I met Rhonda June Boothe in the early 1980s, during college days. She had a loom set up in her home…a beautiful thing made of light wood. I was struck by how esthetically pleasing her surroundings were. She lived in an airy heritage apartment and I recall one particular day when rich light streamed in through the windows. It must have been the Golden Hour. She’d invited us over for dinner and introduced us to an amazing combination: broccoli and red sauce over pasta.
I first met Rhonda at the office of the university’s student newspaper, where we both worked at one time. We are also former co-editors of the literary magazine at our alma mater and I can tell you that Rhonda is a fine, fine poet. In a different locale, she joined a choral group, sang harmony, then became a member of a band, wowing everyone with her pure, clear voice. She went back to school, which included studying art in Rome for a period, during which time I received intriguing letters and postcards full of descriptions of her surroundings. I have a couple pieces of mail art she later sent us…cool mixed media pieces. You can see more of her work at her site, Granny Artemis. You’ll find Rhonda works very well in all mediums and that’s not a fluff statement. In fact, she is one of the most creative individuals I have ever met in my whole life. Jane Street Clayworks is happy to introduce you to Rhonda June, her ideas and creations. I am very happy to know that Rhonda is now working in clay and I think you will enjoy seeing her work.
JSCW: I’ve known you for years, Rhonda, and have seen you create work in a number of mediums, typographic, weaving, painting, and book and mail art. Now you’re drawn to ceramics and have been working with clay for about a year. About your diverse background in the arts… can you see influences at work from your previous expressions or do you feel like you’re starting with a blank slate with clay?
RJB: A little of both, I suppose. What’s not a blank slate is that I’ve thought about color, form, texture, and light over the years in the contexts of fibers, paper, and paint, so my awareness of those elements has evolved and perhaps matured. You can’t really lose that awareness once you have it, short of brain damage… Also, I’ve always loved and therefore paid attention to ceramic objects, especially jars and urns and bowls, so I have a storehouse in my head of forms, colors, textures, and details that I like. On the other hand, what was a blank slate a year ago was how clay behaves, and the type of care it takes to create structural integrity when forming a piece. It’s taken most of this year to learn just that much, since I only work a few hours a week. I still haven’t even tried throwing yet. I’ve watched instructional throwing videos, and have begun to get the urge to throw, but I enjoy hand building so I keep pushing that urge aside. If I had more time, I would certainly do both.
JSCW: You seem to have been drawn to ceramics in a primal way. What was the catalyst?
RJB: Well, people around me keep saying “Clay is just dirt,” and what they mean is, “Don’t stress, because the raw materials are so plentiful.” And it’s true, but to me clay is not just dirt, it’s Earth. It’s a very specific, wonderful form of dirt. All my life I’ve loved and collected rocks, and clay is eroded bits of rock that we put back together so it can be rocklike again. Particles of clay are separated from their rock mothers by the erosion of wind and water over geologic time, deposited in beds where humans find them, dig them up, and melt them back together with fire. After that they’re pretty much like rocks again and our ancestors could dig them up again in hundreds or thousands of years still intact.
I love the various stages this extraordinary dirt travels through during the making process, too. When wet, clay particles are slippery mud, hefty and malleable. As they dry they’re more suitable for different techniques such as carving or building — soft leather, hard leather, bone dry, bisque fired, glaze fired. I can transform a clay piece step by step into any of an infinite number of shapes, colors, surfaces, apparent and actual textures. It’s like very, very slow magic.
