Monday, June 28, 2010


Remember how excited I was, and how I couldn't wait and then they postponed it and I was so sad? Well, we FINALLY got to do the raku firing. Ideally, this doesn't happen when it's 98 degrees outside, with high humidity, since you're playing with fire and need to be covered in long pants (all natural fibers!) but I'll take it whenever I can get it!

Raku pottery uses special glazes and a particular firing technique which creates an oxygen reduction. This brings out the metallic colors of the glazes and you end up with pots that can look like gasoline spilled on blacktop - irridescent and metallic. I love the look, but there are some things to be aware of. This is a very unpredictable process. If your walls are not even, or sometimes just because, the pot can explode from the thermal shock. It is pretty much impossible to predict what your pot will look like after. Even the most dependable of glazes can behave erradically in the kiln, so if you're a control freak who needs to KNOW what your pot will look like when complete, this is not the process for you.

Also, raku is NOT food safe due to some of the more toxic elements in the glazes. We mostly dipped with some brushing to add the glazes, and we were outside in a very well ventilated area. Some people use airbrushes to spray the glaze on. If you do this, you MUST use a very good respirator CORRECTLY. (Someone in NC was seriously injured this year when she installed the filters incorrectly in her respirator - her lungs were seriously burned from inhaling the chemicals in her glazes and she almost died.) Unlike typical pottery, the reaction is not complete so it is necessary to seal your raku to keep the colors vibrant. I'll be using grout sealer, per my instructor's recommendation.

The first step, of course, is to have bisque. You must use clay capable of going to cone 6 and it must be a robust clay to stand up to the thermal shock. I shared a sleeve (25 pounds) of Highwater Raku clay with P. It's a bit more groggy (more sand) than I've gotten used to, so throwing it was interesting. This is the bisque that I had ready to go for the firing.

P picked me up, with coffee ready, and we were off around 8:00 am. The studio is at the instructor's home and is located about an hour away. Once we arrived, we greeted her German Shepherd, refridgerated everything for lunch (we'd decided on potluck, so everyone brought something) and headed to the studio.

As with any firing, the first step is preparing the bisque. She had compressed air to clean the pots or you can wipe them down with water to remove any dust. Then wax the bottoms to keep the glaze off - I dribbled a bit on one pot and once the wax is on there, you can't get it off without refiring so I used a brush to splat wax here and there on the pot. (Sometimes I think that I haven't necessarily gotten better at the pottery, I've just gotten better at making my mistakes look intentional.)

Second step: glazing. Chose your glazes so the colors and textures compliment your pot. Or, if you have no idea what the colors will look like, slop them all over the place and have fun!

Step three: loading the kiln. This is the first step that is a bit different for raku. As you must pull the pots quickly from the kiln, you load them with an eye to getting them back out. (For an electric kiln, the pots stay put until cool so you can pack 'em in there pretty much any which way.) The kilns we used for this were lowered down over the stack of bisque, so planning became even more important - you don't want to not have room for the kiln to be lowered. Once everything is stacked and ready, the kiln was lowered into place and lit. (These were both gas fired kilns.) Then we waited forever.

While we waited, we shredded massive amounts of newspaper into a large trash can. We also made "gaskets" by completely submerging 8 - 10 open sheets of newpaper in water. These we set to one side for later. We also got the metal garbage cans ready for the next steps. We emptied any ash out, covered the bottom of each garbage can with sawdust and a handful or two of the shredded paper, and made sure we knew where the lids were.

Step four: pulling pots. When the glazed pots were ready, we pulled on heavy fire gloves and grabbed long handled tongs. The kiln was raised. (The main kiln was rigged with a concrete block counterbalance, which made it MUCH easier than the secondary kiln. That one required us to put a rod through the handle on the top, and two people raised the kiln up and over. Both the guys lost most of the hair on their legs, and I was fairly convinced that my pants were going to catch on fire.) The pots were glowing red hot, and the heat was incredible. We reached in with the tongs, grabbed a pot, and put it in a metal garbage can. The paper people then threw several handfulls of shredded newspaper into the can, then another pot, then more paper until the can was about 3/4 full. Then the wet paper gasket was placed over the can and the lid fitted over that.

