Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Dragon Bellies!

Until Monday, this is what the ceiling in our LR looked like. . .

I've been spending time in the ceramics studio lately, looking for some peacefulness while my house is somewhat mired in chaos and construction from a bathroom leak.

I don't do chaos well. Unless it's the creative kind. I love the smashing together of ideas and concepts to create something utterly new.

Home repair is definitely NOT that happy kind of chaos. So it's off to the studio, when I can. The past few weeks, I've been making what my writer/friend Bliss Morgan named 'Dragon Bellies' - handbuilt, textured cups with tripod feet and a distinctly 'waddling' shape.

Folks seem to like them. While I've seen other tripod/hand built work, they aren't Dragon Bellies!  I have a lot of fun making these and I love they way they look all together, like they are a little army of marching creatures.

Folks also have asked me how I make them, so I though I'd do a process post.


Slab me, baby!

Dragon Bellies start out their lives as clay slabs, about 7" wide by 12" long. Because no two finished cups are alike, and I like the slight 'wonkiness' of their handbuilt natures, I don't fret over exact specs for the slabs. The studio has a wonderful piece of equipment - a dedicated slab roller - which definitely makes things easier, in terms of getting slabs with even thickness.


It's all about the texture

Yes, I know it looks like a spider web. It's actually lace. We have a lovely collection of fabrics with great textures. I go for a large variety. Part of the fun is taking a symmetrical design, like lace, and warping it in the process of shaping the clay so it looks more organic, like skin.


Roll it up

After the textured slabs have 'set up' a bit - which means they are stiff enough to hold a shape and their own weight when stood on end, but still soft enough to mold without cracking - I roll them into tubes and start sealing the seams.

You can make different kinds of seams, including invisible ones where you miter (bevel) the edges of each end and attach them 'face' to 'face'. But I like having seams that show for these cups and deliberately cut the seam line to be ragged.

To make clay that is not very wet seal well, you have to score the edges and coat with slip (a mix of clay and water.)


You can't march without feet

I use both hands to pinch the circle into a triangle form. (I needed one hand to take the photos!) Notice how the outside edge is scored. It's then painted with slip to help the adhesion. At this point, the 'feet' are usually too soft to hold the weight of the form, so I let them dry upside down for a while.


Push that belly out

Once they can be safely flipped on their feet, I start to use my fingers to gently push their bellies out and create a shape that is pleasing, but not symmetrical. The finishing work is what takes the most time. The inside seams from the tripod feet need to be sealed with snakes of clay and smoothed. To make the handles, I usually cut off the right amount from the top of the bellied-out cylinder, which gives me a handle of the same relative dryness that matches the pattern of the mug body.  Sometime, I swap handles. Because I'm radical like that. Then the top of the mug needs to be smoothed. I use a damp chamois for that. 

Then the dragon bellies need to dry to leather hard so they won't explode in the bisque kiln.


Color me!

Once the mugs emerge from their first trip in the kiln, they are at the bisque stage - fragile, but hardened clay. That's when the glazing begins. To pull out the texture, I paint the outsides with oxides, which then must be wiped off with a damp sponge, so that the oxide is only deep within the texture. It will react with the glaze in particular ways, depending on the oxide and the glaze, to create a subtle variance of the color within the grooves of the texture.

Then the mugs are dipped in one or two coats of glaze before being fired a second time.

When they emerge from the glaze kiln, they will be fully vitrified (converted to a glass like form), non-porous, and safe to use.

Unless they reach sentience and take your kitchen hostage.



How long does it take to make one of these?
Longer than I realize. LOL. I tend to make between 4 and 6 at a time and all told, the batch takes several hours of hands-on time (rolling slabs, rolling texture, making the cylinder, shaping the cup, finishing the cup, glazing), separated by days to weeks of waiting time. (Waiting for the slabs to dry, waiting for the cylinders to harden, waiting for the finished cups to dry, waiting for kiln time, waiting for the glaze to dry, waiting for the glaze kiln.)

What does it cost to make one of these?
Well, if I needed to make my living from ceramics and had to price these relative to my materials costs, kiln charges, studio fees, and my time, no one could afford to buy one and I would be making far simpler and easier to produce work. I price them in the $30 range, depending on size, which seems to me to be a reasonable price for a piece of functional art.

Do you take commissions?
Sort of? Occasionally? The problem with commissions, is it's often not possible to create the exact color or size specifications someone wants. Glaze is chemistry, and doesn't work like paint. E.g., you can't mix blue with yellow and expect to get green. The colors emerge as a chemical reaction triggered by heat and unless you know ALL the chemical properties of ALL the glazes, you will have no idea how something will turn out until you do a glaze test.

