After nearly forty years of being a potter, I have found a new clay that has won my heart in a way unknown to me. "Clay?" you say. Yup. Clay.
Clay recently, lovingly dug from northern New Mexico. Clay full of MICA, which is a powerful insulator, numinously beautiful and energetically medicinal. Pottery made from this clay can be used as cookware on the stovetop. That's right. Over an open flame. It is durable and holds the heat for a long, long time. Food or beverages cook and served in it tastes.....enchanted. And it sparkles, sparkles, sparkles.
I just got back from a week in northern New Mexico, where I met Felipe Ortega, while staying at his eclectic Owl Peak Pottery and B & B in La Madera. He is a Jicarilla Apache traditional potter and medicine man....and gourmet chef and baker. The cup in the photo is one of his mugs, which I purchased there, hugged all the way home on the airplane, and loved for two weeks. Then I heard the voice of my friend in north Idaho, sliding into her winter sad, and I realized I had to send my mug to her to shine up her dark days. It was the thing I loved the most, so I knew I had to send it. Now, I hear the lilt in her voice when we talk long distance.
See the black markings on the mug? Those are called fire clouds. It is where the wood of the fire rested on the pot during the firing. Fire clouds are ephemeral, uncontrollable and a true gift of the fire. This mug's entire inside is black, with cloud shapes kissing the outside in certain places.
I have fifty pounds of Felipe's hand dug micaceous clay and slip in my studio now. Working with it is all I really want to do now....but I have a big illustration job on my desk with an impending deadline. So I think about that clay as I do my work, and know that soon I will have the unbroken time to make its acquaintance in my studio, on my wheel, in my hands. This clay. It carries the medicine of the Earth. And I have fifty pounds of it, two big dark brown bags of it waiting for me.
This mug is magic. It carries the Corn Blessing that Felipe offers as each pot goes into its final fire. As my friend holds it to her heart, its medicine flows to mine.
Update! I have made three mugs and a vase from the clay and I've added photos. Since they were my firstborn, I impressed rock art images of a birthing woman and Kokapelli, the humpbacked flute player of the Southwest.
These pots are now "leather hard". When they dry, I will apply mica slip and polish them with a smooth rock.. The last photo shows a chunk of the mica slip, which I will soften with water to apply it to the pots. It will add a glistening sparkle to the surface, and become the glaze.
Update 2: Handling the Handles.
As you can see from the photos, I am experimenting with handles. I followed Felipe's lead on the first one, attaching the handle to the plane of the rim, to create a continuous line. With this design, the thumb rests on top and serves as leverage when lifting and tipping the mug to drink. The other two handles are more traditional for me, "pulled" and attached to the wall of the mug, a bit below the rim, with a depression for the thumb to nestle into.
Update 3: Four More.
Today I finished four more mugs, experimenting with shapes, trimming a foot on the bottom of three, and leaving the cutoff wire scallop pattern on the bottom of the fourth. I left these mugs smooth, to practice the burnishing process, which is next. I used Felipe's handle design on all four. Pictures soon.
Update 4: Mica Slip and Burnishing
I was able to "slip away" from holiday revels and spend a happy hour or so in my studio today, sanding the drying mugs, then applying a first coat of micaceous slip with a sponge. After it dried somewhat, I burnished the mica surfaces with a smooth river stone, a quartz rock and a rubber rib. Experimenting with several to see what seems to work best.
The burnished clay takes on a smooth shine after burnishing. I get the impression that I am smoothing the platelets of clay molecules so the mica has a reflective surface to shine on. I'm not really sure if this is happening, but it seems so.
When I was finished I walked home through the woods, passing the eucalyptus trees where hundreds of monarch butterflies are clustered together beating their wings to stay warm as the evening chill descends. As I stood watching the wings fluttering, it seemed the tree was breathing. Monarchs are orange and black, the same colors as a golden orange micaceous clay pot with black fire clouds. I may add some butterfly accents to a future pot in honor of the monarchs who migrate here in the winter, on their way to Mexico.
Update 5: Bowls and a Butterfly Today (Dec. 28) I threw seven bowls on my potters wheel. I will trim the bottoms tomorrow by flipping each one upside down onto my wheel and finishing the bottom with a trim tool and rubber rib. I have learned that the smoother I make the pots on the wheel, the less hand smoothing/sanding I'll have to do later on. This clay requires so much hands on sanding and polishing. The mugs on the top shelf of my drying rack are now polished and are awaiting the fire. Once I trim, sand, slip and polish the bowls I will have enough to fill my kiln. Just for fun, I made some beads, bear, raven and corn goddess pendants from the clay. I shot the photo of the monarch butterfly in the woods by my studio. There are about five hundred more of them in the branches above!