OPA publishes a news feature monthly, and Newsletter twice annually. As an OPA member you have access to all publications dating back to 1998.

  • Sat, December 04, 2021 8:48 PM | Roberta Lampert (Administrator)

    Do you know where your elbow is in space while working? The goal of this article is to create awareness of your elbows in space and to give you strategies to keep it in a neutral position while working. 

    As artists, we love creating, but we often suffer from aches and pains resulting from the toll our processes take on our bodies. Using awk- ward positions or positions considered non-neutral can fatigue our arms, hands, legs, and joints. However, we can learn to use our body in more neutral positions to reduce or eliminate discomfort. Main- taining a neutral posture is important because it conforms to the way your body is designed to move, even while performing studio tasks. 

    Neutral Posture

    Neutral posture is a body position that causes the least amount of stress and strain to your muscles, joints, and ligaments. Neutral posi- tions are natural, normal positions that are easy on the body and your musculoskeletal system. These are positions that are comfortable for the body to maintain and easy to transition into and out of. Ergono- mists, like myself, want you to be set up to work starting in a neutral position and then adapt new positions from there. We say: your next position is your best position—as long as it is within the neutral range. 

    You can perform the same task in a neutral position and a non- neutral position, only in the non-neutral position your muscles must work harder and expend more energy. Working in a static posture for too long is not great either; it can load the muscles and reduce blood flow to strained areas.

    Neutral Spine, Shoulders, & Spine  

    In  Working with a Neutral Spine,” from the February 2018 issue of Ceramics Monthly, I discussed that a neutral spine has three curves, forming an S shape. From this neutral spine position, look at yourself in front of a full-length mirror. Face forward with your arms relaxed at your sides.

    1. Shoulder flexion: arm forward of body. 2. Shoulder extension: arm behind body. 3. Shoulder abduction: arm moved away from body; 4. Shoulder abduction and extension. 5. Neutral posture: elbow lined up with hip; 6. Neutral posture: arm close to body. Diagrams courtesy of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) (www.cdc.gov/niosh/mining/UserFiles/works/pdfs/2011-191.pdf)

    Be sure your spine is neutral, with your head over your neck. Try doing this simple exercise: Do a complete shoulder roll, starting by rolling your shoulders forward, then up, then back and down. Keep them back and down. As you complete the shoulder roll, end with your palms facing forward, toward the mirror. Then bend your arms 90° so that you make an L shape with your arms. You can stay in this position or rotate your forearms so your palms are facing down, all while maintaining the shoulder position created when doing the shoulder roll. 

    Notice how your shoulder and upper body feel while doing this exercise. This is the feeling you want to have while performing your ceramic work. I know—it sounds impossible! You are probably used to having your entire wing bones (shoulder blades) forward! Think about all the forward hunching you do day after day, year after year. 

    How can you perform tasks with your shoulder blades back where they should be? What may need to be raised or lowered to help you achieve a neutral, comfortable position? Your wheel? Your work table? 

    You are in a neutral position when your arms are relaxed at the side of your body with your shoulder blades back and down. While in this position, close your eyes for a moment and feel your arms. They should feel relaxed, light, and free from any muscle strain. Now open your eyes. While still looking in the mirror, put your arms straight out in front of you. You re now holding a 20–26-pound weight out in space. That is right; each arm weighs about 10–13 pounds (or about 6% of total body weight for each arm). Any time your arms are away from your body (see 1–4), you have an 10–13-pound weight, per arm, out in space. Can you feel inside your body the difference between having your arms at the side of your body versus out in front of you? What are you experiencing? Does it feel like a pull or an effort to keep them there? It requires effort and work on your part to keep your arms out in space.

    Go back to the neutral position with your arms by the side of your body. To reduce the strain of having your entire arm out and away from your body, while keeping your elbows close to the sides of the body, bend your arms 90° (5, 6). You just reduced the weight out in space by half, by keeping your elbow lined up with your shoulders and hip. When your elbows are at the sides of your body and your lower arms are extended out, you only have half the weight of your arms out in space. This also benefits your head, neck, and shoulders, allowing them to remain neutral and reduce stress to those body parts (7). 

