Blue

Photo: Annie McKenzie

Beside our garden, there is a blue tree. A Manitoba maple that fell down and was subsequently stripped and painted by David. People ask what it is, or, rather, they want to know why it is. David shrugs. “It’s just a tree that wanted to be painted blue,” he says.  I disagree. I think it’s a  blue that wanted to cover a tree. And it’s a sign of what has been happening up the hill, in the studio, for the past fourteen years–the spread of brilliant blue. It started in 1998 when David, who is constantly developing new colours and glazes, turned his attention to cobalt blue. He began with a base of bentonite clay and cobalt carbonate. Then, he began testing fluxes. A flux is an agent that lowers the melting point of ceramic materials.  David tried a number of different fluxes—zinc, dolomite, talc, whiting—each of which gave a different surface and a different tone of blue. Finally, on the ninth test, he found the effect he was looking for in barium carbonate.

At first, David used his blue sparingly, limiting it to small portions of his pottery, all the while making subtle changes to the formula. Because it was matte, he worried it might scratch if used on functional dishes, so he restricted it to patches on murals and wall sconces, or to the outsides of vases or cups.

The blue began to spread, though, taking over half the surface area of some of his pieces.

It wrapped itself around vases. 

It became the sky overhanging his images.

As the blue spread, demanding more surface area, it still remained non-functional. To become functional it needed to be less matte. When David tests colours and glazes, he begins with the porcelain he and Maureen are currently using before venturing into other types of clay. So far, he had only used the blue glaze on porcelains. Eventually, he tried it on stoneware. One would imagine a glaze on porcelain would be shinier than a glaze on stoneware; porcelain is smooth, vitrified, glass-like in its refinement, while stoneware is robust and rough. However, David discovered that his blue was actually shinier on the stoneware. The surface is different than on porcelain; on a micro scale, it is almost pebbly. Perhaps this is what makes the glaze sparkle a little–the light catching the uneven texture.

Because David was worried about the durability of his matte glaze on the stoneware surface in the daily wear and tear of a kitchen, we got to test the bowl. We put salads in it. We scraped silver spoons along it. We whisked eggs it in. We washed it with all of our other dishes. Its robustness gave David the confidence to make blue pots for other people.

Photo: Annie McKenzie

David’s tests are always empirical, not theoretical; he uses a hands-on, trial-and-error approach, which means he doesn’t know exactly why the blue shines more on the rougher clay, he just knows he likes the effect. This is also the reason it took him fourteen years to develop this glaze, and why he is still tinkering with it today. Also through trial and error, he learned how many layers were needed to produce his shade of blue. One coat looks grey. Five, it turns out, is the magic number. David learned the hard way that the layers have to be applied slowly on dry greenware, over the course of at least two days, to avoid cracking.

In the centre of this tile, you can see the layering. It goes upwards from palest to richest blue, from one coat to five.

The blue, then, began demanding more space, it demanded different clay, and finally it demanded different forms. David began producing simpler, more geometric, more sculptural forms to suit his blue. These pieces, to me, celebrate the brilliance of blue, and of patience. The blue is a reminder of how we often work towards something we can’t quite articulate–we just know through trial and error what it isn’t until, suddenly, it is. Then we recognize it as the colour, the idea, the life, the person, we’ve wanted all along. Then, like David’s blue, it seeps outwards, from small pools to entire seas, changing the way we think and create.