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Ancient pipes

I’ve mentioned before that major sources of inspiration for me are the pipes made by many ancient cultures, and especially the pipes made by pre-Columbian Americans.

prchickenpipetimeline6lowThere is a rich tradition of pipe making that predates the European invasion of the New World.  As a kid, I was lucky enough to go out into the deserts of the Texas panhandle and New Mexico, looking for points and bits of pottery.  We never did any digging; we only picked up surface relics, and we were never lucky enough to find a pipe.  But I still felt a strong connection to the people of the past, both from our visits to the places where they lived, and through my genetic heritage. (My father was part Cherokee, and came from Apache, Oklahoma.)


When I was a young potter, this connection was unconscious at best, since I was making pipes that were purely functional, without any of the spiritual aspects that typified early American examples of the craft.  But in the 40 years since then, I’ve come to regard the work of these unknown, long dead pipe makers with a substantial degree of reverence.

I’m pretty sure that these pipes were used mostly in a ritual mode, rather than a self-indulgent hedonistic mode.  beaver

I hope that by making pipes that are as beautiful and as contemplative as possible, I can in some small measure return the ancient craft to a semblance of its former glory.  Of course, I am using high-fired porcelain and glazes inspired by ancient Chinese potters to make these statements, not the earthenware used by ancient Americans. Even worse, I’m using the potter’s wheel, a device unknown in pre-Columbian America. But these were pragmatic choices.  I’m not interested in creating replica pipes.  As an artist, I want to make objects that haven’t been seen before, to the greatest extent possible.mayaskeleton

I can’t hope to create pipes as magnificent as these, driven as they are by centuries of tradition and religious faith, and given the gravitas of great age.

But I can do my best to carry on the craft.


I am using images from public sources, under the belief that fair use applies.  But if the owners of these images object to their use here, please let me know and I will remove them immediately.  Also, some of these may be stone pipes, but I think the imagery here is more important than the material.

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Firing, August 25, 2015

I unloaded another small test firing this morning, and as is the case with most firings, there were a few pieces that I really liked.

I fired three newt pipes in this batch, and they all came out pretty handsome, I think..newtherd

I glazed one in the blue-gray ash glaze I’ve been using primarily as an overspray.  The weird reticulated pattern that ash glazes naturally produce is very evocative of amphibian skin coloration.

Another newt was sprayed with blue slip when leather hard and little spots incised along its sides.  Glazed with a shiny celadon, this pipe seems particularly effective.

The third newt was sprayed with a pale lavender slip and dotted with crimson slip.  The satin matte white glaze crystallized nicely over this pattern.

The most beautiful pipe in the whole load was a simple hand pipe.1sthandpipeb  This pipe was sprayed with deep blue slip, then lavender slip.  The overall glaze was my white satin matte, oversprayed with blue ash glaze.  The stem of the little pipe is reticulated like snake skin.

Pipes like this cause me to face a pricing dilemma.  Do I price it like other small hand pipes, or do I charge based on my enthusiasm for the piece.  Usually I go with the latter, and I probably will in this case, too.  The glaze is simply luscious!1sthandpiped

Click on these thumbnails to see larger versions of these photos, and see if you agree that this is one of the most beautiful pipes I’ve made yet.

I did some small effigy pipes as well, and they turned out pretty well, I believe.  greenbirdaThis little green bird was sprayed with blue slip.  I wiped the slip from the details of the head, and dipped the piece in a celadon glaze.

I liked this little barking dog pipe, too.  I glazed him with an iron saturation glaze that broke red on the edges, as such glazes often do.  You have to look closely to see the details, because the iron glaze is so thick.barkdoga barkdogd

I’m busy building some more effigy water pipes to restock the shop, but I wanted to write a bit about the firing.  I recently had to replace an element in the little test kiln I’ve used for most of these pipes, and the firing went more expeditiously as a result.

The pipes you see here, and many others, will appear in the store shortly.


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Glass or Clay… or, Why not Glass?

What makes me think there’s a market for porcelain pipes, when the world is so full of wonderful glass pipes?

The vast, vast majority of artful pipes being made these days are coming from the hands of glass workers.  One of the reasons I decided to start creating pipes again, after so many years, was the excitement being generated by glass artists.  I saw the film Degenerate Art last year, and it became clear to me that pipe making was going to become a major movement in the art world.

One of the more interesting scenes in the film involved a big name in academic glass art who was complaining a little that the artists making the best glass pipes could be making glass sculpture just as well, so why didn’t they?  One of the pipemakers replied, saying something like, “Well I could go that route, approaching galleries, entering juried competitions, trying to sell my stuff at shows and so on.  Or I can put bowls on my stuff and sell everything I make.”

That mainstream glass artist is now making pipes too.

So with all the brilliant work going on in glass, what made me think that making porcelain pipes by hand would be worthwhile? whitedovea

Glass pipes are brand new, in historic terms.  People have been making clay pipes for millenia, so there is a historic reservoir of ancient forms to draw inspiration from.