    Posture Zones 

    When your arms are stretched out in front of you or anywhere along the arc of their rotation and you reach with your arm fully extended, you are in what is called the yellow zone (see 8, zone 2). When your elbows are close to the side of your body with just your forearms extended along that arc, then you are in the green zone (see 8, zone 1). Which zone do you think is easier on your body over the long term? If you thought the green zone, you are correct. How many of your daily tasks can you switch from being in the yellow zone to being in the green zone? How can you bring yourself closer 

    to your work or your work closer to you? Small changes can have a big impact in your health and wellbeing. 

    Now let s talk about the red zone (see 8, zone 3). This is the zone you most want to avoid. Working in the red zone forces you to over- reach and overextend since you are using not only your entire arm, but also your back or shoulder or even twisting your body to do tasks in that zone. Do you do any tasks in the red zone during the work day? Can you brainstorm with other artists on how to get the job done more safely by bringing the work closer to your body? How might you modify these tasks to keep your elbows close to the body? 

    In all of this, your elbows are the drivers. Think about where your elbows are during the course of your day. Try to keep your elbows as close to your body as possible during your tasks. As you move throughout your day, focus your awareness to their placement. Try to be your own ergonomic detective, paying attention to what you do and how you do it. 

    the author Serafine Lilien, Master of Science, is both a ceramic artist and an ergonomist living in Portland, Oregon. To see more about her ergonomic work, visit www.ergoarts.net. To see her ceramic sculpture, find her on Instagram @lserafiner

    Originally published in February 2018 issue of Ceramics Monthly, pages (page #24-25). http://www.ceramicsmonthly.org . Copyright, The American Ceramic Society. Reprinted with permission. 

  • Tue, October 05, 2021 6:39 PM | Roberta Lampert (Administrator)

     Want to decrease the discomfort that many hours in the studio can inflict on your body? It all starts with paying attention to your spine.

    Working with a Neutral Spine

    Within one session or over the years, we can work our backs, limbs, and joints in positions that can cause stress and strain. Maintaining a neutral posture is important because if you respect the way your body is designed while performing your daily tasks, then you can minimize aches and pains. This article teaches you to maintain a neutral spine while performing your usual amount of work.

    Your spine has three naturally shaped curves, as shown (1). In neutral position, while viewing your spine from the side, it has three curves, forming an S shape. In the S shape, your vertebrae and flexible intervertebral discs (2) are positioned to promote optimal blood flow and nerve function. In this position, the discs protect the spine bones by cushioning them, placing the least amount of stress on your body and using the least amount of energy to maintain a desired position.

    1 A spine in neutral position has an S curve from the top of the neck down to the tailbone when viewed from the side. Viewed from the front, the vertebrae are stacked directly on top of one another. This position promotes optimal nerve function and blood flow. 2 In neutral spine position, the flexible intervertebral discs provide cushioning for each vertebrae, placing the least amount of stress on the body.

    It’s important to maintain a neutral spine while performing tasks, including lifting and carrying items, sitting down and standing up from a chair or the potter’s wheel, and while using hand tools on a table. 

    Figure 3A shows how a spine in neutral position looks. Notice that a pole or straight edge (here represented by a red bar) held against the spine touches in three places—the bottom of the skull, the rib cage, and the end of the spine—forming an S. 

    Non-neutral spine positions cause pressure, pain, and muscle strain. One type of non-neutral position occurs when the spine curves into a swayback position, with the pole touching only at the base of the neck and the bottom of the spine. This causes pressure and possible pain in your lower back.

    Similarly, in a slumped position, the neck is forward and the pole touches the rib cage and possibly the bottom of the spine (3B). Whenever your neck is in a forward position, your blood and nerve flow are compromised and your upper back muscles have to work twice as hard to hold your head upright.

    3A When standing in a neutral spine position, a pole held along the spine will touch in three places: at the back of the head, along the rib cage, and at the tail bone. 3B Standing in a slumped position, with head forward takes the spine out of neutral alignment and causes the upper back muscles to work twice as hard.

    Exercises to Try

    This exercise will help you get in touch with your own spine posture. Try it and see where you are right now. You will need a straight edge or pole (36–42 inches long), such as a broom.

