Vince Pitelka
Appalachian Center for Craft
Tennessee Technological University

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Ancient Clay Workshop

Skill Level: Beginning to advanced

In examining the evolution of modern culture, we too often assume that "progress" means a move from un-civilized to civilized, from primitive to sophisticated, from manual to automated, from low-tech to high-tech, from hand-made to machine-made. As a result, artists have often turned their backs on the wonderful aesthetics, processes and techniques of the past. Until quite recently tribal ceramic traditions were generally seen as primitive oddities, like "living ancient history," and were often ignored in the study of ceramics. Fortunately, the appreciation and understanding of ancient and tribal art has increased dramatically, and we now recognize that these traditions are "primitive" only in the tools, facilities, and firing processes, while the level of craftsmanship, the narrative content, and the design aesthetic are highly sophisticated.

Workshop Description - This workshop gives beginning and experienced clay-workers the opportunity to investigate the techniques and aesthetics of ancient and tribal ceramics. We will focus on simple vessel construction using pinch and coil methods, exploring the broad diversity of handbuilt form and the range of decorative effects possible without the use of glazes. Slide shows will explore high points in the history of ancient and tribal clay.

Bird Ewer, coil built, with 
polished terra sigillata, bonfired
Vince Pitelka, 2001

The work we make will be coated with terra sigillata and finished with ancient and tribal polishing techniques. Traditionally, tribal pottery is fired in a single bonfiring, but this is only possible with a very coarse clay body and a long slow bonfiring. To allow a quick bonfiring and to minimize losses, our wares will be pre-fired in a very low-temperature bisque-fire, and transferred from bisque to bonfire while still warm. The bonfire will be a classic blackware firing, similar to that practiced by Native American potters of the American Southwest and other cultures through history.

A major appeal of tribal ceramics is that the processes involve almost no modern technology. This feature is difficult for many modern ceramic artists to accept, with our fascination for tools and equipment. Once experienced, however, a tribal approach to ceramics is tremendously liberating, even for contemporary "high-tech" ceramic artists.

Materials - Buff high-grog clay body for bonfire-firing, terra sigillata, lard (to assist in burnishing), two 30-gallon barrels of dry sawdust, supply of newspaper, supply of thin-split firewood or scrap lumber (no plywood, no pressure-treated wood), 2' to 4'-long (approximately one small pickup-truck full).

Facilities, Equipment, and Supplies Provided by Host - Digital Projector with PC connector cable, appropriately dark room with large screen or large white wall, work tables, one 24" stool, one gallon white vinegar, two gallons of joining slurry made from the clay we will be using (add a half cup of vinegar), one plastic spray-bottle for vinegar water, one standard propane canister for a propane torch (I'll bring the torch), electric kiln for drying wares and for low (cone-018) bisque pre-fire (and 018 cones if not a programmable kiln), re-bar grate/cage for bonfire-firing, scrap sheet-steel to line grate and cover pots, safe open space for bonfiring (and approval from authorities if necessary) with water hose available.  If the workshop is conducted in the East and I am driving to it, I can bring the re-bar grate and sheet metal scraps.

Supplies for Participants to Bring

bullet Standard clay-working tools - the packaged Kemper tool kit contains a wood rib, stainless-steel scraper-rib, wood knife, needle tool, cutoff wire, small sponge, and trimming tools.
bulletKemper S-10 serrated stainless steel rib.
bulletKemper RB-4 wood rib or equivalent rigid rounded wood or bone rib - the stiff black rubber ribs or the rounded flexible metal ribs are not stiff enough for some applications.  
bulletMetal fork.
bulletPackage of 100-grit or 120-grit (fine-grit) mesh sandpaper (as used for sanding drywall).
bulletPolished stones for burnishing (optional).
bulletSoft-bristled brush for applying terra sigillata - the East Asian hakeme brushes are best - get one 1" to 2" wide. 
bulletSoft polishing cloths (tee-shirt material is great).
bulletSeveral plastic grocery bags for polishing.
bulletStanley "Surform Shaver" (small curved blade) and "Surform Pocket Plane" (5" flat blade) - available from hardware store or home improvement center.
bulletWood spoon or spatula, and/or a proper wood paddle if you have one.
bulletX-Acto knife with pencil handle and 1" tapered blade.
bulletSpray bottle for vinegar water.
bulletSmall snap-lid container for slurry.
bulletSeveral old towels or clean rags (in addition to the polishing cloths).
bulletUnless you're flying in, bring a 12" by 24" by 12" (or two smaller ones) clear (if possible) plastic snap-lid storage box to serve as a personal damp box - it is very useful in the workshop context.  Please bring your supplies in another box so that the bin will be available for the intended use.  
bulletOne 24" by 36" piece of heavy canvas to use as a work surface.
bulletOne banding wheel or turntable - the 6" CSI turntable available from most ceramic suppliers is inexpensive and works fine.  Don't bring the light-weight plastic kitchen turntables - they're worthless as studio turntables.   
bulletPatterned or textured bisque stamps and/or rollers if you have them.
bulletAny sort of patterned or textured objects or materials that can be pressed into the clay to create relief decoration.  
bulletThree or four plastic garbage bags or dry cleaner bags for covering work and controlling drying.  
bulletSmall bucket for water.  

Large cleanup sponge. 

bulletApron (optional).

The Kemper tools, wood and metal ribs, appropriate brushes, and CSI banding wheel are available at or Stanley "Surform Pocket Plane" and "Surform Shaver" are available at - enter "Stanley Surform" in the search box.

Suggested Schedule for Five-Day Workshop

bulletMonday Morning - Introductions, discussion/demo of coil-construction, use of pukis. Work on coil forms. Slide discussion on ancient and tribal clay.
bulletMonday Afternoon - Demo of pinch construction and slumped-slab masks. Continue slide discussion on ancient and tribal clay. Work on pinch/coil forms and masks.
bulletTuesday Morning - discussion/demo of whistles and rattles, damp clay decoration. Work on pinch/coil forms and masks. Slide discussion on ancient and tribal clay.
bulletTuesday Afternoon - Finish coil forms and masks. Work on pinch forms and whistles. Load coil forms and masks in kiln to dry overnight. 
bulletWednesday Morning - Finish any remaining coil forms and masks and quick-dry in kilns. Slide discussion on figurines and amulets. Work on pinch forms, whistles, figurines, and amulets. 
bulletWednesday Afternoon - Sanding demo. Sand all coil forms and masks. Finish pinch forms, whistles, figurines, and amulets. 
bulletWednesday Afternoon or Evening - Slide show on Vince's work.
bulletThursday Morning - Discussion/demo of terra sigillata, polishing, burnishing, sgraffito, black- on-black. Work on sanding, terra sigillata, polishing, decorating. 
bulletThursday Afternoon - Complete all polishing/decorating, load bisque firings. Prepare for bonfire-firing. 
bulletFriday Morning - The big bonfire. Slide show on ancient/tribal firing processes.
bulletFriday Afternoon - Dig up bonfire and admire the work. 

If you are interested in hosting one of my workshops, please contact me for terms, pricing, and scheduling.

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Site maintained by: Vince Pitelka -  Last Updated: January 13, 2011