Chanukiot by any Other Name (or, Menorahs)

In my pottery studio, I start working on Chanukah after Passover. I start working on Passover again a month or so before Chanukah. I need those six months per studio work cycle to produce holiday pieces. In other religious terms, after Christmas start making work for Easter, after Easter start again for Thanksgiving and Christmas.  This is my calendar theory, mostly proven true, borne out by my experience.

Last year I made a new variety of Chanukah menorahs, also known as chanukiot (singular: chanukiah). My new chanukiot, started after Passover, are a departure from last year's.

One of last year's chanukiot.

I liked last year's a lot, but wanted to make a version that weighs less and has more flat evenness at the top of the the oil cups. (I use oil instead of candles, and you don't want that oil to spill and cause a fire. It's just practical.) Last year's chanukiot were nice canvases for decoration on their large, flattened sides. These new ones have different possibilities, because the whole center is air.

This was the first, a long, low shape with a fairly flat base. As seen here, it is bisqued, with underglazes, not glazed or fired again yet. (photo Mimi Stadler 2016)

Each time I make a chanukiah in this series, I tweak it a little. Eventually I intend to get to a place where I like every technical aspect of the construction and all facets of the design, and will be able to more capably make quite a few that look and function well. The run of chanukiot in this family group will cap out at 250, over however many years it takes. I sign, number and date each one on the bottom.

The change here is in the base, a hand-rolled and curled slab with decent thickness instead of a thinner wheel-thrown slab like in #1. The rounded rectangle part is taller. The shamash (the flame that lights all the other lights) is in the center instead of off to the side. (Both shamash placement options are good.) This one is fresh clay.

About those little ceramic cups- they are designed to hold up additional, glass cups (below), for oil or stubby candles. (See first photo, of last year's chanukiah.) I tried to get the tops of the clay cups as level as possible. (This is harder than you might think because clay shrinks as it dries, which also means it moves a bit.) Glass cup rests on clay cup, with the little glass nub fitting down inside. Imagine a row of them sitting on the chanukiah:

(Shown: Glass cup for oil or candle. They come in different widths and nub sizes.) 

(The front one is the same as pictured in the previous photo,  with some brushwork. (photo Mimi Stadler 2016) Due to my impatience at getting it really, really dry before firing it, the middle chanukiah blew up in the kiln despite overnight pre-heating. At least the ones in front and back made it unscathed.)

Now, after laying out the theory about how to schedule my studio life to get work done on time, I'll tell you a secret...maybe not so secret. The reality is different, despite my best intentions. This process is more energy and time consuming than I can even budget for. First, there is the design, which needs to be absolutely functional  and repeatable, while being my own in feeling and also in some way beautiful. There are surfaces which want to get decorated in a way that suits the piece and says something about my aesthetic. There's having to wait patiently till the thing is bone, bone, really bone dry, and then there is the bisque firing in the kiln. This has to go uneventfully. (Technically, that means the parts are about the same thickness, and well attached, besides being absolutely dry.) And then there is glazing, which can vary quite a lot in complexity depending what I decide to do. Coating with glaze and firing again to 2230 F at last, there should be no mishaps in the glaze, like having it run too much or crawl away from the clay body, or develop excessive crackle lines. While unsuccessful aspects of the process are, well, a bummer, successful aspects make me laugh out loud. There are ups and downs here. In the case of a new design, 6 months is sometimes just not enough to bring the product to market or even to establish it as The Chanukiah. But once I have it all free and clear of all possible design and completion for it, because I am going to love making these.

Does the saying, 'better is the enemy of good' apply here? I don't think so. Over the years of making pottery, it is developing a piece that will work on all levels that gets the art-in-clay part of my brain revving.       

This process is all about what the painter Robert Henri wrote, sometime around 1923, in The Art Spirit. "Keep your old work. You did it. There are virtues and there are faults in it for you to study. You can learn more from yourself than you can from anyone else. ...After you have made a drawing from the model don't simply put it away. You are not half through with it. It's a thing to study." Even after 31 years with clay, most of them including thinking and sketching and making various chanukiah designs, I am not through with working that best one out yet. Well, I am more than three quarters through with the best initial design here, and I see the light(s) somewhere at the end. Maybe I'm almost there.  Probably not quite in time for Chanukah 2016. 


Posted on October 31, 2016 .