Glass pipes have certain formal limitations.  Glass is an amorphous material.  It is possible for glass to show fine detail and sharp modeling, but it is more difficult, and in my opinion, is not really respectful of the material’s nature.  One rarely sees fingerprints  as a permanent part of a glass surface, for obvious reasons.1birdd

Surface quality in glass also seems to be more limited.  It’s easy to put a matte glaze on a porcelain piece, not as easy to get the same surface in glass (sandblasting can give beautiful matte surfaces in glass, but the effect is different, especially in a tactile sense, which is so important in hand-held objects.1steampunklizd

Ceramic glazes in general are more varied than glass surface treatments.  I’d say also that accidental effects are more likely to occur in the extreme temperatures of high-fire ceramics, and I really treasure and prepare for those beautiful accidents.

But the biggest reason I want to make porcelain pipes rather than glass pipes?

Because I’m a potter, not a glass maker.  I just like clay.  The feel of the stuff in my hands, the white heat of the firing, the near-immortal quality of the best pottery… I could never give up those pleasures.  My whole life as an artist has revolved around clay, and I hope that involvement will last as long as I do.

See my Etsy shop for more work.




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Close-ups for glazes

Last night I spent a couple hours editing photographs for my Etsy shop.  I have a fairly elaborate set-up for photographing my work– there’s a light tent, and couple good lights, a gradient background and so on.  My digital camera is getting old but it still takes high resolution images.  Lately I’ve been trying to include a close-up shot of the glaze for each piece.  Because the camera’s resolution is so much higher than is needed for web applications like the shop, I can zoom right in and get images that can be pretty amazing. stripemugd  For example, this is a zoom of a mug I photographed  last night.  The mug was fluted by cutting a flute in every other slot around the mug.  Then I dipped the mug in a blue slip.  Once the slip stiffened and became part of the leather-hard piece, I cut the remaining flutes between the already-cut flutes.  This gave me a strong striped effect, with the glaze breaking green on the edges.  The crystalline effect that you can easily see here is one reason I like this glaze a lot.

Here’s a close-up of a hand-sized simpl2plainwaterde water pipe.  This was a fairly complex decorative effort.  I sprayed the leatherhard piece with a lavender slip, and then incised a pattern into the slip.  I glazed the bisque pipe with the white titania glaze above, then lightly sprayed the pipe with blue ash glaze and a saturated iron glaze.  I was happy with the way it came out, but in the zoom, I was even happier, because it revealed details that were not as spectacularly obvious as they were in the enlargement.

This small bowl was fluted, dipped in white titania glaze, and oversprayed with blue ash.  A pale, almost iridescent blue was visible in the close-up, where the glaze had flowed down the flutes and collected.  Again, the crystallization is much more obvious in the zoom.2smallbowlc




Sometime the enlargement even reveals interesting details about the texture of the glaze.  In this hand-sized water pipe, it’s surprisingly clear from the image that the glaze is a very smooth buttery matte, and in actual fact, the tactile quality of this piece is wonderfully satisfying.1plainwaterd

I’m enjoying this little touch of technology, and I think I can use it to improve the quality of my glazes.



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Why pipes?

For most of my life as a potter, I was a production potter, and that’s a situation where change almost has to be evolutionary, rather than revolutionary.  A production potter mixes glaze by the big bucketful, he or she must value consistency in many things that non-production potters can vary at will– a consistently rewarding clay body is very important, a good and repeatable firing schedule, and so forth.  Change is sometimes an uninvited and often destructive enemy.  Forms evolve slowly and carefully, surface treatments must be reliable, and so on.  None of this is to disparage the creativity of production potters– all my favorite potters fall into the production category.  The best way to make great pots, in my opinion, is to make a lot of pots.

All that said, when I began my latest round of making, after several years away from clay, I decided to go in a wildly different direction, one that I had not explored for many years.1steampunkliza

When I was a young, invulnerable, and immortal potter, in the mid 70s, I became interested in clay pipes.  I made many of these pipes, and they helped pay the bills.  But time passed, and I gave hostages to fortune, in the form of a family, and I decided the risk was too great a risk to take.  I stopped making pipes.

2handaThe children are grown now, and I no longer have to worry about what would happen to them should bad things happen to me as a result of making politically incorrect objects.  So I’ve taken up pipemaking again, and I have to admit that I am enjoying it greatly.  One of the reasons for that enjoyment is that almost no one with first-class skills is making wheel-thrown pieces in this category, so I get to be a trail-blazer.  Even better, clay pipes have a history stretching back millenia, and yet there are so many forms to make, including many that I’ve never seen in any collection of ancient pipes.  My central gauge in assessing the worth of a pot is how intimately connected to the user it is– thus my love of mugs and bowls.  Pipes are also extremely intimate objects for those who use them.  When I began researching this market, I found that many users actually named their pipes, and referred to them by these names– something I found fascinating.whitebuffalo1

I’m not exclusively making pipes, because I enjoy making other things too much to not make them.  But this new category of forms is tremendously exciting to me, because almost every thing I make is something that has never been seen before– in a much less subtle way than the mugs and bowls I make (which I hope are different from the work of other potters too.)

For me, excitement translates directly into creativity.  These days I have trouble going to sleep, because I’m always thinking about new forms, new glazes, new decorative treatments, or how I’m going to explain my new works to everyone I know.