So, if you want a set of 4 dragon bellies, for example, and you're happy with the colors I choose, (I can usually promise color families, e.g., blues or greens or neutrals) then sure, pop me a message.

The other problem with commissions, is that because my day to day work is as a writer, and I don't have the time to be a full production potter, it may be weeks or longer before I can promise finished work.

Is this all you make? Don't you get bored? 
No. and No. :) I also throw on the wheel, to make smooth, symmetrical forms including bowls from small prep size to large serving size, and cups/mugs. And bored? Playing with clay is my kinesthetic therapy. It's soothing and I end up with something that someone will use and enjoy in their day to day life. How cool is that? And having a passion that takes me out of my thinking brain is also good for my writing process.

I'm an artist too. Do you want to do a trade?
Hell yeah! That's one of my favorite things to do. I've traded for paintings, jewelry, blown glass, knitted work, wood work, and even cookies!

You can see more photos of my work on my ceramics site: And wish me luck - I've applied for a spot in the juried art show at World Fantasy!

Any other questions about my ceramics work? AMA in the comments!


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Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Making Space for Serendipity

starting with basic cylinders

You probably already know this, but when I'm not writing (or, let's be honest, wasting time on the internet. . . ) I spend time at a wonderful local ceramics school and studio space both handbuilding and wheel-throwing clay into primarily functional objects.

It's become somewhat more than a hobby, though I don't see myself becoming a production potter. One of the things I've learned over the years is that it's important to have a plan for the clay. While it's fun just to play with a piece, if I don't have a sense of what that clay will be at the end, then what I'm left with is a mud pie.

When I'm not throwing on the wheel, I work with textured slabs of clay and create somewhat freeform tripod cups and mugs that I call 'dragonbellies.' In the photo above, you can see several small cylinders, along with one small shotglass sized cup in process. To the left is a large cylinder that I had intended to turn into a water pitcher.

Since the large cylinder was slower to dry than the small ones, I wasn't able to make what I wanted that day, so I wrapped up the clay in plastic, intending to return the next morning. Except that I got busy and days turned into a week, interspersed with a trip out of town.

When I got back to the studio, the cylinder was nearly leather hard - somewhat past the stage of being able to shape. So I decided to try to reclaim it by soaking the newspaper it was wrapped around and wrapping it up again. Several days later, the water had make the clay softer. Success!

I started working on forming the pitcher.

When I got to the spout, I realized the clay really wasn't soft enough after I had already cracked it. Which meant either a radical re-think, or time to recycle the clay.

Adding a 'button' to the repaired/remodeled spout

So I used some scrap clay to buttress the spout. But I didn't like the way the whole thing looked and was going to scrap it. Until one of my fellow clay artists suggested I round the edges of the new spout and add 'buttons' on the sides so the water wouldn't slosh over it. Again, playing with scrap clay, I rolled a thin rope into a spiral and put it next to the spout to see what I thought. And voila! I created an owl!

oh, hello there!

I'm not sure I would have liked the piece as much had my first idea worked. Certainly, I don't think I could have created this funky face had I set out to make a sculptural piece.


A happy accident.

This is something I try to leave space for in my writing as well. This is why as much as I like to organize and plan a story, I need to give it enough wiggle room to expand my initial (usually limited) ideas.

Creativity is a strange beast. Probably a lot stranger than my owl pitcher. But just as unexpected. And definitely as much fun.



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Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Write the Next Book

Anyone have a defibrillator?

Expectations. They can be brutal and tricky beasts. As much as we (okay, I) work hard to stay in the moment, it's damned difficult not to give in to disappointment when things don't immediately work out the way you had hoped.

The launch of ITHAKA RISING, book 2 in my Halcyone Space series, has been one of those events where I feel both elated and depressed. Elated because the book is in the world, is selling, and is garnering excellent reviews and recommendations from readers and writers I trust.

"Usually I can point out one or two reasons why a novel wows me, too, but this one was just cover to cover awesome. Expect great characters, who actually grow and change and have to deal with new problems; a nail-biter of a plot, that manages to be both twisting and absorbing at the same time, settings that expand to take us to new and scary-thrilling places in this universe, and the kind of SF adventure you probably haven't read in a very, very long time (if at all.)"
     --Lynn Viehl (AKA Paperback writer)
 "space opera with a brain and a heart."  -- Mike Reeves-McMillan (Netgalley reviewer)
 So why depressed? Because compared with the launch of book 1 (DERELICT), ITHAKA RISING is flatlined. (Comparisons - they are evil.) It's hard to know why a book breaks out; certainly I didn't do anything significantly differently for each of these two novels, and, in fact, I believe ITHAKA RISING to be a better story. And I'm this strange mix of hopeful and confident that it will find its readership, even if that journey is slower than it was for the prior book.

