The Shop

How A Mound of Clay Becomes A Pitcher

May 16, 2016

Makers are at the heart of the Food52 Shop, and we love to share their stories—so we partnered with our friends at Pure Leaf's Tea House Collection to feature a few in their Traveling Tea House.

Some people who work with clay prefer to be called by different names: ceramicists, ceramic artists, potters. Kristi Sloniger, proprietor of Moonstar Pottery and maker of one of our favorite pitchers, likens herself a potter, even though she didn't come to the art until later in life.

Our large Cut Rimmed Pitcher from Moonstar Pottery. Photo by Alpha Smoot

Kristi's formal training is in music—she received a Masters of Music for flute from Rice University in Houston, Texas, and then went on to work as a music librarian at the National Symphony in Washington, D.C. Her ceramic studies began with a wheel-throwing class at a community art center there, around 1990, and once the clay was under her fingernails she was hooked.

After some time, she returned to Houston where she says her pottery career really started. That's where she studied with studio potter Lebeth Lammers. But Moonstar didn't really take off until her and her husband moved to Chicago in 1998—that's when she decided to retire from the music business and do clay full-time. She's lucky enough to throw on a pottery wheel in her own basement studio, and her garage houses her kilns.

Kristi's generally up and at it in her studio early every day, and I asked her to take me through the process of one of her pitchers from mound of clay to finished piece:

Kristi in her studio in Chicago.

In the beginning, there's just clay—and the wheel.

Kristi first starts a piece by weighing and wedging the clay on her Brent CXC pottery wheel, which she says is a true workhorse in the pottery world (hers is 20 years old and still going strong). "[Wedging] is something like kneading dough," she explains: This process aligns all the clay's particles and removes air pockets, after which she forms the clay into a ball shape and slaps it onto her wheel—which she uses standing up! Kristi mentions that this is a little unique, but it keeps her posture straight and lets her move about the wheel while she works.

This is the moment when one of our Large Cut Rimmed pitchers takes shape—she centers, opens, and "pulls the walls" of the clay to throw the pot. "In essence, you use centrifugal force to help you thin out the clay evenly and thinly," Kristi explains. After the basic shape is created, Kristi uses a rib, a metal tool that helps refine the outline of a piece, for clean lines.

This is the point at which that beautiful swoop off the back of the pitcher happens—Kristi often cuts or alters the clay at this stage to experiment with different shapes and gestures in the pitcher form ("it creates tension and interest in the form"). She then takes it off the wheel to dry.

Then, finishing work happens.

After a pitcher has dried sufficiently, Kristi begins what's called finishing work. She'll trim the bottom, make a foot ring for the piece to rest on, and sign the piece with her signature moon and star. Then she'll cut the rim, smooth it out, and attach a handle that she's pulled earlier, which needs to dry before its trip to the kiln.

It's kiln time.

Kristi has a very large kiln—it's 32 cubic feet, or the size of two super-sized refrigerators back to back—so it takes a while to throw enough pieces to fill it, about a month. When all of the greenware, or unfired work, is ready, she'll load it into the kiln for bisque firing, which Kristi says takes the clay up to about 1800°F. This step takes the moisture out of the clay, but it doesn't mean that it's completely fired.

Glazing comes after that.

To begin glazing, Kristi must wax the bottom ring of every piece so that that part of the pitcher is not glazed—otherwise they would stick to the kiln shelves! Glazing is achieved by dipping, painting, and pouring, depending on the piece.

The glazes that Kristi uses in her ceramics are homemade, so that's an extra process that she must finish before this step. Her glazes have such character—in the muted, white satin matte one that she uses for our pitcher, there are hints of grey and blue swirling around each other. The depth of the color, to Kristi, works with food in a table setting and doesn't feel as steril as something starker. "White can have such a wide variety," she adds. (We'd agree, and so would our office.)

So, after she glazes a piece, Kristi then loads it back into a different kiln, run on gas reduction, to fire it to 2300°F for about 8 hours. This kiln allows the glaze to develop in complex and interesting ways—an exciting, yet challenging, part of the process.

After this, the kiln needs to cool very slowly, over the course of about a day, and then a herd of Kristi's pitchers can finally be unloaded. And perhaps off to your table, ready for lemonade—or something a little stronger.

Find Kristi's work in our Shop, and at the Pure Leaf Iced Tea Traveling Tea House at Chicago's Lincoln Park Zoo (Grounds West of Lester E. Fisher Bridge) on May 19th, 20th, and 21st.

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