    1.  Stand in your normal, relaxed posture, with your feet hip distance apart, toes pointing forward.
    2.  Hold the pole vertically behind you. Stabilize the pole with one hand on the bottom and one on top.
    3.  Place the top portion of the pole along the back of your head.
    4.  Line the pole down along your spine, so your tail bone touches the pole.

    Does your body touch the pole in three places: back of head (skull), somewhere along the rib cage, and by your tail bone? When you do this, your spine is in the neutral S position, and has its three natural curves. Do you only touch at the top and bottom, in a swayback position? 

    Try it again, and see what you need to do so to get into an S position. Practicing yoga’s Mountain Pose can help.

    Mountain Pose

    To check your posture in Mountain Pose:

    1.  Stand tall, with your feet hip distance apart.
    2.  Slightly tuck your chin.
    3.  Gently roll your shoulders back and down.
    4.  Engage your abs and tuck your pelvis forward. Imagine connecting the lines of your hips to the center of your pelvis as a V. Is the V vertical or does it tilt? Bring it to vertical.
    5.  Measure your posture using the pole as described above.

    Did that move you closer to a neutral S position?


    Always bend at the hip joint and knees together, and not at the spine. While holding the pole in place and maintaining your best version of a neutral S position (two or three points of connection with the pole), bend at your hip and knees. Practice bending your knees. How low can you bend your knees while maintaining a neutral spine? 


    Using arm rests to get in and out of a chair takes us out of spine neutrality and can sometimes hurt us. Notice the diameter of your arm. Now look at your thigh and its diameter. Thighs have much more muscle and are made to carry the weight of our bodies.

    Try this:

     1.  Stand in front of a chair holding the pole behind you, with your spine in neutral. Keep the bottom of the pole slightly above your tailbone.
     2.  Place your feet hip distance apart, with your toes facing forward.
     3.  Place the back of your lower leg against the front of the chair.
     4.  Set up your body in Mountain Pose: chin tucked, shoulders gently rolled back and down, pelvis forward. Maintain this posture throughout the exercise.
     5.  Bend forward at the hip joint while bending your knees, keeping the pole on your back in place.
     6.  Using your thigh muscles, mindfully lower yourself fully on the chair. Don’t plop down.
     7.  To get up, reverse it. Bend forward from the hip.
     8.  Keeping the pole in place, use your thigh muscles to rise out of the chair.
     9.  Put the pole down.
    10.  Notice: does that feel different from how you normally sit down?
    11.  Practice this exercise with and without the pole.

    Everyday Posture and Comfort

    Neutral spine may feel unnatural at first. It takes practice to make it a habit. Think about your daily tasks. How much do you curve your spine in unnatural ways to reach forward or work on a counter, studio table, or wheel? What can be done? 

    Some changes are important for everyone:

    Perform Mountain Pose throughout your day. For example: while you are filling a glass of water, getting in and out of a chair, bending to pick something up, watching TV, waiting for your tea to steep, eating a meal, typing on your computer, and working at a counter or on a wheel. 

    Take regular three to four-minute breaks. Set a timer to beep every half hour. When it goes off, respect the beep, find a good stopping point with your work, get up, and move your body. Stretch, get some water, step outside, play with your kitty or puppy, and then go back to work.

    You may also need to adjust your environment for your unique body, such as ensuring the screen on your computer is at eye level, raising or lowering a studio table or wheel height, or picking a different chair. Can you adjust your wheel, table, or chair to keep your spine neutral? For example, you can put blocks under your wheel to raise it so you can work in neutral spine. Remember Mountain Pose and hold neutral spine.

    How else can you work with a neutral spine?

    Assume the position, get creative with your environment, and enjoy your creative work in health and comfort.

    the author Serafine Lilien, Master of Science, is both a ceramic artist and an ergonomist living in Portland, Oregon. To see more about her ergonomic work, visit https://www.ergoarts.net. To see her ceramic sculpture, find her on Instagram @lserafiner.

    Originally published in February 2018 issue of Ceramics Monthly, pages (page #24-25). http://www.ceramicsmonthly.org . Copyright, The American Ceramic Society. Reprinted with permission.

  • Mon, June 07, 2021 7:49 PM | Roberta Lampert (Administrator)

    From Natalie Warrens
    and Penelope Dews

    Hiroshi Ogawa, a longtime OPA member, made his exit from this world on April 9, 2021.

