Interview with Takuro Shibata at the 'Wild Clay' show, StarWORKS N.C.

A few weeks ago I went back to StarWORKS and re-visited the Wild Clay Show, which is on display there. The show opened at the International Wood Fire Conference (WOODFIRE NC), which I covered in depth in my last blog post. It was nice to take a closer look without so many people about, and I was lucky enough to be able to interview Takuro Shibata about the show. Takuro set up and runs STARworks clay business whilst also managing to make lovely pots at their place (Studio Touya) with his wife Hitomi.  

In the interview I also asked Takuro some specifics of making a successful clay body, his interest in wild clay, and how the StarWORKS clay factory got started, amongst other things. First, I've put up some pictures of the show and then below laid out a transcription of our interview. I think this is one of those rare situations where the words are actually more interesting than the pictures.

Oh and also, if you are a potter and haven't tried any of STARworks clay then you should give it a go, its beautiful stuff!

I meet Takuro at the Wild Clay exhibit after two very engaging artist talks by Tony Clennell and Dan Finnegan. 'Wild Clay' is in a large industrial-scale room with the previous year's FIREfest sculptures along one wall and an imposing installation by Daniel Johnston on the other side. There are people next door noisily grinding and polishing glass. The crunchy screeching sound bounces off the tall ceiling and reverberates around us. I ignore it and dive in...

HAMISH: So how did the 'Wild Clay' show come together?

TAKURO: It was a group effort between Steve Blankenbeker of Taylor Clay Products, Josh Copus, Michelle Flowers, Michael Hunt, Fred Johnston, Hitomi Shibata, Takuro Shibata, David Stuempfle and Erin Young, as well as many others who helped out along the way. Dave Stuempfle came up with the idea originally and then worked with us all to put it together. It was fun. We had a smaller version at the Pottery Centre and then expanded it for WOODFIRE N.C. We could do more I think. Josh worked really hard on these pieces (he points to the 'Clay Landscapes').

H: Seeing this show and your talk on wild clay got me really excited about digging my own materials. 

T: Yes, that would be fun. I hope more people get interested in wild clays and local materials. It depends where you are as to what you can find. Out in Utah, there are many different minerals which are good for using in glazes, and then in some areas you can find earthenware clays. Around here we don't find much earthenware clay, but there is much good clay for stoneware potters. We might be able to find earthenware clays because there has been a tradition of this pottery in North Carolina, but we haven't found it yet.

H: How did you get started? How much clay did you make the first year?

We came here in 2005 and no, nothing, no clay making. We had to find the sources first. And see what we could do. Many people helped us get going, including Mark Hewitt and Steve Blankenbaker. To begin with, we talked to Highwater and distributed their clays, because we had space and many people use that clay. We set up some equipment. Maybe in 2009, we started actually making our own clay bodies. I thought initially that we could sell a body based on Mitchfield, but not many people liked it. You need to make clay that is ready to make pots. Our first clay was 100% Cameron, just to test the equipment. We had a lot of set up and testing. Local clays are so different too from commercial clays. People were nervous at first. Some didn't even want to touch it!

H: It seems like Steve Blankenbaker has been very helpful in finding clays...

T: Yes. Steve is the clay man. He really knows which clay might be good for potters to use. When he goes out with his team to collect clay he gets the very best parts and separates them out for us. He gives us the best of the best. 

H: Coming from Shigaraki, famous for its coarse clay, did you want to try to find a similar clay body?

T: Oh, no, not at all. I don't look for Shigaraki clay here. Everywhere you go you can find clays unique to that area. I wanted to try in North Carolina. I was kind of hoping we would find something. In Massachusetts, we couldn't find any local clay to touch, but in Virginia we found some. Then when we came to Seagrove and found some local potters processing their own clays; this was so exciting for us. Why are people not interested in local clay? That was my question in the beginning.

H: What does a commercial clay manufacturing process look like? How does it differ from what you do here?

T: Most companies buy processed commercial powdered clay and dump them into a big mixer, adding water and there, that is the clay. The materials are already fine. It is much quicker and less work for the clay company, because half of the process has already been done by the mine. It is much more convenient. But you don't have too many choices, because big mines are limited. If you go to Massachusetts or Florida, or another part of the states, most people are using the same sources of clay. Probably their recipes differ a little bit -- you might have a little bit more red art or gold art or om4, for example. There isn't much regional uniqueness  in commercial clays from the south to the east coast to the west coast. The clay of North Carolina is different than the clay in other parts. Some of the clays we have here are basically self glazing though, like the Mitchfield. It has so much silica in it. The Cameron has lots of silica too. Generally it seems like the local North Carolina clays have higher silica than most ball clays or commercial clays. It is fun to use the local clay. It gives a distinct character to the pottery. 

H: I totally agree. Also, if you dig your own clay, it's free.

T: And it is more unique! 

H: Yeah, I mean, to know this was from my back garden or a stream down the hill -- I think that is so much better than buying commercial clays made with powders from mines all over the world. Maybe I am just romantic.

T: No, I think it would be fun if more people used more local clays and local materials.

H: And that's how it was in the old days wasn't it?

T: Yes, exactly. Pottery villages pop up where there is an abundance of local materials fit for making pottery. In Japan, all the pottery villages were built on clay. They found good clay and started making pottery. Clay comes first. Then they tried to fire the clay and figured out the best way to use that clay. In Shigaraki for example, they need to fire hot to get the flashing and ash to melt, but in Bizen they cannot fire that hot. They have to fire slower and to lower temperatures to make beautiful functional pots. That is fun! They are aware of there own uniqueness.

H: It is a kind of language...

