PROPER STUDIO EQUIPMENT AND EXERCISE
Ergonomics-A branch of science used to study the relationship between workers and their environments. Ergonomic studies have assisted people in developing methods of dealing with their health and physical well being by producing safe equipment and ways of implementing this equipment into the home and work place.
OSHA-The Occupational Safety and Health Act. A law that was passed by the US Congress to prevent employees from being injured or contract diseases in the course of their employment- OSHA assists people in developing safety standards and materials for use in the work place and supports them in their implementation.
I was in my senior year in college when I first began working in clay. The ceramic studio was humming with excitement; we all walked around with clothes hardened by a semester of dried clay caked in patches all over our T-shirts and dungarees. We marched around the art building proud of our attire- we were the Ceramic kids! The studio had a film of dried clay powder everywhere; the floors by the wheels had solid chips of dried matter, and inch deep reminisces of the clay were strewn from the whirring wheel heads. Even the splash pans were laden with the dirt, until someone finally emptied them, never thinking of putting a sponge to their surfaces. The kiln room was cluttered with shards of broken clay and bisque ware, piled into some kind of organized mess. Shiny vermiculite particles caught your eye as they appeared in crevices around the kiln, supporting cones that had come out of the kiln or were ready to go into the kiln. Grog was scattered along the kiln floor, permeating the area as we stepped onto it, our feet heavy with the crunch, crunch sound as we loaded and unloaded kilns. Hundred pound bags of clays and chemicals were piled high into mountains surrounding the pug mill in the clay mixing room. We opened these bags, lifting them high in the air. Only the brave and bold could handle these heavy monsters, so the girls made sure they did their fare share, not to be seen as weak, or less than the boys. We poured the contents of these bags into the mixer, dust particles flying everywhere. As the powders became chunks of golden clay, we snuck a few cigarettes, waiting for the magic event of clay making to materialize. If the teacher came in, we hid the cigarettes, easy to do amidst the cloud of dust permeating the air. We bagged our precious earth into bags that were used and reused many times, the dust circling our noses as we opened these bags, eager to fill them with fresh clay. We then made new mountains of clay bags, ready for impatient hands to mold them into their creations.
The glaze mixing room was not much different. Dangerous chemical powders were everywhere-counters, floors, scales and buckets- all were layered with unknown spilled powders. So we swept the floors a little with a broom, cleaned up the tables and began pouring chemicals into buckets, weighing our expensive dust into bright shiny glazes that would bring promise to pots, waiting to be glazed. The chemicals were in smaller bags, but they too had to be poured into bins, labeled with wondrous names such as Nephaline Syanite, chrome oxide or lead. The names of these powders were exotic and analytical, and they made us feel like mad scientists as we weighed them out on gram scales. Again, a stolen cigarette or two made the job more invigorating. I lived in this studio, consumed by the energy, enthusiasm and creativity of my fellow classmates. There was more than dust in the air; there was electricity that could not be harnessed. We were seventeen and eighteen years old and ruling the universe with the power of our dreams. We were potters! Our art was centuries old, and we were part of an artistic continuum. We were young, healthy and strong. Nothing could stop us- except Time.
Working at the wheels in the studio was magical. I’d wedge for a half hour, make a pile of conical mounds of clay and then carry this heap over to my wheel. Without getting up, I’d sit there for an hour or more at a time, as the clay moved through my fingers, emerging upright into cylinders, bowls and plates. After several hours of this I would begin the process again, remaining in the studio into the night. It was blissful; we brought food into the studio and ate sandwiches with clay-wet hands, and we were nourished.
Two days a week were open studio times and I could work there for many hours. There was a group of us, three boys and me that worked together as we marveled at this opportunity. We would later form the Kilnhaus Potters, a potter’s commune of four people who farmed and tended livestock, selling retail and wholesale pottery as we made our way into the exhilarating 1970’s. All that we learned in school we brought into our barn studio; every bad habit, every dusty, dangerous part of it.
THIS WAS INSANE!
We were contaminating our lungs, damaging our backs, possibly shortening our lives.
THIS HAD TO CHANGE.
