A potter's zeal

Scientist Carol Marians returns to her first love, potting, with infinite precision in glazes
Thursday, August 25, 2005

In this corner and still the champion: an immense, uncaring universe, where the second law of thermodynamics warns that order will devolve into chaos, that a deck of cards tossed into the air will rarely land shuffled and stacked by suit.

In the other corner, the challenger: 64-year-old potter Carol Marians, who with her two doctorates, her notebooks and her computer program is gonna get that green glaze right.

Also, the anthracite glaze that looks like fog rolling in on a late winter's afternoon. And the glaze that looks like the northern lights flickering up the side of a bowl. And the red glaze perfected by Sung Dynasty potters 1,000 years ago, a glaze whose revival sent Marians back to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for a doctorate in materials science.

That was in 1988, 25 years after she'd gotten her first potter's wheel and 10 years after she'd started creating a software program -- on an IBM mainframe that had to be fed punch cards as -- its input -- to predict the way glazes will work. She's still developing that program, but you can see her recent work at an open house Sunday at 2334 N.E. 47th Ave.

No matter how much time she puts into the program, Marians has no illusions about domesticating the essential mystery and metamorphosis of fire and clay. "Most of this is a big unknown," she says, "and I haven't got enough hours left in my life to eliminate all the blessed accidents of firing glazes." She'd have an easier time if she stuck to simpler glazes instead of mixing her own, but that's not her way.

Marians is devoting herself to being a potter for the first time since the 1970s. That's when she was raising a young daughter and newborn son and had a business called Ceramica del Paraiso in Puerto Rico, where she was an associate professor of mathematics at the University of Puerto Rico. She and her husband, Robert, moved to Oregon in 1992, and she's spent most of the time since as a software engineer and developer at several local technology companies.

"The first time the high-tech thing went down, I took some studio space and made some pots, and then went back to work," Marians says. The second time she found herself between jobs, she decided it was time to hike out of the Silicon Forest.

"I rented studio space in December. It's scary, but the manual skills come back, and I'm bringing so much other experience back to it. I'm the best potter I've ever been."

The engineer and scientist remain strong in her, however: She is not fond of accidents, even though as a potter who threw her first pot 50 years ago she knows that they're unavoidable. "And the most unfortunate accident is when you get a glaze that does exactly what you want and you didn't weigh the ingredients right."

Which means that you can't make that exact glaze again. It's a misfortune that might not bother some potters; some might even call it serendipity. But not Marians: Her rented workspace at Basic Fire Studio on Northeast Lombard Street includes among its equipment an Acculab 2400 electronic lab scale (clay-stained, but neatly tucked away in its original packing), on which she weighs the several constituents of a glaze and frets about the accuracy of 1 gram (about one-28th of an ounce) in a final weight of 2,000 grams.

She follows an elaborate routine of re-zeroing the scale after each addition -- of kaolin, of Bentonite, of feldspar, of talc or silica or nepheline syenite -- and if the results don't tally to within a gram or two of perfect, she tosses the batch out because her glaze recipes are exact to within a few grams. If she were a little sloppy in weighing the dozen or so ingredients, she wouldn't get the exact glaze she was planning on. And she wouldn't be Carol Marians.

Her studio space seems as much laboratory as anything else, white-painted and neat despite the inevitable layer of clay dust on all surfaces. There are no earth-toned caftans to be seen in her studio; incense does not smolder here, nor does sitar music play softly.

Marians wears her hair pulled back in a severe bun, and her hands and white T-shirt are clay-stained from the throwing wheel. "Here at the studio, mud is the thing," she says, as she works on a row of small, necked vases that will tuck into the spaces between bowls in the kiln. "The feel of your hands in mud."

Her shapes are simple, utilitarian. She tends to stick with one shape, she says, and work that until it stops evolving. Though she loves the physicality of throwing pots, she loves the molecular mechanics of glazes even better and can quickly leave a listener struggling to stay afloat in a sea of immiscible glazes, eutectics, empirical formulae and phase diagrams.

She creates shapely fluted cups by the dozens -- cups destined never to hold flowery jasmine tea, cups which are instead cut into quarters to serve as test tiles for her triaxial glaze tests. Those are contained in the cut-down cardboard boxes stacked on the shelves.

Marians pulls one down to reveal a triangle of 21 plastic tubs like those that'd hold takeout salsa from a taqueria. Each holds 25 milliliters of glaze. The three cups at the tips of the triangle each contain different glazes, the others are arranged in a pattern like bowling pins, and each contains a different mixture of the pure glazes. After -- need it be said? -- carefully measuring, mixing and labeling each cup of glaze, Marians brushes that glaze on the inside of one of her quartered teacups, and arranges the 21 test tiles in a corresponding triangle to be fired and examined for color gradations.

"It takes about three hours to weigh and label all the glazes," she says. "A lot of potters do experiments, biaxial and triaxial blends, but it's really time-consuming. And I do more of it than most, but the experiments are not just about getting what I want, but also to understand what I get."

And she's been repaid with some wonderfully rich and subtle glazes. "I have glazes that do particular things," she says. "I have this saturated iron glaze that comes out almost tomato red -- some of the time. Some of the time it flakes off the pot when I apply it and it's a total pain, but I love it when it works."

But first, there's that wait. That interminable time after a long firing while a kiln cools; a time during which a premature draft of cold air can shatter a newborn pot as surely as a ball-peen hammer.

"It's like Christmas morning every time I open the kiln," she says. "But it's not hard to wait because by the time I'm done firing, I'm convinced that I've done everything wrong and there'll be nothing to look at."

"But there are usually several things that I really like in each firing -- as well as some things that I walk out to the Dumpster without too much thought."

John Foyston: 503-221-8368; johnfoyston@news.oregonian.com

Reprinted from The Oregonian of Portland, Oregon, with permission.

Back to Carol's Home Page

Last modified on 23 March 2006