Barbara Hanselman

Before I found clay, I ate, slept and breathed interior and architectural design, and spent all of my time engrossed in the needs of others. I had no life without my client list. Then in 1994 while on vacation, I attended a workshop given by Jeanne Haskell at The Vermont Clay Studio in Montpelier, Vermont. At the time, I didn't know the difference between wet clay and the mud in my driveway, but once my hands started poking and stretching and feeling the hunk of clay I was allotted, I knew I had to learn more. Upon returning home, I immediately signed up for classes at Perkins Center for the Arts in Moorestown, New Jersey and The Clay Studio in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. I took workshops offered by clay artists whose work I came to admire through area galleries and national publications. I was being consumed by all things CLAY. The more I experienced, the more I realized there is to experience, and the more I needed to ‘do clay.’ Although I didn't start out on the wheel learning to make strictly functional ware such as plates and bowls, I did begin hand building very utilitarian pieces. I love gladiolas, and I never had a vase tall enough to hold them, so I slab built a whole series of ‘GLAD’ vases. Three of the first ten leaked, and I quickly learned about properly attaching a bottom and testing for water-tightness at the bisque stage. At classes and workshops I was introduced to texturing and stretching clay, building forms which have three-legs, lids, handles or spouts and using engobes such as terra sigillata as alternatives to glazes. I raku-fired with Steve Branfman in Vermont, sawdust-fired with Jimmy Clark in Chester Springs and was quickly becoming a clay junkie! Sometimes my drug of choice was stoneware; sometimes earthenware with an occasional snort of cream cheese porcelain. Other times I reached nirvana by simply burnishing or texturing the various clay bodies I had on hand. Intent on exploring everything I had been exposed to in more detail, I mentally filed away ninety percent of the information for future exploration, then set about starting at the beginning and mastering the three basic hand building techniques of pinching, coiling and slab construction. My own ‘pinch-strip’ method of hand building evolved from combining elements of these basic techniques. After hand rolling a slab of clay to one eighth inch thick, I cut strips from the slab and continue compress rolling the strips to a thickness of less than one sixteenth inch. These paper-thin strips form the basis of my ‘pinch-strip’ clay constructions. Attaching the initial strip to a clay base, I then pinch each new strip to the one underneath, building up side-walls and capturing the space within. No matter what the piece becomes - a bowl, a pitcher, a gesture pot - it is the space within that makes it useful - benefit comes from what is there; usefulness from what is not there. Eventually the vessel starts to breath on its own. It takes a stance. It gestures. It whispers what it wants to be when it grows up ... and I LISTEN. I follow its lead, never really knowing what is being constructed until we're done. Finishing a pot with the right glaze was always harder than making a good clay form. Glazes never were explained or discussed at length in any of the classes I took at area art centers; our work came out of the bisque firing and we were expected to thoughtlessly dip our pieces in buckets of runny liquid to create a finish. For years I fought this idea and turned to brushing or pouring glazes on my bisque ware. Then I had an epiphany - the clay slabs I roll out are the fabric I use to make my pieces. If I were a fashion designer, would I attempt to manufacture a line of clothing without first envisioning the colors, textures or patterns of the fabrics I would use for each creation? Of course not! So, why was I doing this as a clay artist? Why was I building forms out of clay ‘muslin’ when I could be using clay fabrics rich with textures, patterns and colors… I began fantasizing about clay surface finishes at the conceptual, greenware stage and the numerous ways to achieve them. Five years ago, I started an intense investigation into engobes, terra sigillatas, colored earthenware & stoneware clay bodies, stains and underglazes (with and without the application of glazes). I constantly explore new ways of creating colorful patterns, textures and finishes on clay slabs and continue to fine tune the transfer-printing methods of German potter, Martin Mohwald which I learned at The Clay Studio in Philadelphia. AND I’m still obsessed with HOW MY PIECE WILL LOOK BEFORE I EVEN KNOW WHAT MY PIECE WILL BE! Simply put, I’m dedicated to becoming familiar with ALL my options. I constantly draw upon my years of acquired knowledge and still employ a thought provoking ‘what if’ every time I sit down to create my signature work. The RATTLE has also been a source of fascination for me since I first discovered the whys and wherefores of it’s existence. Ceremonial RATTLES have been used for centuries to celebrate beginnings. They were the gift of choice among Victorians wishing to commemorate the birth of a child but as far back as the humble Egyptians, rattles were utilized to memorialize each new chapter in the life of the individual. Many cultures believe in Healing RATTLES and their capacity to dispel illness & dis¬-ease. These Rattles are credited with being able to awaken the human spirit, drive out negative energies and center personal focus. My versions of these Rattles are hand formed and adorned with symbols of wellness; they are shaped to be grasped. During times of despair, medical treatments or loneliness, the Rattle should be gently shaken to the beat of one’s heart. RATTLES do help us to ground; their sound is powerful & magical, producing an incomparable energy all their own. The gourd Rattles made by the American Indian were filled with plants they raised & considered sacred - corn, tobacco, and rice. My fired clay Rattles are filled with dried bits of clay which I revere as the complete gestalt of life. These fired bits provide the sound of the earth as my Rattles are shaken or handled. Both my Pillow and Crescent Rattles are “birthed” in the same way. Once the basic shape is formed, I tenderly blow my own CHI (breath of life) inside, sealing the opening quickly closed with pursed lips. These Rattles are then fired & finished with something as simple as a leather handle, semi-precious stones, clay, bone or shell beads or copper - details which enhance the importance of the Rattle. My awareness of clay beads evolved from the construction of the rattle. After all, what better way to adorn a clay rattle than with complimentary clay beads! The beads grew into focals & pendants which I offered for sale as components as well as developing my own line of Clay-to-Wear. (My exploration into clay-to-wear really began years ago with sculptural clay pin/pendants sold in frames for hanging on the wall when not wearing but it took my passion for the rattle to demand that I make my own clay beads.) Now my clay beads and components are combined with copper and other complements to form very wearable bracelets, necklaces and earrings most of which are finished with terra sigillata instead of ceramic glazes so they are ‘open’ to absorb the essence of the wearer. I have also produced several YouTube How-to videos on ways to form and finish various ceramic clay beads. I love teaching workshops and classes through art centers in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York. I am able to share my own as well as other artists’ techniques for hand building clay and my passion for the magic of clay. There is always something new or forgotten to re-discover and a class doesn’t go by without someone exclaiming, “WOW” and I have to concur by thinking – CLAY... I love where it takes me!see more