Thursday, February 17, 2011

Steven Hill Pottery Workshop

Steven Hill throwing one of his signature pitchers on the wheel. (Click any of the photos to enlarge)
I tend to stumble across wonderful things quite by accident. In late January I e-mailed my friend Phil Fishwick in Southern Oregon with a glaze question, and in his reply he mentioned that Clayfolk would be bringing Steven Hill to Ashland for a workshop in February. Having seen Steven's work in many prestigious clay magazine articles over the years, I jumped at the chance to go and I am quietly thrilled at how deeply satisfying an experience it was.
Perhaps in every way, Steven Hill's pottery and clay working technique is as opposite as it could be from my own. Yet, there are striking similarities in our respective philosophy and personal relationship to clay that resonated both with me and with many of the students in the workshop.
Mugs by Steven Hill. 
Steven began working with clay 41 years ago. For years he has been known as one of very few potters around who single fires - that is, he completes making a piece, dries it bone dry, glazes (by spraying) and then fires it. Most potters, including me, fire the pot twice: Once when the piece is made (a low temperature bisque firing) and then a second time after the piece is glazed. I never really understood how a piece could be single fired without exploding in the kiln before the workshop, but with Steven showing us how to do it, it seemed simple. Which, of course, is usually the case when I see a master potter at work!
In 2008, Steven switched from firing his work in high fire gas kilns in a reduction atmosphere to a lower temperature using electric kilns, firing in oxidation. What is amazing about this is that you cannot tell the difference between the glaze effects on his new works compared with his old works. This is a huge myth buster, and because of this, Steven is in demand as a workshop teacher around North America.
Our workshop started off with Steven talking about his early influence from American ceramic pioneer Don Reitz and the type of glaze effects Don acheived, which he desired for his own pottery. Because of difficulties with zoning laws and permits, he was not able to build a soda kiln when he started out in his first studio, which lead him on a quest to find a way to replicate the effects of atmospheric kilns (such as a salt or wood fired kiln) in a gas kiln. Sounds simple, but believe me, this was a monumental task that evolved over many years.
(l-r) The same mellon pitcher, final drying, glazed, and after the firing. 
Steven makes wonderful forms. He calls his signature pitchers "Mellon Pitchers", and explained that his lovely bowls were inspired by a story someone told him about swimming with stingrays in the Carribean. Without ever having seen one, he came up with a lovely bowl that does, in fact, give a sense of graceful motion.
The bowl shape inspired by stingrays.
And motion is what he wants to achieve with his pots. His cylindrical forms suggest elevation from several spirals incorporated in them, from a subtle touch at the base and rim, to overt, where the walls are given bold spirals at the end of the throwing stage on the pottery wheel. To add a last touch of texture that enhances the movement of the piece, he slathers great gobs of slip onto the pot and moves the surface of the slip into harmony with the shape of the form. He said it again and again during the workshop, the form of the pot is as critical as the glaze that goes on it. Without a pleasing form, no amount of glaze technique can make the pot any better.
Steven applying glaze to a pitcher. 
Steven sprays his glazes, which allows him to apply many layers of glaze on top of each other. The final result of his glazing technique is a very deep, rich, satisfying finish. He explained that what we were seeing on his finished pots were separate layers of glass melt, one on top of the other, the result of which could not be duplicated by any other glazing technique. You don't need to know any of this, however, when you hold one of his pots in your hands. Educated about the technique or not, you can't help but drool over his unique work.
In response to the all-to-common issue of beginning and intermediate potters trying to replicate a master potter's work, Steven had this to say: "You have to find your own voice, your own unique expression in clay. We all get inspiration from other pots and potters. The thing is to find your own interpretation of these influences and make them yours." He also went on to say that one of the best sources of inspiration for pottery is from historical pottery. "For one thing, it's been proven to work as a form or a body of work if it has been around and admired for hundreds or thousands of years. For another, if you get inspired by it, you're not going to be seen as copying a contemporary ceramic artist's style, while you are exploring and incorporating this influence into your own expression in clay."
During the workshop we all had a chance to glaze some of our own pots using spray techniques Steven taught, and then our pieces were fired. On the final day of the workshop we unloaded our pots, still super hot, from the kiln, and had a lovely wood-fired pizza fest and critiqued our work. (The clay studio at Southern Oregon University has a wood burning pizza oven in the kiln yard - a brilliant idea!)
I left this workshop with a renewed spirit and gratitude towards the forces in my life that have led me to working full time with clay. Spending time with a master potter as generous and talented as Steven Hill will do that to you! When you watch the video, you'll also hear Steven's musical talents - he's a great guitarist!