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This is one of my favorite things. I learned it from Kent Rothman, ceramics director at the Mendocino Art Center. It’s especially great for clay that is old and hard, or recycled clay because you don’t have to wedge it up really good like you do for throwing or handbuilding.
What we’re going to do is make a planter out of solid clay, then hollow out the center when it is leatherhard.The advantage of doing this solid is that you can really put a lot of muscle into your sculpting and carving without punching through.
Start with a piece of plywood and spread sand over it. (The sand allows the clay to shrink without cracking). Take a large amount of clay, at least 50 lbs, and put (or slam) it onto the plywood. (Remember, this can be old clay, and you’re going to recycle a lot of this too.) Pound the clay into a shape you like. It should be somewhat mound shaped, larger at the bottom, tapering to smaller at the top. Sometimes I use my feet for shaping so I can put my whole weight into it. The top of your mound should be flat, because when you turn the piece over it will become the bottom of the planter. An easy way to make it flat is to take another piece of plywood, place it on top, and pound with a hammer. On the sides use your fist and fingers to make deep wells, build up walls, and poke it with sticks. Slam sticks against it (using a split log gives your clay a “wood” like look.) Use rocks and kitchen utensils for texture. Knives, forks, The wheels from a kids car. This is fun, let your imagination go wild! Again, it’s great because you can make any shape you want and don’t have to worry about poking through the wall of the piece.
When you are happy with your design, leave it to dry. A couple days is usually about right, but check to make sure it doesn’t dry too much. You want it dry enough to hold it’s shape, but wet enough that it’s easy to carve. When it is at this leather hard stage, turn it over. Use a round loop tool (Brown, Kemper, and Dolan all make them), and pull the loop through the clay toward you. It comes up in big strips. This is very easy to do as long as the clay isn’t too dry. With the right tool you can hollow the whole thing out in less than half an hour. As you get close to the edges, use your free hand to feel where the outside is, and try to stay about a half inch or an inch from the outside. If you accidentally cut too much away and due to some holes or deep cuts you made, you cut through, just take some fresh clay and cover it up. It is still plenty soft on the inside to attach more clay.
Turn your piece back over, and finish off the top rim with texture or whatever. Make a hole or two at the bottom for water to drain out, and wrap lightly to dry. Remember, the piece has to dry for a while before bisque firing because it is so thick.
As for the clay you hollowed out, leave it to dry completely, then drop it into a bucket of water. Recycle and do it again!
I find that pieces made this way have a beautiful, natural quality. I hope you like it as much as I do!