The catalyst for my involvement with clay was a $10 summer raku class at the local parks and rec. Before that, I’d loved ceramic objects all my life, but I had not caught the bug to make them myself. When I worked at a Japanese antique store in Seattle for a few years I was around centuries-old Japanese and Korean pottery, and that aesthetic really moved me. My favorite paintings, later, were of earthy things – bottles, jars, adobe buildings, hay – very clay-related. Though I like many fabrics, my favorite cloth is dyed with mud. So in that raku class, splashing wax and glaze on pre-hardened clay, then waiting around with people who also love clay, then watching everyone’s transformed pieces come out of the fire– that was profound. The excitement stayed with me for weeks until I found out about Clay Club. I was slow getting started but I was definitely hooked. We use the school’s facility, kilns, and glazes in exchange for a minimal fee for supplies and a little volunteer work in support of the program. Since I’m such a beginner, every volunteer day has been a great learning opportunity. We even learn to fire the kilns.
JSCW: So far, what types of clay have you worked with and what kind of forms are you creating with each?
RJB: I’ve only worked with two so far: a smooth black stoneware (Black Mountain from Aardvark), a basic porcelain, Takamori from Tacoma Clay Art Center. I love how smooth the porcelain is and how good it feels to carve, but struggle a bit with its whiteness because I love to see iron oranges and reds in fired clay. The dark color of the Black Mountain excited me at first, and I like how it deepens some glazes. There are lots of other clay bodies I want to try so I may be experimenting for a while. I seem to like smoothing and burnishing, so I might stay with smooth clays for a while though I do love sandy clay bodies when fired.
Forms so far have been simple, pinch pots and slab forms, small bowls, cups, and vases. Since I only work a few hours a week, and not every week, progress is slow. I have only recently begun to understand how the clay will behave, dry, and hold together in firing. I read, too, and watch potting videos on youtube. I just started Clay and Glazes for the Potter, which your blog recommended and Amazon had for about $10. I’m very hungry for the knowledge it contains. I had previously bought a couple picture books, one on hand building which gave me basic techniques, and the other a gallery book of 500 animals in clay. The diverse styles in that book reinforce my sense that the possibilities with clay are endless.
I love simple forms best. Round, oval, cylindrical, square, rectangular, corners, curves, edges, with subtle and obvious imperfections, that’s really all I need right now. I’ve been experimenting, that’s all. I carve textures and patterns into the surfaces and see what different glazes do on different clays and surfaces. Most of what I did was mistakes until quite recently, and I learned something valuable from every one.
JSCW: What is your favorite clay and glaze?
RJB: I’m too new to have favorites yet, really. I can narrow it down to stoneware, I think, preferably with some color. I do like carving porcelain, though. I’m very fond of burnished earthenware, too, but the school restricts us to cone 10 materials so that has to wait. I burnished my early pinch pots, and then found out that a burnished surface burns off at cone 10 so it’s no better than smoothing.
I’m still finding out which glazes I like and how to use them. It takes repeated attempts to get the feel of even one glaze, so I’m still very much a beginner. I try to be present at every kiln unloading so I can ask questions about glazes and become familiar with them. My only real luck with glazes so far on the Takamori has been with Shinos, and my best luck on Black Mountain has been with a Tenmoku – black on black on black, i.e. thick on thin on unglazed. Shino is nice on that, too. The platter broke, but I use it anyway.
My true favorite glaze is wood fired wood ash, but I can’t afford to work that way yet. The orange and carbon trap Shinos remind me a little of that though. I like the rich unpredictability and variation, like an angel breathed on your pots.
JSCW: You’ve said that you like working at the studio there at the school. Can you tell us a little about it?
RJB: The main reason I like it is because there are so many people at all levels of skill that I can learn from. There are experienced potters in clay club whose brains I can pump, and I see both member and student work, many examples of things that work and don’t work. I learn faster that way than working on my own. Besides, potters are the most kindred souls I’ve ever hung out with.
JSCW: What projects to foresee in the near future?
RJB: The tile portrait of my dogs that came out of the kiln last week turned out pretty cool, so I want to do more of that. I want to learn to throw, too. I would like to be more disciplined instead of just following my whims and blowing off studio time if I don’t really feel like it. I mean, that’s a very relaxing approach for a hobby, but I’d kind of like to be a serious potter, so we’ll see which I end up going with.