New Instructor Teaches Ancient Art Of Ceramics

Elan Hughes smooths her vessel as the potter's wheel spins without mercy.

Elan Hughes smooths her vessel as the potter's wheel spins without mercy. Photo by Andy Towle. |

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“This is one of the oldest art forms that’s ever been or will be,” said David Sanchez, the ceramics instructor at Gila Community College (GCC).

Evidence of pottery used as vessels dates from 16,000 B.C., according to a University of Cleveland Web site.

Although ceramics can survive thousands of years buried in archaeological digs, Sanchez’s class follows the rule: “Don’t fall in love with a piece until both firings are done.”

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An unfinished pot waits to dry before the next step is taken to give it color, glazing or whatever else the maker has in mind.

Even then, transporting the piece home could prove fatal, (one student dropped her vase in the parking lot). Once home, the piece could come crashing to the ground in an accident.

This doesn’t seem to bother students in the GCC ceramics studio. The chance to play with clay erases any worries over losing their craftwork. They busily create from 8:30 when class starts, until 2:30 when it ends — Monday and Tuesday. Some students come from as far away as Tonto Basin and Pine.

“This is a socially acceptable way to play and make a mess,” said Sanchez.

Sanchez started as the GCC ceramics instructor last fall. He took over from Gary Houston.

Born in Flagstaff, Sanchez’s family moved to Kansas where he started studying ceramics in high school. He finished his studies at Northern Arizona University.

Sanchez’s love of the art has spread to his wife, Irma.

“He made a mess everywhere and I wanted to see what he did, so I joined in. Our (pottery) wheels are in our living room in front of the TV,” said Irma as she sat in class rolling out a project.

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Natalie Elliot shapes the bottom of this bowl with precision during a Gila Community College art class.

All levels of potters take Sanchez’s class. To get students comfortable with clay, Sanchez begins by having students explore coil pots.

“One of the first things I teach is how to roll a coil,” said Sanchez.

To help, he makes tools available. For coils, he has a tool that resembles a Spritz cookie press. Different attachments create round, triangle, star, or square coils.

Clay comes in five different types. Colors range from white to deep red-brown. The white clay has more elasticity, while the deep red-brown has more density and so less elasticity.

The coiling exercises enable students to play with the different types of clay to feel the unique textures of each type.

Once students master the art of the coil, they create a pot. Layering coil upon coil the student makes the sides smooth with a scraper tool or sponge to produce a pot with a technique older than the potter’s wheel.

Debi Phipps took a sculpturing class in California before she moved to Payson. She decided to take Sanchez’s class to discover what she could fashion with pottery.

She utilizes a unique approach. Using all five types of clay and the coil pot technique, she makes vessels with layers of clay, which end up looking like the layers of strata on the Rim.

“I started this class in the summer. I’ve learned a ton,” said Phipps.

Another pre-wheel ancient technique involves slabs of clay. Sanchez has a machine to help roll out slabs of clay as thin as piecrust or thicker.

Applying a “slip and score” technique, students mold slabs together to make beautiful urns or flower vases.

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David Sanchez’s glazed pots, photo above, sit on a shelf in the finished area.

The scoring technique uses a tool to make hash marks on each side of the clay the student wishes to join together. The slipping refers to taking very wet remnants of clay mashed into the scoring to make a sort of cement to stick pieces together.

Mary Lou Culberg, a fifth semester student, created a vase using the slab technique. Using the Mullen leaf as a pattern, Culberg traced the leaf onto a slab of clay. The large leaves can grow to a foot in length. She pressed the veins of the leaf onto each clay leaf then used a stain made of a watered down version of green clay to bring out the details.

Culberg worked at the sink with a sponge to wash away extra green clay to leave the dark stain in the grooves.

“I’ll probably use a light green glaze to finish it off,” she said.

This vase will go into the Dec. 2 Gila Community College art show. Culberg said she usually gives most of her works to her family.

The most challenging method of molding clay involves the potter’s wheel. Developed after the coiled pot and slab methods of ceramic construction, evidence of the potter’s wheel comes from the Indus Valley from 4,000 B.C., said researchers at DePauw University.

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All lined up and hard on the wheel, Chuck Warner, Elan Hughes and Tilla Warner, are bent over their clay in concentration. Natalie Elliot listens as David Sanchez gives instruction on several methods of shaping the base with different tools before actually doing anything.

The learning curve for the potter’s wheel takes longer than the other methods.

“It can take some an average of three months to learn how to throw a pot. Some just have the talent and can throw a pot their first time out,” said Sanchez.

Each pot thrown on a wheel sits on a bat, or removable flat disc. The potter spins the wheel and works with the clay to make bowls, cups or pots.

Once potters achieve the shape they desire, they slice off the bottom to let the piece sit in the air overnight to dry into a leather-hard state. Clay at the leather-hard state has slight pliability while losing most of its water content.

During this leather-hard state, potters make finishing touches to the bottom of their pottery wheel piece to make it attractive and well shaped, said Sanchez.

Leather-hard pieces go through a first firing in the kiln. This firing completely removes all water from the clay eliminating any elasticity while altering the clay color due to chemical changes in the minerals.

After this firing, the clay will never alter its shape, unless it is broken.

The final step involves glazing the piece. Glazing protects the piece from liquids while adding decoration.

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Chuck Warner shapes this container by hand as he smooths out the interior, during a Monday morning pottery class at Gila Community College.

“When we get a new glaze, no one knows what will happen,” said Sanchez.

In fact, the whole firing process is just one big educated guess, he said.

If any part of the clay has an air pocket, that piece can blow up in the kiln, ruining all other pieces in that firing. The temperature could be wrong and ruin a whole batch of work. The clay could not react how the student wanted and also ruin the entire project. Firing is an adventure.

For Sanchez, he loves to share his knowledge of the art with his students.

“I like people to be individuals. I don’t like keeping people in a box,” he said.

The ceramics class will have pieces for sale on Dec. 2 at the Fourth Annual Art Show and Sale at Gila Community College in the 100 building from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. Refreshments will be served.

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