Ancient Clay

Ancient Clay – Five Day Workshop (Click HERE for a PDF of the Background, Description, and Schedule)

In considering the course of history leading up to the modern age, we often assume that “progress” means a move from un-civilized to civilized, from primitive to sophisticated, from manual to automated, from low-tech to high-tech, from hand-made to machine-made. As a result, 20th and 21st century artists often seek “modern” technology and aesthetic, turning their backs on the remarkable ceramic work of the past. Until quite recently, ancient and tribal ceramic traditions other than Greek black-figure and red-figure wares were generally seen as primitive craft oddities, too-often dismissed from the study of ceramics.  But along with the technological leaps of the digital age, we see an impersonalization of craft and a certain loss of individual identity that has inspired a renewed appreciation of our aesthetic and technical roots in ancient and tribal art.  Any cursory examination will reveal that these traditions are “primitive” only in the tools and firing processes, while the craftsmanship, narrative content, and design aesthetic are highly sophisticated.

Workshop Description
This workshop gives beginning and experienced clay-workers the opportunity to investigate the techniques and aesthetics of ancient and tribal ceramics. We will focus on simple, timeless vessel construction using pinch and coil methods, exploring the broad diversity of handbuilt form and the range of decorative effects possible without the use of glazes. Slide shows will explore high points in the history of ancient and tribal clay.

We will coat our forms with a refined clay slip known as terra sigillata and hand-rub the surface to a high luster. Traditionally, tribal pottery is fired in a single bonfiring, but this is only possible with a very highly-grogged clay body and a long slow preheat and bonfiring. To allow a quick bonfiring and minimize losses, we will pre-fire the wares in a very low-temperature bisque and transfer them from bisque to bonfire while still warm. The bonfire will be a classic blackware firing, similar to the firings conducted by Native American potters of the American Southwest and many other cultures through history.

A major appeal of tribal ceramics is the lack of modern technology. With our fascination for the latest tools and equipment of our trade, this feature is difficult for many contemporary studio artists to accept. Once experienced, however, a tribal approach to ceramics is tremendously liberating, perhaps most of all for contemporary “high-tech” ceramic artists.

Below are samples of vessels I have made as demos during my Ancient Clay workshops.  Click on the thumbnails to see a larger image.

Schedule for Five-Day Ancient Clay Workshop
Please note that this schedule must remain flexible, since every workshop group is different.

  • Monday Morning – Introductions, discussion/demo of coil-construction, use of pukis. Work on coil forms. Slide discussion on ancient and tribal clay.
  • Monday Afternoon – Demo of pinch construction and slumped-slab masks. Continue slide discussion on ancient and tribal clay. Work on pinch/coil forms and masks.
  • Tuesday Morning – discussion/demo of whistles and rattles, damp clay decoration. Work on pinch/coil forms and masks. Continuation of slide discussion on ancient and tribal clay.
  • Tuesday Afternoon – Finish coil forms and masks. Work on pinch forms and whistles. Load coil forms and masks in kiln to dry overnight.
  • Wednesday Morning – Finish any remaining coil forms and masks and quick-dry in kilns. Slide discussion on figurines and amulets. Work on pinch forms, whistles, figurines, and amulets.
  • Wednesday Afternoon – Sanding demo. Sand all coil forms and masks. Finish pinch forms, whistles, figurines, and amulets.
  • Wednesday Afternoon or Evening – (or whenever we decide to do it) Public slide show on Vince’s work.
  • Thursday Morning – Discussion/demo of terra sigillata, polishing, burnishing, sgraffito, black- on-black. Work on sanding, terra sigillata, polishing, decorating.
  • Thursday Afternoon – Complete all polishing/decorating, load bisque-firings. Prepare for bonfiring.
  • Friday Morning – The blackware bonfiring. Slide show on Vince’s work
  • Friday Afternoon – Dig up bonfire and admire the work.

Below is a series of images from a bonfiring conducted in the Yuko En Japanese Garden in Georgetown, KY during an Ancient Clay workshop at Georgetown College.  Click on the first image and then use the forward arrows to scroll through the series.

Information for Hosting Venue (Click HERE for a PDF of Information for Hosting Venue)

Of all the workshops I teach, this is my favorite.  It represents the formative level of ceramic technology, and it is so satisfying every time.  At UMass-Amherst in the late 80s I noticed that art history classes pay little or no attention to the ceramics of ancient and tribal cultures other than the red and black figure vases of ancient Greece.  I designed this workshop in response and initially I called it “Primitive Ceramics,” but quickly realized that “primitive” is an entirely inappropriate term in reference to this type of work.  The circumstances and firing methods may be primitive, but the craftsmanship and aesthetic is often as sophisticated as any art/craft of the modern world.

This workshop requires a great deal of advance preparation and planning for the hosting venue.  You have to commit to it, because there is nothing on the lists below that we can do without.  You have to hustle the appropriate sawdust and wood, the steel grate/cage must be welded together close to the specifications I provide, and the clay must be custom-mixed to the recipe provided, for the simple reason that wares made from any normal claybody will not survive the quick bisque and bonfire, and I know that from hard experience.

