Last week I was working on a new project that I hope will include tall pieces. I needed a long piece of clay that was relatively thin, maybe an inch or so (instead of the 4-8 inch thick pieces I've been using recently). I threw the clay down onto the floor and worked it until it was about the length I wanted. Then I stepped on it. Or rather, walked all over it.
Stepping on the clay was fun and easy and I got cool prints from the bottom of my shoes. But when I picked the clay up I was a little disheartened. Why? Instead of the sassy hunk of clay I'm used to, full of fight, the long strip on the floor was flaccid. Instead of the nearly solid feel I usually get from the clay it felt like an overcooked noodle.
Clay is made from crystals suspended in water. When it comes out of the pug mill (the way we get it bagged up) most of the crystals are lined up one way, because the clay body has been squeezed through a process that encourages uniformity. I think this is what gives clay just out of the bag all the "fight." When I started manipulating the clay (which is what you're supposed to do traditionally), the lineup of the crystals was lost and the resulting material reflected this. Instead of behaving as a solid it kind of splayed and flapped and instead of putting up a fight it needed coddling.
We'll see how the finished pieces end up. They are long and I'm sure delicate and they may not make it to the kiln.
But I learned an important lesson in the physical nature of the clay body, well worth whatever the outcome is. I think the bottom line is a throwback to the almost trite idea that working with clay is a "zen" process. You have to know when enough is enough and back off, letting the clay body act for itself.