Gary Jackson: Fire When Ready Pottery
A Chicago potter’s somewhat slanted view of clay & play
Categories: animals, artists, friends, My Talented Friends, pottery, soda-fired

So this story has been a LONG time coming. You’ve seen glimpses of my birds… a few feathers here & there… a couple beaks popping up. But I’ve never really explained the whole reason I was making jars with birds on them. And NO, it was not to honor the show PORTLANDIA!

It all started last March…
When I received a phone call early on in the Covid Shutdown… sometime towards the end of March. It was the husband of one of my art fair friends. I had met Anne at one of my summer art fairs several years ago. I always loved her beautiful watercolor paintings… mostly birds, flowers & plants. Very realistic… great compositions… kinda like Audubon illustrations!

Derek had some bad news to share – that his wife Anne had passed away. Not from Covid, but from other long-term health issues. Just that the timing couldn’t be any worse with all of the Covid shutdowns & quarantining. He shared the story of how his wife Anne passed away, and that she was going to be cremated and needed an urn for her ashes. The story goes on that she wanted me to make the urn for her ashes… as I was her favorite potter & art fair friend. Derek wanted the urn to be stamped & soda-fired like the rest of my work she loved… and also the beautiful teal-blue glaze that I use frequently. I’m not a big fan of doing special orders… but under these circumstances how could I say no?! I couldn’t… it would be an honor.

But then the story & requests continued…
He said that he also wanted a few smaller versions of the urn for their children to have as keepsakes. So now I would be making a whole “flock” or urns. Especially as they were going to be soda-fired and you never know for sure how the pieces will come out after the firing. So to hedge my bets, I knew I would have to make an extra or two of each size.

And oh, but wait there’s more… the requests continued…
Since Anne was a wonderful watercolor painter, and her imagery frequently featured birds… you can see it coming now, right?... he asked if I could work a bird of some sort onto each of the urns. A little homage to Anne and her work. So I was already “in” for the large urn… and the small urns… and the soda-firing… and the “extras”… and now they needed birds?! Whew! This was just getting better & better!!! But you know I always love a good challenge.

My head started to spin. How to do a bird? Can I make a bird stamp? Should it be painted on like her work? Could it be a stencil?… or a decal? Should it be three-dimensional?… or more two-dimensional like her paintings? So many options… not enough decisions. I would have to ponder this one!

I explained that with the whole Covid shut-down & quarantine, I couldn’t commit to a date of when I would get them done. I had no idea then if or when there might be another soda-firing at Lillstreet Art Center… as Lillstreet was closed down too. Luckily, I had access to my studio so I could make the pieces during the “shelter-at-home” order… and I felt safe going to work in my studio at night as there was no one else in the whole building! So I started making the pieces… I just didn’t know when they would get soda-fired. He agreed and understood my dilemma.

So I started by throwing them as lidded jars. I stamped the patterns onto them… and trimmed them when they were ready. I flipped the jar over and threw the pedestal portion onto the bottom.

And then while the urns were under wraps drying to leatherhard, I went online to see a few of Anne’s birds on her website for inspiration.

I’ve seen a many of them for years at the art fairs, as well as a few of them at my parent’s house. There are several of her pieces hanging up in my Dad’s place!

So then I started assembling the birds. I decided to go three-dimensional and to add them to the tops of the jars – kinda like a glorified knob! So I started doing a little handbuilding. A little assembly line for my feathered friends! Basically starting with little pinch pots… and then connecting them to make the bodies. I kept the parts & pieces in a small damp box to keep the pieces viable longer.

And a few little leaves to add in later…

Then it was tails… I loved how they started to look more & more like birds as each step happened!

And then it was time for wings…

Finally it was time to start attaching the birds to the lids… as they would be the “knobs” on top! And of course, every bird needs a good branch to rest on, right?! I found that some folded post-it notes were useful to keep things propped in the right places while the clay set-up.

Finally the parts & pieces were coming together. I started finishing the lidded jars… with a couple extra lids “just in case” something went wrong somewhere along the process. It was time for a slow & gradual drying. I kept them under plastic for a few days… only unwrapping them for an hour or so every day when I was in the studio. I didn’t want anything to crack by drying too fast.

Eventually they were dry and made their way into the bisque kiln. Still so fragile… can’t wait to get through this precarious part of the process.

It’s always so good to see these little code letters… CPLT… complete!!! Especially when the kiln has such precious pieces in it. Everything is so fragile when it’s just dried clay… kinda like a piece of chalk. But after bisque firing, they are a LOT more stable & solid… and a huge sigh of relief.

