Hands On - Norma Messing

Norma Messing was the first respondent to my request for photo subjects to the NJ Potter’s Guild where she’s been a member for many years.  She thoroughly enjoys being a part of the guild, and in her own words, “it’s a group of 100 of the most capable, talented, supportive and collaborative professional and recreational potters in the state.”  The guild sponsors a few shows per year, with the next one being on April 23 and 24, 2016 in Mountainside, NJ where approximately 40 potters, including Norma, will be showing and selling a wide variety of functional and decorative work.

As I mentioned on an earlier post, the response from the Potter’s Guild to my request was a bit overwhelming, so I tried to find subjects who practiced different techniques or created a variety of works of art.  Unlike the other guild members I’ve photographed and blogged about to date, Norma makes functional pottery – mugs, bowls, dishes, etc. which are generally thrown on a potter’s wheel.  “Throwing” refers to giving the raw clay shape through the centrifugal force of the wheel and the action of the potter’s hands and tools.  Why is it called “throwing?”  Apparently, the term derives from the Old English word thrawan, meaning to twist or turn. 

Norma Messing Collage.jpg

I met up with Norma in late November at her house, where her studio is located.  She had been sharing a studio space with a friend, but after one of the big storms caused flooding in her house a few years back, Norma remodeled her water-damaged basement into a dedicated pottery studio.  She is well-equipped with a pug mill (which processes scrap clay, removes the air bubbles, and saves potters’ hands), a potter’s wheel, and her own kiln. 

After throwing on the wheel, pieces are allowed to dry slowly until firm enough to handle but still a little malleable (“leather hard”) and then are trimmed to the final shape, maybe altered, and handles attached as appropriate. Norma often hand carves designs and patterns into the clay before firing.  She takes inspiration for the patterns from many places and keeps a notebook of patterns she finds to inspire the designs, although frequently the carving is like “automatic writing,” with no preconceived notion of what it will end up being. The pieces continue to dry slowly until all water is absorbed, at which point they are referred to as “bone dry.” They’re then fired in the kiln to approximately 1800°F, sufficient for them to be handled but below the point of being vitreous.

Etching a pattern on a mug

Etching a pattern on a mug

Attaching a handle

Attaching a handle

Applying glaze

Applying glaze

Glaze is applied after this initial (“bisque”) firing.  Norma makes her own glazes although ready-made commercial varieties are available.  Glazing could extend over 3 days depending on how they are to be finished.  For example, if the inside, outside, and rim all get different glazes, that would require a multi-day process.  The pieces are fired again to about 2170°F at which point they are considered complete.  Another thing I learned is that the measurement of heat in a kiln is called “cones.”  Your clay and your glaze must match your selected cones.  Norma keeps detailed notes on her firing processes, indicating the cone, clays and glazes used, to make it more likely she can replicate a success or avoid issues in the future; but there are so many firing variables (glaze application, kiln-load size, etc.) that it’s impossible to fully predict results.

Norma started taking pottery classes when her three children were very young but stopped potting when she went to work full-time.  Several years later she started classes again and has really thrown (no pun intended) herself into pottery since retirement.  One of the things Norma enjoys about it is that there are so many forms and techniques to explore, from which she is always learning new things. 

To see her work, you can follow Norma on Facebook at: www.facebook.com/Norma-Messing-Pottery-348454418617295/.  I encourage you to take a look at her photos – she makes beautiful tableware with unique designs and a blend of colors that I love.  I want to thank Norma for participating in my project, teaching me her process, and for making it an enjoyable morning with her great sense of humor.  We’ve had a subsequent portrait session to get some headshots for her college reunion, which was also filled with a lot of laughs!