Given appropriate planning and preparation, I can promise an amazing experience and well-satisfied participants.  To speak plainly, people who take this workshop are often amazed by what they are able to create, and by the transformation of the blackware bonfiring.  I taught Ancient Clay every summer for nine years at Michael McDowell’s farm and studio in northwest Washington State, and had quite a few people come back and take it repeatedly.

Materials Provided by Host

  • Buff high-grog claybody custom-mixed of equal parts Goldart, fireclay, ball clay, and extra-fine grog – no other claybody will do.  Have on hand 50# per participant and 150# for instructor, plus some extra.
  • One gallon white vinegar.
  • Two gallons of joining slurry made in advance from the claybody. Cut 25# of clay into thin slices and dry completely. Break up the bone-dry clay into smaller pieces (not crushed) and immerse in water with several inches of water covering the clay and let sit overnight.  The clay will slake down to slurry by itself.  Next day, drain off all excess water, mix with drill impeller mixer or hand blender until completely smooth with no lumps, add one cup of vinegar, add water carefully, mixing frequently, until slurry will not pour if you tilt the bucket, but will if you shake it.
  • Approximately four large trash-bags of sawdust.
  • A 6″ stack of newspaper.
  • Four standard propane cylinders for a hand-held torch.  I will bring several torches.
  • A supply of thin-split dry firewood or dry scrap lumber (no plywood, no pressure-treated wood), 2′ to 4′-long, no more than 1″ to 2″ in diameter (approximately one small pickup-truck full). Branches gathered in the forest work just fine as long as they approximately meet the above criteria and are completely dry.  Get plenty.

Facilities and Equipment Provided by Host

  • Digital projector and appropriately dark room with screen or white wall.
  • Large sturdy work tables for handbuilding and decorating. Heavy plywood-covered tables are best, but sturdy 3×6′ folding tables will work, with no more than four participants per 4×8′ table and two per folding table.
  • A 24″ stool for the instructor to use.
  • If I am driving to teach a workshop, I’ll bring these, but otherwise you need to make a good supply of pukis – enough to have one for each participant to use, one for the instructor, and some extras.  Puki is a Southwest Native American term for a small reusable bisque-fired form for supporting the lower portion of round-bottom coil vessels until they are stiff enough to support themselves. Pukis are just heavy-duty bisque-fired bowl-forms with a wide foot and a constant curve like a portion of a sphere on the inside from rim to rim.  For our purpose, we should have a variety of sizes of pukis with the radius of the inside curvature of different pukis varying from 3″ to 5″.  If that seems confusing, go to Walmart and buy cheap kids’ balls in approximately 6″, 8″, and 10″ diameters, and make some of the pukis where the inside snugly matches the curvature of the 6″ ball, and same with the 8″ and 10″.
  • Electric kilns for drying wares and for low (cone-018) bisque pre-fire (and 018 cones if not a programmable kiln).
  • Re-bar grate/cage for bonfire-firing, fabricated from directions provided.
  • Scrap sheet-steel to line grate/cage and cover pots (#10 cans, top and bottom removed, cut open work fine). If the workshop is conducted in the East and I am driving to it, I can bring the re-bar grate and sheet metal scraps.
  • Safe open space for bonfiring (and approval from authorities if necessary) with water hose available.  We either need to dig a pit for the bonfire in order to have the necessary supply of dirt to bury the bonfire to smother it in the blackware process, or you need to bring in a big pile of dirt/sand for the same purpose.  I have done bonfirings on pavement, and it does require a big pile of dirt – at least a cubic yard.

Supplies for Participants to Bring (Click HERE for a PDF of Supply List for Participants)

  • Standard clay-working tools – the packaged Kemper tool kit contains a wood rib, stainless-steel scraper-rib, wood knife, needle tool, cutoff wire, small sponge, and trimming tools.
  • Kemper S-10 serrated stainless steel rib.
  • Kemper RB-4 wood rib – no substitutes!
  • Metal fork.
  • One package of 100-grit or 120-grit (fine-grit) mesh-type drywall sandpaper.
  • Soft-bristled brush at least 1″ wide for applying terra sigillata – the East-Asian hakeme brushes are best.
  • Several soft rags (tee-shirt material is great).
  • Several plastic grocery bags for polishing.
  • Stanley Surform Shaver (small curved blade) and Surform Pocket Plane (5″ flat blade).  Get both!  They are available from home improvement center or Amazon.
  • X-Acto knife with pencil-thick handle and 1″ tapered blade.  The very best ones have the adjustment handle at the opposite end from the blade.
  • Spray bottle for vinegar water.
  • Several old towels or clean rags (in addition to the polishing cloths).
  • Small snap-lid container for slurry.
  • Apron (optional).
  • If you are driving, bring a good-size snap-lid plastic storage box approximately 12x20x12″ deep to use as personal damp-box.  Bring your supplies in a separate box or a second plastic storage box.

If you have any questions or are interested in hosting one of my workshops, please email me.