Kay Yourist

Kay Yourist
Ann Arbor, Michigan

Tottered on: 14 November 2008
Temperature: room
Ceiling: gallery lights
Ground: concrete
Wind: calm

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TT with HD: Kay Yourist

Kay Yourist Pottery
Totter 2.0 on location:
Yourist Studio

[Ed. note: More on the Yourist Studio Gallery is available online.]

HD: Is this going to work?

KY: Yeah.

HD: Let me scoot forward just a little bit.

KY: Do you want me to scoot back, too?

HD: Well, I don't want you to fall off the end.

KY: I'm not! I've got a hand back here.

HD: So are you going to be all right? Is this okay?

KY: Oh, yeah.

HD: So, first of all, welcome to the teeter totter!

KY: Thanks!

HD: It's a great space that you have here. So, the construction that is going on that I saw outside, is that going to expand your space here, or is that going to be just for the kiln? I mean, are you going to get any actual additional workspace and display space out of the bargain?

KY: No, it's basically space just for the kiln. It will expand our workspace in that we'll have a greater kiln loading area, and more kiln. So there is, in a sense, more space, but it is primarily just for the kiln.

HD: So have you already thought of the first piece that you're going to fire in this new kiln?

KY: I have, but I am a little distracted.

HD: Yeah???

KY: I think you need to come a little forward so that I can get a little more control here. I love floating. I want to see if we can float.

HD: Oh, you mean like just balance?

KY: Yeah, let's see if we can do that.

HD: Hang on.

KY: Okay, I'll move back. Just to see if we can do it. We're getting there.

HD: Okay, let me move forward a little bit more.

KY: And I can move back. ... Isn't that cool!

HD: Well, we're doing it!

KY: Yeah, we're doing it. See, just sit on your bottom and pivot. You don't even really need your hands. See, the reason why I wanted to do this is that when I was a little kid, I would be on here with people bigger than me, and they would just like to take control. And I would get scared, because they would flip it up and I would almost fall off. And I always thought it would be really fun to kind of balance it so that we were equal.

HD: Wow, we are actually doing this.

KY: And maybe we could get to the point where we could do it with no hands!

HD: Well, I think that would be really ambitious.

KY: See, like like this. Isn't that great? You could probably almost put your hands down

HD: Oh, wow! Joanne, look!

KY: We did it!

Joanne: You want me to take a picture?

HD: Sure.

Joanne: Where's the camera?

HD: It's over there in the box.

KY: If you just pivot a little bit we can keep it balanced. [Ed. note: Photography ensues.]

HD: Okay now, what were we talking about? The first piece that you are going to fire in your new kiln, have you given that any thought? Is that going to be a big deal, or?

KY: The first firing is going to be a big deal. But I am looking at it more as a studio firing, not just like what is the piece going to be. And I am trying to figure out what we're going to do around it, because it's going to be pretty exciting.

HD: Yeah. So when you say a "studio firing" I take it that means that it won't be just one piece by one person but that it will be a lot of different people's work?

KY: We have a number of community studio members and of course there's me, and I think we're all going to want to have a piece of that kiln.

HD: So could that form the basis of the show? Like the first firing show? Where every piece in the show was part of the first firing?

KY: I don't know if I would do a first firing show. I guess I'm just used to the traditional idea of a show or an exhibition being the best possible work that we can make.

HD: Okay, so as opposed to being a function of some process?

KY: Yes. I haven't pulled away from that idea. I think of it more as a celebration. So I've just been playing with thoughts and ideas and mulling them around and trying to figure out what kind of celebration is this going to be.

HD: So how long does it take to actually fire something? Hours?

KY: It takes around 12 hours maybe. And then you want to cool it for 24 hours. Because it gets really hot.

HD: So if you plan a celebration, then, would it be around the insertion of the work into the kiln, or around the ...

KY: ... or around the opening up to see what's inside? I think that both of those merit some sort of celebration or notation.

