Jim Whalen just wrapped up his show at the 2020 Smithsonian Craft Show. He took a few minutes to answer some of my questions about his remarkable work.
Me: Jim, how do you get these effects? Will you describe your process?
JW: Working within the drying time of clay, doing the right thing at the right time is essential to my process of producing a good shape with a pristine surface. I have 4 throwing wheels and make 4 pots at a time. Making each pot takes 4.5 days.
Day 1, I make the cylinders. Day 2, I shape the pots, expanding the cylinders into rounded forms.
Day 3, I smooth the surface starting with sand screen to shave down the high areas. I then wet the pot, tear up and repair the surface with scrubby pads, metal and plastic ribs over and over until the clay surrenders and lays down smooth.
Day 4, I trim the bottom third of the pot to conform to the inside shape and smooth it up. The pots are wrapped in plastic overnight to equalize and on day 5 I spray them with a thick slip and burnish using teflon tools.
When bone dry, I spray the pots with Terra Sigillata, a super refined clay slip, to further enhance the smoothness of the surface. The pots are then bisque fired in an electric kiln. At this point, the pots are one third done.
Next, I create patterns on the bisque pots using wax resist, a liquid petroleum based wax. My patterns range from organic abstract which happen spontaneously to tight mathematical taped patterns which take forever. I believe in working both sides of my creativity.
After the wax dries, the pots go through a salting process which takes about a week. How the salt is injected into the process is proprietary. The salt migrates to the unwaxed areas and when fired creates the warm earth tones by interacting with iron in the clay and Terra Sigillata.
Firing is a 2 stage process. First a salt firing which takes place in a raku kiln then a sawdust firing which happens in a 55 gal. drum cut in half. The pots are fired one at a time. Salt and sawdust firing both create random, chaotic markings. By combining both it separate areas, order is established without destroying the vitality of chaos.
After firing, the pots are washed, desalinated, dried and coated with multiple coats of Tung Oil. This enhances the coloration and protects the surface. The surface is permanent, will never fade and only requires an occasional dusting with Pledge. Being porous, these pots are not meant to hold water.
I invented this process 20 years ago. Through trial and error, the pots have become what they are today.
Me: What was the evolution of your style?
JW: Back in the 1970s, I started out making unglazed planters with fire markings as decoration. These early ceramic pieces reflect sculptural pieces I was making at the time. I made them with yellow clay. These days I’m using an iron-rich custom clay mix. The yellow clay is still in there – in the Terra Sigillata I employ.
Much of my early ceramic work were thrown round pots. I typically used yellow clay and fired them in sawdust. This was an experiment that I kept.
Me: Can you describe the influences on your style?
JW: I am not influenced by other potters. Rather I’m influenced by painters. I love good abstract paintings especially the abstract expressionists Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollack, Franz Kline and earlier stuff by Hans Hoffman and Ashille Gorky. I also love Picasso and all the cubists and surrealists and CEZANNE! I also like Robert Rauchenburg and Frank Stella and the Pop artists. And that nut case Francis Bacon.
My pots are panoramic paintings. You have to turn them to get the complete image. My imagery is spontaneous abstract and tight mathematical patterns. I like working both sides of my creativity.
You have to see and feel at the same time to open up a great painting. You have to do the same with my pots. I call this “Seeling”. Some people can do it and some can’t.
There are 2 important concepts in my pots. The dynamics of order/chaos and positive / negative. The constant battle of chaos and order hinges on the dynamics: order defeats chaos by dividing it. Chaos defeats order by infiltration. When I’m doing the vertical stripes after doing the mathematical calculation and marking off the pot with pencil lines I apply the first piece of tape. It has to be perfectly straight. I move over 4 marks and apply another line, then a third, and so on around the pot. Then I go back and do every second mark. At that time chaos is almost gone. If I’ve been really careful, the last tape is easy – I go by the marks and match the shape at the bottom and top. I’ve created order.
I then give full rein to chaos in the marbling effects. This pattern is applied to a wet pot really fast. I shake it around, add more water or wax and spray it with soap for dispersion. I’m following my higher intuition, looking for a higher meaning to reality and life as we know it.
All my patterns function pos neg. You have to seel to see it.
The marbles are open to interpretation. I have my own for each pot.
Jim’s pottery is displayed on his website at Paradox Pottery.
Diane Davis did an excellent job of capturing Jim’s creative process on her photography website. She graciously allowed me to use many of her photographs in this article. On her website she has a short-selection of images and a long-selection of images to view. (Go for the long selection – it’s rich and nuanced, a visual ice cream sundae.)