Working With Black Clay: What I Hate, But Love Even More, About Making Black Stoneware Pots

Whenever I work with black stoneware clay, I regret it soon after having done so. Not because of the wonderful expressive results, of course, but because of the handling of this type of clay and the mess it creates.

Rustic Studio Pottery - Black Stoneware Bowl
Each time I start working with black clay, I promise myself that I will never, ever do it again. A short time of throwing, creating, joy and playfulness are followed by days of grinding my teeth, trying to clean up the studio. It’s like a curse. The more I wipe off the pitch-black residue from the surfaces concerned (be it the potter’s wheel, tools or just the floor of my small studio), the more blackness seems to come out of each and every little gap or crack that the clay could conquer. Even days later, I still find black dust and stains in places I would have sworn were never touched by this substance. It is a tedious, yet necessary task to give the pottery studio a deep clean after working with black clay… or else the dark stains could contaminate, next time I use the wheel, the sand-coloured clays I need, for example, for my standard tableware, WHITE IMPATIENCE and MERRY MUSTARD.
Working With Black Clay - Rustic Studio Pottery

A Dance of Equal Partners: Leading and Being Led By The Clay

This raises the question: why am I doing it then? Why use black clay at all? The answer is simple and complex at the same time. Unlike creating dinnerware, where a certain amount of similarity and predictability are of course essential (and it is my throwing that guides the clay into the required shape), working with black clay is a wonderful dance of two equal forces. What I mean by this is that, in this dance, there is no leading partner. The clay is allowed the same power and space to shape, create and define what it wants to become. It is a quest that expresses itself in movements, only controlled by me to a certain extent. There is a mysterious energy in the air when I manage to let go of some of the control, allowing the clay to take over until I am the one to lead again. It's a dance of giving and taking which creates an unforeseen strength and appearance in the object to be.
Rustic Pottery Bowls - WABI SABI Allowing the clay to flow, like semi-solid lava, to find its own way into shape is a large part of the process. What is required of me is to let go, look, listen and observe what kind of track the clay likes to follow. I can clearly say my role in this dance is to form and create only until intuition tells me to step back. The most important thing is to feel and recognise this impulse so as to avoid overdoing it. Awareness and respect for the material is needed to allow for a vivid, powerful ceramic pot to come into existence.
When this initial making process is over and the pot dries to a leather-hard state, I look at the whole composition ‘under progress’ and decide which aspects to emphasise in it, by applying red and/or white slip to the surface. Sometimes I carve into the object as well. Then, after bisque-firing the pot, I enter what I call the phase of ‘painting with glaze’, which adds the last layer of aesthetic meaning to it.
Kurinuki - Japanese Ceramics - WABI SABI art
What counts in the end is that each piece – even in its ultimate physical state – inhabits an open space in which it remains free to seemingly change its appearance over time, depending on who looks at it and how. Ideally, the ceramic object thus maintains its inherent power to communicate with the observer, born out of the constant tension of being and becoming, simultaneously.
I hope this special experience of working with black clay is reflected in the clay art objects of my GREY COINCIDENCE range – a sculptural selection of pots in darker shades, each with its own subtle strength and uniqueness. For me, there is no doubt that these expressive, decorative bowls and other clay art objects are worth all the mess produced by the black clay.
Small grey vases - Rustic Studio Pottery
Dark Brown Stoneware Bowls - Rustic Pottery
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1 comment

I so agree, and , for one, definitely think it’s worth the effort of cleaning up.
They are just beautiful and really speak to me. Little works of art

Julia Hetherington

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