Saturday, May 15, 2010

Create Ceramics for the Garden

Santa Cruz County has all the Resources You Need
Originally published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel, May 8, 2010

It’s Spring, it’s warm, and I’m outside again, digging in the dirt, schlepping bags of potting soil, rearranging plants, looking for ways to make my garden look well tended, fresh and dazzling. Last August, after visiting the Sierra Azul Nursery sculpture garden in Watsonville, I got this crazy idea to make a ceramic totem pole. There were some great examples at Sierra Azul, including works by Carole DePalma, Jenni Ward and Jane Reyes. Although I love lots of large-scale garden art, it’s often made with materials, such as steel and glass, which I expect might require some expensive cutting and welding tools and a large workshop. But ceramics seemed more doable, although I had to first overcome my three-dimensional art phobia.

Perhaps my 7-step history with ceramics is not uncommon:

  1. Had to take it in college (art major).
  2. Struggled on the wheel.
  3. Made lots of small, useless containers.
  4. Took a summer class.
  5. Learned to make pinched and coiled pots.
  6. Liked the cool, squishy feel of the clay, but never made anything satisfying.
  7. Convinced myself to stick with two-dimensional art in the future.

To begin my totem pole project I contacted an artist friend—Sally Diggory—who makes great ceramic garden sculpture and has a studio near my home. She was happy to teach me the basics in her studio. I brought in some photographs of shapes and pieces I liked, and we started with pinch pots.

Pinch Pots

Sally showed me how to start with two lumps of clay and end up with a rounded, hollow shape. The air trapped inside supports the shape until it is dry enough to poke a hole through. (Note: when creating a hole for sliding the pieces onto the center shaft of the totem pole, allow for shrinkage of the clay in firing.)


Sally showed me how to roll out the clay with a rolling pin between two sticks to keep the thickness of the clay uniform. She then showed me how to drape the slabs over molds for shaping and drying a bit, before removing the molds and joining the two pieces into a hollow shape.

If you don’t have an artist friend with a ceramics studio, these two techniques can be easily done at home, on your own, without a lot of space. First, get a good book on hand-built pottery. One I really like is Handbuilt Pottery Techniques by Jacqui Atkin. Then, check in your kitchen, bathroom and garage for items that can stand-in for the ones you might buy at an art store, such as:

Cutting wire: An 18-inch piece of thin wire, with the ends wrapped around two short dowels for cutting off wedges of clay from the slab

  • Large (about 24-inch square) piece of heavy canvas: Porous, non-stick surface for rolling out clay.
  • Wooden rolling pin: The longer the better, for rolling out slabs.
  • Two 18-inch pieces of wood, ¼ to ½-inch thick: These will act as roller guides on each side of the clay. The ends of the rolling pin rest on each guide to keep the thickness of the clay uniform.
  • Rasp blade: Use to pare down clay surfaces, create surface texture.
  • Small serrated knife: For cutting and trimming clay.
  • Tools: For carving, cutting holes, modeling, poking.
  • Large, flat wooden spoon: For beating, smoothing and texturing.
  • Sponge (natural is better): To smooth clay, remove glaze.
  • Brush and jar: To apply water or slip, and glaze.
  • Tools for shaping, texturing and stamping: These are everywhere you look. Credit cards cut into shapes, old mascara wands, buttons, flea comb, zippers, meat tenderizers, shells, etc.
  • Paint scraper: Useful for cleaning work surfaces.

(Note: Choose a well-ventilated room and an easily cleaned work surface. Avoid creating airborne dust by cleaning work surfaces, floor and clothing before spilled clay has a chance to dry.)

All of these materials can be found at Phoenix Ceramic Supply, located behind Costco in Santa Cruz. They also have a very knowledgeable staff to help you find the right clay, glazes and tools. Best of all, they can also fire your pieces onsite, with rates calculated by the amount of kiln space your piece requires. Finished pieces require a bisque firing and a glaze firing.

Clay Creation, just down the street from Charlie Hong Kong in Santa Cruz, offers another alternative: for a monthly fee, you an work in a studio space with all the clay, glazes, wheels, and tools you need in one place. In addition, instructors and classes are available several mornings and evenings each week, and they have an onsite kiln for firing. You can work at your own pace, when it’s convenient, and benefit from the inspiration, experience, and successes of other studio users.

Several artists in the county offer private classes. One is Jenni Ward, whose ceramic work (fanciful totems, flowers, and hanging pieces) can currently be seen at NewGarden Nursery in Live Oak—a relatively new retail venue for outdoor sculpture combined with unique plants in Santa Cruz.

(Clay Creation instructor Geoffrey Nicastro also has lovely cats and abstract ceramic pieces on display at NewGarden Nursery.) Jenni teaches classes at her Earth Art Studio in Aptos, catering to school-age kids. Her students are currently working on slab-built birdhouses, which will be for sale as part of Ward’s spring studio sale May 1 and 2.

I also took a recent workshop form Elaine Pinkernell, whose specialty is stoneware and raku wall pieces. She uses roofing paper as templates and to mold slabs into rounded shapes, and loves to create high-contrast textures—both very useful techniques in my totem pole project. Elaine teaches at Blossom Hill Crafts in San Jose, and at the Corralitos Cultural Center, which offers art workshops and includes the Corralitos Cultural Center Art Gallery, which currently is showing work by numerous local artists in a variety of media.

Since I started in September, I was hoping to have my totem pole completed by now, but other projects have delayed its completion. I’ve got three sections bisque fired and ready for glaze, and two more ready for bisque firing. I don’t know how cohesive the whole project will be in the end, but a ceramic totem pole has proved to be a good project for a beginner like me, in a county as full of resources and inspiration as Santa Cruz.

Resource list:

“Sculpture Is: 2010” at Sierra Azul Nursery and Gardens, (May 31 to October 31), 2660 East Lake Avenue (Highway 152), Watsonville,

Phoenix Ceramic Supply, 350-D Coral Street, Santa Cruz, (831) 454-9629

Clay Creation, 1125B Soquel Avenue, Santa Cruz, (831) 429-1645,

NewGarden Nursery & Landscaping, 2440 Mattison Lane, Santa Cruz, (831) 462-1610,

Earth Art Studio/Jenni Ward, (Spring studio sale May 1-2), 767 Cathedral Drive, Aptos, (831) 818-9569,

Geoffrey K. Nicastro,

Corralitos Cultural Center/Art Gallery, 127 Hames Road, Corralitos,

Elaine Pinkernell,