After bisque firing, it was time to start adding some color to them. I used some red iron oxide to stain the branches. Some green underglazes on the leaves. I knew that the soda-firing process would work its “magic” on the pieces to some extent… but I wanted some hints of color to help tell the story!

Then I sprayed the urns with a bit of green glaze – knowing that it would turn to the drippy teal color Anne liked so much when it gets hit with the soda atmosphere during the firing. It was tough getting a good coat of glaze on the urns without getting too much on the birds & branches!

The urns finally made it into my Spring soda firing. It was so weird to be working in my studio so much during the shut-down. They kept telling us to shelter-at-home, to self-isolate, and to stay safe. It felt totally safe to be working in my studio as they was no one else in the building. But at the same time, also weird to be working to fill an entire soda kiln with work already knowing that my Summer art fairs were all being cancelled due to Covid-19. Scary times not knowing where your income would come from as the pandemic raged on.

So I fired the soda-kiln and felt a little anxious when it came time to unload the kiln. I had put so much work into these pieces – and had so much riding on it. Such a meaningful & sentimental project. I would be devastated if they were ruined by a bad firing.

Whew… they turned out great!

But then when I talked to Derek to tell him they were ready to pick up, he said “I can’t wait to see the cardinals!”

Wait… what?!
I’d never heard the request for “cardinals” anywhere along this commission process. My birds were all kinda “generic” and bird-like. So I had a moment of panic… can I turn them into cardinals quickly?!!!

I asked a couple artist friends of mine… and thanks to Susan Volk, we came up with a plan to paint them with enamel paints. I didn’t want to paint them totally, but apply enough to give them the “feeling” of cardinals… as I knew I could NEVER paint them as well as Anne would have.

I did like the way the enamel paints worked so well on the soda-fired surfaces. In some places actually leaving some texture & randomness like the soda-firing.

Soon enough they were all painted… and I now had CARDINALS!!!

But then when I had them all done…
I was kinda put “on hold” in terms of posting pictures of them!

Derek wanted me to keep them a little bit of a “surprise” for his kids who would be getting the keepsake urns. So I kinda stopped posting… and left a lot of people here online just hanging!

With “teaser” photos kinda like this one…

But now that they’re all done & Derek picked them up… I can finally share the finished results. And carry on with the story!!! So here are the finished urns. Stamped, soda-fired, teal-blue glaze color AND a bird as requested!!!

Urn #1 ———————————————————————–

Urn #2 —————————————————-

Urn #3 ————————————————

Urn #4 ———————————————————–

Urn #5 ————————————————————–

Urn #6 ———————————————

Urn #7 —————————————————-

Urn #8 ———————————————

Sure the birds turned out pretty cute… but I was still enamored by some of the shadows & stamped details. Cuz’ that’s kinda my jam!

Derek came to my studio to pick out the urns that he wanted. It was such a special moment. Appropriately awkward. Precious. Sentimental. Everything it should have been. He was so taken by them… it brought a tear to his eyes! He took his time and chose the ones he wanted. So glad that I fulfilled the commission… and that he LOVED them!

As it was still a “surprise” for his kids, I’ve kept it pretty quiet. I didn’t want to ruin the surprise… or give away too many clues. I held onto the “extras” for awhile just in case something “bad” happened along the way. I wanted to make sure that Derek had all of the urns he wanted… and that he wasn’t going to come back to get another one or two.

So now I’ve got a couple extra bird urns…
err, from now on we’ll call them BIRD JARS!!!

To finish out our commission project, Derek offered me one of Anne’s original watercolor paintings as payment. Sure, I could have charged him cash… but I suggested a painting… as it felt so much more meaningful to give her my art in return for some of her art. I knew her as a wonderful watercolor artist… and I will remember her always as that. Especially every time I see her artwork on my wall.

This is now MY wonderful Anne Gilna original piece!

We will all miss you Anne Gilna.
You made the world a much more beautiful space.
Your spirit & talent lives on in so many ways & so many places.

3 Comments

Kelly Krenz

December 10th, 2020

OUTSTANDING!!!! What a tribute. Her work is amazing, and you have honored her memory with true talent and, even more, grace. For all the good in the world, this is among it!

December 11th, 2020

Great story and results!
I love that you used enamel paints as finish..I’ve tried nail polish occasionally to highlight sculptural elements.
The soda firing is my favorite!..and your stamping!
Wonderful pieces.

Christine

December 11th, 2020

What a beautiful story! ❤️

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