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Wasps and Pipes

Here’s a little-known problem that can afflict clay pipe makers who leave their greenware outside.

Mud dauber wasps may decide to make their nests inside the stems of unfired pipes.

My wheel is on a covered porch at the back of our house, and I have a shelving system that is basically open to the outdoors, though sheltered from rain and wind.  Ware gets put here to complete drying, and eventually moves into the kiln room when it’s ready to be fired.  But apparently wasps find the inside bore of a pipestem to be just the right size for a nest.

These simple little pipes stayed on the shelves for a week or two before going to the kiln.  Somehow I failed to notice that a wasp had built her nest in the stem of one of them.  I bisque-fired the piece, and still didn’t notice.  I glazed it, fired it, and photographed it, all without noticing that a nest had completely blocked it up.

When I finally did notice, I was astonished.  wasppipeb

Mud dauber wasps gather up clay from various sources and use it to build their nests.  When a colony of such wasps has built a large nest, you can actually fire it and turn it into a ceramic object, which makes an interesting conversation piece for the coffee table.

Had the wasp gotten her clay from my porcelain scraps, which are omnipresent in my studio, the blockage probably would have been irreparable.  But I took a piece of baling wire and forced it into the stem, clearing out much of the blockage.  But the pipe still wouldn’t draw.  A careful examination revealed that the wasp had built another nest at the bowl end of the stem.  Evidently she flew into the bowl and around the corner into the stem.  This blockage was sturdier than the first, and eventually I had to pound a deck screw into the nest through the carb hole in the side of the pipe.  That did the trick, and the pipe draws very well now.

I don’t know what if any special qualities a pipe that was intended to be the home of wasp babies might have, but it’s an interesting overlap between the natural world and the world of ceramic art.wasppipea

 

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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.