My parents used to buy me modeling clay when I was a kid of about six. It came in a package from Walgreens. It was a brick of pencil thin strips in four colors; red, green, blue and yellow. I’d hand build creatures and play games with pennies and StarWars figures until the clay was a mass of brown ball. I adored the swirls of pattern I could produce by rolling the colors together. The psychedelic spindles of the anesthetic smelling clay rolled on old encyclopedias wrung me into a semblance of a whole make believe. I made snakes and had them lay eggs. I rolled the clay eggs and made baby snakes, I fed them more clay. They grew. I did too.
I was limited artistically as a kid. We had art for an hour once a week starting in second grade. Our first assignment was to color in a bird outline. The bird had to have the coloring of an actual species. The project was in conjunction with our one hour library portion of the week on Wednesday. Point was to research a bird and write a report and color a picture of a bird. Art was the first day of the project and our art teacher had a book on South American birds for us to use as reference. Most kids chose parrots and toucans and cardinals. I waited a day for research and settled on the robin. I did significant research and colored the bird with an orange head and black body. Most kids chose elusive birds of color in far away places and I had to hold up a picture of a bird we saw eat worms on rainy days.
I had my report due on Monday of the following week and I was shy and embarrassed that my bird was so plain. The next day in art, we were graded on our picture, I received a check minus, which is equivalent to sawdust. I was belittled and ashamed. I asked to do another bird for my art portion.
For the rest of the year, I made makeshift clay structures that inevitably “blew up” in the kiln. That art teacher cramped my artistic side in cahoots. My artistic side was crippled for years. It was in Bulgaria.
Art slept in me.
When I was about twenty one, I was in Ceske Budejovice touring a castle of Flemish tapestries and old books. The girl I was with pointed to a face painted over a door way.
“That’s you”. She said pointing.
It was me. It still is. Five years later I found clay again.
I quit my job on account of almost having a nervous breakdown with all the sorrow and monotony I swallowed my whole life. My friend told me to go work for his mom and sister, who designed and sold hand made decorative tiles. Ok.
Essentially, I take a 20lb block of coarse white clay and cut it with a wire into four equal square wedges. I arrange the square wedges into a big square on a slab roller. The slab roller is a table device with a large roller installed to press the clay into a sheet of desired thickness. The roller is on a solid, tubular metal frame with a 2 ½ foot X four foot mesa of canvas covered plywood. The roller is massive and is rolled by wheel that presses the clay with counter clockwise turns, across the board, right to left. A thick canvas sheet is placed over the clay and length of the board before rolling to ensure a smooth surface of the rolled clay. After I press the clay into a sheet, I turn the roller back to its original position and fold off the canvas covering. I am left with a slab of clay 5/8 of an inch thick. I sprinkle manganese on it like I would pepper a sandwich and use a pin to roll it in. My slab of clay is ready.
We have over one thousand decorative plaster molds of various sizes; flowers, fruits and vegetables, farm animals, sea creatures, insects, tea cups, and fish. We take the clay and pound it into the plaster molds, let it dry, bisque it, glaze it, fire it clean and sell it. I’m in charge of making the greenware. I take the clay form the slab and press it into the molds. I make a mound and then put some canvas over it and pound it in with a rubber mallet. Then I scrape off the excess clay with a dough cutter, making it smooth. I take a device I call the s-70 hooker and finagle a hole to loop a wire hanger through in the back. I let it dry. I tap it out of the mold when the edges separate from the mold and then I cut off the loose edges making a neat square. I trim the creature or flower or whatever I’m working on so that no bumps or lines remain to be filled or filed before glazing. My job is done and I just hope it doesn’t blow in the kiln.
After about a year, something strange started happening. My tiles would warp concave. When they dried, they would bend, reaching for something more. We tested variables; they clay was too wet, I was pounding too hard? Too soft. I was letting bubbles sneak in. The tiles blew in the kiln. I couldn’t understand and I asked questions no one could answer.
I asked my boss one day when she was loading the kiln,
”Why do my tiles bend?” I asked.
”Some tiles are thin, and some are thick. Clay remembers, if you bend it, bend it back, it will regress to where it was in the first place.” She looked at me, grabbing the tiles off the drying rack, bending over into the deep kiln.
I didn’t know what she meant. She was talking about me. We had become friends and she knew that I was hurting inside like a hungry Venus fly trap.
I was Zen then. I slapped my tiles right in the middle before I put them on the drying rack. I do it with a calm heart and don’t think about anything else but the clay. I give it my guidance. Some still bend like my second grade art teacher when I turned in my second bird to replace the robin. I picked the Oriole.