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For production potters like Steve Howell in Gainesville, Fla., time is money, and spending hours on each piece simply isn’t feasible. But Howell, who has been making pottery for over 30 years, appreciates the benefits—and challenges—of working with a majolica glaze. “The great thing about a majolica glaze—both the positive and negative—is that it’s so stiff. Whatever you put down doesn’t move one millimeter, which is what makes majolica work. With majolica, you can decorate ceramics in the same way that a painter uses acrylic on canvas,” Howell says.
When Howell began working with majolica about six years ago, he knew he was going to have to break with tradition. “A traditional majolica artist goes through a lot of different steps—first laying down a white glaze, then putting a thin wash of color on top of that, and then making these beautiful designs with color and wax and other materials. Majolica people are traditionally very fussy, picky people, and they have to be to make their designs work. But I’m not a fussy kind of guy. I’m a great one for just having a rough idea of what I want and just following my instincts and figuring it out,” he says.
What he wanted was a different type of majolica, one that would enable him to decorate his functional pottery in minutes rather than hours while giving him the durability required for functional ware. Through trial and error and a little help from a commercial glaze supplier, Howell soon discovered his own unique type of majolica.
Experimenting with GlazesFor years, Howell had decorated primarily with underglazes, using a clear coat on top. “The thing that I liked about the underglazes was their versatility. You can layer them, mix them together, do all sorts of different things, and every color maintains its integrity—they don’t run together or melt together. You can create any kind of image you want down to the minutest detail, and it all stays there—it doesn’t melt out or fuzz away.” But in the early 90s, Howell decided he wanted to create a new look. Having always admired the majolica artists, he decided to try his hand at that style of decorating. But rather than use the basic white background, Howell wanted his glazes to be saturated with color and completely opaque. He decided to try coloring a typical white majolica base glaze using glaze stains.
“It took me awhile to figure out what to do, but eventually I discovered that I could take one single base glaze, which is just a very normal majolica formula—basically about 70% frit 3124 (supplied by Ferro Corp.)—and add a little bit of clay, feldspar and/or nephelene syenite, along with glaze stains, to create the look I wanted,” Howell says. “The 3124 stays very, very still, which is great for decorating, and it’s also a really strong, hard glaze, which makes it just wonderful for functional ware. We eat off my plates—they get no special consideration in our house. You can run a knife across it and it doesn’t scratch the surface, and you can run the pieces through the dishwasher.”
Creating the perfect base glaze, however, was not without its challenges. According to Howell, adding color to a white majolica glaze was not as easy as it first appeared. “A typical majolica glaze contains as much as 15% opacifier. When I first tried to put colorants in the glaze, I couldn’t get any intensity to the colors—they were always these wimpy pastel colors.”
About the same time Howell began experimenting with the majolica glazes, he attended a workshop at American Art Clay Co. (AMACO), a company that supplies equipment and materials for pottery and ceramic artists and manufacturers. Howell had been using glazes from AMACO for years, and he sought the advice of George Debikey, AMACO’s research and production chemist. “George suggested that I cut down on the amount of opacifier in the glaze. I began using just enough opacifier to make my glazes opaque, which is usually about 4-5%. It was a big breakthrough to figure that out,” Howell says.
The workshop also allowed Howell to begin decorating his majolica with AMACO’s new line of Majolica Gloss Decorating Colors (GDCs). “They make a dark yellow, a beautiful purple, a variety of lavenders, a really pretty mint green and a deep red—a whole bunch of colors that I just don’t know how to make. So I use their colors and my colors and I essentially use them in the same way that I used to use underglazes. I just paint with them, and every color stays exactly where it’s put. You can see the little tiny brush strokes of one color on top of another on my pottery,” Howell says.
Testing for SafetyBecause Howell’s pottery is intended for functional use, he has always been careful about food safety issues. “Since I make my own glazes, I know that there’s no barium or lead in them. I also request Materials Safety Data Sheets on all of my stains to ensure they don’t contain any harmful elements,” Howell says.
However, claiming to be careful isn’t always enough when the contents of a glaze are called into question. At Debikey's suggestion, Howell began sending his glazes to an independent testing agency.
“Getting my glazes independently tested was a little expensive but not a tremendous amount of paperwork,” Howell explains. “I just make a little Dixie cup shape and glaze it and send the agency four samples. They do a number of tests and send the samples back to you along with a detailed list of the glaze components.
“I like to make functional pots, so it was worth it for me,” Howell adds. “Now my glazes are all certified in case anyone ever wanted to question the formulations.”
Problem-Free FiringOf course, creating the glazes and testing for food safety were only half the battle. As any production potter will tell you, firing can be an excruciating process, especially if you’re manually controlling multiple kilns.
“I used to be literally wedded to my kilns,” says Howell, who produces 150-200 pieces per week in four top-loading Excel™ kilns, supplied by AMACO. “I had to manually turn the kilns on and turn them up and make sure that the little cone in the sitter tripped off. There were many nights that I had to come into the studio three or four times to turn the kiln up so I could get the firing cycle accurate,” he adds.
At the same time Howell began decorating with his new majolica glazes, AMACO introduced a new computer control system for its Excel kilns. Howell decided to give the new systems a try.
“The first one I got I thought, ‘Now I don’t have to get up at night and I won’t have to come in here on Sunday.’ Then I realized that all I have to do is punch in the schedule and walk away. The computers have made a huge difference—they’ve changed my life. Now all four of my kilns are on computers,” he says.
“With the computers I am able to set up the firing cycle so that it stops in some places to make sure all the gases are out of the glaze, and so that it goes slowly at the end of the firing cycle so the glaze can stay liquid as long as necessary. This makes my glazes look a lot better.
“Additionally, now I can fire four kilns in a 24-hour period with ease. Before, I could have fired all the kilns in 24 hours, but I would have had to be in here for 24 hours. This way I can just set it and forget it,” Howell adds.
Advances in thermocouples have also helped Howell achieve success with his majolica glazes. “In the past there was just one thermocouple in the middle of the kiln,” he says. “Now each kiln has three thermocouples—one in the bottom, one in the middle and one in the top—and the computer is sophisticated enough that it will read these thermocouples and send power to the elements that need it, when they need it. I’ve fired some kilns where I’ve been able to line up three cones, and if you stand back and look at the three, you can’t tell any difference from one cone to the next—they’re perfectly even. For majolica, this is extremely important. The kiln has to go the temperature you want it to go to and not beyond that. So the computers have really saved the day.”
Connecting with InspirationWhile Howell creates and glazes his pottery to make a living, he also hopes he’s making an artistic statement. Like Paulus Berensohn, author of Finding One’s Way with Clay,2 Howell believes that “the creative process is a connecting process.”
“You take the things around you and connect with who you are, and then make some statement about that,” Howell says.
As a self-described “abstract expressionist” potter, Howell has spent a lifetime observing and appreciating the work of abstract expressionist painters—particularly women such as Joan Mitchell and Helen Frankenthaler. To a great extent, it was those painters who have inspired Howell’s work. “Just looking at the way they handled paint and their attitudes about their work has influenced me,” Howell says. “I try to connect with those works of art, and I don’t want to simply spit those things back out, but through me they take on my slant on things.
“Connecting with your environment and with what inspires you is important,” Howell adds.