    Hiroshi was a driving force in the global community of wood fire potters. His knowledge, spirit, and generosity impacted the many of us that were fortunate
    to know him.

    Hiroshi was born in Pasadena California, in 1941. His family was interned in Gila Bend, Arizona, for four years during WWII. He began making pottery at UC Santa Barbara in 1959, and taught pottery from 1965-1968. Hiroshi went to Japan in 1969 to study Buddhism and pottery, where he met his wife, Keiko. Returning to California in 1971, Hiroshi moved to Elkton, OR in 1981. He met Howard Kiefer, a kiln builder, and they built a two-chambered wood-fired kiln, which they christened Hikarigama (The Illuminated Kiln.)

    My first experience wood firing was in June of 2000, when Hiroshi invited Barb Campbell and Terry Inokuma to lead an all-women’s wood firing workshop in Hiroshi’s anagama, named Hikarigma. Some of the potters who were involved had wood firing experience, but not anagama. Most of us had no experience at all.

    The lasting impression that I took from this firing was that during my career I had never actually fired my pieces. Rather, he electric or gas kiln fired the work, and I was a bystander. At Hiroshi’s, for the first time, I felt that I was actively participating in the final step of the ceramics process. I came away with a sense of wholeness and closure, and then wonder and curiosity. For the next 18 years, I had the great fortune to fire with dozens of amazing potters and sculptors two to three times a year, until Hiroshi’s last firing in June of 2018.


    2005, Hiroshi’s studio burnt to the ground, but the kiln was unharmed. The ceramic community came together and helped build a new studio. He worked in that studio until 2018, when, due to poor health, he fired the Hikarigama Anagama for the last time, an event that was both celebratory and emotionally difficult for the crew that had worked with him for many years.

    Hiroshi, with incredible support from his wife Keiko and friends from his community of Elkton, gave to many of us a gift— the rare gift of personal and creative transformation.

    Pieces fired in Hikarigama, like most wood fire kilns, have unique characteristics specific to that particular kiln. Hiroshi’s anagama firings produced some of the most beautiful pieces I’ve ever seen, because of the variety of detailed surface textures and range of colors that resulted from his anagama firing.

    But it wasn’t just the incredible beauty of these pieces that drew us back to Elkton every year. It was the connection we made with each other, with Hiroshi, and the land. We learned to trust each other and, yes, to love each other. The pots and sculptures were the vehicle for this connection.

    Hiroshi was the fire.

    To view a video of Hiroshi’s anagama, watch a clip from OPB’s Oregon Art Beat.

    Clip: Season 16 Episode 1601 | 9m 27s

    “Visit master ceramicist Hiroshi Ogawa as he creates, then loads the 
    bisqued work into his traditional Japanese "anagama" kiln. For the 
    next week, Ogawa and his helpers will fire the kiln with wood to a 
    sustained temperature of 2300+ degrees Fahrenheit. After a week of 
    cooling, Ogawa conducts an opening ceremony, unloads the flame-painted 
    pots, and celebrates with his community of potters.”

  • Thu, April 08, 2021 10:46 AM | Roberta Lampert (Administrator)

    Nick Molatore
    All photos by the Author

    Some background…

    I have made functional stoneware for most of my life. I started with cone 10 reduction work in the 70’s and transitioned to mid-range cone 6 in the early 2000’s. I made this transition for a few reasons. The work and expense of firing a gas kiln was a burden; the ease and low cost of cone 6 electric was attractive. Building and securing building permits for a gas kiln in a residential neighborhood was daunting. Also, the carbon footprint of gas firing is huge compared to electric firing. Gas firing uses about 1 gallon of propane per cubic foot, or more than 200 pounds of carbon dioxide production per firing in a 20 cubic foot kiln! Even if your electricity is produced by burning coal, electric firing to cone 6 produces less than half that amount. Of course, using renewable sourced electricity makes the difference even more dramatic.

    Transitioning to cone 6 electric was painful and it took several years to get good results, firing hundreds of tests to find glazes I like. I missed the rich and varied colors and surfaces that cone 10 reduction glazes produce. Eventually, I developed cone 6 glazes that were successful, and I have produced cone 6 electric production pottery for about 15 years.

