My Year of Clay By Emily Gleason
The truth is, the best, most profound experiences of my life have been someone else’s idea. My apprenticeship at the Donkey Mill Art Center’s Ceramic Studio over the last year is no exception. I was glazing a piece of work in the studio on a fall afternoon in 2021 when Allison Tan, the then ceramic studio apprentice, approached me. “My apprenticeship is almost over, and I think you’d be great to take over the position,” she said. When the universe opens doors, I’ve learned to follow, especially when it comes to something I love. I began my apprenticeship in the ceramics studio November 1st, 2021.
Jake Boggs, the DMAC Ceramics Studio Coordinator served as my fearless mentor. Jake is a talented artist and fantastic teacher who has a genuine love for ceramics. He earned his BFA from Eastern Kentucky University and his MFA from the University of Hawaii Manoa, both in studio art with a concentration in ceramics. Jake is especially skilled on the wheel. He is able to throw massive amounts of clay, creating giant vessel sculptures and vases, to which he then applies complex surface decoration and glazing techniques. He also has an enduring curiosity that is the mark of a true ceramic artist in my opinion, forever testing out things in the kiln – sand, rock, and mysterious recipes for glazes and slips passed down from other potters. He is very knowledgeable about ceramic art history and different ceramic artists, often suggesting to look up a specific artist’s work to illustrate a certain technique or style in which I’ve expressed interest.
Jake spent a great deal of time training me in every major aspect of running the ceramic studio over the course of my apprenticeship, and shared many helpful insights on how to be a working artist. Having survived, and not been responsible for any major catastrophes in the studio, I am now ready to share my story.
Jake at work in the studio.
The Bottom of the Barrel
The apprenticeship began at the bottom. The bottom of the clay recycle barrel to be exact. A primordial ooze in which you never quite know what you might find…a long lost sponge, a forgotten rib tool, a gecko who suffered an unlucky fate. The clay-water mixture in the recycle barrel ferments in the tropical heat, emanating a unique and pungent odor. Recycling the clay requires hefting out great armfuls of the stuff with your bare hands and spreading it evenly across the table to dry to a certain degree of malleability, upon which it is run through the pug mill to produce bags of recycled clay for purchase and use by students. After processing several batches of recycled clay over the course of the last year, I can say with confidence that I have finally learned Peter (the pug mill’s) quirks and am able to finesse from him a perfectly moist, detritus free, 30 lb bag of clay. (Knock on wood.)
Once I mastered the art of recycling and pugging clay, I learned to mix glazes. While pre-formulated glazes can be bought, the most cost effective way is to mix your own from raw materials. This also allows you more freedom to formulate and mix different glaze recipes and even come up with your own.
Most of the materials used to make glaze, like silica, are hazardous. So you have to wear a respirator or mask. Each glaze has a recipe, with each ingredient making up a certain percentage of a whole. We weigh each ingredient one at a time on a digital scale, then combine everything together in a large bucket and mix with water, using a large metal whisk-like tool attached to a power drill.
I came to understand that power tools factor prominently in the life of a ceramic artist. For instance, I learned how to use an electric angle grinder to remove glaze that had melted off of certain student’s (I’m not going to name names here) pieces in the kiln and fused to the kiln shelves.
Playing with Fire
Following glazing, it was time to learn about firing the kilns. This was the aspect of the apprenticeship I was most interested in, but also terrified of. At the DMAC ceramic studio, we have two computerized electric kilns which we use for bisque firing and oxidation glaze firing. We also have two manual gas powered kilns, which are typically used for reduction firing.
When I say manual, I mean that everything, from lighting the kiln, to monitoring the temperature using pyrometric cones, to controlling the amount of oxygen that is let into or cut off from the kiln is done by hand. These days, most gas powered kilns are computerized. The opportunity to learn how to fire a manual gas kiln in reduction in the old school style has been a valuable opportunity as an apprentice.
Firing the reduction kiln at the Donkey Mill Art Center Ceramics Studio.
A reduction firing is characterized by cutting off some oxygen to the kiln. You can smell a smokey, chemical scent when the kiln is in reduction. Glazes containing metallic oxides react differently in a reduction firing. For instance, glazes containing copper oxide fire green in oxidation, but fire a beautiful bright red with mottled silver spots in reduction. In addition, clay bodies fire a richer, darker color. Each reduction firing is different, and the element of mystery involved is exciting. After supervising me through several firings, Jake gave me the go-ahead to fire the reduction kiln solo.
