I Think We’ve Finally Got a Clay Program!

I’ve been at my school since 1999, and over the years we’ve used the polymer, oven-bake clay, Sculpey (frequently), and a self-hardening clay (once), but never “real” clay for sculpture projects.  Finally, finally, that’s changing!

In September 2016, a potter and school art teacher emailed me and introduced herself.  Ruth said she’d gotten to “know” me through my website (art-rageous.net), and wondered if it would be okay to come spend a day at school with me when she and her husband were in Virginia visiting relatives.   They planned to come in October, and she offered to do a clay workshop with my students.

Wow!  I get a lot of emails through my website (which averages about 5000 visitors per day), and most are from art teachers around the country/world who want more information about the various lesson plans I’ve shared.  This was the first time anyone (especially someone over a thousand miles away!) had asked about meeting in person (yikes!), coming to my school, and interacting with my students….  Despite my online, “out there” presence, in real life I’m very low-profile, private, and reserved, so I was more than a little antsy and suspicious!

After some well-justified snooping (I verified that she was who she said she was, and taught where she said she did), I also checked with some people at my school to make sure this would be okay.  As Ruth and I exchanged more emails over the next few weeks, however, I started getting excited about meeting her, and I began to feel that I “knew” her, too!

Prior to her visit, I purchased some low-fire white clay, a couple of rolling pins and some canvas to cover the tables while wedging the clay.   I still wasn’t quite sure what Ruth had in mind, but these were the supplies she’d requested, so I was at least somewhat prepared.

She arrived just before my first class on Monday, October 17th, and we greeted each other like long-lost friends.  Too cool!  There wasn’t really time to chat much since kids started coming in the room, but as she unpacked her supplies, I saw that she’d brought various clay tools–and leaves.

Leaves?  Like the plural of “leaf.”  Real leaves.  She also brought an example of a ceramic leaf, and she explained to me (and to the students) that it was made by rolling out a 1/2″ slab of clay, placing a leaf on it, tracing and cutting out the shape, and then firing it, and glazing it, and firing it again.

With that introduction, she got the kids wedging chunks of clay (which involves kneading and pounding the wet clay to remove any air bubbles in it), and next came the rolling, tracing, and cutting part:

As each student finished cutting out his or her leaf (and adding little “feet” to the bottom of it), I placed it on a cart to dry.

Our little tabletop potter’s wheel doesn’t work particularly well, but after making the leaves, Ruth demonstrated how to use the wheel, and the kids got a chance to try, too.  Each class had SUCH a good time! 🙂

When Ruth first contacted me about doing a clay workshop, I told her I had a kiln, but that it probably hadn’t been used in at least 20-25 years–and certainly never by me.  No one seems to know if it was ever used in the school’s art program (the tabletop wheel was there, too, when I got there…), so I’d always assumed that it had belonged to a former employee.

I’d had it checked out a couple of times over the years by “clay people” who said it appeared to be in good condition, but since I don’t have a strong clay background–and had no experience with kilns–I’d just never tried to use it.  (When I moved into my “new” art building in 2008, a separate “kiln room” was added, at my request–though that still didn’t push me into actually using it.)

At the end of the school day when Ruth’s husband came to pick her up, they both checked out the kiln and said it appeared to be in excellent condition and safe to use.  Ruth gave me a box of 04 cones, and I told her I would have a million questions for her, but I was ready to try it!

We all got together for dinner that evening (Ruth, her husband, Wayne and myself), and how I wish they lived closer!  We could have talked for hours and hours, but such things happen when you bring together artists and musicians, and people who are sincerely caring and engaged.  Bottom line, I think we’re part of the same “tribe.” 🙂

I started reading about kilns, in general, and also about “my” kiln, in particular.  By watching a variety of YouTube videos and with Ruth’s help via email, I slowly gained confidence in my ability to safely and successfully do a test firing.

When I decided to plug it in for the very first time, I realized that I couldn’t plug it in!  While it was the right voltage (240), the shape of the receptacle didn’t match the shape of the plug.  Well, darn!  There was a bit of a delay as I waited for the maintenance staff to purchase and install the proper receptacle, but finally on December 7th, I was ready to do my first ever firing of a kiln.   How exciting!

I’d used kiln wash on the shelves, made sure the cone supports were adjusted properly, put an 04 cone on the supports, turned on the breaker, opened the windows in the kiln room, set the controls for an automatic, low-fire ceramic firing, set the Kiln Sitter–and pushed the button.

YAY!  The red light on the Kiln Sitter came on and there was a slight buzzing sound as this old machine came to life, doing what it was designed to do.  Happy dancing, for sure!

