I had the thrill of touring Graciela Testa Lynt’s ceramics studio in her Alexandria home. She handed me a mug of steaming coffee in a handmade mug and we walked out back to see her charming shed turned studio.
It’s in this small studio space, packed to the brim, where Graciela expresses her passion and enormous talent working with clay.
Note the ceramic bird houses, which ironically are less desirable to birds than the shed itself, where a Carolina wren made her nest last May. After the birds hatched, Graciela held off on firing 20 yarn bowls until they learned to fly.
Graciela first learned to make pottery in 1992 when she was raising five children, had a full-time job, and needed to find a way to stay centered. When she retired, she began making, exhibiting, and selling pottery in earnest. Graciela has a store on Etsy and you can buy from her locally at a few locations, all listed on her Web site. In 1997, she moved from a space in her basement out to this 10×12 foot shed, which just got a fresh coat of red paint.
Here is where Graciela showed me the step-by-step process for making one of her signature (and top selling) yarn bowls.
Even though she considers the shed a one-person space with everything within reach, she patiently let me hover and take photos and notes as she worked.
An Ergonomic Studio Space
Graciela has everything set up ergonomically. She uses a step ladder for two purposes — as a cushion-topped seat at the wheel and as a ladder to reach the shelves. She has a rolling cart that holds all of her throwing tools.
An old linoleum countertop serves as temporary counterspace. It goes over the slab roller when she’s not using it. And her husband installed an old sink outside the studio with a hose coming from the house, so she doesn’t have to tramp into the house for water.
Graciela buys a smooth white porcelaneous stoneware clay which comes in 25 lb. bags. Near her boxes of clay, she stores discarded pieces and then uses a pugmill, a recent gift from her husband, to mix recycled pieces with new. The clay comes out of the pugmill in long tubes like this.
Clay costs about .45 cents a pound and is available from local pottery supply stores, such as Manassas Clay.
Stage 1: Wedging and Throwing
Graciela begins the process of making a yarn bowl by wedging the clay, which is akin to kneading dough. In this case, though, you want to get the air out rather than adding air to the mixture.
Once the piece is on the wheel, she figures out how wide she wants the bowl to be. She needs to make sure she leaves enough on the bottom to allow for a “foot.”
She then compresses the piece well so she can avoid having an “s” crack appear during firing, as you see here.
Next, throwing: Graciela brings the walls up, shapes the bowl, and fills it out. All of this takes about 3 minutes, but it is the part Graciela loves the most and what got her hooked.
She compresses the rim and then uses a “rib” to push in the walls and refine the design. As she goes along, she rubs a sponge around the pot to soak up excess water and smooth the surface and then squeezes it out into a nearby bucket.
When this part is done, Graciela takes a wire cutter made from fishing line and beads to slice the bowl from the wheel.
Stage 2: Drying, Trimming, and Designing
Now the bowl needs to sit and dry, but not completely. She needs it to dry only to the “leather-hard” stage so it will be wet enough to trim. The way to know if the bowl is just right is if it does not distort in handling.
Graciela brought a different piece to the wheel that was adequately dry to show me the next steps. She centered it and then tapped the bottom to seal it to the wheel. She used the pear-shaped trimming tool to do the shaping. It’s this step that determines the final silhouette of the piece; if you want it to have higher feet, for a serving bowl for example, or, for the sake of the yarn bowl, a low, stable foot.
She wrote her name in cursive in the bottom.
Next, Graciela often draws and carves designs in the bowl using stencils. She bought scalpels from a medical supply store to cut out the precise designs.
Stage 3: Bisque and Glaze Firing
The pieces need to be bone dry before they can be fired. Bone dry pots feel cold to the touch. A wet finger or your tongue will stick to it slightly as well. I did not try this.
Pots are fired twice. The first step is the bisque firing. The purpose of this firing is to drive all the water out of the pots. Graciela has an old kiln. The newer kilns are digitized, but for hers, she uses a “kiln sitter” to indicate when the kiln has reached the proper temperature. When a cone bends, the kiln automatically shuts off. The bisque firing heats the kiln to 1800 degrees Fahrenheit.
Graciela needs to have enough pieces to fill the kiln before firing. Finding space in the kiln is like “working a 3-D crossword puzzle,” she says. She creates shelves at the required heights using kiln posts and then carefully arranges the pieces from bottom to top. For the later glaze firing, this is even more challenging because none of the pieces can touch.
During the bisque firing, Graciela wants the temperature to increase very slowly or else the pieces may explode. She usually “candles” the kiln for several hours. During this stage she leaves open the kiln and uses the low temperature setting on the bottom ring. She then closes the lid for the next stages in which she does an hour on low, one hour on medium, and one hour on high. She keeps notes on the stages and temperatures in this notebook.
When the pottery is “bisqued” it is easier to handle but remains porous, like the almost brittle pottery you use at one of the Paint Your Own stores.
Now for the glazing. After mixing the glaze in the 5-gallon bucket with a hand blender, she uses a set of tongs to submerge the piece, as she’s doing now with a bisqued pitcher.
The pieces also get wax on the bottom so the glaze doesn’t stick to the foot ring or to the kiln shelves. Graciela mixes her glazes at Manassas Clay’s clay kitchen. Local pottery suppliers purchase bulk chemicals and potters can then mix their own glazes. You pay for the amount you use to make, for example, 5,000 grams of a certain glaze. A 5-gallon bucket may cost around $48.
When the glaze is dry, the piece goes back into the kiln for the glaze firing. This firing is also done in three stages (low, medium, and high), but without the need to candle the kiln. This time the kiln is fired to about 2200 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s when the so-called “kiln gods” intervene and you discover a surprise when you open the kiln. Graciela tells buyers that each piece will be unique. She won’t take orders for a matching set because of the difficulties in achieving identical pieces given the quixotic nature of the clay and glaze and where the pieces sit in the kiln.
Reusing the Clay
Another piece of equipment essential to the studio is the slab roller. Graciela is able to reuse her scraps of clay by rolling them out and then cutting out ornaments with cookie cutters or making boxes. She also collects stamps, and anything that can make a pattern, to use for the sides of boxes. She often paints a design with white glaze, like the lovely artichoke on this brie baker, which I bought that afternoon as an early holiday gift.
Inventory and Sales
I paid inside Graciela’s house where she keeps her office and the mini photography studio for her product shots. She also stores her inventory here and packing supplies.
Graciela is in her busiest time of year, making special order advent wreaths (one of which I bought), brie bakers, ornaments, lamps, butter crocks, and mugs. But when January comes, she has a good month or two to play in the studio and come up with new designs. All artists need that time and lucky for her, a room of her own.
Posted by Leslie