One of the things I find so inspiring about running this blog is all the people I have been able to connect with because of it. The “In the Making” series has become one of my favorite posts to do because I get to have real conversations with real people. I love being able to share the beautiful work that people can create but even more I love showing a little peek at the labor of love that goes into that work. As I’m learning more and more everyday, it takes a lot of persistence and passion to pursue your creative craft. One such lovely lady who I reached out to is Courtney Hamill of Honeycomb Studio. I’ve been following her on Instagram for quite awhile and when she agreed to share her process on here, I was thrilled. Courtney is based in Atlanta, Georgia. She creates hand-made, wheel or mold-cast, porcelain sculptures.
Maybe it’s the movie Ghost, but when most people think of ceramics, they seem to think of the pottery wheel. If you’ve never thrown on the wheel yourself and have only seen professionals shaping a bowl or a mug, ceramics may seem to be a peaceful, meditative exercise – the lump of clay seemly transforming shape at the slightest touch. It can be meditative – don’t get me wrong – but the reality is that ceramics is usually dirty, frustrating, back-breaking work. It often takes up to two weeks to move a single piece from beginning stage to final product, with acute sensitivity to the needs of the different stages of drying and taking care to move neither too fast or too slow, knowing that you might lose the piece at any phase of the process. All of this effort for a material that we use everyday without a second thought.
So why do ceramicists do it? I can only speak for myself, but I think my experience is common amongst potters. You become addicted to the clay – touching it, altering it. When you take a break from ceramics, your hands almost physically ache to feel it. You begin to understand it on an instinctual level – when it wants to give and when you should leave it alone (kind of like a relationship). Potters are strange creatures: artists, tinkerers, chemists and engineers. You learn to love the process, so that when the actual object breaks, you’re not as attached to it as you might have otherwise been. Although that’s not to say that I don’t swear a blue streak when I have a bad kiln firing, because I definitely do, but then it’s time to move on.
Although people seem to be most familiar with ceramics on the wheel, there are many methods ceramic artists use to bring their designs to life. Most of my work utilizes a practice call slip-casting, which involves finding or making an original object, and then casting that object in plaster. The mold making process itself takes a full work day and by the end, I and half of my studio are am covered in plaster dust. The mold must sit for 1-2 weeks before it has cured enough to be used.
Once the mold has cured, it is filled with liquid porcelain called slip. Within a few hours, a chemical process in the plaster pulls the water from the slip, leaving behind a solid form. Once it’s solid enough to be removed, I carefully pull it out and let it set up for a little while more. I then trim, alter and patch the form as needed to transform the original form into one of my designs. Once the object has dried, we begin the long firing process. Most of my work is fired three times, with each firing taking a full 24 hours. The first firing (called the Bisque Firing) removes any moisture from the clay, strengthens the clay so that it’s harder to break, and prepares the body for the glaze.
Each piece is then sanded with fine sandpaper to create a smoother body, wiped clean, and then painted one at a time with a hand-mixed glaze. After the object is glazed, it’s fired for a second time to about 2300 degrees so that the glaze chemically bonds to the clay (which is why glazing is different than painting).
Finally, if needed, the gold or metallic details are added using a special metal compound and then fired one last time. This compound (called a luster) contains real gold, extremely expensive and incredibly toxic. I have to use gloves and respirators during its application to protect myself from its dangerous fumes.
Of course, many pieces are lost along the way to cracks, warping or the many other pitfalls that can occur in this multi-step process. Ceramics is an extremely time intensive, and time sensitive craft, that requires a great deal of patience and perseverance. Hours of labor went in to every handmade ceramic that you own, and the difference between the elaborate sculpture you may have seen in a gallery and the mug with which you drink your coffee is probably less than you would think.
Thank you, Courtney, for sharing a bit of your process with us. I’m in love with your work (those antlers!) and I am honored to hear what makes each piece so special.