store is in contrast with this idea, because we take a high art approach by using professional photography equipment to shoot pots in front of a gradated background. We then use these photos to try and join the contemporary art world.
I wonder, is the Local Blend pottery high or low art? At the Local Blend coffee shop, they use Joel’s pottery in mass, so anyone can eat and drink from his pottery everyday. This seems much closer to low art to me. We take the same pots and put them in front of a gradated background, making them high art in a different atmosphere. Without a little low art, high art wouldn’t be possible, since the Blend is where most of Joel’s income is generated. Writing about this venue has also brought him some of his biggest successes in the art world, including 2 major magazine publications. Perhaps these everyday pots will someday be elevated to a high art status?
Low art is what’s paying the bills, yet in the future, Joel wants to support his livelihood with a balance between low and high art. This means more of his income needs to be generated from our work on the online store. One way we accomplished this was by branding his artwork in a more focused way, using one glaze: the Nuka Glaze with iron. Nuka with iron had a great deal of success for Joel throughout my internship, enough for him to narrow his focus toward solely that glaze. Currently the online store has less Nuka with Iron than Joel would like, and his future plans are to recreate his online store geared toward pottery of only that glaze type. Over 50% of the online sales were Nuka with iron, and Joel sold pots with this glaze type to five different people both locally and nationally in one week. He has also completed 4 dinnerware sets in this glaze, 2 of which were sold through wedding registries. We see huge potential in this glaze combination.
This branding was influenced by Ayumi Horie, who certainly has a recognized, established, successful brand for herself. Her style is easily recognizable on every pot. Her artwork sells at high prices online and is always sold out in less than a day. Moreover, Horie has earned her place in the art world through years of consistent craftsmanship, a huge resume, and skillfully writing about her craft in major publications.
Our experience with high art continued through Paige Dansinger– an internationally renowned painter and art historian who is collaborating with Joel. She makes high art in the form of painting on canvas, digital paintings on IPads, projections, performance, and most recently, painting with glazes on Joel’s pottery. During my internship, she opened a gallery in the Minneapolis Skyway Mall called Gallery Paige. Everyday, she exhibits and sells her artwork as high art. The collaborative work made by herself and Joel has huge potential to take off in the high art world.
To conclude, perhaps in today’s world, the balance needs to be found in the middle of the spectrum between high art and low art. Are the best artists those who spend their time making both high and low art? One could argue that they can reach the most amount of people that way. Because that in fact is what art is all about: reaching the most amount of people with a particular message. The meaning of art and its purpose to be seen can easily get lost when identifying it as either high or low. As renowned potter Bernard Leach said, “To me the greatest thing is to live beauty in our daily life and to crowd every moment with things of beauty. It is then, and then only, that the art of the people as a whole is endowed with its richest significance.”
My most recent gas firing produced some amazing color variations. The kiln was filled top to bottom with pots only glazed in my Copper Red glaze. About half of the pottery had great red colors, ¼ had great red but with color variation, and the remaining ¼ were mostly green, pink or gray. The natural gas flame paints the glaze surface, and potters are blind to this process.
Thanks to my intern Samantha Thury for shooting these images. I many never know exactly how to produce the reddest of reds, but here are some of my guesses:
Bright red/red-orange: consistent reduction and temperature throughout the firing, slower flame path, less oxygen entering the kiln.
Burgundy: heavier reduction. Often gradates to violet, black and then clear. Seen in areas of the kiln where uneven reduction causes flame to become trapped, and then simultaneously over-reduce and oxidize different areas of the same pot.
Gray-Pink: somewhat of a mystery…consistently seen on the left side of this kiln, and in certain other areas of the kiln. The flame could be slower, causing more reduction. Perhaps there is heavier reduction during a certain point in the firing. This color is often seen next to bright red, but rarely seen next to clear. This could mean that reduction is achieved before cone 5, but perhaps too much reduction is achieved.
Gray: transition color mostly seen from bright red/burgundy to clear, but seen here on a more red/pink to clear transition.
Clear: oxidized. The bottom shelf of most kilns usually results in clear, sometimes with hints of red or violet. Achieving medium reduction before cone 5 and through cone 10 could eliminate clear. I also see clear closest to the burner ports and target bricks, where the flame path is faster and more turbulent.
For all you potters interested in producing your own Copper Red glazes, check my previous blog post for my glaze recipes and firing techniques:
While I use brushes for much of my glazing decoration, the kiln does just as much painting as me. Unlike painters, potters have to give up some control of their artwork by using fire to finish the surface. I brushed iron stain onto the rim of the mugs below, then the iron dripped down the walls during the firing.
Each pot is first dipped in a bucket of glaze. I chose glazes that move and drip during the firing. The image below shows how I brush colorants like iron or cobalt onto the surface. This adds color contrast, and encourages drips and movement.
After glazing, my pottery is loaded into a natural gas kiln. This is basically a huge oven with no windows that heats to about 2400 degrees F. for about 12 hours. After 2 days of cooling, I open the kiln with fingers crossed, hoping that the “kiln gods” gave some good colors to the pots.
The images below show how I use iron, cobalt and copper stains to add color and movement. I brushed them on as a vertical line, then the stains melt down the pot during the firing. This big pot barely fit in the kiln- we had to take out a few of the floor bricks!
The Copper Red glaze is very responsive to the flame path in natural gas kilns. The gaseous atmosphere produces red colors, while the clear/green colors show up where the pot was more oxygenated. The flame naturally paints the glazed surface.