Another important thing I learned during my apprenticeship is that there’s a vast opportunity for things to go wrong when you’re working with clay. It is probably not a good medium for people with control issues, or maybe, it could be just what you need to practice letting go.
A forgotten pocket of air can cause your piece to explode during bisque firing, or you can break it before it even gets to the kiln. I recently knocked the head off my sculpture that I spent several days working on when it was bone dry, trying to place it on a shelf. Then, there’s glazing — or, as Jake likes to call it, “the last chance to f#*! it up!” You can never quite be sure how your work is going to come out of the glaze kiln.
With all this unknown, the only way to survive as a ceramic artist without suffering a nervous breakdown is to practice non-attachment. I’ve heard another artist say “don’t be too precious about it.” I think this is a wise approach to art and to life. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Find meaning in the process, not just the finished product.
One of Emily’s sculptures that broke during bisque firing.
Clay For Recovery
I feel very lucky to have had the opportunity to apprentice at the DMAC ceramic studio and I wanted to find a way to share this gift with others. My personal story inspired me to start a pilot program called Clay for Recovery. For me, working with clay is about more than artistic expression. It’s about healing. I have been in recovery from trauma and addiction since 2016. In sobriety, clay became a positive outlet for me to process emotions and reconnect with myself after over fifteen years of being out of my body.
Through my recovery journey, I got to know the Bridge House, a sober living home, which happens to be located directly mauka of the Donkey Mill Art Center. One day, while working in the studio, an idea came to me: what if I could bring residents of Bridge House to the DMAC ceramics studio?
In September 2022, with the support of Jake, Miho, and Bridge House staff, we launched a three week pilot program. The program began with me visiting the Bridge House and sharing my recovery story. I brought some clay with me, and as I talked, we all worked on our own little lump of clay.
Over the next three weeks, Bridge House residents came to the ceramics studio where I led them in creating decorative clay masks. The residents dove into the project, creating masks that brought their emotions and personalities to the surface. Many of them chose to depict what they considered the face of their disease. One resident made a mask that looked like an erupting volcano. I remember her telling us, “everytime I make art with a volcano in it, Pele wakes up.” When Mauna Loa started erupting less than two months later, I got chicken skin.
The experience was extremely moving for all of us. The Bridge House staff conducted written surveys with the residents before and after the sessions and the feedback was overwhelmingly positive. They couldn’t wait to come back and keep creating. It illuminated this incredible hunger for a creative outlet amongst people in early recovery. They told me how they liked working with clay because they could just be present, and forget about life’s stresses. I think there is great potential in using clay arts as a tool for people trying to recover from trauma and addiction. I am hopeful to be able to continue this program in 2023.
Masks made by Bridge House residents in the Clay for Recovery Pilot Program.
Perhaps the most valuable thing I learned over the course of the apprenticeship is that I am, without a doubt, a clay person. It’s a gift to know who you are, to your core. I am a ceramic artist and I want to keep working with clay for the rest of my life.
As I’ve learned about the art form from Jake, and from many talented visiting artists who came to teach at the Mill during my apprenticeship, including Richard Notkin, Daven Hee, Elyse Pignolet, Yeonsoo Kim, Joey Chiarello, Amber Aguire, and others, my own work has grown and developed exponentially. I shifted from making mostly functional items, to now working almost exclusively in sculpture.
This experience has made me realize that I want to keep learning and pursue a career in ceramics. I have been working hard over the last few months to create a portfolio to apply to graduate school. Ceramics MFA programs are highly competitive, but I know if I’m meant to go, I’ll get in. Regardless, the apprenticeship has truly altered the direction of my life. I am now going head first into the mud, and I couldn’t be happier.
Mahalo to Jake, Miho, Allison, and all the other Donkey Mill Art Center members and staff for your support.
Pictured Above, left to right:
Dream (2022) By Emily Gleason. 10” x 6” x 2.5” hand built, stoneware (two different clay bodies), stains, underglaze, glaze, fired to cone 6 in reduction
“Sixteen” (2022) By Emily Gleason. 16” x 13” x 8” Stoneware, porcelain slip, underglaze, glaze, fired to cone six in oxidation.
Man Eater (2022) By Emily Gleason. 8” x 2.75” x 7” Hand built, stoneware, oxide stains, underglaze, fired to cone 6 oxidation, with nail polish finish.
Emily Gleason served as the Donkey Mill Art Center Ceramic Studio Apprentice from November 2021 – December 2022. She is also a writer and contributes a monthly article feature to the Donkey Mill Art Center’s blog. Follow her @emilysouthpaw on Instagram to see more of her work.