The kind of long stories that beg to be told.

The best experiments come as opportunities to connect the dots between the ideas we love and the lives we lead. When we dropped by the Clay-Coop at the Kentuck Arts Center a few weeks ago, an unintended field trip turned into an incredible learning opportunity.

Hayes shows a bowl that she made with some kids in the summer clay co-op.

We met Hayes Dobbins, a truly unique local clay artist, who welcomed us into the wonderful world of clay. Many clay artists purchase their clay from online dealers or art stores- the benefit is working with a known quantity. Hayes finds her own clay and uses it in her sculptures. In the process, she gains a working, living knowledge of local soil and clay qualities that allows her to craft truly local works of art.

Finding and Digging Your Own Clay

Hayes walked us through the process of digging and preparing your own clay. (I’ve added a little to what she told us from information provided by Marvin Bartel.) First, you need to find local clay sources. The best locations are stream and river banks, construction sites, or any place that gets slippery after a rain and sticky as it starts to dry. When clay dries, it almost as hard as a rock. Next time you go for a walk around the neighborhood, look for locations that are super-wet after rain and then dry and hard in rainless weather. Many backyards have their own clay sources just beneath the top soil or in areas where top soil has been eroded.

Some clay is too sandy and some is too sticky. Mr. Bartel looks for clay that can be rolled between his hands into a pencil thick coil of soft clay and wrapped around his finger without cracking. If the coil cracks, it may be too sandy or its clay particles may be too large. Sticky clay sticks too much to the hands and tends to undergo drying shrinkage and cracking during drying. Potters often blend several clays to get the right properties.

We stand and watch as Hayes explains the process of getting clay. Grandma Vicki, the kindred spirit, enjoyed every minute of it.

Hayes explained that she takes a big bucket after it rains and visits her favorite sites where she digs and collects the clay- most of it doesn’t even require digging because it seeps from banks. Then she takes the bucket home for the next steps.

Removing Impurities and Making A “Slip”

Most common clay contains impurities, often in the form of iron oxide, sand, roots, and other debris. Hayes encouraged us to remove the large obvious ones (pebbles, twigs, etc.) by hand. Kids get a kick out of this part.

Troublesome tiny impurities can be removed by making a thin slip. Let the clay become totally dry- don’t break it up. Now it’s time to slake the clay, which is another way of saying “turning it to mush”.

Flood the clay with clear water in large bucket or garbage can. Use enough water to completely submerge the clay. Do not stir the clay. Just don’t. Stirring it clogs up the porosity and prevents good slaking. In a few days, even large chunks of clay will turn to mush.

The sand settles to the bottom first. Allow the sand to settle a short time. Then decant the clay water (the good slip from the top down to the sand) and discard the sand in the bottom. Allow the clay (slip) to settle.

Now you’re ready to make a slip and remove the little impurities. When it’s all soft and mushy, stir it until it is a slip. You can used an electric drill, a blunger, or the little red tool that Hayes is holding in the photo above. Add some more water if it’s too thick to stir.

Now pour the slip through an old window screen (the kind you find at any hardware or building supply store) into another bucket or can. This screen removes stones, roots, and other small but not teeny-tiny trash that gets in the way. You want to remove the limestone because limestone pieces and particles cause pots and sculptures to break after firing.

When the clay has settled and turned to mush, drain or siphon off the extra water from the top of the mixture. Hayes explains that she spreads the mush a few inches thick on a clean, dry porous surface like a concrete driveway, old jeans, or canvas. Smooth the top with your hand to avoid getting small pieces on the surface. When it is almost dry enough, make coils as thick as your arm and set them around like big arches (a foot tall) and they are ready to use in 24 hours or less.

Impure clay can be used to add special touches to clay creations. For example, stoneware potters use local clay as a source of glaze material. These “slip glazes” have been used for thousands of years for lining jugs and traditional crockery. The bright red Moundville clay pictured above probably has a high iron content.

Storing Your Clay

If you can’t use your clay coils in the 24 hour time period, store them in an airtight plastic container for as long as you need before using. Hayes gave us a large chunk of creek clay stored inside a plastic grocery bag wrapped around the clay and covered by another plastic grocery bag wrapped around the clay. Everything she did made use of existing materials that might otherwise be thrown away.

Sense-Based Learning

After showing us the light grayish color of the Hurricane Creek clay, Hayes encouraged us to touch it. Milla couldn’t get enough of the clay.

Touching the soft, feathery creek clay which Hayes gave to us to take home.

One of Hayes’ creek clay creations.

We didn’t get around to sculpting and crafting until yesterday, when some friends dropped by and clay caught the attention of all the little ones. They used stamps and twigs to leave imprints on the clay. Max decided to make a pot, a platter, and a pot hot plate. You can use the instructions for making a clay bowl with kids to arrive at a similar place- though letting them get there on their own is much more fun to all.

A side view of Max’s clay “pot”.

Max’s “hotplate platter” for his pot.

A view inside the “scoured bottom” of his pot.

As Max’s creation dries to a soft gray, I can’t help thinking about how much I love the circuitous way in which this came about. All thanks to meeting a super-nature-knowing lady by the name of Hayes Dobbins.

If you live near Tuscaloosa and would like to play with local clays, stop by Kentuck A La Carte this month next Saturday from 10 am to 2 pm in downtown Northport and meet Hayes. She will be out there with to share her clay-work and let kids and adults experiment with clays.

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