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Ceramic artists are awesome at failure!

I read an article a while ago about how ceramic artists are great at dealing with failure, it really hit the nail on the head for me. I realized after reading that article that it wasn't just in my work, but also how I handle failure in life in general, that comes directly from working with clay. This is tough but great life skill that not many acquire as well as we do. There are just so many variables to working with clay that most people do not think about unless you are really familiar with the process, some of these variables are in our control and others are not. One little misstep along the way and a piece we spent hours or even weeks making can be completely ruined.

It first starts with the clay and how we handle it. The clay itself is important and even that in its most basic form can make or break the success of a piece, literally. I make my own clay as I explained in my previous blog post. I mix it from 50 lb dry bags of chemicals. A few months ago I got distracted while making a batch of clay and added double the amount of one ingredient while completely leaving out another. Of course I did this unknowingly so I made sinks from the clay and after trimming the sinks added the scraps to my recycle bucket. I combined the recycle sraps with dry ingrediants to make new batches of clay because it conserves matherials. Unfortunately this process continued for 3 weeks until I finally started firing the sinks made from these batches and found out they were all cracking (the picture is of the sad remains of a few of these failed sinks). Of course I was heartbroken, that was 3 weeks of work completely ruined that needed to be redone let alone the sadness of three weeks of lost income. Since I am so accustomed to failure as a ceramic artist, instead of dwelling on my failure, I redid the work and it pushed me to tweak my clay body by adding another ingredient that actually improved the dry-ability of my clay. Errors made in the making process of clay work can also affect the piece. Our worst enemy is air pockets because as our work is fired if there is still even a tiny bit of moisture in the clay it will create trapped steam which expands and causes the piece to explode. No matter how well our clay is de-aired by a machine there can still occasionally be air pockets. The process of throwing can even trap an air pocket in the base unknowingly. Once these pieces are fired they can explode and even ruin work sitting next from explosion impact.

Glazes can also lead to failure. I mix my own glazes so if I mix a wrong batch like by mismeasuring something or ommiting something out it can totally ruin the piece or pieces I applied the glaze batch too. Glaze failure can also occur from the materials themselves. Manufactures are not always consistent with chemicals in our industry, sometimes impurities from other chemicals will be in a new batch and completely change the outcome of a glaze. Other times the same material but from different manufacturer can for some reason be totally different and change the outcome of the glaze. When this happens we are left to start all over with our trial and error investigation with the glaze or order the chemical from another manufacturer to see if that helps. Application can also ruin a peice. With my glazes if I get too little on the piece it might not grow crystals or they might be tiny running into each other which ruins the look I am going for.

The third thing that can lead to total failure of our work is the kilns and firing. Power outages are totally out of our control. My studio is in a rural area with a power coop, occasionally the power will just go out randomly if they are working on something or something fails. Strong storms can also lead to power outages if lightning hits a nearby pole. This can just be so frustrating because the work in is the final step and depending on what time of the firing it was on when the power outage happened it can completely ruin a whole kiln load of sinks. Kiln failure also happens, kilns are applience just like a dryer or a dishwasher and many of the newer ones, including mine, have computer controllers. If part goes bad, gets burned out or fails it can either trip the kiln to turn off or worse yet get stuck on and completely overfire. Fortunately I have not had two many missteps in overfiring but I have seen people from my clay group boards have catastrophic over firings that completely melted and fused work to shelves and even the kiln because everything basically became molten lava. Of course kiln user error can ruin work too. A few Christmases ago when I made mugs and things that were ordered as gifts. I loaded a pre-fire but accidentally had it programmed to a glaze firing. Because a glaze firing is a lot faster it didn't allow the kiln to preheat slowly and let the steam escape from the clay. This caused the whole load blow up! Opening a kiln to shards of broken pieces is just one of the most heartbreaking things that almost all people who work in clay have experienced at least once once. One more thing that happens in the kiln that is more unique to crystalline glazes is they run because they are so fluid at top temperatures. I fire them on catchers to catch the excess glaze but sometimes the catcher breaks or overfills and glaze runs between the shelves landing on the sink below. More then once I have had unloaded a shelf and found the sink below it with and unfortunate random deep blue spot from of a drip above!

Failures make us problem solvers. Failures cause us to improve our process. Failures sometimes lead to new discoveries such as a completely new breathtaking glaze (that is if we can figure out what we did "wrong" in order to replicate it). Failure is just part of what we do. For us our work life truly is a roller coaster ride, sometimes we are at the top of the world then at other times we are at a low because our work is failing and we can't even figure out what we are doing wrong. I am thankful for failure because I know it makes me better both as an artist and as a human!



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