clay vats and mixer at Owl Peak Studio

MICACEOUS CLAY

Clay is found as part of the soil nearly everywhere. Different clays develop as a result of a variety of geologic forces, but can be understood in a certain light as composted rock that has been ground by the slow speech of time into a malleable mineral material. Every stone tells a piece of the long history that has shaped the current landscape.


All of the clay I use is hand-harvested with reverence and ceremony from her wild, mountain home. According to my geologic understanding, micaceous schist bedrock formed in the Pre-Cambrian age was brought to the surface of the earth during the formation of the Rocky Mountains and as the micas, quartz and feldspar weathered, they developed into the clay minerals that formed these primary clay deposits. This micaceous clay is considered to be self-tempered and needs no additions to be a workable paste. The mica contributes to a durable cookware that is wonderfully insulative and tolerates thermal shock, allowing these pots to be used on the stove top and other direct heat sources. Traditional Jicarilla Apache micaceous pots had conical bottoms so that the liquid could circulate evenly as the pots nestled in the cooking fire’s embers. 


While all of my work has been with primary micaceous clays, the micaceous cookware tradition in the Southwest also includes ceramics where potters ground mica-rich rocks into a temper that they added to a non-micaceous clay body. Additionally, there are cooking pots that were formed of a non-micaceous clay but which used a micaceous slip as a surface coating.


Micaceous cooking pots are also found in many other parts of the world; including Colombia and Turkey. Each has their own rich history, culinary uses and cultural significance. Culinary traditions and clay pots evolved in relationship with local clays in every part of the world. While metal pots have proliferated due to cheap industrial production, and replaced clay in many kitchens, this staple element of cooking has not been entirely forgotten. Many cuisines still contain dishes which can only be made with the subtle alchemy of clay pots.

When I return from the mountains with my raw clay, I use a wet process to clean and process the earth to form a workable paste. All clay bodies are comprised of a combination of clay and temper. This clay is considered “self-tempered” because the right ratio of mica and sand is present in the clay pits.


Cleaning clay is a multi-day process that begins with soaking the dry earth so that the clay can go into solution. 


I fill five-gallon buckets with water and raw earth and mix them by hand as the clay starts to hydrate. When there is a consistent slurry,  I add two bucket loads to an electric mixer and top it off with more water. I mix for a minute or two and then pour the watery clay solution through a screen and into a cotton sheet lined vat. The screen catches lots of little sticks and other organic matter. The larger stones and pebbles stay in the mixer, while the finer sand and mica flows out with the tiny clay particles suspended in the water. Over the next few days I regularly mix the clay body as the water evaporates. 


When the clay has become firm, I move wheelbarrow loads to the pug mill for a final mixing.


The clay is stored in 50lb bags to await pottery making.