Saturday, December 21, 2013

The Day of the Wood Kiln

Up and running at 6 in the morning, Jeff and I arrived at The Square. Andrew, who owns the kiln and is heavily involved with the museum, arrived and we got it started at about 6:30am.

Loading happened the day before

Running on about four hours of sleep and shivering like a, well I don't know - something that shivers... it was very cold, I was instructed to go inside and stay warm while the kiln was heating up. Inside, the radiator offered no comfort to me, so I settled for the cushioned bench beside the soda machines. I fell into a state of of half-sleep and rested until the kiln was ready to be stoked.

Stoking the kiln requires a large, poking metal rod that rakes the bed of coal - it also requires, you know. Wood. We had some skinny pieces of wood to toss in the small hole in the side of the kiln, we also had to do some chopping. (Thankfully I was not responsible for swinging the ax.)

We use both softwood and hardwood in the kiln. Softwood is for atmospheric effect. Hardwood burns hotter and raises the temperature more dramatically. Since it's so hot, it also burns down the coal bed. Bonus: burning cedar is an irresistible smell. 

Action shot: my boss spraying soda chemical 

Prep for the Wood Kiln

I got to make a bucket and a half's worth of wadding material. Just a few ingredients (mostly fire clay and sawdust) and some water does the trick. Dry ingredients are added to the bucket, a handheld electric mixer dry-mixes it, and then I add water and mix the rest by hand. An added bonus was that my hands were nicely exfoliated after I was done. 

Action shot

Finished product: not too wet, not too dry
Then we make balls of the stuff and with the aid of some wood glue, the wads are stuck onto the bottoms of the pots.

I patched up the shelves and dunked the stilts into the kiln wash. No sticking here!

Kiln wash onto the stilts

Then came the cone packs. These are placed strategically inside of the kiln (different spots that are in view when a brick is removed) to monitor the temperature. Each cone is a different temperature; once the kiln reaches that temperature, the cone will bend. 

These look like little warrior, porcupine ships to me.

Unfortunately, because we didn't bisque fire them, they burst in the wood kiln.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Loading the Kilns

The Boss told me that my kiln loading skills have improved since last year - I'm packing pots a lot tighter, which is good because it'll save some money in the long run.

I'm starting to stack pots inside of each other for the bisque kiln, which is fantastic - somehow I like seeing how they nestle and how many I can stack together.

Judy, who teaches the ceramics class I'm taking alongside my internship, mentioned that she knows a potter who doesn't even use shelves - he stacks all of his pots. I suppose that works if you know what you're making and putting into the kiln; who knows if something will explode or fall to pieces. Also a lesson learned - one of my bowls (porcelain) shrunk around my classmate's pot (brown clay). Different clays have different shrinking rates! Mine had to be broken off the other pot. Oh well! Live and learn.

A Little Light Chemistry

Mixing slips follows a fairly simple recipe, and involves expensive, brightly colored chemicals. Cobalt blue is a striking shade of fuchsia.

And that will turn to a nice shade of blue. Chemistry - if I knew more about it, maybe I'd have a better explanation of what goes on that makes chemicals turn certain colors than "science does it."

After some brief internet research, it looks like I can only find an explanation on how colors work (thanks, ceramics monthly) and some chemistry equations which are a little bit beyond me, and seem to only vaguely relate. But I learned that the word "cobalt" comes from the German word "Kobold" which means "goblin" or "evil spirit." The term was used by miners who found cobalt to be difficult to mine and harmful to their health.*

Loading of the glaze kiln continues. 

I managed to squeeze another mug on this level

We have a couple masks from a special needs class to be fired that are large and flat, so I put two up on stilts and slid the others underneath to save some room.

Monday, December 16, 2013

A day of cleaning.

Perfect way to spend a Friday - clean the kiln room. We cleaned for about 3 hours. I pulled out the glaze buckets, swept/mopped there, and moved the little wheeled carts from the wood kiln glazes to the cone 6 glazes.

Jeff went through the Wall of Chemicals and I consolidated several of the chemicals. We also went through the abandoned bisque ware and threw out a good chunk of it.

I put some kiln wash on a couple of the shelves.

