Monday, 25 July 2011

Secret artists' business: sometimes things go wrong ... by Eleni Antoniou Holloway

So, do you think you know everything there is to know about clay? I 
once thought that clay and I were on good terms and like an old friend
 we would settle down together into a comfortable and predictable 
relationship... And then one ominous day, clay decided to act out of 
character and to my shock and horror, all of my work cracked... And
 cracked... and we quarrelled for quite some time. Things went from bad
 to worse and we were even considering separation (though I am ashamed
 to admit it) and I cursed the day we met and threatened to date
 painting if it didn't clean up its act. Do you know what I'm talking 

Clay is a beautiful material to work with; captivating in its soft and
 malleable state and simply intriguing and seductive post-firing.
 Working with this material provides great moments of excitement; just
before I crack the door on a glaze firing I stand before the kiln, 
take a few deep breaths and jump up and down and cheer at what I'm
 about to see... And yet at the same time it can provide the devotee 
with equal amounts of heartache; when you open the door to see the
 work exploded and melted glaze on the elements that you now have to 

Whilst on residency recently at Sydney College of the Arts, I had the
 opportunity to glimpse some of clay's more temperamental
 characteristics. This experience left me questioning everything I 
thought I once knew. For a period of about 2 months my work cracked 
and I couldn't explain why. I used every trick in my book to remedy
 the situation, and every trick in every other person's books, and I
 sought knowledgeable, experienced and holy men for answers.

It seems obvious to me that as professional artists we wouldn’t want 
to publicise our failures, setbacks and disasters, but I have to 
assume that every ceramic artist has had a near tragedy or horror 
story about how it all went wrong. Despite being extremely organized 
(I'm proud to say that recently my husband and I bought two filing 
cabinets which is the pinnacle of organisation for us), dedicated,
 knowledgeable and motivated, sometimes things just don't work. And the 
variables at play here are mind boggling: I mean what if the clay you 
are using is simply a bad batch? What if Joe down at the factory was 
distracted and forgot to add the grog? What if someone who didn't 
consult the control pad for a temperature reading swings open the kiln
 door at 500 degrees? And what if you are out of answers and questions
 and just want to crawl into the foetal position and call it a day?

So what do you do in that situation? Do you buckle under the pressure?
 Does your hair fall out? Do you, like me, pull out the Donna Hay
 cookbook and bake cakes (I mean lots of cakes)? Or do you soldier on
 and work through the mess trusting in your own abilities to see you 
through to the end?

I've just noticed this blog has an overload of questions and not many 
answers. I must apologise, because certain recent events are still 
fresh in my mind and whilst I've overcome my problems I have had to 
reappraise everything that I thought I knew about clay. For me, it was 
as simple as adjusting the joins to a bevelled edge and adding a few 
large drying holes in the base of the vessel. What clay demands is 
that we pay attention, even to the smallest of details. One small 
misjudgement led to a deal of confusion and frustration. In the end I
 was able to overcome my technical dilemma in time and yet the whole 
process still seems to me steeped in mystery. I find it fascinating 
that sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't and yet we all return 
for more because our sense of achievement is greater because of the 

Suffice it to say that clay and I have made-up and this has resulted 
in a new-found respect for this ancient material. And more than that 
it has provided me with a deeper respect and admiration of ceramic 
artists who continue to grapple and beat into submission this 
unpredictable and yet alluring medium.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. That sounds so familiar! In my case I went through that recently because I used a different clay. Even though I had successfully used that clay before, the form I was working on was different, it had a lot more tension in it ... and it cracked... and again... I've gone back to my usual clay now and I'm keeping my fingers crossed!
    And yes, even if we are very familiar with clay, it still requires our attention to the smallest of details. One thing I have also come to realise is that the more a piece progresses toward being finished, the more aware and present we need to be every time we touch it, work on it, move it…

  3. It is heartening when experienced clay workers tell us about problems like this. I've still to work out why an electric kiln didn't get to temperature :^( Have learnt never to fire without cones though!

  4. Yes, well in speaking to experienced artists I realised to my surprise that even they had made mistakes that led to the loss of work. Now I had never experienced cracking on this level before and so it came as a shock when my work continued to ruin. I too was using an unfamiliar clay with the added pressure of a deadline for my solo show.
    Being present with the work is an interesting point- when a load of works came out of a bisque that weren't cracked, the more heightened my senses were when touching each piece. As soon as my attention started to decrease because of exhaustion I found I kept making mistakes, and I broke a piece. But as soon as I broke that work I knew it was because I wasnt fully present. When I broke a work as I saw it as a sign from myself to myself to pay attention. From there on, nothing went wrong.