    Cone 6 electric glazes by the author

    Cone 6 electric glazes by the author

    The appearance of unglazed clay is problem for me. I have never liked the color of cone 6 unglazed clay. Whether it be white, buff or brown stoneware, it is bland and boring compared to the rich surface of reduction fired clay body. I ended up using G-Mix 6 stoneware (similar to B-Mix) but I always covered the clay with glaze top to bottom. I tried many cone 6 porcelain bodies, but struggled with throwing, warping and cracking.

    Through the years I have admired the beautiful brick red of terracotta (red earthenware). I love the colors and surfaces of brick buildings, terracotta floor tile, and Mexican flower pots. 


    Work by Leño Contreras, Tecate, Mexico

     Building tile from Brazil and handmade bricks from Mexico

    I am particularly enamored by the surface, detail and colors of barro bruñido, the burnished and very low fired decorative ware mastered in central Mexico.

    Examples of barro bruñido
    by Master Potter Angel Santo, Tonalá, Mexico

    Let me digress for a moment and talk about reds. I have yet to see a cone 6 electric red that I like. High-fire reduction has spectacular copper reds and luscious iron red. Low fire yields lovely iron reds (and decent reds from stains) but there is nothing in midrange oxidation that I remotely like. Reds from inclusion stains are flat, lifeless, opaque and, in a word, awful. A very slow cooling cycle yields an almost-decent iron red, but you have to devote your entire firing to this cooling schedule just to get a barely not awful iron red!

    A confluence of two events… one good, one bad 

    My dear friend, Ginger Steele (a Renaissance woman if there ever was one) has worked off and on with red earthenware over the years, and returned to it after years of producing beautiful salt fired work. She encouraged me to give it a try, even giving me a box of red clay. The second event was COVID. My main source of sales, Portland Saturday Market, closed due to the pandemic. I was looking for something new to shake my quarantine funk, soI gave low fire a try, bringing red clay into my white clay studio… eee gads!

    I have been more than a bit of a high fire snob when it comes to functional ware. I always believed that truly functional ware had to be at least cone 5, despite the fact that most commercial dinnerware, including high quality, high-end ware is fired to cone 1 or less. So, I had concerns about making functional terracotta. I did considerable research, with much of the information coming from digitalfire.com (See: https://digitalfire.com/glossary/terra+cotta

    There is a great photo on the digitalfire website that shows changes in terracotta as it is fired from cone 06 to cone 4. As firing temperature increases the clay goes from orange red to darker red, then brownish red. It gains strength up to about cone 1, then starts deforming and bloating. The article does an excellent job of explaining why a slow firing schedule is important.

    Traditionally, low fire ware is bisque fired to the same or even higher temperature as the glaze fire. The higher bisque temperature drives out gasses as materials in the body decompose and release gasses. This allows glazes to smooth out when fired and be defect-free. Glazes applied to the almost-vitrified ware require gums to thicken them and to allow them to be smoothly applied by brush to the non-absorbent ware. These commercial glazes are not suitable for dipping, because the glaze drips and runs for a long time; they are designed for brushing.                                                         

    With my high fire background, where bisque is much lower than the glaze fire, the bisque ware is quite porous (un-vitrified). When a piece is dipped in glaze, water is quickly absorbed and the work can be handled in less than a minute. Dipping and pouring are the best ways to get a thick, even layer of glaze, and are the practical way to produce a large amount of ware.

    I am currently bisque firing to cone 06 (1825 degrees F.) and glaze firing to cone 03 (1960 degrees F.) The cone 06 bisque leaves the ware porous enough to pour and dip glazes; the cone 03 glaze fire is a good balance between strength and color. Combining frit-based glazes and a slow glaze fire schedule (https://digitalfire.com/schedule/04dsdh) I am getting good results with my low temperature bisque fire and higher temperature glaze fire, a process similar to my high fire experience.

    Yes, but is it functional?

    At cone 03, the clay I use (Cherry Creek from Georgie’s in Portland, OR) has a porosity of about 5%, more than the 1 to 2% of cone 6 clays I am used to. I am impressed by the strength of the fired clay. A simple test to gauge strength is to extrude ½ inch diameter by 6-inch long rods, then support the fired rod at each end, hang a wire through the middle, adding successively more weight to the wire until the rod breaks. I was surprised that the earthenware fired to cone 03 was nearly as strong as the cone 6 fired G-mix 6 clay.

