PPP: Exploring the Clay Canvas

February 28, 2003
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Layered glazes, delicate textures and intricate designs give “functional pottery”new meaning in the art world.

A white stoneware platter, 23 1⁄2 in. in diameter, featuring a matte crystalline glaze and dry mesquite ash, fired to cone 10 in reduction, by Tom Coleman.
For renowned potter Tom Coleman, working with clay is about more than making functional pots and platters. It’s about creating three-dimensional art—paintings on high-fired porcelain forms. “I think when people begin to understand what goes into making a fine piece of clay, they can really begin to appreciate clay as an art form,” Coleman says.

After making thrown and hand-built pottery for more than 35 years, Coleman knows a quite bit about the different stages required to create a final piece. But it is the surfaces of his work—the layered glazes and intricate designs—that set him apart as a clay artist. “When I first started making pottery, glazes were mainly used as a single coating or color that you would put on something without really disturbing the surface. I developed a technique of spraying four, five or even six different glazes over one another in very thin layers to create different effects and textures,” Coleman explains.

Texture also comes from natural materials, such as dry, screened ash, which Coleman sprinkles on his glazed surfaces. “I use mesquite ash because it seems to be more receptive to drawing color out of the glaze. Mixing oxides with the ash provides additional color variations,” he says.

More recently, Coleman has also begun experimenting with dry glazes, shaking them on top of sprayed wet glazes to achieve an even broader range of colors and textures. Many of Coleman’s pieces also feature intricate designs carved by Elaine Coleman, Tom’s wife and business partner, who is also a talented clay artist.

According to Tom, a controlled, predictable firing is crucial to achieving a beautiful finished surface. “I used to make all my own kilns, and that was part of the intrigue. But I had to buy a commercially made kiln when I started teaching at the [University of Nevada, Las Vegas in the late 1980s] because they wouldn’t let me build one. I bought a kiln from Geil Kilns Co., and now I wouldn’t go back. It has allowed me to do more experimenting with my glazes because I’m not fighting with the kiln every time to produce the same effect. The firing is so predictable—I know when I get something I like that I’ll easily be able to achieve the same effect again,” Coleman explains.

Editor's Note:

Editor’s note: More information about Tom and Elaine Coleman can be found in the book The Mud-Pie Dilemma, second ed., by John Nance, available at http://www.tomandelainecoleman.com.

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