HD: But that'd be a long time for people to hang out--for 12 hours.

KY: Right.

HD: So maybe you would have to make it a morning event, people would go away, and come back the same evening? Or maybe go overnight?

KY: Or the next day, because it needs 24 hours cool. So maybe it would be a special but quiet celebration to load the kiln--because people will individually bring their pieces and they want to make sure it's put in very carefully ...

HD: ... and spaced correctly.

KY: Yes, and it's kind of a quiet and thoughtful thing to load kiln.

HD: Really? So there is sort of a reverence to it?

KY: Sort of, yeah. You've got to be really careful loading each object, nothing can touch, you can't go beyond a certain area in the kiln, you have to be really careful, the work is delicate, the glaze can chip off. You've just got to be really conscious and mindful. When it comes to unloading the kiln, you open the door brick by brick ...

HD: ... wait up. There's not like just a door?

KY: That's the door.

HD: Bricks???

KY: The door is bricks. We've got a hundred bricks. You have to put it in one brick at a time.

HD: Each time?? Wow.

KY: It's slow.

HD: Well, if it's slow, it must be somehow better, though?

KY: Well, it's a more traditional, old-fashioned way to close up a kiln. Modern, commercial kilns can hinge all those bricks, frame them together, hinge a door, and you can just swing it open. And you suddenly see everything. When you do it this way, you are closing it up a little at a time, and when you're opening it, you're opening up a little at a time, and you get a bigger and bigger peek at what is inside of it. So it's kind of exciting to open it one brick at a time, when you finally get to open it. And that's going to be a Wow! Exciting celebration! And maybe that's when we drink the wine and make toasts!

HD: So what is the timeline for completing the kiln to the point where you can do the first firing?

KY: Well, I think it's going to be in another couple of weeks. We're looking at December.

HD: So before the end of the year!

KY: Yeah, we are looking at before the end of the year. There are a lot of details along the way to try to make it happen. And actually putting the bricks together has been the quickest part. I think one year ago making the decision that we would do this--we're going to have a kiln ...

HD: ... one of the things I wanted to ask you, actually--apparently you have not gotten the memo about the bad economy?

KY: [laugh] Okay, I'm not certain what you mean here!

HD: Well, you are expanding, you are building something, which reflects a certain optimism about the financial health of your operation. And I think there's a lot of people who might simply say, Okay we've just got to wait until things in general get a little better.

KY: Well, there was a little voice that said, maybe this is not a good time to be doing something like this. But then another thought came to me, which is something that has been coming to me, and that thought was, Well, you know, if I see it becoming a little bit more difficult to create business, maybe I need to do more to draw more people. Maybe I need to become a better business and maybe that's all that we really need. Because the better, the more exciting, the more dynamic we become, the more people we'll draw.

HD: So a big part of the business is teaching students how to make stuff out of clay.

KY: Yeah.

HD: So how long does it take to get to the point where--I mean, take this teapot over here--I mean that's a really impressive teapot, and I could not imagine that somebody could come in and at the end of their first class produce a teapot that looked like that. So ...

KY: ... it takes years to be able to do that work like that there. You have to know and master throwing a simple cylinder, then know how to alter a shape ...

HD: ... so by looking at that, can you tell that that was a thrown cylinder as opposed to constructed by hand using the slab technique? Or do you just happen to know the origin of the piece because you know the artist?

KY: You can tell. But sometimes you have to come up close, I should say. From here I can't tell that it was thrown. But if I came up close and felt it, and felt the insides to see if I can feel the throwing rings--then you can tell. Still it's sometimes hard to tell. But often when you see that beautiful round symmetry, the first thought is that it was thrown. But as is sometimes the case, if somebody is really good at what they do, sometimes you can't tell ...

HD: ... so are there different kinds of clay for throwing versus hand building? I mean you showed me that huge roller for rolling out clay to get a slab. But would you start for a thrown piece with the same kind of clay or is it a different kind, for throwing versus slabbing?

