CSU ceramics students learn how to make their own clays, glazes

Video by Ron Bend (downloadable on Vimeo)

In Saxon Martinez’s community college ceramics course, students molded premade clay on pottery wheels powered by electric motors and finished their creations with premixed glazes. Luis Santacruz says it was the same in his high school ceramics class.

Saxon Martinez holding a pot
Saxon Martinez

But at Colorado State University, the two art students have experienced a much deeper, comprehensive approach to their materials. In the CSU pottery and ceramics program, students use foot-powered “kick wheels” to gain more control over the throwing process. And they learn how to make all of their own clay and glazes from scratch to develop a particular color palette for their ceramic pieces, employing the periodic table of elements and an unexpected dose of science for an art class.

“All of the clay is made by the students,” says Sanam Emami, an associate professor of art and art history. “I always joke that once they graduate and find out they can just buy this stuff, they’re going to ask why they had to mix it themselves.”

‘Valuable lesson’

“It’s a valuable lesson to make it all on your own,” says Martinez, a senior art major. “If it’s pre-mixed, you’re stuck with what you’ve got. Here you can make adjustments to the materials.”

“This class was a completely different experience,” Santacruz adds, explaining that students also put all their unused clay into a large container of water to keep it malleable and reusable for the next student. “No clay goes to waste here.”

Santacruz, left, talks with Emami about his creation.

Martinez, a nine-year Marine Corps veteran from Dallas, says getting accustomed to the foot-powered wheel was challenging.

“It’s like patting your head and rubbing your stomach,” he explains. “It takes some getting used to. But it’s all foundational, back to basics. If you start out going zero to 60 too fast, it messes you up down the road.”

Santacruz agrees that in this tech-heavy era of immediate access to virtually everything via social media, smartphones and the internet, the process makes you slow down and be deliberate.

“You need a lot of patience, but it’s super-rewarding,” he says.

Glaze recipes

Santacruz adds that he learned how to weigh tiny items on the studio’s scale — because one has to be exact about how many grams of each ingredient go into a glaze mixture.

“Whereas with clay you can shoot for the right consistency by adding more or less water, with glaze you have a recipe,” he says. “But you can experiment with test tiles or mock pieces.”

For example, before Santacruz began making his final project for the class — a large goat’s head with long horns and red eyes — he made a much smaller version to see how his various glaze combinations would turn out.

Art student Jessica Reeve making clay

Emami says students often start by applying stripes of different underglazes to a test tile, firing it in the kiln, and then applying a series of second glazes so that they can see how the various shade combinations turn out after the final firing.

As she shows off the rows and rows of drawers containing raw materials for glaze in the studio’s “glaze kitchen,” Emami likens the process to baking a cake: “You need some basic ingredients, but you can add different things for various textures and tastes. It lets students be creative, using 1 percent yellow vs. 10 percent yellow, for instance.”

Historical images

Emami gives students in beginning ceramics classes a special assignment — they have to go to the library and look at books that have images of historical pottery vessels that they must try to replicate. Consulting web pages is not allowed. Not using the internet is intended to expand the variety and quality of what students are looking at, to broaden their horizons.

“I love Google, but it’s a different experience to sit down and flip the pages,” she says. “We’ve been making things out of clay for tens of thousands of years, and students are blown away by the scope of what is possible and how contemporary these historical vessels appear.”

It’s not all rudimentary, however. Students also learn how to use cutting-edge technology including 3D modeling programs for generating plans for their creations as well as a 3D digital plastic printer.

“We try to give students a broad range of skills that they can apply to their practice,” says Emami, who is one of two full-time pottery faculty in the department, along with Associate Professor Del Harrow.

Luckily, she adds, most of the materials used to make clay are produced in bulk for products such as makeup, concrete, bathroom tiles, laundry detergent, cement and the heat-resistant tiles used on spacecraft.

“At the beginning of clay-making, humans just used what they found in the dirt,” Emami notes. “People used to just dig it out of the ground, but now companies mine it. We benefit because so many industries use these materials. We are a very small fraction of their business.”

Student mixing clay
Photos by William A. Cotton

Getting physical

Bags of materials for clay are delivered to the studio, and then students pour them into a machine resembling a large dough mixer.

“If you’ve got 100 pounds of clay in the mixer, it’s hard work,” Emami says. “This is a blend of the physical and mental, like a musician or dancer. You have to use your body.”

Students say they have gained valuable experience by learning the processes from beginning to end.

“It makes you appreciate hand-crafted items,” says Martinez, who has his own pottery business and curates his own shows. “You may ask why something costs so much, but you’re paying for someone’s time and experience.”

And regardless of how much experience a student has, Santacruz explains that there’s always a bit of mystery until the piece emerges from its final firing.

“You don’t really know how it’s going to come out until it’s fired,” he says. “You don’t see your end product until that last day. It’s kind of like a little Christmas when they come out of the kiln.”