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Soda Kiln #1
Soda Kiln #2

Treadle Wheel

Process: Throwing

For me, the throwing process is at the heart of making pots. Most potters can be grouped into one of two categories: "mud and water" potters or "glaze and fire" potters, depending on which part of the process they focus on. Often, this distinction mirrors each potter's primary interest in either form or surface -- I don't know many who are equally inspired by both. I'm definitely of the first type, but with a diligent interest in the second. I find throwing to be the point of greatest creativity and innovation, the source of the unexpected and the most technically challenging (although glazing would be a very close second).

I've heard it said that the greatest thing about making pots is that each lump of clay has near-infinite potential, and that this is part of what keeps us coming back to the wheel again and again. Even when I attempt to make a series of similar objects (which is pretty rare), there are always subtle variations in them, small differences like in the many leaves of a single tree. I believe the life of any given pot exists in those variations, not in its sameness to others.

I've never used an electric wheel for any extended period of time. I find them to be loud, abrupt, too fast, and prone to being out of control. They speed up a process that is already too fast, too fluid, for my mind to keep up. I'm inclined to say that they were invented for making very large pieces (often not functional pots) or for production throwing, in which speed is valued more than quality. I learned to throw on a Lockerbie kick wheel, the kind found in schools everywhere for their virtually indestructible nature. I enjoy the quiet hum of the concrete flywheel as it spins by beneath my feet; the direct physical connection between the energy I expend into the wheel and the speed of the wheelhead (and thus the available energy for making pots). The Lockerbie is now my secondary wheel, used for a different claybody or for throwing outside in the yard.

After a few years of making pots, I had the chance to try a Leach treadle wheel and, after adjusting to all its unusual differences, loved working with it. After using a treadle wheel on and off for about two years, I purchased my own from Mark Polglase at Waves of Grain, a woodworker in Minnesota who makes them to the original specifications. It's a beauty, and I hope to use it for the rest of my working life. The rhythm it introduces to throwing is subtle but unique. I actually find it somewhat more difficult to throw on, which introduces new challenges in making forms that had previously became easy, and makes larger and more complex forms even more difficult. The treadle wheel action creates a much more loose, organic result than other types of wheels. There is a hitch to it's revolution, a spot in the cycle where the wheel speed isn't constant, that must be accomodated.

While in some ways I wonder about adding complication to an already very complex process, for the most part I think of it as lengthening the learning curve, forcing me to exert more conscious effort over a longer period of time in seeking the results I want. Other times, when things in the studio are going hard, I think I must be nuts -- but that's probably the case regardless of the type of wheel one chooses to use. The same is true of potters who seek out challenge and risk in difficult forms, techniques, glazes, firing methods, etc. The desire to continue raising the bar of your own expectations is probably a prerequisite to making good pots.

I'm often of two minds when throwing, and seem to never quite get past the influences pulling me in opposite directions at once. One side attempts technical control and proficiency and is concerned with production and progress: very rational/industrial. The other is interested in experimentation, playing with the clay, trying things that will most likely fail: it lives in the moment. I see the value in both, and am trying to get better at letting them each have their time at the wheel. If nothing else, it makes for some interesting discussions in my head. The result, over time, seems to be a good range of pots, some more utilitarian and direct, others more sculptural and complex. I think I'd be quite unhappy if I ever tried to force myself into one or the other exclusively.

As far as throwing style goes, I think that the major factors involved are wheel type, clay body, clay stiffness/dampness, wheel and hand speed, and experience. I sometimes vary these intentionally to produce variety and new challenges, and they also change naturally on their own over time. My style is based around trying to produce pots that seem more like they grew up or were born than manufactured.