When I checked it after 5 minutes, there was a little tendril of smoke coming out of the vent hole in the lid.  No worries–just burning off some dust or something.  Well, five minutes later the whole kiln room was full of smoke, and the fan in the window couldn’t pull it out as fast as it was pouring out of the kiln!  Not good!

I turned off the breaker to cut power to the kiln, but by that time smoke was coming out under the door of the kiln room and filling my classroom.  REALLY not good!

Long story short, multiple windows were opened, multiple fans were set up, and my classes had to meet in a different building that day.

When we finally opened the kiln late that afternoon, the shelves with kiln wash on them were a dark, grayish-purple in color, and there were significant “scorch” marks along the inner lid and the upper kiln wall.  What the hell had happened?!

  

I contacted Ruth and other potter friends, as well as a kiln repair service in Richmond.  No one had EVER heard of such a thing happening before, but the best guess was that at some time (perhaps during the many years that it been stored in the basement of another building) something flammable had been spilled in or on the kiln.  At no point were there visible flames, but who knows what was happening inside.  The elements appeared intact, however, and there was no obvious damage.

I was determined to try this again, but I decided to wait until March 17th, during our Spring Break.  With no students at school, at least I wouldn’t have to worry about abandoning my classroom for the day.  Knowing that there could be heavy smoke again, I set up two exhaust fans in the windows, and I also opened other windows and turned on other fans.  And as an extra precaution, I took the fire extinguisher off the wall and put it within easy reach….

One more time I turned the breaker on, put an 04 cone on the cone support, set the timer and the other settings, and pushed the button.  One more time, the red light came on the Kiln Sitter, and it made a slight buzzing sound.  AND one more time, a little tendril of smoke started coming out through the vent hole in the lid.

Next, some smoke started coming up between the bricks on the lid….  Curious….

But that was as bad as it got (not bad at all!), and the two fans were able to pull the smoke out of the room.  I’d brought some work with me–just in case things went well–so I settled in for the day.  I had no idea how long it would take for the cone to bend, or if the Kiln Sitter would actually turn the kiln off (as it was supposed to do when the cone bent), but after 4-1/2 hours, I heard a click!  It worked!!

The next day when I went into the kiln room, I took this picture of the top of the kiln.  No idea why smoke had come through the lid, but each brick had been well defined by the smoke:

When I opened the kiln, I was surprised by how clean it was; the scorch marks had completely burned off!

And the cone had bent at the correct angle, meaning that the kiln had reached the correct temperature and then turned itself off.  Excellent!

On Friday, March 24th, I put fresh kiln wash on the shelves, and loaded the kiln with the greenware leaves that Ruth had helped us make in October!  I set the fans in the windows, pushed the button, and 7-1/2 hours later, the Kiln Sitter turned off the kiln and we had our first ever successful bisque firing!

I ordered an inexpensive 6-pack of solid color, low-fire glazes, and the kids were finally able to paint their leaves.  (A student asked if this was a graded project.  Hahaha–no!)

On April 13th, using an 05 cone, we did our first glaze firing:

When I opened the kiln on April 14th and saw all of the brightly colored, shiny leaves, I knew that a new art offering had been created at my school for the upcoming year, even if it HAD taken us 5 months and some semi-disasters to get there!

Will we still use Sculpey for some sculpture projects?  OH yes, because it is a WAY cool sculpture medium that the kids really enjoy:

  

But will we also use “real” clay?  Absolutely!

One of Ruth’s gifts to me in October was a notebook filled with her clay lesson plans, pictures, and project ideas.  In October, I looked at this collection with trepidation; now I look at it with anticipation!

I can’t thank her enough for reaching out to me across the internet (and miles!), and for sharing her time, talents, and passions with me and my students.  With her help and motivation, I’ve not only added a new art experience for our program, I’ve also gained an all-things-clay resource, a new friend, and an on-going connection with a warm, genuine kindred spirit. <3

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Camping Adventure, April 8-9, 2017

We were able to go on our first camping trip over the weekend.  Since we took our travel trailer, pics are posted on a blog I started about the trailer’s restoration:

Impromptu Camping Trip, April 8-9, 2017

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North on the Skyline Drive – March 25, 2017

We both had plenty of things to do at home, but given a very warm, overcast Saturday–and with rain in the forecast for Sunday–we decided to go somewhere.  A return trip to Westmoreland State Park or Smith Mountain Lake weren’t totally off the table at first, but finally we decided to drive out Rt. 810, get on Rt. 33 West, and go up the mountain to the Skyline Drive.

