Saturday, February 27, 2010

Back from Ireland and Back to the Clay

Mary and I got back from Ireland at 4 a.m. Friday. We were up for more than 24 hours, as our flight from JFK was delayed for hours. We were zombies for most of Friday, got a good night's sleep Friday night, and today Mary spent the day catching up on Seagrove Area Potters Association matters (annual meeting Sunday, 5 p.m. at the NC Pottery Center), and I spent the day making a new batch of local clay.

I'm planning to fire the new wood fire kiln in a couple of weeks, so I've got a lot of pots to make. My daughter is home for spring break beginning March 6 and hopefully will bring some pots with her. I'm planning to fire this load green (with pots that are not bisque fired), so that will give me a bit more time to make pots.

A row of bottles for the wood fire kiln
made by Levi dries on the shelves.

My son Levi is experimenting with varying amounts of my local clay added to several commercial clays: Orangestone, Loafer's Glory, Zellastone and StarWorks White (a blend of local clay made at StarWorks Ceramics).

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Mandy Parslow - Wood Fire Potter at the Glen of Aherlow - Tops Up our Trip

We finally got to visit a potter before we left. Mandy Parslow lives in what looks like an old stone gatehouse at the foothills of the Galtee Mountains. She bought the house soon after graduating in 1994 with BA(Hons) three-dimensional design, Ceramics from Cardiff University in Wales just before the big housing boom in Ireland before housing prices skyrocketed.
"People thought I was crazy," she said, explaining that the place was worn down and in need of repair. She lived in a caravan, or travel trailer, while working on her home and studio, but some locals invited her to stay in a nearby short-term stay apartments when the weather turned cold.
In 2009, Mandy completed an MA in the History of Art and Architecture at the University of Limerick.

Mandy stands in front of her wood fire salt kiln that she built

We called to make an appointment with Mandy as she was teaching ceramics at the College of Art in Limerick during the week. After we climbed up a couple of steep hills and snaked around a couple of hairpin bends, we arrived at her studio/house and parked beside a double wooden gate. It was dark, and she turned on the outside light and invited us in.

We chatted and looked around her studio and showroom, and then she left us to look by ourselves as she got the tea ready. Mandy makes some lovely shapes, functional as well as decorative. She said she recently has focused on more decorative and artistic pots, but continues a line of functional pots.

I didn't get a chance to get into much detail about her work, but she had some nice pitchers, bowls, mugs, goblets and lidded jars with attached feet. What caught my attention was her line of long altered bowls, reminiscent of some kind of ancient boat, some with a combing effect up the length of each side, some with a slip that mottled nicely because of the salt. You can see one here.

Following the advice of another potter,
she coated the brick inside the kiln
with a glaze before the first salting,
which reduced the amount of salt
required during initial firings

A toasty fire in the woodstove and a heated floor in her living space was the perfect setting for a cup of tea and a piece of her mother's apple tart.

Mary asked for the first cup, as she prefers a weaker brew. Her mother Helen offered up her approval of the tart, saying, "I think it's better than my own."

"That's saying something," Mary said.

Close up of one of two stoking doors

After tea, we spent a bit of time looking at Mandy's glazing and firing facilities. She has a top-loading electric kiln and a front-loading gas kiln she built inside her glaze room. Outside is her wood-fired kiln which she uses as a salt kiln. It has two stoke holes under the ware chamber. It takes her a little more than 24 hours to fire. She used to use hardwood cutoffs from a timber industry, but after the building boom fell apart, she had to switch to pine cutoffs. She built the kiln by herself with help from some students, using a design from another potter.

We swapped elbow injury stories from lifting and setting 10-pound fire bricks for days at a time, and she also mentioned having trouble with her hands turning blue from lack of circulation and nerve impingement. After consulting with a physical therapist, she decided to try swimming to help improve her condition. And it worked.

Fuel for the next firing

When we started to leave her glaze room, I asked about the motorcycle stored inside.

"It's mine," she said, smiling. "I can't wait for warmer weather."

Me too, Mandy. Thanks for the warm reception.

Monday, February 22, 2010

From Dundrum to Murroe

February Fog lies heavy around the frozen
Sycamore tree at the Holmes' family farm

The following is a recollection of a story that my wife's brother told us during a recent evening at Power's Pub in Abbington, County Limerick, Ireland.

Stepping outside of the dance hall in Dundrum, County Tipperary, some time in the 1980s when Mike Holmes was 18 or 19, he stepped outside with his three friends to begin the journey home in his black Hillman Avenger. Several other friends had gathered around the small family style car and wanted a ride, and Mike thought for a second.
"Okay lads, we can fit six in the back seat," he said. "And two in front next to me."
That left two more. So, Mike stepped to the back of the car and in went two more in the boot. "Just hang on to the bar here and you'll be grand."
"No problem," the two lads said crawling in and positioning themselves as comfortably as possible for the 30-minute drive home.
Eleven young men in the small car caused it to ride a bit low, but Mike had no problem as he drove down the winding bumpy roads of rural County Tipperary. As they approached a crossroads, Mike noticed a Gardai (police) check point.
After he stopped, an officer leaned into the window, saw the crowd in the car, stood up to take a breath, then leaned in again.
"Where are you coming from and where are you going?" he asked Mike.
"We're coming from a dance in Dundrum and heading home to Murroe."
The officer leaned in closer.
"How many people are in this car?"
Mike thought for a moment. "Well, there's three in the front and I haven't counted the back yet," he said.
Eventually, the officer let Mike go.
"Drive on," he said.
Just as he thought he'd gotten by, the two guys in the trunk rose up.
"Goodnight, officer," they said.
Mike had to pull over again and unload all the passengers. The officer said he could drive away with only four passengers. The rest would have to walk.
But Mike took a moment to whisper to one of the six who were left behind.
"I'll wait for ye down the road," he said.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Old Stoneware Guinness Bottles on Display