Soon new words emerged onto the scene. OSHA, ERGONOMICS, HAZARDOUS MATERIAL DATA SHEETS, RESPIRATORS, LEAD FREE GLAZES, EXHAUST SYSTEMS, EXERCISES!
Our country was changing quickly, cleaning up studios, classrooms and our lives. Everything was about health and safely. Some people balked about the cost of implementing exhaust systems, special vacuums, mopping regimens and training. But we learned. We changed. We saved lives.
Maintaining a clean studio is the most important part of your ceramic lifestyle. From large expensive equipment to a simple mop and sponge, anyone can create a clean and healthy environment in which to work in clay. I will discuss some very moderate low cost methods that you can employ into your private studio and classroom that will enable you to breathe easily, live comfortably and stay healthy.
My high school and adult art center studios were fastidiously clean. OSHA once made an inspection of my high school art department, and my room was the cleanest of all, and that was compared to the painting, photography and drawing studios. They were totally impressed! Most importantly, I had to convince my principal and head of maintenance that a broom was never to be used in the ceramic classroom. I told then that sweeping clay dust is dangerous, that microscopic particles containing silica would be brushed into the air and could encourage silicosis, a lung disease.
As they looked at me wide eyed, I informed them that a simple inexpensive method of cleaning is to mop the floors each night. They were thrilled to find out that such an easy cleaning routine could be so beneficial. I then said that an exhaust system had to be placed into the kiln room and that there were many systems in the market that were under $500.00 per kiln. Again, they were happy. However, since my high school had four kilns in the kiln room, they did install an expensive complete room exhaust system, and for the middle schools and elementary schools that had one kiln each, they purchased the individual kiln exhaust systems.
I always bought prepared mixed clay. My clay distributor had my personal recipes brought over to all the middle school and high school ceramic classrooms. I helped my department choose good quality clay bodies for all the different levels in the district. Using ready mixed clay is more expensive than mixing your own, but I had my students on a weekly slop detail, and we used and reused every ounce of clay that moved through our studio.
I had several wedging boards, for white and brown clay bodies, that were just for laying out slop. As soon as a bucket was filled, it had to be laid out. For the classroom I used six gallon buckets; the laying of slop occurred frequently, keeping the clay making constant. I always put a tablespoon of bleach into the slop buckets. This is an easy way to keep the communal slop bucket free of many germs. In my own studio at home I have a large trashcan size garbage pail, and wait till it is filled up. I then lay out my slop for a period of a couple of weeks. I don’t re use clay bags; the dry clay dust goes into your face when opening a used bag. I always stock all my studios with good quality plastic bags.
After every class my students had to wash all their tools, sponge down the studio tables, and if they were using wheels, they had to be totally cleaned. This was a demanding matter between my students and me. I was relentless, always letting them know why we were cleaning up so carefully. I was protecting them, and me! I had to be in that classroom all day long. I had “clay captains”, students that were responsible for putting any left over clay into bags and tying up the bags at the end of each period. This was incredibly important. If a bag was left open then twenty-five pounds of clay could dry up and have to be made into slop. This could be exhausting, but as I yelled out my cleanup demands, my busy bee workers rushed diligently through the process and got the job done. Each day I left a very clean studio, and each morning I came back to a freshly washed studio floor, ready for the day to begin. Every two months, a school quarter, I had all my classes stop work, and spend the entire class period cleaning. They sponged down shelves, cabinets, banding wheels and all surfaces. Just four days out of a year’s program kept my room clean, healthy and a wonderful place in which to work. I realized my students had “arrived’ when I heard them complain if they picked up a wooden rib and there was crusty clay on it, not providing them a clean edge. I would smile at their grievance; they’d smile back and wash the tool. They wanted their equipment in good condition; they were potters and sculptors.
We mixed all our glazes, and when we did, they wore disposable respirators, poured very slowly so to not create a cloud of powders and washed down the area as they worked. We didn’t have ceiling exhaust systems in the classroom, which would have been preferable, but the school couldn’t purchase that, so I had the students work as slowly and carefully as possible. There was rarely a dusty atmosphere in my room.