It would be easy to let my discouragement get the better of me - and, yes, I have done my share of moping with my fellow writers (expectations - it's hard not to have them) - but I know I have no control of what happens after a book is released into the world. Sure, you can tinker with price, run ads, do an internet/social media blitz, but I'm not convinced those things will be the secret sauce that gets a book noticed.

As. Nathan Lowell, a writer friend/mentor keeps reminding me, your best advertisement is to write the next book.

So, I'm writing the next book. Book 3 in the Halcyone Space series has a working title: DREADNAUGHT AND SHUTTLE, and is the interlocking 'cat and mouse' stories of Micah vs the drug cartels and Ro & company vs the Commonwealth. I'm about 10% into the story and finding my writing groove again.

And there are other novels in the pipeline, including a joint project with a writer I respect the hell out of (waves to Rick Wayne!), and a revise/resubmit of a fantasy title to a medium-sized publisher.

While huge sales numbers and stratospheric rankings are the stuff that author's dreams are made of, what I'm really focused on is creating enough of a back list that selling in modest numbers will allow me to make a basic living as a writer. This is an expectation that I know is within my reach.

I also know I have the discipline and the focus to get there. ITHAKA RISING represents my 5th published novel, but in reality, the other three are low sellers - primarily because they don't appeal widely to an eBook buying readership. I don't regret writing and releasing them and it is my hope that they will also find their right readers in time, however, my functioning backlist currently consists of two novels: The Halcyone Space books. That is not sufficient to be self-sustaining.

In the next two years, I plan to add three additional novels to that pool. And I have no plans to stop writing anytime soon.



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Tuesday, August 04, 2015

Guest Post: Getting Older and Bolder

Today I am delighted to host fellow writer and 'woman of a certain age' Samantha Bryant, author of Going Through The Change: A Menopausal Superhero Novel. I read this darkly comic novel a few months ago when I was dealing with a family medical crisis and really appreciated both the wry humor as well as the originality of the story. Please welcome Samantha to Once in a Blue Muse!

Getting Older and Bolder

Last year we had a lot of staff turnover at my school, and I realized I was officially “getting old.” I could tell because all the new teachers (mostly fresh out of college) looked like children to me. There was one that I honestly thought might be one of our eighth graders.

Was it really so long ago that I was that fresh-face young woman? Apparently, yes. I’m not very gray yet, but the students are much more likely to slip and call me Mom than they used to be. 

Sorry, Samantha, but I have you beat in the salt and pepper hair contest. - ljc

I’m getting curmudgeonly, too. It shows in an impatience with over-dramatic situations and narcissism. I get impatient, too, with how all the female heroes in my books, comics, television shows, and movies are somewhere between thirteen and thirty.

When I’m feeling very cynical, I see it as a reflection of our society’s obsession with youth, especially when it comes to women. By the time you gain enough experience to know what you’re doing, large segments of the population are ready to write you off as over the hill.

When I’m feeling more sanguine, I can see it as wish-fulfillment. We glorify youth in our fiction because we miss it and know that we could do it so much better now than we did when we had it. Youth is wasted on the young, as they say.

Still, as I approach being described as a “woman of a certain age,” I long to see more heroes that I can empathize with: grown women with families, careers, experience, and history. Not finding many, I wrote my own. Like Toni Morrison said, “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”

So, I wrote Going Through the Change: A Menopausal Superhero Novel. The main characters are all women, ranging in age from thirty-two to sixty-seven, all living fully independent, adult lives. Three are mothers. One is also a grandmother. Two are married. One used to be. Two are serious career women. One has never worked outside the home. They’ve all got history, experience, and problems of their own. I love these women. They were a delight to write, so much so that I’ve already written them two additional short stories, a novella and a sequel (all upcoming releases). 
More about Linda? She was my favorite of your characters. Can I persuade you to write a whole story about her?? Pretty please?? - ljc
So whether you’re going through the change yourself, you’ve been there and done that, or that’s still on the horizon for you, I hope you can find a woman hero you can believe in in my book. These aren’t your father’s superheroes. I wrote them for us.

Going Through the Change is going through a change in price for a couple of days in early August. On August 5th and 6th you can get the Kindle edition for free on Amazon. Check it out at:

Samantha Bryant is a middle school Spanish teacher by day and a mom and novelist by night. That makes her a superhero all the time. Her debut novel, Going Through the Change: A Menopausal Superhero Novel is now for sale by Curiosity Quills. You can find her online on her blog,  Twitter, on Facebook, on Amazon, on Goodreads, on the Curiosity Quills page, or on Google+.

Thank you so much for coming by the blog for today's post, Samantha! And I agree - it's refreshing and important for women in middle age and beyond to see themselves represented in fiction and as the heroes.


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