There are many great books on throwing technique, so I don't think it's necessary for me to go into detail here. I think my personal technique is fairly typical. I throw right-handed, use a bit too much water and slip for lubrication, and try to get each piece to completion in a relatively economical number of actions and amount of time. I alter things out of round, use stamps, paddles, and faceting while pots are still wet on the wheel, along with other techniques at later stages of drying. I struggle with getting things a reasonable weight, but try to only trim pots that need an actual raised foot -- otherwise, they tend to lose their thrown surface qualities in exchange for the shaved, mechanical feel of the trimming tool. (On a pot that changes direction, like a bowl, this can be an asset. When it starts midway down a vase, I'm always dissapointed in the result.)

I feel that I should be able to throw most pots that will have a flat base at an appropriate weight and thickness. For pots over a certain size, or with a complex or difficult profile, I will stack independantly thrown parts or use a variation of coil and throw to extend height off a thrown base. I really enjoy the dynamics of a well-thrown pot, but try not to sacrifice form or stylistic concerns too much in pursuing it. Generally there's a delicate balance there that I'm always revisiting. Some months I'll throw "heavy" for a while, without a whole lot of rhyme or reason to it, while other times large, graceful pots come easily. I'm currently working on letting these factors have their own time as well, discovering what results they create if I go with them instead of fight against them.

Implicit in all this, I suppose, is the fact that I am always trying to make what I really want to make at that moment. I stay away from "make lists", as there are more than enough schedules of unfinished tasks in other aspects of life. In the studio, I find them stifling and a source of anxiety. For planning, I try to sketch as much as possible. My studio space is usually scattered with small thumbnail sketches and written reminders to myself about ideas to try. I write a lot about what I'm making, the process, which parts are working or not, which are coming easily or not. I try to reinforce memories of success and failure so that I know where I've been and can use that knowledge to improve. I keep several sketchbooks around the house to capture images of pots that come to mind at unexpected times.

I find it vital to work with immediacy and enthusiasm for the task at hand. In the past, I often forced myself to finish a pot the same afternoon, or the next day, even when uninspired by it or stumped on how to proceed. Now, I frequently start a group of pots and let them sit under plastic until I really feel like getting back to them (often straining the limits of workability to unwise extremes). Sometimes these half-finished pots stack up, since starting them can be so much easier than finishing! (I guess this is because when throwing something new, there always seems to be limitless possibility for each pot, while at the finishing stages the shortcomings of each become clear and the available options more limited.) This approach to studio workflow can be a liability too, creating a "to do" shelf instead of a list, but there have been many times where a pot has turned out better by waiting for me to be ready to finish it.

I hesitate to take commissions, as they always seem to bog down the otherwise natural flow of ideas. I'm wary of letting certain influences get to far into the studio, but at other times will intentionally surround myself with other pots, photos and objects to see what effect they have. Often, seeing pots in a gallery or buying a new one from another potter will start a new thread -- some technique to try or a stylistic goal. I think stealing from other sources is an important part of the creative evolutionary cycle, so I don't worry too much about it. While some advocate copying only during a potter's formative student years, I expect to keep learning at this until I can no longer center clay. Therefore, injecting new ideas from other potters is almost mandatory. Certainly it would be lazy or presumptuous to copy someone else's work with no intention of modifying it, tearing it apart, or trying to improve on it. I believe that by using this method of exploration, sooner or later everything coming from my hands will become my version of the original.

I almost always work in series, even if just three or four of something at a time. This allows for ideas and techniques to be developed in succession, and makes for more efficient use of studio time when trimming, adding handles, decorating, etc. I seem to work on a particular group of forms for a while (days, weeks) and then move on to others. I may go several months between making one particular form - lidded jars or large bowls or teapots - and then go on a run of them. One benefit of this working pattern is that each time I return to a specific form, it's with both old and new eyes and ideas. The memory and experience of previous pots is still there to draw from, but is distant enough for me to see new possibilities as I work. I think the idea of never doing the exact same thing twice is critical to my continual development as a potter, and a happy acceptance of the millions of variables and possibilities of clay. Nothing holds my interest more than the idea of some new thing to try, however small: a different approach to a familiar form, a new decorative element, an alteration in style or intent. Set within the range of the limits I've set for myself remain unlimited options to explore.