I had the students move fifty-pound boxes of clay around to the various stations in the studio. They were taught to bend at the knees and carry one box at a time. (The larger boys wanted to impress everyone and carry two boxes, but I wouldn’t allow them.) I told them that two trips with clay were healthier than one and they should carry one box at a time. Loading kilns and lifting kiln shelves, was another backbreaking job. I constantly reminded them to bend at the knees when lifting anything. When the kids worked at their tables, I made them take a small lump of clay and keep it under plastic so it would not dry out, and go back to the clay station more frequently. I told them that walking around the room was healthier than sitting or standing still for a class period. They fell into a cohesive rhythm, moving, working, storing work and cleaning. After a couple of weeks of this routine, I brought out the radio and the studio became a miraculous space of creativity, lively conversation, respect and even love.
I had my adult education ceramic studios operate in the same manner. Ironically, any concern that a high school student had, I saw repeated by the adult student. Slowly, they too became accustomed to the necessary job of sustaining a clean studio.
Maintaining a clean and healthy studio brought respect into my classes. They understood why they had to work in my classroom this way. One student affectionately called me “the General”, while others called me either Doc, or just Shatz. Funny, only the new- comers called me Mrs. Shatz. But after a few weeks in the studio, that would change. I rarely had disciplinary problems. When I did, the cruelest punishment I gave would be that the student was not allowed in my studio for a day. You would think a kid would love that! Go to the cafeteria or library and “hang”. But no- to be forced out of my room was frustrating- they loved being there. So after some easy conversation, we’d work out the problems and the disciplinary action would be gone. It was too much fun to work in Shatz’s class even if they had to abide by her tons of rules. It was the class that everyone wanted to be in.
I told my students that I regularly exercise to keep my arms, shoulders, back and legs strong and healthy. At first they laughed at me, and said, “that’s because you are old”. But many times an advanced student that worked a great deal in my room would have a sore back, or if they were on the wheel their neck and shoulder would ache. I explained the advantages of just stopping work for a few minutes, stretch your arms and twist your back and neck and walk around the room. They found that incorporating that routine into their class kept their bodies more conformable. For myself, I maintain a rigorous exercise program. I power walk about five times a week for about forty five minutes, and every day I do Yoga for between fifteen to twenty minutes, depending upon my routine. Yes, exercise takes time, but it is time that is essential. I truly believe the more I exercise, the more years I can work in clay comfortably.
As for my own studio at home, I maintain it in much the same way I did my classroom studio. I only wedge up a small quantity of clay at a time. After twenty minutes or so at the wheel I get up, stretch, and walk around the studio to get more clay and sit down again. I keep the wedging board on the opposite end of the studio from my wheel, so that I have to walk a distance to get to my clay. Three bricks, so as to make the wheel more ergonomically balanced to my body, lift my wheel up. I use my arms more than putting pressure on my back by this height. Many wheels come equipped with leg extensions to calibrate the height of the wheel to an individual’s needs. Because my right foot is on the foot pedal, I keep a small bat under my left foot so that both legs are at the same height in relation to my hips. I only use my tools once and then they go into a bucket; after a few days I wash them all. Once or sometimes twice a week I mop down my studio floors. Every day I sponge down my tables, and clean my wheel head and wheel table. I do this regular routine at the end of my workday. It only takes about twenty minutes, and I use this time as a kind of “wind down time”. I look over my space with pride and joy as I can see a beautiful studio, free from a cloud of dusty clay.
I love that my space is ready to come back to on the next day, and I am eager to work again. My new studio in my new home is the prettiest studio I have had, with painted plasterboard walls instead of the cement and stonewalls of my previous studio. In place of pipes and beams, I now have stucco ceilings and beautiful lighting fixtures. I have an evenly painted cement floor that is easily washable, and I enjoy my heat and air conditioning. I have wonderful equipment. I now own two wheels, one for brown clay and one for white porcelain. I work on a great slab-rolling machine and am having fun exploring my new extruder. My kiln room is a separate room from my working studio and I love the exhaust system that I have installed, keeping my house odor free and safe for my family. This is my last studio, and while it is much prettier than the one I had for twenty years, they both exhibit clean spaces.
A clean and orderly studio is a beautiful space in which to create art.