Under the dust mask, I can feel my teeth glued together. The two bands that hold the mask in place wince my jaw shut. I need water so I take off the mask and the studio settles, as motes of clay dust drift to the concrete floor. I pry my jaw open, hearing molars squeak. The water is refreshing and brings me out of the drone.
I go into a methodical spin when I’m working in a groove. The damp feel of the clay reminds me of the cool earth of spring after the thaw. Dandelions dot the first signs of chartreuse green cascade of the boulevards, as my manganese dots the clay. The slab is my garden and the tiles are what I grow. I know the bumps and divots of each mold, where a dragonfly wing rips off or when a daisy leaf tears, I know how to fix these things.
After the clay in the mold dries, I tap out the tile. I trim the edges with a knife and smooth the flat surface with the tips of my fingers. The decorative piece is the design, and I touch up with a sharp, rubber tipped pencil type device I call the “smoother outer”. It has an orange handle and has opposing ends of two sizes. One end is a centimeter in diameter and the other about half the size with an oval slanted flat edge. The rubber doesn’t leave blemishes in the clay and won’t smear the manganese. I also use a thin, small flat stick device that has a wire loop at one end and a sharp point at the other, the WS 23. The width is about a half centimeter and one convex side forms a slight curve opposite. The end tapers into a point that I use to knock off loose clay that caught in the mold and ripped. This often happens with grapes, turtle shells, flower petals, the edges of the wine bottle and the wings of birds. I use the wire looped end to carve out areas where clay shouldn’t be, like between leaves, or the handle of a tea cup or the inner elbow of a crab claw. It is delicate work I call pruning. The other main tools I use are my index finger and thumb.
Every mold has imperfections, when the original is made, plaster is poured over a prototype set in the middle of a square Tupperware container about ten centimeters deep. The plaster sets in about ten minutes. It bubbles and chemically gets warm. You have to hit the sides of the plastic container it sets in, because small pockets of air can adhere to the clay prototype, leaving a void that will eventually fill with clay when you pound it. These tiny balls of clay and all other imperfections need to be removed from the greenware before firing. If we bisque a tile with rough edges, or with these tiny bits of clay adhered, they need to be filed off before glazing. The filing takes significantly more time and effort that getting it off when it is wet, so it is crucial to make the tiles as clean as possible.
I am a pro. It took me about a year to get the proper gait. Now I just run through it, my colorful style swims with whatever music is on the radio. I move with each beat and sometimes my mind falls into nothing. I want it that way, like when your driving a road trip and you pass a mile marker and wonder where the last fifteen miles went. I’m like that with my tiles.
When I pound the clay I don’t think about anything but myself. I stand in a puddle of all my insecurities. I pound the clay or make the tile neat. The order is simple and the art precise. I look at my trade and imagine my soul feeling as easy. Then I hear a “POP!” from the kiln and think about a bubble of air I left trapped in a tile long ago.
The broken tile is a joke to me. Even if it is post glazed and being fired to stoneware and some bubble that survived the bisque is the culprit. The shards of the exploded tile will stick to the melting glaze of the other tiles in the kiln and ruin the whole batch. I feel awful for a moment and then remember that my imperfections are what make me so great.