    I found a couple of simple but versatile glaze recipes from digitalfire.com, my favorite being G2931K (https://digitalfire.com/recipe/g2931K), which fires beautifully at cone 03. It is smooth, not too fluid and has excellent fit with no crazing. The glaze responded well to coloring oxides and stains. G2931K is also very acid resistant, using my version of the lemon juice test. Instead of lemon juice, I use concentrated hydrochloric acid for a week. The glaze showed no trace of etching or color change.

    I also tested for thermal shock resistance. A mug is heated in the oven to 400 degrees F, then plunged into cold water, repeating 5 times. A mug showed no damage from this abuse—ware remained sound and the glaze showed no hint of crazing. 

    My last concern was that porosity might be a problem. If too porous, absorbed water may cause overheating in a microwave oven as absorbed water heats. The test mugs did fine, even after being soaked or run through the dishwasher. 

    I have used a number of pieces daily for several months. They have held up as well as my cone 6 ware—not a single chip or crack after abusive daily use! 

    I suspect that the impressive results from the microwave test may have something to do with my use of terra sigillata, which partially seals the surface. 

    What finally seduced me to the dark (clay) side

    One of the things that makes Ginger Steele’s terra cotta so lovely is her use of terra sigillata. (See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Terra_sigillata) This ancient, simple process produces a surface that is difficult to describe: smooth, lustrous and satiny with just a hint of gloss. Color can be rich and deep. Though the process of making and applying sounded difficult, it turned out to be quite straightforward. (https://digitalfire.com/article/super-refined+terra+sigillata) My first batch of terra sig, made from Red Art clay, came out nicely, resulting in a smooth, beautiful red surface. The application of terra sig is quite forgiving, much easier than applying glaze. 

    A 5-gallon batch yielded about 1 1/2 gallons of terra sig, enough to dip most items. I added 4% red iron oxide to the Red Art before the settling process to produce an even deeper red. The terra sig is applied to bone dry greenware or bisque, either by dipping or brush—both had similar results.

    Terra sig retains every detail of the clay. Glaze will bury small details, but not terra sig. The mug handle in the photo clearly shows my thumb print, even though it was dipped with a fairly heavy coat of terra sig. The smallest tool mark, scratch or texture will be preserved.

    What Now?

    An intended short dalliance in terracotta is turning into a consuming affair. I have found a clay surface fired in an electric kiln that is beautiful and sensual in color and surface which I no longer feel a need to hide. I love the terra sig surface so much that I use only liner glazes with a splash of colorful glaze on the outside. Ware is completely functional and I use minimal energy with the low firing temperature. Meanwhile, my tubs of cone 6 glazes sit idle, gazing at me like dogs on a rainy day and I have over a ton of G-Mix 6 clay sitting in my studio. (I have made some tests, and it appears I can convert this clay to a nice terracotta-like clay with the addition of 10% frit 3110 and 4% red iron oxide!)

    I don’t know where this is going. I sold a lot of cone 6 ware made with a process I tweaked for 15 years. I have had little market exposure with the terracotta, since my main market has been closed all year. The handful of people that have seen and used the terracotta appear to like it, but I don’t know how it will sell. Producing both terracotta and white stoneware in the same studio presents its own problems, mainly trying to keep the whiteware clean. By only using red low fire clay and white high fire clay I do avoid the problem of accidentally putting a low fire pot into a cone 6 glaze fire, as the color of the bisque is unmistakable. One would never want to have low and high fire white clay in the same studio, a situation that would lend itself to disaster with melted pots and shelves!

    Meanwhile, this terracotta muse has helped me shake off a bit of my quarantine depression.


Blog posts



Current Newsletter login required

News free articles and news from our Newsletter

Submissions should be sent, in writing, to our Newsletter Editors. Both editorial and advertising submissions are free of charge and will be published at the discretion of the editors. Submissions are due on the 10th of the month during which the newsletter will be published.

Copyright © 2021 Oregon Potters Association, All rights reserved.

Oregon Potters Association is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization.

Powered by Wild Apricot Membership Software