KY: There are some clays that are preferred for slab work and preferred for throwing. For throwing work, people like to work with clay that is very plastic and elastic. For hand building from slabs, often artistics prefer a clay that will hold its form and is not necessarily so plastic. It maybe has a little bit more of what we call grog in it--it's a texture like a sandy material ...

HD: The word that you said is grog??

KY: G-R-O-G.

HD: I think of grog as something that you drink.

KY: Yeah! In ceramics there are a lot of words that we use that have different meanings in the outer world.

HD: Like ribs, for example.

KY: Like ribs. We often talk about our pots as having body parts. The top of the pot, the very edge, we call the lip. And the bottom we call the foot. The part that bows out in the center, we call the belly of the pot. The neck of the pot is the part right here on the vase, just before it opens up into the lip.

HD: As you were making those comparisons and gesturing I couldn't help but think of that children's song, I'm a little teapot short and stout.

KY: There you go!

HD: So that teapot right there, is that merely decorative? Or could you actually use it for tea?

KY: That's a functional teapot. It's got a really good, tight fitting lid. It's got a little steam hole so the lid won't stick to the pot. And so that you can get some air in there. Sometimes the lid fits so tight that it creates a vacuum and it won't pour. It's a very functional pot. If you held the handle you would see that it's a very comfortable handle. And it's made so well that you could lift up that pot full of hot liquid, and it wouldn't be too heavy to lift.

HD: Okay, so the volume of liquid that it holds is in-scale with a human being.

KY: Yeah, sometimes the handle can have a big effect on that--where it is placed, how it is shaped. The pouring is another aspect of how well that spout is made. The angle of the spout can affect whether it is going to pour at all. It can also determine whether it is going to drip or gurgle as it comes out. So there are those things to consider ...

HD: ... so is gurgling considered to be a desirable or undesirable feature?

KY: I don't think you want it to gurgle. You just want it to have a nice pour. You like the idea of gurgling? [laugh]

HD: I kind of do, yeah.

KY: [laugh] Well, it's a nice sound, but when it gurgles the water is kind of bubbling out, and it bounces, kind of splatters, and so that's why I think it's not desirable.

HD: So for teapot aficionados gurgling is not cool.

KY: Right, right. And the way the lid fits, you don't want the lid to flip off.

HD: So the clay you use, you know, you talked about the different properties. One of the things that any gardener in Washtenaw County will tell you is that the soil is clay. And what made me think of gardening was Joanne and the piece that she's working on with those holes that she was making in her piece with the seed punch. So my question is, given that there is all this clay out there in Washtenaw County, is this the kind of clay that you could scoop up a big wad of it and work it appropriately so that you could actually make pottery?

KY: That's a good question. I haven't tried it. When you dig clay out of the earth you need to clean it, and one of the ways of cleaning it is to dry it out completely, and then sieve it, and then grind it up into a nice powder.

HD: So drying it out completely, you're talking about chopping it up into little bits and sitting in the sun, or?

KY: Yeah, you're just totally drying it, we call that slaking it. You get all of the pebbles and impurities out of it. And then you use it, which is what the ancients did.

HD: It sounds like an excruciatingly tedious process.

KY: I think it's a lot of work. And I know that the Navajos, at least until recently, have done that. And one really cool thing what they do--remember when I was talking about grog in there? When they go out and dig up clay--they can also even do it in the desert--they also find shards of ancient pots, when they grind up the clay after it's dried. They grind up those ancient shards into the clay and those shards have already been fired so they are a little bit different chemical than the raw dry clay. They work as grog--as what I would call the "bones" of the pot. They help the clay stand. When you make a pot you make the clay stand, the bones hold it in place.

HD: So then you have the analogy again to the human body parts.

