The Potter’s Cast

Here’s a Podcast I did at NCECA! Check it out if you’ve got some time.

Turning Wild Rocks to Glaze | Matt Fiske | Episode 527

You can also listen here.

Some excerpts:

Where does one get a ball mill?

You can go right over there in the conference hall. Shimpo makes them. (We are at NCECA)

I did a residency in Denmark and they had a ball mill but it wasn’t working properly, so I actually made my own ball mill. And I just took stoneware clay and I made a big jar and figuring out the lid was kind of tricky, but I was able to do it basically like a pipe clamp and a rubber lid on this jar, and I built a little frame that mounted to a potter’s wheel.  And the potters wheel turned a gear that turned the jar. You can see a picture of it on my Instagram. Yeah, you can build a ball mill pretty easily as long as you have a motor and  something that is going to turn the jar, there is a bunch of different ways.

What is the average cost if someone wanted to buy a ball mill?

A couple hundred bucks, I think. You can use a rock tumbler too. The hobbyist rock tumbler. You could buy one for fifty bucks probably used all the way up to a couple of thousand for a high end one. I think it is actually more correct to call it a jar mill. A ball mill, I think, refers to the mining industry and those are big room size jars that spin. It’s the same concept. Water plus a grinding material plus spinning is milling.

You said you use porcelain balls or stoneware  balls. Do those dissolve in the process also?

No, ceramics is amazing because it is really resistant to that. When I made my ball mill in Denmark, I used high temperature porcelain, so I fired that porcelain to cone 12. And I was expecting to see a little bit of erosion on the beads that I made, but I didn’t see any. That stuff is really, really tough. I have even heard of people using PVC pipe.

Why make your own mineral content, like getting it from nature, why do it that way?

That’s a great question and I wonder that sometimes when I am in the middle of some back breaking labor. In my case right now, it costs so much money to ship up materials that if I can access it, it is worth my time, economically speaking, to go out and process and harvest this stuff myself. It hasn’t always been the case and so it is just interesting to me. At the end of the day it is just endlessly fascinating to go out and mill rocks and make stuff out of common dirt. I have been doing it for ten years and the novelty has not worn off, in fact I am just more interested in what’s next and what I can find.

How much of the nuances drive you to get to the next test?

I don’t know. I don’t think it’s unique. It is kind of surprising that in this day and age we have sort of forgotten about this process. Because when you go way back in history it was just kind of a given that the potters were using the local materials. These oil spot glazes that happened in China, that was the local material. So all these kiln sites popped up around those clay deposits.

Do you have a message or a story that you are trying to communicate with your work?

Yeah, absolutely. It is tied into making. Just the possibility of taking a raw material and making something beautiful. That, for me, is the motivation and that is what I want people to see, a pretty object that they can use. I love making mugs because everybody drinks something, whether it is tea or coffee or bourbon or orange juice, everybody drinks something. So I have always gravitated towards pottery because I love that my work can make it out there. So it is an added bonus when people hear this story that this glaze is made out of a rock that he went out and found. A lot of people that collect my work have some sort of connection to that place and that is really cool.  I have a series of pieces where the glaze is made out of rock and those pieces are actually sitting on the rock itself , so I will cut and polish the rock base and sit the pieces on the rock itself. So it sort of tells the story, you know, of the materiality and it is just sort of a full circle kind of  a deal.

Now that you are in Alaska, is it going to be a problem for you that you could become the tourist pottery maker?

Well, that’s a good question. That is always sort of a challenge in what we do in ceramics and in being a potter, not to become a cliche of yourself and sell out a little too much. I have been making some production pottery work and they are really quick to make and easy and they just have commercial glazes, they don’t have a ton of time and energy and thought put into them, but they are what I think are really nice well-made pots. When I am working on that stuff the challenge is it just using different muscles and there are different problems to solve. That is how I think about that. So I am just not dogmatic about any part of the process.

Author: mattfiske

My name is Matt and I'm a potter living in Southeast Alaska. I've been an artist/teacher/potter for the past decade, and I got my start in ceramics in high school some 18 years ago. These days I make my living selling wheel thrown pottery that sits at the intersection of ceramics/science/mineralogy/and geology.

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