This plan almost worked, but about 10 miles into the trip on Rt. 810, we saw a sign announcing that the road was closed.  Really?  Okay, fine.  We backtracked, took some alternate routes, and still saw interesting things along the way.

The Skyline Drive runs for 105 miles (north/south) in Shenandoah National Park along the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains. We got on the Drive at Swift Run Gap, and we were surprised by the amount of cars getting on at this entrance.  Fortunately, there wasn’t a lot of traffic, but many of the overlooks and hiking areas were quite busy.  What can we say?  It’s nice that people enjoy these spectacular views!

  

When we got to Big Meadows, we checked out the campground.  There were a lot of tents and a fair amounts of trailers and RVs, with more coming in while we were there.  I think this was the opening weekend for Big Meadows, but other campgrounds along the Drive are still closed.

THIS site in the campground was rather interesting…. It appeared to be right on the edge of a steep drop-off, so I sure hope that campers use their flashlights or lanterns when they’re stoking the campfire or going to their picnic table!

We went to the visitor’s center, and as we were walking around outside, I kept hearing a Bluebird.  I was finally able to spot it in a distant tree and get a half-decent picture.

After leaving Big Meadows, we continued north on the Skyline Drive, stopping frequently to take pictures.  The first picture below is the west side of Old Rag Mountain, and the second picture is of Crescent Rock.

  

At the Crescent Rock overlook:

  

Because the Skyline Drive is on the very top of a mountain, there are views to the west of the Shenandoah Valley, as well as to the east.  Both directions offer nice views.

 

There’s a short tunnel a little further north, as well as an overlook.  It was a nice spot to pause for a bit and count our blessings.

  

At Thornton Gap, we turned off the Skyline Drive and headed towards Sperryville.  If you get dizzy easily, you might not want to watch this video! 🙂

As we approached the town of Sperryville, we saw a “LOVE” trailer, and then a gift shop offering quilts.

  

A quilt outlet?  I wasn’t sure what that meant, so we stopped to check it out.  The prices were very, very reasonable, but I guess I was expecting locally made quilts and accessories.  Some were really quite pretty, but as a “sewist,” it was kind of disheartening to realize that there’s no way I could make/sell a quilt or quilted purse for the prices I saw on the ones offered in the shop.  Since I’d have that much just in materials, I’m not sure who makes their products, which are advertised as handmade.  After we left, though, I was kind of sorry that I didn’t buy one of the purses I liked in the shop.  Oh well, maybe NEXT trip! 🙂

After passing through the town of Sperryville, we drove towards Madison, VA on Rt. 231.  To our surprise, we were treated to views of the east side of Old Rag Mountain.  We’d seen the west side from the Skyline Drive.

  

We thoroughly enjoy our drives through the rural Virginia countryside, and we hope that you enjoy our travel adventures, too. 🙂

Interactive Trip Map:

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Riley: September 2001 – March 21, 2017

The loss of a beloved fur-child always hurts.  Sometimes it hurts like hell.  And sometimes it hurts so much that it brings you to your knees and breaks your heart….

Riley was a survivor.

When he was a kitten, he survived being lost–up a tree in a rainstorm.  My friend, Kim, rescued him from the tree, and took him home to foster.  I truly did not *need* another cat–I had three–but after I met him, I knew that he would be coming home with me.  Sweet-natured, energetic, and smart as a whip, Riley was my first boy kitty, and what a boy he was!

I wondered how he would adjust to my household, with its three other cats and two dogs, but I didn’t need to worry.

He was patient and gentle (well, most of the time…) with my ancient Siamese, Cica (who died in April 2002 at the age of 20)….

…he let himself be mothered by Cirrus…

…and he got along great with my dogs!

  

He was still young and rambunctious, however, and I never quite knew where I’d find him.  The top of my closet door was always a possibility….  For a while during his youth, I’m sure he thought his full name was, “Dammit, Riley!”

About 5 months after adopting Riley, I found “The Three Meezeketeers,” Kian, Kai, and Aja. (Their story is on my website: “The Quest for a Kitten”)  Once again–after some initial hissing and sniffing–Riley was adaptable and sweet-natured, and he soon adored the babies!

His favorite kitten, however, was the little sealpoint female, Aja, and this mutual love affair between Aja and Riley continued throughout his life….

  

We added another kitten, Niko, in 2003, and again Riley was gracious and welcoming….

When Niko was about a year old, however, he developed a serious condition known as “stomatitis.”  Feline stomatitis is an incredibly painful inflammation of a cat’s mouth, gums, and throat. While the cause of this disease is not fully known, one thought is that cats contract this through the spread of a virus.  Is that what happened here?  I may never know….

