Crafted: Clay with Andrea Piller

INSPIRED CRAFT Clay creations crafted at the Sophiasburgh studios of local artisan Andrea Piller. (Karen Bell/For The Gazette)


Red, white, grey. Wet, dry, oily/”plastic”.

Stoneware, porcelain, earthenware. Different clays have their own properties, best uses and firing temperatures. Andrea Piller passes me a piece of red stoneware and I start shaping it.

“You have to think in 3D, it’s not like a flat painting,” she said. “You have to turn it and examine it from different angles to make sure you’re working all sides and keeping the thickness of the clay even.”

Once you have a shape you like, you can smooth it out, or add texture. She grabs a wooden mallet carved with a delicate floral pattern – the kind you use to imprint butter cookies – and rolls it all over the oval pinch bowl we’ve created. We smooth parts, dig our nails in, making the sides rough and angular.

“It’s a bowl, but it doesn’t have to be,” Piller said.

We tip it upside down and sit a little bird-like shape we made from a smaller piece on top. Another handful of clay is shaped into an egg-like shape.

“Inspiration comes from everywhere,” she said, “Walking, nature, weather, the seasons. Right now, the fall sky is wonderful and I like to take photos to capture the grey tones.”

But it’s not just about the shape and size of the object you have to keep in mind.

“You’re also thinking about how the glaze is going to act, so I know if its smooth it’s going to run over evenly, but if it’s textured it’s going to sit in the crevices, pool in the divots and interstices.” It’s a lot to remember.

Glazing, or finishing, is a whole other art. After the pieces have been dried and fired (and survived, thankfully, avoiding a grade 10 nightmare that destroyed half the class kiln), it’s now porous clay – bisqueware. There are many finishing options – rubbing oxides into it, underglazing it with pigmented liquid clay, waxing to prevent glazing. Most potters make their own glazes and Andrea has a binder of recipes, and test tiles of glazes on different clays showing how they react to the clay and glazes that are around it.

Yes, not just under or over, but around it. Two glazes butting up against each other can impact the final results. Placement in the kiln can have a similar effect. It’s chemistry, alchemy, and sorcery.

On the bird piece we use a creamy white and black base with a blue undertone – those will have a reaction in the kiln. Between the bird’s outstretched wings Andrea places two small pieces of glass.

“Let’s experiment and see what happens.”

The ovoid, or egg, we triple dip to see how 3 different glazes react to each other. Andrea lowers both into the electric kiln, knowing their proximity to other pieces will also affect them. Firing methods and kilns are a whole other world – and that’s for another day. Anyone who says pottery is a simple art has clearly never done pottery. It’s simple and complex. That’s the enigma of it.