KY: Yeah. So they've got these ancient shards that they add in to their clay body which is so cool. Anyway, what I was going to say is that now in modern times, we know can add certain things to our clay to make it just what we want. We add other clays into our clay, so it's not just a regional thing anymore. So if I were to go into my backyard and dig up the clay, I'm going way back to basics. I have to figure out what temperature I can mature it at without actually melting at. Because you can melt clay.

HD: That is the firing process?

KY: Yes.

HD: So if you're trying to accelerate the drying process you don't want to go as far as to melt it?

KY: Well, I wasn't so much referring to accelerating the drying process, I was thinking more about when I make my work, I am using clay that I know will mature, become stonelike at a particular temperature, and I know the clay is going to have just the right plasticity. I know it's just the right color of body when it's matured, and I know that my glazes will fit it just right.

When I go to my backyard to dig up the clay, I don't know any of those things, yet. So I have to figure them out. I've never had a particular interest in doing that, I guess. I've had more of my interest in creating with the clay.

HD: So in other words it wouldn't make any sense, from your point of view, to try to define a show by, Hey, all of these pieces came from Washtenaw County clay.

KY: Local clay! That might be fun! It might be kind of fun to do a something like that where you actually dig it up and process it and make it into something workable. I think I have a feeling that the clay here is probably low fire.

HD: Low fire?

KY: It means will mature at a much lower temperature than the clay we're working with here.

HD: So you do have a show coming up. What is the definition of that show and when is it happening?

KY: The show that we have coming up next is basically our annual holiday celebration. All of the artists who work in the studio, bring out their works and we turn the whole studio into a big gallery. There may be 13 or 14 of us who'll put all of our works out, and we have a reception ...

HD: ... food and beverage?

KY: Yes, yes [laugh] we'll have wine and hors d'oeuvres and we'll have some wheel-throwing demonstrations for people who never get a chance to see that.

HD: So are all of your wheels--I know at least some of them are--electric powered? Are any of them human-powered at all?

KY: We have one that is.

HD: So that's like a kick-style thing or a pedal thing, or what?

KY: It's called a treadle-style wheel. It's an English-style treadle wheel that I actually learned on. And that wheel has very sentimental value to me. That was my very first wheel.

HD: So you learned on that exact wheel not just that kind of wheel.

KY: That's right. I got it when I was in high school. I saved all of my money ...

HD: ... do you remember how much it cost?

KY: Yeah, it was $175. I saved up all my money and it was very exciting. I had not yet thrown a pot on a wheel in my whole life. I just knew that I wanted this. I knew that I wanted to do this.

HD: And you knew that how??

KY: I guess I was just lucky. I was raised in a household where my father was an artist, and so I had exposure to lots of art classes, and whenever clay came along I was mesmerized. And I used to go with my dad to the library a lot and he would read art books, and I would go with him and read art books, too. And I pulled one book off the shelf one day, it had step-by-step pictures. And I swear those pictures were like one-inch square--a whole book, every page of maybe 100 of these one-inch square little pictures of a man throwing a pot on a pottery wheel from start to finish.

HD: And you were fascinated to such a degree that you said, I need to have a wheel??

KY: Well, I just said, I can do this! I can do this! And I remember thinking, Here is an adult with clay! Up until that point I thought kids did clay. And so I saw that, and I thought: I want to do this. This is what I want to do. And I was only 10 years old. I was a little fixated by it. I thought it was really cool.

HD: Wow, and so your high school guidance counselor did not talk you out of it then?

KY: No. I mean, I had other ideas. I thought, Okay I could be a journalist because I like to write. I could get into psychology, you know, the mysteries of the mind, that's pretty cool, too. But ultimately art was the thing for me, and clay was the biggest one, and I just followed it.

HD: Alright, is there anything else we need to cover before we dismount? I would really like to get a picture of a human-powered wheel.

KY: Yeah, we can take the top off.

HD: I'm fascinated with human powered devices of all kinds.

KY: Yeah, I can see that!

HD: Alright, well listen, thanks for let me drag this thing into your studio here!

KY: Well, thanks, Dave, this was really fun