On Wednesday, we visited the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin and followed a self-guided tour and learned loads about the making of this special brew which had its beginnings in 1759 when Arthur Guinness signed a lease on the St. Jame's Gate Brewery for a period of 9,000 years.

At one level of the tour, there were scads of bottles, cans and other forms of advertisement from the early years. On one shelf, I found a display of stoneware bottles from the 1890s. The last bottle is one I picked from a shelf in Johnnie Fox's Pub in the Dublin Mountains to take a picture. It has no markings or label, so I'm not sure of its origin. It's just a lovely bottle.

The second bottle is glazed in a similar fashion to many old jugs and crocks you see in Ireland inside the pubs. I'm not sure what kind of glazes these are. The jug at the end (from Johnnie Fox's) is glazed similarly.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Tradition Runs Deep in Ireland

Arthur Guinness started the St. James Gate Brewery in Dublin back in 1759. Known for its famous creamy head, Guinness draught is a staple at every pub in Ireland. I had four pints Sunday night at Powers Pub in Abbington. I drank my first one on this trip to Ireland at Croakers Pub in Murroe while watching the Irish rugby team play France. Lovely. After waiting for the pour, I allowed the swirling clouds to settle a bit and then brought the bittersweet liquid up to my lips from beneath that velvety head. Mmmmmm.

While the draught form of Guinness is mostly found in pubs, there's a stout version that is consumed as well. It's very bitter, and is sometimes used in cooking - cakes, puddings and an ingredient in fish batter. I don't much care for drinking it. The stout version was also used to give growing children a boost in iron and b vitamins.

I was eating my rashers and sausages and black pudding for breakfast the other day, and in walked Mary's mother with a large Guinness Stout bottle, a rubber nipple stretched over its lip. She found the nipple fit well on this particular bottle, and I felt somehow it was more than that, that somehow it had something to do with tradition. The Irish are proud of their traditions, and Guinness is just one of the Irish traditions dating back hundreds of years.

For a culture that had their land, homes and language (even their corn) taken away, tradition is important. So, I observed a deep sense of pride as I snapped the following picture of Helena Holmes and her son Liam Holmes feeding a newborn Irish Limousin calf out of a Guinness Stout bottle.

Friday, February 12, 2010


Tree in Ireland

Dromkeen Ambush

Mary and I drove to Nicker Hill the other day to find a spot to take a picture of her parents' farm. By the time we got up on the hill, it was clear that the farm was too far away to see. But we stopped to take a few pictures, one was this old church at Dromkeen. It was the site of an ambush in 1921, where "the combined columns of the East and Mid Limerick, under the command of Donnchadh Hannigan and Dick O'Connell ambushed a convoy of Black and Tans and R.I.C. (Royal Irish Constabulary). The Irish volunteers killed eleven without losing any of their own.

This was a headstone nearby silhouetted by a doorway. There's a certain fierceness about the shape of the headstone with the grey sky showing through the holes. I appreciated the rockwork of the doorway, reminding me of building the arch of my new wood kiln.

We almost made it to a potter the other day, but ran out of time. I did find three woodfire potters in Ireland and hope to visit one before we leave.

Can you believe I have not had a chance to drink a Guiness yet. The only beer I had was at Mary's brother's. It was a Budweiser, the King of Beers.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

A Few Snapshots from Ireland

Mary and I bundle up at the base of an old Sesile Oak on a trail at the Glenn of Aherlow at the base of the Galtee Mountains, County Tipperary.

The heather was actually blooming in spots

Yesterday, I looked up to spot some folks parachuting down from a plane. Mary's mother's neighbor has a small airfield and offers parachuting lessons. "Twould be a shame now if they landed in the old bog between us and the cross of eyon," her mother said with a smile. "They wouldn't find them for a week, you know."

I wonder how the weather is in North Carolina.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Fog Shrouds downtown Limerick

Daniel O'Connell (statue) looks into downtown Limerick City as fog shrouds everything.

Here we are bundled up and posing for our first picture in Ireland.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Nice throwing technique from Romania

Traditional Horezu potter from Radu Adam on Vimeo.

I love the ease with which this potter manipulates the clay. Looks like he uses very soft clay, something I've been learning to do in recent years. He also uses a different wedging technique than I'm used to.

I have found that my local clay throws much easier when soft. It will stand up better than commercial clay I'm used to using.

I found this video while browsing the topic "pottery" at, a service my son, Levi, uses. He's uploading some instructional videos that I did for him so he could practice making some of my shapes while working at From The Ground Up. I'll post a link as soon as he gets the videos uploaded.