Step five: burping the pots. After everything sat for half an hour or so, we lifted the lid and introduced more oxygen into the garbage cans. Once the fire flared up, we added more newspaper if needed and shut the lid again.

Step six: into the water. Everything sat for another hour or so. (And we took the opportunity to go off and have lunch - YUMMY. P made an amazing apricot cheesecake, I made marinated cheese and a fruit salad, there were sandwiches, pasta, veggies and dip, more fruit - everything was REALLY good!) After we ate, and dragged ourselves back to the kilns, we used the tongs again to root around in the trashcans and find all of the pots. We put them into the water to quench them and they stayed there until they were cool enough to handle.

Step seven: out of the water. Once the pots had cooled, we fished them out of the water and rinsed them off. Some of the colors look even better if you scrub them with Ajax and a scotch bright.

Step eight: sealing. At some point, I will take my pots and seal them with grout and tile sealer. This keeps the colors from fading.

A separate part of the program was to be smoke painting. To do this, you put unglazed bisque in the kiln, heat it 'til it's glowing red, pull it out and immediately use feathers and horse hair to add designs to your piece. Once it's like you want it, let it cool and then polish it with several coats of wax. I tried this several times and failed miserably. I had one piece close, but I didn't realize that if you refired it to heat it up, you lost all previous attempts. Darn it! So, I ended up glazing everything 'cause smoke painting is currently beyond me. Part of the problem was that you have to work REALLY fast, and with 8 of us milling around, the pot was cooled off before I even really got to it. I'll need to play further with this.

And here are all of the after pictures. All in all, I've happy with how they turned out and with the whole experience. I definitely want to do it again one day!

Monday, June 21, 2010

I Did Not Die.


The trip started with my typical karma - at 10:30 pm Sunday night, I got a text that my 6:40 am flight was cancelled. The message from Delta was: "not to worry! We fixed it! You're on the same flight in two days!" It took nearly 3 hours on the phone to get scheduled on the next available flight out on Monday, you know since I was supposed to be there on Monday. As it was, I flew out of another airport several hours later so I missed the supplier meeting on Monday entirely. I arrived at the airport in El Paso around 10:30 pm Monday night, took the shuttle to the hotel and fell into bed.

Tuesday morning, we met in the lobby at 4:30 am to drive to the Juarez airport for the flight to Chihuahua. The driver got stuck at the border and was an hour late picking us up, then drove like a maniac through the town. We actually hit a man on a bicycle - we took a corner too fast, and he didn't look before he tried to cross the street. He hit the hood, his bike went one way, he bounced down the windshield and hit the road. He picked himself and his bike up and hobbled over to the side of the road. The driver asked if he was okay, he kinda waved and we took off. We did make our flight...

Should you find yourself in Chihuahua, I completely recommend the Soberano Hotel. It was a Westin hotel and is now apparently not. The rooms were beautiful, the bar was first rate, the lobby is gorgeous and there's really cool art all over the place. Also, they have a little gift shop where you can buy postcards and the hotel front desk will mail them for you. That is where these pictures were taken:

Also in Chihuahua, go to eat at a restaurant called "Barriga's." It means "fat belly" and you'll feel that way after you eat. So so good. They make REALLY good margaritas there too, and it's where I was introduced to my latest favorite tequila drink: 1921 creme de tequila. So very yummy! The service was fantastic too.

Wednesday was spent traveling from Chihuahua to Reynosa. You'd think it'd be easy, but no, you have to fly down to Mexico City and then back up.