One of the last-ditch efforts for the treatment of stomatitis–as radical as it sounds–is the removal of a cat’s teeth. Niko had full-mouth dental extractions in 2006, and he adjusted pretty well.  Riley had three separate dental surgeries beginning in 2010 to try to combat the disease–but there were complications….

As a result of not being able to eat due to the stomatitis, Riley developed feline hepatic lipidosis (fatty liver disease) in 2010.  A total of 4 separate surgeries to insert (or re-insert…) feeding tubes kept him alive during this time.

And then, due to long-term steroid use (for the stomatitis) which damaged his pancreas, Riley became diabetic.  When he developed diabetic ketoacidosis–yet another life-threatening illness–I essentially brought him home from the vet’s to die.  Simply put, I was out of money for further treatments, and I was also unwilling to put this brave, beautiful cat through anything further.  I couldn’t make the decision to euthanize just then, but I also knew I wouldn’t let him suffer if the end did not come quickly or easily….

When the vet called the next day, inquiring in somber tones about Riley, I said he’d just run up the stairs and he was asking for food.  There was a long pause on the other end of the phone line, and the young vet said, “That shouldn’t be happening….”  I guess Riley didn’t know that! With diet changes, and with the support of insulin injections 2x a day for about 6 months, his blood glucose levels stabilized and he was no longer diabetic. Once more he’d survived, against all odds.

In the Fall of 2016, Riley started having more health issues.  A vet visit in October (with minimal diagnostic testing, at my request), was inconclusive.  At that point, my goal shifted to monitoring his quality of life, and keeping him as happy and as comfortable as possible, for as long as possible.  By January 2017, he was having good days and bad moments….

During some of the bad moments–times when I thought for sure I was losing him–I would have sent him on his way to the “Rainbow Bridge” right then if I’d had the means (or a resident vet!) to do so.  I’d sit on the floor beside him and I’d tell him it was okay to go. I’d ask both of my parents to watch for him, and I’d tell him that I would always, always love him.

But 15 minutes or so after each “episode,” he would sit up, gather his wits, and walk into the kitchen asking for food.  (Dammit, Riley….) And I would feed him. And he would eat.  Like I’ve said, he was a survivor.

By mid-March, the “episodes” were not happening as frequently, but he was simply slowing down.  As much as I dreaded it, I knew that his time was getting short.

On the evening of March 21, 2017, I knew it was time–actually, truthfully, past time….  And even though I knew, logically, that I needed to free his amazing, strong spirit from his tired and worn out body,  emotionally, in some ways, it felt like a betrayal….

After spending so many years, so much money, so much time, so much energy, and so much love trying to keep this wonderful, old cat alive and in a good place (I’m thankful that he was able to enjoy the too-early, warm Spring days out on the screened porch, which he loved), it seemed so wrong to make the decision to end his life.

He went peacefully, and as he took his last breath, through my tears I told my Mom (who died in 2012) that she was getting herself one hell of a fine cat.  The very best cat.  Ever.

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Feral Update: Some Successes, Some Good News, and Some Mysteries Solved!

I’ve taken a lot of pictures of “my” feral cats since I started this crazy mission in December 2016.  Between images I’ve gotten from my classroom window with a telephoto lens, and images captured by the trail cam that my friend, Tonya, has generously allowed me to borrow, I’ve not only been able to learn the cats’ routines (such as they are), but I’ve also been able to better identify who’s who by their markings from a variety of angles.

A lot has been going on since I last posted about the ferals towards the end of February.  For starters, I became aware of a new cat–most likely a male, given its size–when he (?) showed up on the trail cam on the night of February 28th.

  

I’m not sure if it’s white or a very light orange, but it appears to be a solid color with no noticeable pattern in its coat.  (My co-worker spotted him in a tree one night when she was picking up the food bowl, and she said he was huge.  Her first thought was “white jaguar.” 😉 )

On March 2nd, White-Calico #2 showed up for breakfast.  She’s one of the “regulars” at the feeding station, and some mornings I’ve seen her waiting for me at a distance when I drive up to bring the food.

  

In addition to the cats, however, other critters show up, too.  Even if the food bowl has been picked up (which we try to do each evening, but can’t always do due to schedule conflicts), they can usually find something in one of the dumpsters.

  

On March 4th, a Saturday, I got another look at the large male with the injury behind his left ear.  I was very glad to see him eating, and I knew I would have to figure out a way to trap him as soon as possible….