T: Yes; they have an entirely different way of firing and different styles of kilns, all because of the clay. But here, you go into a ceramic supply shop and say, "I have to get a cone 10 clay..." (laughter). No, the clay you dig from the ground might need to be right fired a little bit lower or a little higher. You can try different glazes on it. For me it is very interesting to figure out how to best use the materials that we have around here. I think those regional differences help artists, too. 

H: I think a lot of people are becoming more and more interested in using local materials in all walks of life. But it seems like your clay business is going really well. Are you providing clay to an ever-growing list of potters?

T: Yes it is going well, but it is also a big responsibility, supplying these potters. I get worried when I see potters firing their big kilns on Facebook. It is so scary to me. It used to be that the clay maker did not see all these kilns being opened. But now, you really see. It's a lot of responsibility, but we are trying our best. And the clay is changing, as it's natural. It's always challenging.

H: How close to full capacity do you think you are?

T: It depends on equipment and how many people we have working. Eventually we will be at capacity, unless we get more equipment. But we want to keep the quality good, too, so if we got too big, that's more difficult to manage, too. If we can keep the business healthy, providing clay to local artists, then, that might be a good thing -- not necessarily having too many people working. 

H: But you haven't turned anyone down yet?

T: No. Not yet. We are trying to make more. Yes. We will see. We can increase a bit more. 

H: So I recently mixed my own first batch of clay with Stillman (my fellow apprentice at Mark Hewitt's Pottery) and learnt a lot in the process. To begin with, it was not very plastic, but as it aged it grew more workable...

T: All of your clay particles need to get really wet. The best way is to mix it from dry into a slip. Then dry it out again. But it still takes time for the water to fully penetrate into the clay particles. 

H: Do you think pugging adds plasticity, kind of like how kneading bread adds gluten to the dough?

T: No, but using a de-airing pugmill and letting the clay sit in a vacuum does help. If you take dry clay and add it to water and then try to throw with it straight away, then it will not be plastic -- there is still so much air in the clay. When you let it sit, it completely changes. The pug mill saves your wrists and also time.

H: We threw some of the wild clays you use on their own and the differences were staggering -- the Catawba was super plastic and threw like a dream, whereas the Mitchfiled was terrible -- full of rocks and would just rip apart on the wheel...

T:  [Laughing] Yes, well, you should try a 50/50 mix of the Mitchfield and Okeewemee. They are both very difficult to work with individually, but when mixed together, you can make anything you like. You can throw cups really thin. You can easily throw things too thin because it throws so well.

H: Really? That is so weird to me. It reminds me of "eutectics" in chemistry (where you add two materials together and the resulting melting point is wildly different from either of them individually)...

T: It has a lot to do with the size of the clay particles. You would think a 50/50 blend of Catawba and Okeewemee would be a good blend, because Catawba by itself is so plastic, but you would be surprised. It is awful clay. 

H: So you recommend 50/50 mixes of different clays as a good starting point for making a clay body?

T: Definitely, 50/50 tells you a lot. It tells you which clays would be a good combination because some are really bad. I try to find out the good combinations and then I use that as a base. If I still need to have a little bit more color, I might add some Okeewemee. Or sometimes we need more silica for the firing, so we'll throw in some more Mitchfield clay.  Most of these clays are very high-temperature, so you can add feldspar to lower the firing temperature. The mesh of the feldspar also makes a difference. 200 mesh can help. This makes clay sometimes easier to work with if it's cracking. Cameron by itself can crack in the firing. But first you need to know each individual clay character, then which combinations work. Like mixing the Mitchfield and Okeewemee; you may find it's fantastic. Wow, you would not have expected that! 

H: We sieved our first batch of clay pretty coarsely, trying to keep a lot of the natural rocks in the clay. I found it much more abrasive than the clay I'm used to -- it made throwing a batch of cereal bowls almost painful. But I like the look of the trimmed feet a lot...

T: When I was learning in Shigaraki, the clay was very coarse. When one of my teachers would make flower vases, he would wear a glove. I thought this was kind of interesting, because it must be hard to feel the clay as he was throwing. He knew how to throw already and he didn't want to scratch his hand too much. If you can make good pots with a glove, it's fine! The glove could be one tool, if you want coarse rocks to show up in your pots.

H: How do you deal with defects such as bloating in clay bodies?

T: It's all a balance. Some clay shrinks more, so you are more likely to get cracks. This is why our sculpture clay has less clay in it and more pre-fired elements; so it shrinks less. If the body has a good balance of particle sizes then even if it shrinks a lot it will be less prone to cracking. Also, with non-plastic clays, water will migrate through the body much faster -- one drop of water on a block of really unplastic clay will cause it to totally fall apart. This is really important when you are using slips or raw glazes. Plastic materials stop water migrating through the clay. An extremely fine clay like bentonite will stop the migration of water almost entirely. 

H: When you first got going, did you only have a few clays to play with?

T: Yes, when we started we only had Cameron and Okeewemee. That was it. If you have just these two, you can't do much, which is why in the beginning we had to add some Foundry Hill Cream or other powdered clays to make it work. Which was okay. I mean, it wasn't using 100% local clay, but if you have to use some commercial clay, that's okay. Our goal is to make 100% North Carolina clay bodies. 100% is more unique, but sometimes, with sculpture clay, the purpose is different. It should be sturdy and not get too many cracks. That's more important. We should use grog instead of rock, for instance, because grog is already fired. The rocks in the clay will expand and contract more. Grog is more stable. Silica rocks can cause problems, but for making pots, that could make them more interesting in terms of texture and character.

H: Alright, well, that was fabulous Takuro, thank you so much for talking with me.

T: Thank you.