Sigh. I'm happy to report no ill effects from the fresh fruit cup at the Starbucks in the Mexico City airport. Once we arrived in Reynosa, a supplier picked us up, jammed us into his pick-up and drove over the border to McAllen, Texas. We stayed at the Embassy Suites there. Those are nice hotels, but I was on the first floor, which is handicapped accessible so I didn't have a bathtub - the whole bathroom was the shower. Given the poor placement of handles, trays and such, and the very slippery floor, I'm not convinced that it was anything less than a death trap for anyone unfortunate enough to need the accessibility. Also, the soap is very demanding, and frankly, I don't need that first thing in the morning.

Dinner was someplace that the shuttle from the hotel would take us, and it was good. They made margaritas with DeSoronno, which were yummy.

I spent an hour and a half on the phone with the airline because it occurred to me at some point that my plane tickets home would take me to my town, instead of the one over an hour away where my jeep was parked. The nice lady on the phone assured me that it was all handled...

Thursday was the audit, which was weird for me 'cause the audit had to stop for a couple hours while the building shut down and the whole place gathered in front of the projection screen to watch the Mexico vs. France world cup game. I'm glad Mexico won.

We got back to the hotel after 9:00 pm and my coworker wanted to catch the end of the basketball game so we headed out to Buffalo Wild Wings. If you are ever in McAllen, Texas, DO NOT go there. The service was AWFUL. I ordered a strawberry margarita. After three requests, and an hour, had passed, the girl brought out the drink - it was syrup in a glass. They had that super sweet mix that some places use to make frozen margaritas, but they couldn't figure out the blender or whatever 'cause she told me that they couldn't do frozen drinks. Oh-kay... The food was cold when it finally arrived, she never did get a drink order right. At one point, I resorted to scrawling "WE REQUIRE SERVICE" across a paper towel with the sharpie I keep in my purse and sticking it as high on the wall as I could reach. Then she completely screwed up our bill and had to redo it THREE times. Gah!

Friday, I flew from McAllen to Houston on Continental with no problems. The Continental lady told me that she couldn't check me in for my other flights but said it would be easy to do in Houston. I didn't realize how HUGE the Houston airport is - I've only gone in and out through the international terminal. Holy crap. First I walked about a hundred miles to the tram. Then the tram dropped me off four terminals later and I walked ANOTHER hundred miles to a specific gate, where I caught a bus to ANOTHER terminal and then I walked about another fifty miles to the gate... and all of this without ever once spying anything to do with Delta - it was all continental. As it happened the only Delta guy I found told me that I had to go all the way back - and thru security - to the ticket desks to get the ticket reissued. He didn't have time to help me. So I spent another hour on the phone with Delta getting it fixed. I finally got my boarding passes - although needing boarding passes when I was clearly on this side of security completely confused the gate person who printed them for me. Then I flew to Atlanta, and then onward to my final destination. Whew!

While in the air somewhere over the States, I noticed the clouds marching along in formation. It fascinated me - as far as the eye could see, orderly lines of clouds. Weird!

I noticed a large contingent of biker-looking guys in the airport, looking much more somber than I am used to, and when I went out to the jeep, their bikes all had large flags attached to the back. When I was pulling out, I understood. They'd brought someone home on my flight, and the bikers were an honor guard to escort the casket. As tired and cranky as I was, I didn't mind waiting at all.

I was as grateful to have the Garmin on the trip home as I was the trip there - I'd have NEVER made it without her. They have hidden that airport well but the Garmin was up to the task!

I was SO glad to be home! Yay for sleeping in one's own bed!

Final thought - if you have an iphone, look into the "dial zero" application. It is a directory and instructions on how to get your hands on a real live person when you call a company for something. In my case, I might STILL be in Houston without it. Not only does it have listings by company, but it's got comments on each listing. The Delta number was only getting me an automated response - "We're sorry but call volumes are super high and we're eating donuts so you can't hold or leave a message. Just call back, maybe you'll be the lucky one!" click. buzz. - but someone in the comments had left the Spanish speaking number. Here's the irony - all of the people working the Spanish speaking number speak English AND no one ever calls it so you get right through. So, thanks to that app (I love my iPhone!), I made it home!