A Pound of Clay
Kate Brown's tile class gives students a chance to create something great and have fun in the process.
Story and photos by Donna Clayton
"I've done it two times already. This is my third," says a woman in a T-shirt and well-worn jeans. "It's great — you really don't have to know anything."
Another woman nods her head, then adds with a laugh, "That's good, because I don't!"
This is local artist Kate Brown's tile class, a seasonal event that draws people looking to create out of clay everything from artsy gifts for friends and family to a backsplash for their own kitchen sink. Held in Brown's art studio in the Mimbres, where she lives in an intentional eco-friendly community, the class offers the chance to experience a peaceful day in rugged, natural beauty (including an outhouse with a spectacular view, I hear), learn from this experienced and gifted potter, and work a 16-by-20-inch slab of cool raw clay into highly colored, glossy tiles.
Today's grouping has nine students, all female like me. Most are "women of a certain age," but one is a girl about 11, the youngest student ever to attend one of these classes, Brown says proudly.
As one student after another enters the work studio, Brown greets and smiles and shouts out her laissez-faire directions. Though she is exceedingly organized, sending registered students an hour-by-hour proposed schedule for the class, things get pretty relaxed in the classroom.
"There's clay at all the work stations, one at each area," she calls over the chattering of the group. "Take whichever one you want, wherever you think you'll be comfortable. They're all pretty much the same. Oh, and there are tools over here; just take one of everything and put it by your area."
Students mosey past the tool area, picking up wires, knives, a small container of water, a smoothing tool.
Brown gives an overview of the day, suggesting how we can manage our time. Unsurprisingly, it's pretty organic — like Brown herself. She wears a well-worn, slightly smeared apron, her riot of curls bouncing as she speaks.
"We'll go over to the studio in a bit to see some samples of my work, to give you ideas. There's a snack laid out, some homemade bread and herbal tea," she says, raising her eyebrows playfully as the group murmurs appreciatively at the mention of food. "You can get some ideas, work a bit, have something to eat, work some more and take a break, eat some more." A light laugh ripples through the class. "Go at your own pace," Brown says. "We'll all get done what we need to, trust me."
She give the basics on the studio layout, pointing out the colored "slips" — very liquid clay with pigment added — with which we will glaze our tiles. She explains the grid-like "blend chart" of all the myriad colors, laid out in a huge mosaic of tiles, painted to show every permutation of color and glaze possible with the materials at hand.
As she speaks, some class members thumb through a notebook of photos, samples of previous students' projects.
"Oh, that's me!" one student exclaims at seeing a photo of the tiles she created in a previous class.
Brown stands at a center table where several slabs of clay are rolled out and waits, smiling, for her students to gather round. She explains, "These are practice slabs, so you can experiment and practice without ruining your real slab."
As if to embolden us, Brown dives into working the clay with vigor. Her strong, broad hands slather water on the slab nearest her, then work with a metal "rib" tool to smooth the surface. "Don't be afraid of it! Clay is very forgiving and it needs to be worked!" She fills a slight divot in the demo slab, smooths it over, and then, with a swift, deft motion, uses a small knife to trim the ragged edge. "See?" she asks cheerfully.
She demonstrates stamping images into the clay, gouging the slab with a knife tool, laying down fine lines of colored slip to outline an image. She shows how we can make a raised line for outlining by rolling clay into a skinny snake — "This is like playing with Play-Doh!" one student exclaims — then settling it into a groove gouged out with a tool.
A back-to-the-earth nature girl, after all, Brown says she makes many of her own brushes.
"A lot of my brushes are squirrel tails, from roadkill," she says. "I have a little cleaver and just — " She makes a chopping gesture to simulate the axing of a dead squirrel's tail. "Then I simply attach it to the bamboo handle!"
As some of the students eye the passel of waiting brushes, Brown adds that we also can choose to finger-paint an image onto the tiles. She demonstrates. This looks like fun.
"Now, to go any further, you'll need to make some decisions," Brown says. Our options basically are to have our design be part of a grid — in which case we'll cut tiles first and then break our design into pieces and put it onto the various tiles — or to create a whole image and cut it up, freeform, at the end. Tiles can be cut from as large as eight-by-eight inches to no smaller than two-by-two. Freeform pieces must not have sharp points. They're too fragile, Brown says, and are likely to shatter in the drying and firing processes.
She goes through a few more steps of the tile-making demonstration — cutting, re-smoothing, painting with a gray-colored base coat of slip that acts as gesso in painting, masking the brown color of the terra cotta clay.
The class then heads over to Brown's studio next door, where the artist's work hangs on walls and is displayed on shelves and tables. Just inside the door, the promised homemade bread and herb tea are laid out. Several students grab a hunk of the Irish soda-style bread — still slightly warm! — and slather it with real butter. Flowery things float in the pitcher of herbal iced tea. Small plates and hand-thrown clay cups — made by Brown herself, of course — are stacked for taking the food back to the work studio.
Brown directs us through the mini-gallery, pointing out the results gained from using different techniques and glazes. There are many oohs and ahhs. Brown holds two bowls with similar interior designs next to each other, pointing out the subtle difference in effects caused by using different glazing techniques.
After about a half-hour of looking at Brown's pottery and thumbing through reference books, the artist leads the group back into the work studio to have at our own slabs.
"Okay, so the rest of the day is yours," she says with a bright smile and clap of her hands. "It's ours to create!"
Only a few of the students have a design in mind, it turns out. One wants to make a series of identical decorative tiles to put up on a wall at home. Another plans to make a series of coasters to give to family and friends as gifts, while another plans to make a top for a patio table. I plan to make a mosaic art piece, mounting the tiles onto a board. Brown says such a piece can be a wall-hanging or table top.
I've brought along a metal lizard from home to use as a guide. I sketch out a rendering of this, using a ruler to measure how to break up the image into tiles. I decide upon a green background and a purple lizard with brown accents.
I'm comfortable with pencils and paper, and have fun playing with my sketches. Then it comes time to address the clay. I nibble a bit of my Irish soda bread, sip the tea and take a deep breath. I've calculated how many tiles I need to cut. I pick up my knife. A Sheryl Crow tune, "The First Cut Is the Deepest," runs through my head. Indeed.