Round Peg, Square Hole: Designing Clay Critters for Mathemalchemy

Clay Critters and other questions

Since joining the Mathemalchemy project, I have found myself discussing questions that I never could have anticipated asking previously—questions like “why would a tortoise use a backpack to transport tessellating cookies, instead of using a wagon?” and “yes, but what is the chipmunks’ motivation?” I have relished the unexpected sentences the team has generated over the past year as much as I’ve enjoyed generating new ceramic work to inhabit Mathemalchemy’s imaginative math-inspired realm.

The pottery wheel favors rotational symmetry

My primary tool as a clay artist is an electric motor-driven pottery wheel—a tool that, by design, emphasizes circular rotational symmetry. The wheel enables potters to “get centered,” literally and figuratively. Yet few of the forms I’ve been tasked with making for Mathemalchemy are round. How does one make a wheel-thrown chipmunk?

Making critters on the wheel

Enter altering. Potters use the term “altering” to refer to any method that takes a wheel-thrown piece out of the round: compressing, stretching, pinching, darting, slicing, dicing, re-assembling—whatever it takes to get the job done.

Klein Bottle Clay by Elizabeth Paley
This wheel-thrown-and-altered Klein bottle (2015) was made from two wheel-thrown tori that were cut, assembled, and pierced.
Stoneware, 16 x 23 x 19 cm.

Simple altering

Tess will sport this shell as she ambles down Zeno’s path for a picnic on Integral Hill.*

One of the first pieces I created for Mathemalchemy was a shell for Tess the Tortoise. I began by throwing a flat clay disk. After the disk stiffened to a “soft leatherhard” stage, I used a serrated tracing wheel to impress the clay with a heptagonal tiling of the hyperbolic plane; then I gently nudged and stretched the disk into a shell shape more befitting a tortoise.

Altering wet clay on the wheel

Other forms have required a little more altering. The idea of wheel-thrown-and-altered herons hatched from the project’s need for creatures that could cast nets into the bay to fish for crocheted theta-curve knots.* These herons start as tall, rotationally symmetric forms that are altered while still wet.

Clay Heron finished
A heron, fresh from the kiln, stands on bamboo legs.
How to make a heron in N easy steps

From two legs to four

Four-legged creatures have required a few more steps: (1) imagine the desired form (Bronna Butler’s chipmunk illustration helped immensely with this); (2) imagine that form as a collection of cylindrical, spherical, conical, or otherwise rotationally symmetric parts; (3) throw those parts on the wheel; and (4) alter and assemble them. In many ways, this reminds me of a balloon artist who looks at a long, narrow balloon and envisions a dog. Of course, it’s easier to retrace the process backwards, after a form has successfully emerged, than to arrive at the form for the first time starting from a latex balloon or a lump of wet clay.

Bronna Butler's Sketch
Chipmunk illustration by Bronna Butler
With a little planning, a long cylindrical balloon becomes a dog.

The clay dinosaur below isn’t part of Mathemalchemy’s world, but was a useful exercise en route to more diminutive wheel-thrown-and-altered chipmunks. T-Rex began as a collection of wheel-thrown cylinders, domes, and cones that were then cut, nudged, and assembled.

  • T-rex bones or components in clay
  • Clay T-Rex

Trial and error taught me that chipmunks and squirrels can begin with fewer pieces than dinosaurs: ovoid heads, bottle-form bodies, and cylindrical or conical arms and tails.

Rodents in progress. Prototyping Clay Chipmunks and Squirrels
Rodents in progress. The chipmunks are holding hand-built Babylonian numeral tiles because they’re playing a board game with acorns.*

Using the right tool for the job

As useful as the wheel is, sometimes rotational symmetry just isn’t the way to go. Many of the non-anthropomorphized ceramic pieces for Mathemalchemy are slab-built. When the team decided the downtown bakery needed a clay-tile oven roof that would reflect the heptagonal symmetry of the lighthouse, Mathemalchemist Edmund Harriss designed and built a beautiful press-mold that has been a delight to use.

Underglaze test to accentuate the wood-grain texture
Edmund Harriss's Press Mold
Wooden press mold designed and fabricated by Edmund Harriss.
Leatherhard Clay Tile
Leatherhard press-molded clay tile.
Oven Roof detail
Detail of the finished oven roof.

About the *

*These are some of the sentences I never would have imagined typing a year ago. I am grateful to the team of Mathemalchemists—and to generative grammar—for making such sentences possible.

One thought on “Round Peg, Square Hole: Designing Clay Critters for Mathemalchemy

  1. Wonderful work! I hadn’t realized the artistic and mathematical tension involved in deciding your clay construction methods.

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