Archive for October, 2011

the lightness of being

Monday, October 17th, 2011

In the five years I have been turning bowls on the lathe, I have resisted the woodturning doctrine which says that a good bowl has paper-thin walls and a shiny finish.  From my backgound making pottery bowls, I find that a functional wooden bowl even 1/2″ thick is already light compared to its ceramic counterpart!

Returning to the potter’s wheel in the past few weeks, I must admit that it is the pottery bowls that need the most help to achieve a sense of lightness, or a kind of liveliness.  Not the weight, per se, but the sense of lightness is missing from most of the bowls I have thrown over the years.

My clay bowls carry the weight of their initial forming on the wheel, which requires that the base stays stuck onto the wheelhead.  After they stiffen up, I flip them over on the same wheelhead and trim the outside of the base.  The inside, however, remains unrepentant.  The result is a series of bowls that have a somewhat squatty relationship to the table.   [and I am not the only potter who routinely achieves this outcome!]

Bringing the clay bowls to life needs at least two remedies.  The first is to find the way that clay is fundamentally different from wood, and feature that difference in the forming process.   The second is to experiment with using wood-forming standards in the clay medium.

Clay has some properties lacking in wood.  Elasticity is first among these, so I have been working with ways to stretch and shape the inside of the bowl after it comes off the wheel.  It is possible to get a very round base on the inside by stretching it with a rib.  Many traditional hand-building artists stretch or paddle the form to create a strong vessel wall of uniform thickness.  After this process is completed and allowed to dry for a bit, I then trim the base again, but this time–to match the curve of the inside.  The woodturners usually form the inside first, and then shape the outside to match, so I am transferring this thinking to the ceramic bowls.

The new bowls now have the gentle curves of a handbuilt base, and something of the lightness of their wooden counterparts.

Lightness means both weightlessness and luminosity in English.  Thinking about the question of lightness, I am reminded of Calvino’s wonderful stories about the Moon.

I was turning a very light-weight slab of spalted pecan, and I found that it was only a fraction of the weight it appeared to be–it was quite dry and very porous.  I turned it to  a shape that reminded me of the full moon, with a cross-section deep enough to be a crescent. The finish is a white matte acrylic.  It features peach-colored highlights, and eliminates the normal yellow color of pecan: