Working with clay outdoors puts you at the whim of the weather.
The rare, hard freeze can stop production and crystalize and ruin any piece that is not really dry. But during the not-so-rare triple digit highs of summer, work goes on; kilns are loaded and fired to 2000+ degrees, and somehow it’s not as bad as you might think.
It’s the mild, clear days of early spring, however, that are ideal for our covered outdoor studio. Winter has let go, but the mosquitos haven’t quite taken hold. Mornings are fresh. Afternoons are warm enough to roll carts of almost-dry ware out into the sun for final drying. It’s not yet hot enough under our roof so that we have to worry about new-made wet tiles and sconces warping from drying too fast.
And yet…spring rains and humidity do slow drying and interfere with schedules sometimes. When ware goes into the kiln it must be absolutely bone dry or bam! The sound of a steam explosion coming from the kiln is not what we want to hear.
So here we are in a high tech hub, working away at the lowest end of technology, just as dependent on Mother Nature as any ancient potter would have been.
Clayworks has been hand lettering clay tiles for decades. Most of the work is done for church, school, and nonprofit “name-tile” fundraising projects. My dad, who had some experience in pen and paper calligraphy, learned to apply the technique to clay, and my mom learned from him.
When I was a kid, my mom’s carving desk faced the front gallery window where she could occasionally look up to watch regulars walk down East 6th Street. I would often find her there listing to NPR on her radio, bent over semi-soft clay with her carving tool hovering close to her lettering.
A while back, Angelica, Stewart, and I took a month-long course in calligraphy together from Paula Webb here in Austin. Each Tuesday we sat around an intimate table with a special pen and learned the fundamentals of lettering and, specifically, the Italic script. All of us liked learning something new, but the calligraphic talents of only one of us rose to the top: those of my brother, Stewart.
Not only did his lettering come out looking closer to the “exemplars” than mine or Angie’s, he also had an innate interest in the art form, and he had the vocabulary (think descender, exemplar, serif, ligature) to talk about it with our instructor.
When we moved to clay later, I think my brother Stewart found what I also found: we had internalized years and years of watching our parents’ hands move briskly in and out of their lettering, absent-mindedly picking clay shavings from their tools between strokes.
Inscribing in clay, for both of us, was easier than lettering with ink on paper.
Last month, Stewart got thrown in. The studying and training was over. Jobs were coming in, and my mom is at a stage where winding down her workload is the goal, not piling it on. Someone had to seriously step up and start taking over. As he and my mom sat side-by-side carving together, she reminisced about learning from my dad. For the first few days, Stewart was his own worst critic, but out of that also came his own style–he hews closer to the standards, where Mom is admittedly a little loose at times.
We’ve streamlined inscribed tile jobs over the past two years as we have other areas of production. Whereas we used to offer 3 clay colors, all inscribing is now done in terra cotta clay. But that was the choice of most clients anyway, and we’re all happy that the tradition will continue.
There was a very personal angle to this summer’s Stagecoach Inn project. The Inn, just down the road from my parents’ home in Belton, was the elegant special occasion place for me and my family. My late husband John and I held our wedding rehearsal dinner there in 1970. And my parents celebrated their 50th and 60th wedding anniversaries, among many other family milestones, at the Stagecoach.
It has been a thrill to see the wall sconces handmade in our shop lighting the way in the newly refurbished Stagecoach and an honor to have some small part in bringing the Inn back to life.
The Stagecoach order for 175 sconces is the biggest lighting job we’ve ever had and custom to boot. It was a satisfying experience for many reasons. The design was well within our customary technique and the folks at Clayton & Little Architects who commissioned the work were flexible and friendly. They first asked us to come up with a design reflecting the pattern on an antique door at the Inn. But when their design director came to the studio to see the preliminary work, he noticed other finished work on the shelf and changed direction. We worked together to come up with a coach-sized sconce with an old school pull chain. The hand formed terra cotta bead on the end of the chain added just the right rustic touch
We’ve done a lot of custom work over the years, and that creative collaboration can be a joy. I remember opening a kiln full of happy looking frogs all ready to jump from the firing into their role as fountain spouts. The frogs were part of the 2012 renovation of the Perry Estate reflecting pool in Austin.
So don’t be afraid to ask about custom.
We have a new food truck! Boteco sells Brazilian street food and has done a great job sprucing up area where they serve their food at handmade picnic tables under the shade.
I had the pastel de carne and yuca fries, and it was delicious!
It’s safe to say that Day of the Dead is our favorite holiday here at Clayworks. When we were kids my dad made paper maché heads to put on sticks to line our sidewalk at Halloween. And he loved making colorful death-inspired masks out of clay in November; in fact the one playing the flute with his bony, skeleton hand was inspired by my clarinet-playing husband.
The “Night Rider” tile was one of the last tiles my dad made before he got sick, and was designed in collaboration with my brother. He also loved, each year, waiting outside his shop on East 6th Street for the Viva la Vida parade to come by, Austin’s 35-year-old Day of the Dead parade.
So as a way of celebrating the people we’ve lost here (and they are, unfortunately, too many in our small, extended Clayworks family), Angelica and Stewart are making old and new Day of the Dead tiles, candle coves, and masks. Come get yours.
Everything from the Day of the Dead collection on our website is 15% off today through November 7th — just use discount code “Day of the Dead” at check out.
Written by Alice (the potters’ daughter)
The last post from Clayworks here on our blog, Mud was in 2013. I’m not sure what happened in 2014, but I know why there were no posts in 2015, ’16, or ’17. In 2015 my parents became grandparents, and a few months later my dad was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. We lost him in 2016. Our personal lives, and our Clayworks lives, were shattered.
There were times we wondered if it might be better to just let it all go. Clearing out forty years of Clayworks (forty years of my dad) from our East Sixth Street galleries was too much to bear. There were days when everything came out of the kiln all wrong: things cracked, glaze colors were off—and we didn’t know why. There were projects where we simply gave up and refunded customers.
There were days we brought hand-written formulas to Armadillo Clay and asked them to help us decipher what materials, exactly, my dad had written down on the back of this scrap of cardboard taped to the (now empty) glaze bucket. Please help us, we said. And they did. So many people did.
Thank you artisans of East Austin. So many of you served as resources in our first year doing this on our own.
We’ve streamlined our glazes and our products, nearly all our firings have been good this year. Angelica knows our clay materials like the back of her hand, Stewart knows what goes in the glazes. We have a new website, and things today are relatively quiet (in a good way). Our galleries are leased to the energetic, creative guys at Volcom, and we work in the old studio out back. Interesting work keeps coming our way, and Stewart, Angelica, and my mom have taken on custom projects and more.
We have spent the last two years building ourselves back up, and we are ready to launch our new website, reconnect via our newsletter, and revive our blog, revive Mud.
We are glad to still be here. We think my dad would be glad we stuck it out too.