It was a long, long time cleaning, but the studio looked awesome. I neglected to take a picture, but trust me: it looked really nice.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Ceramics Technitioning; it's a hard-knock life

I will often say that a ceramics studio will never be clean. There is simply no way to remove all the residue of clay dust from every surface, and if there was (and maybe there is) it wouldn't be worth it. Though it will never truly be clean, it is certainly in constant danger of becoming absolutely filthy.

That's why it is routinely swept, mopped, and has it's many surfaces sponged almost daily. For mid-summer to December 31st (or "officially" until November), I fight a constant battle to keep the studio surfaces at a light clay film instead of splatters, dust, and trimmings littering the floor.

Reclaiming Clay; like a slow, soupy pheonix

Tucked behind the 1970's reminiscent partitions lies a cornucopia of loaned chemicals, our own stock of chemicals, a slew of recycled Tidy Cats buckets given a new purpose, and the plaster table: a place of rejuvenation, and rebirth.

We have one large plastic waste bin in the studio for reclaim. All clay that is too wet for throwing, too hard for reworking, or that lousy-looking pot you threw last week that just isn't worth firing will go into the bucket.

It's usually partially filled with water. This will let the clay absorb the water and become a liquid slurry of clay particles.

Once it's all nearly the same consistency, we take the water off the top with a sponge or small bucket and wheel the bin behind the partitions. It then dries to a slip-like consistency.

Next, we scoop the clay onto the plaster into sort of a slab of goo. The plaster will absorb moisture from the clay. Once it stiffens, it can be kneaded into large blocks of clay, bagged, put in the reclaimed clay pile.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

September 30th & 31st - It begins

I started my official ceramics internship by doing my favorite thing: paper work for the Education Department! Counting names and attendance for grant writing, sorting contracts, all that good stuff. Thankfully I got at least a soft start in the ceramics studios.

This week, in addition to some light organization of some supplies, I did some much needed organization of the kiln stilts. Those little white stickers are labeled  1/2 to 12 (corresponding to their height in inches). No more throwing them wherever; they've got designated areas now.

Jeff suggested I label them with some underglaze. Naturally, the numbers are almost as big as the stilts themselves. At least no one will miss them.

Organization is crucial in a ceramics studio - especially to one that is used by a multitude of people (and especially one that is seen by a multitude of people)

One area down, several more to go.

My Job Description, and a story I'm sure everyone is dying to hear

For the past three years I have tried to develop a concise description of my job here at the Paris Gibson Square Museum of Art. It's an unusual arrangement, but so far it has worked well for me (and I think pretty well for the museum). This is my lengthy story of how I kept coming back to work at the only contemporary art museum for miles that happens to be in a 118 year old building.

After I graduated from high school in 2011, I needed a job pretty badly. Having no prior work experience (school is my job, yadda yadda) it was difficult to find a place that would hire me, especially since I wanted to work someplace downtown (closed for Sunday, thus no conflict with church) and avoided food services (because I was a snob; still am). Towards the end of the summer, a coworker of my mother's had told her that the new education director at The Square was looking for a volunteer assistant. I figured why not keep myself busy while looking for work? If I was lucky, they'd need another receptionist, and I'd be there.

image credit: probably Aaron Kueffler

I worked with Suzanne, the education director at the time, for about three months. I mostly did organizational work, wrote blurbs for the media (the media of Great Falls, MT) and emails, worked with some youths in a workshop, and designed a really terrible education brochure.

Suzanne resigned, and I left due to some resulting tensions that were developing at the museum at the time.

I got a job at Herberger's (think Macy's) as a shoe salesperson just in time for the holiday season.

Two semesters at  BYU-I later, Herberger's refused to call back, and I decided to give The Square a call to see if the education director needed some help.

Turns out, the answer was absolutely yes. I started back at The Square organizing (purging is a more accurate word) materials in the education supply room, teaching open studio preschool art, and harassing my way into a position at the reception desk. With the funds from part-time wages at the front desk and payment for teaching preschool open studio, I could afford to eat for my next two semesters.

Halfway through my second semester, I expressed interest in doing an official internship at the museum. I was interested in learning more about ceramics and clay. Jeff, my boss, said absolutely, and we quickly (actually pretty slowly) moved forward once I returned from Idaho.

So this year we narrowed down a specific schedule to work at the Front Desk and in the Education Department with a special emphasis in learning the ins and outs of the ceramics department. I'm also teaching preschool open studio again, which has been great.

TL;DR: I work full time and only have a part time job, but this time I'm getting an internship credit.