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News from the shed – Learning to be a student

Well hello fellow clay enthusiasts. I am currently on term break, taking note of all the whirlwind learnings of last term, catching up on a couple of overdue assessments, and reflecting on how uncomfortable it is to be a student. As promised, term two was a doozy with a jammed packed course on slip casting and mould making in conjunction with our ongoing material and colour exploration. In the aftermath, I realise how much I learnt in what felt like an overwhelming eight weeks.

There is no doubt that I made this experience harder on myself than it needs to be. Looking back on my own learning style, I have always taken on projects beyond my capability knowing I have the luxury of time. I am not afraid to over face myself knowing that I can take a break at any time, or take on a side project to assist with developing the skill I need, and return with fresh eyes to complete the work. Obviously, this gung-ho approach does not always work in the class room, there is no spare time for any additional faffing around. I have not been in a class room environment for 15 years, in business I have been the leader, the problem solver and teacher, setting the work and the timeline. It certainly feels uncomfortable at times wading through uncharted waters with the shoe on the other foot.

On the flip side, I want to ensure that I finish each term with specific learnings, which means that I take on challenging work for my assessments. For my hand building projects, I built a large pot and an art deco teapot so I could learn about constructing a vessel and functional elements such as a lid or handle. For mould making, I wanted to learn how to make a rim to rim lid (a lid that sits flush on top of the vessel), and made a model requiring a five-piece mould, as opposed to two pieces. The learnings have been exceptional and slightly torturous at times. I am so grateful to my teachers at Hornsby TAFE, they are an amazing group of individuals who are great at managing all of us through our motional roller coaster as we learn.

My biggest learning curves were using casting slip, a specifically designed liquid clay, and mould making relevant to the slip casting process. I am familiar with making plaster moulds and adequately make press moulds for my sculptures. Even though you can turn a press mould into a slip cast mould, there are a few marked differences between the two mould making processes. A good plaster mould can hold water from several repeat castings within the day. This means the mould has less plaster in the mixture, compared to press moulds, making the plaster mould softer and more porous. This changes how the mould is constructed as the plaster is poured over, as opposed to being applied to, a clay surface.

Model, top down Model, side view Mould, last pour to go.

Not understanding these important nuances, I chose garlic for my botanical project, made a sculptural model for a botanical vessel creating an unnecessarily difficult rim for a lid, and rushed the mould making to meet the class dead line. Despite my chaotic approach, not ensuring I had the right tools for the job, taking an unorthodox approach, my untidy mould with thin walls does its job.

Producing successful slip cast pieces is all about slip drying time (in and out of the mould) and ensuring the plaster mould is thick enough to draw the water from the casting slip so it dries and becomes a solid form. I found the slip cast material to be ridiculously frustrating until I learnt to do things at the right time. One does not listen well in the midst of a useless flurry! I wasted (and recycled) so much JCAST slip early on because I kept taking the casting out of the mould too early and attempting surface clean up resulting in a collapsed mushed gloopy mess. At the end of term I was happy with the casts coming out of the mould, refer photo above. And yes, the lid actually worked. It took me a while to get my head around this casting business, so I am yet to revisit colour and colour application techniques required to finish the major assessment due in October.

With only a few days to go before my break ends, I am left with just enough time for colour study and to appreciate how much I have actually learnt. Next week I will be caught up on the overdue work, practiced new skills, and ensured my visual journal is up to date. I am heading into third term as a complete beginner where we will be learning how to throw clay on a pottery wheel. I consider this is a good time to reflect and consider my learning approach… accepting the discomfort and allowing myself to be a student is a great place to start. This means that it's OK to feel overwhelmed and awkward at times. I can bring my curios mind, stay present, keep things simple and try to get stuff done on time.

Wish me luck. Actually, scrap that. Wish the teacher luck, patience and resilience! Even with a revised perspective, I have a feeling that it’s going to be a long 8 weeks for me and whichever teacher has selected the unsuspecting short straw!

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