  

Things were then completely quiet until later in the day when White-Calico #1 came for food.  I consider her another “regular,” and I’ve seen her at all times during the day.

The long-haired kitty with the poofy tail that I’d seen on the trail cam previously showed up a little after 6 pm on March 4th. I’ve never seen her in “real” time, but I guess her tail is just made this way!

Late that evening, the light-colored male (pretty darned sure it’s a male now) came to the feeding station.  I hadn’t seen him for several days, but of course I know that these cats have other food sources.  No idea where they are when I don’t see them…

With our school on Spring Break–and after the trash service emptied the dumpsters on Monday, March 6th–I knew that the cats who rely on the food from our dining hall would be getting hungry.  I set out the traps during the afternoon of March 8th–and I waited….

I was delighted to see the white and orange male, but he showed absolutely no interest in the food in the traps.  At one point, he had the audacity to lie down and bathe near the traps, and all I could do was watch in frustration!

But finally, finally around 6:15, he walked towards a trap and followed the trail of food to the trip plate.  TRAPPED!

  

Because it was so late in the day–and the SPCA was closed–I had to keep him confined over night.  He was SO scared and SO bewildered, but I shut him in a secure area, covered up the trap and wished him all the best….

The next morning, March 9th, I got him to the SPCA when they opened.  I told the intake crew that I was pretty sure he was Sienna’s father, and based on his markings, they said that was likely.

Remember Sienna, the cute little fuzzball I trapped in January?

  

She’s a proper young lady now, socialized, spayed, and recently adopted!  In other good news, I learned that all four kittens from the first trapping in December have been adopted, too.  This makes my heart happy. 🙂

After leaving the SPCA, I went back to school and set up the traps again, hoping to catch one of the other “new” kitties.  Sadly, I caught no one, and the only cat I saw the whole afternoon was the orange and white girl.  I was sure she was going to get herself trapped for a third time (sigh), but fortunately that didn’t happen. (I also came close to trapping a young ‘possum, but she ran up a tree when I drove around to pick up the traps after dark.)

Meanwhile, the male at the SPCA was neutered, his wounds were treated, and he was given an injectable antibiotic in addition to a rabies vaccination.  He weighed in at 12 pounds–quite a big boy, especially for a feral!  I didn’t pick him up until mid-morning on Friday, March 10th (due to having traps set up until dark the day before), and I talked to him during the whole drive back.  I recorded this short video when I released him:

After he bolted out of the trap, I watched him slowly make his way down the hill towards the woods.  He stopped to sniff several times (no doubt checking to see what had been going on since he’d been so rudely abducted…) and then he reached what must be his favorite fallen long, sharpened his claws, and streeettttccched.  As I’ve felt with each release, it’s not a safe world, but it’s their world; you do the best you can….

When I put food out for the cats on Saturday, March 11th, I set up the trail cam again, hoping to catch a glimpse of the big TNR boy, just to make sure he was doing okay.  While I didn’t see him, there were other surprises in store for me when I downloaded the pictures off the card on Sunday morning.

White-Calico #1 had visited.  No surprise there.

The orange and white girl had visited, too.  No surprise there, either, but my goodness this cat is so beautiful…..

Saturday night, the long-haired black kitty–trapped in mid January–stopped by.  So nice to see her!

Floofy-Tail also made an appearance just before 8 pm on Saturday evening.  I’m assuming this is a female, but I won’t know until I trap her.  (Or him….)

And then, early on Sunday morning, March 12th, THIS picture showed up on the camera!  Oh, wow–happy tears!  It’s the original “Mama-Cat” that I trapped back in December and hadn’t seen since releasing her!!  With her distinctive face markings, I knew it was Mama, and I confirmed it by comparing it with my other pictures of her.

  

At that point I made the connection… Remember the cat surrounded by raccoons in the feeding station?  It wasn’t a new cat–it was this cat!

  

As a final non-surprise, but something nice thing to see, White-Calico #2 was the last picture on the trail cam before I picked it up on Sunday morning.

What made this special was that all FIVE of my TNR girls were captured on the trail cam in one 24-hour period. 🙂

Obviously, there are still “known” cats to trap–these:

    

Due to too many things going on during this last week of my spring break (impending snow, vets at the SPCA out for a conference, dentist appointment, etc.) I’m not sure when I’ll have the opportunity to try to trap again.  For now, though, I am thankful to know that all of the kittens I’ve trapped have been adopted, and that all of the adult females I’ve trapped are still alive and well.  I am so very appreciative of and thankful for the use of this trail cam.  Thanks again, Tonya! <3

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