Working with her hands is a powerful experience for local ceramist Traudi Thornton. It’s the main tool that shapes the clay she works with in her stoneware and raku works. With the clay being “plentiful and plastic,” the outcome of her artwork comes with her imprint literally all over it. “You can build a sphere just with your fingers,” Thornton describes, “and that is a wonderful experience—just to use your hands.”
Thornton’s love of clay began in Germany, where she grew up (though, she was born in Czechoslovakia). In grade school, she and her class visited a ceramist for the first time.
“I was 12 years old or so,” she remembers. “The whole class marched through the woods to meet a potter. We brought milk cans for the clay, and we wrapped the clay in damp cloth. At school we could play with the clay and that was very nice. We could use our hands. We didn’t need tools the way you do with wood.”
In 1965 Thornton immigrated to America to attend University of Omaha, Nebraska. Here she met Paul Soldner, the father of American raku. Soldner traveled to Omaha for the opening of an exhibit in the winter of 1974. Thornton happened to be a student in the ceramics program and helped set up Soldner’s exhibit. She loved one of his raku vessels so much, she scraped together enough money to buy it. Since, she has been working in the medium, along with stoneware, for more than 40 years. “Raku is fired until the glazes are applied,” Thornton explains. “You see and watch the raku in the kiln when the glazes develop.”
According to the artist, the Japanese-style pottery—traditionally used in Japanese tea ceremonies—is more immediate in its creation than stoneware. It’s fired at 1700 degrees and can cool off quicker, within two hours. Stoneware, on the other hand, is fired at 2300 degrees and takes up to two days to cool completely.
“With raku the colors are more brilliant,” Thornton continues. “Stoneware is fired at such a high temperature that the colors seem to fade out. Often the hues are oatmealish colors—except when I use black and white.”
At her home studio in Wilmington, Thornton is often up at 3 a.m. to work uninterrupted until 7 a.m. In her current show at Art in Bloom Gallery, her works include a both raku and stoneware, including a basket with a handle, something not only beautiful to view but practical in its use.
“I always liked handles on things, such as baskets and teapots,” Thornton notes. “The thing I like about the stoneware basket is that you can bake in them. You can make ‘Southern Spoon Bread’ in the stoneware basket. You bake it in the oven, then you get a towel, wrap it around the hot part and take it to a party. The spoon bread is eaten hot and as fast as possible.”
Thornton also has stoneware bowls on display. They showcase her experiment with glazes and are titled after a children’s game, called either “Heaven and Hell” or “Red and Blue.”
“You fold paper that you have colored in red and blue sections,” Thornton explains. “You can also use a paper napkin. The child opens and closes the folded paper, and the other child puts a finger on the paper. This is a great game to play when the little children start to get cranky.”
Every pot Thornton makes, whether a raku tower or stoneware tea kettle or rounded vase, is exposed to multiple firings. She also uses interesting techniques in her process.
“Sometimes I dig holes in the backyard and place a pipe in the hole,” she says. “Sometimes I use saw dust and wires to avoid breaks and to get the pot to smoke in the right places. I love that part. The timing has a life of its own, out of my control or expectations. It is a painstaking process. I am blind to what is there. I open the kiln and if what I wanted is not there, something different [arises] from the elements of the process. I have to manage expectations because I can’t see the result at that point.”
Whatever the outcome, Thornton has relinquished control by realizing she is but an artist, not the master. The clay is the master, and along with her process, it dictates direction and outcome.
“It is essential to tend the clay; you must pick the right moment,” she details. “For example, to make a teapot, you make the belly, then the spout, a lid, and a handle—four things. All of the parts have to dry together, even though they are different. You have trays of teapot bellies, spouts, lids, and handles. The smaller parts dry faster than the bigger parts. You cover the parts until they are ready, similar to baking bread.”
And like a finely kneaded loaf, piping hot with nourishment, the clay with which Thornton pushes and pulls, molds and sculpts, rises, breathes, cools, and settles into sustenance of a different kind. It’s a soulful bounty of nature and pabulum of art. Her works are on display at Arts in Bloom through September 30, alongside paintings by Elizabeth Darrow and photography by Susan Francy in “Full Circle.”