Natural Clay with Paper

Using Natural Ghost Ranch Clay and Paper Pulp in Short Workshops

Barbara Campbell Collects Clay at Ghost Ranch, NM
Barbara Campbell Collects Clay at Ghost Ranch, NM

Artist and Teacher, Barbara Campbell, teaches workshops at Ghost Ranch.  Barbara, who has been supporting herself as a potter for over 40 years, has been teaching workshops and classes at Ghost Ranch for 9 years.

One of the popular activities at Ghost Ranch is to utilize the natural clay deposits that abound in the arroyos and canyons of the Ranch.  Barbara says:

“For several years now I have been experimenting with Ghost Ranch clay.  I have dug it here and there around the ranch, but like most all earthenware clay I find it to be tough and short unless it is aged for a few years.  With classes being so short and students liking the idea of digging their own clay, I needed to come up with a way to make the ranch clay more workable on the day it was dug.”

Barbara discovered paper clay at her friend’s Judy Nelson-Moore workshop at Santa Fe Clay.   Read an article Judy prepared about paperclay.   Learning about the strength and enhanced working qualities of paperclay gave Barbara an idea about how to make natural clays work better.

“Once I decided to add 20 to 30% paper pulp, the clay became very workable and it was a quick and easy fix. Sometimes when looking for clay I take students to different parts of the ranch and we get different colors (they all fire out the same more or less), because it is fun to work with colored clays.  On the ranch I have found  yellow ochre, green, many shades of red and rust, gray, crocus martes, very deep burgundy, and even bluish clay.

“When I teach Jan Term, my students are college kids, usually sophomores through seniors.  In the summer months I have students that range in age from 14 to 80 or more if they are spritely.  Some of them are seasoned potters and others are rank beginners so it is always challenging to keep it simple for the beginners and make it challenging for the veterans.

“The advantage of working with the paper/ranch clay mix is that it is quick to make, easy to use and quick to dry.  We are doing a from the ground (literally) up to completion of a firing in five days.  It is tricky, but I am finding that it can work. I don’t have to bisque very high which saves time and since we are either doing a pit firing or a fume firing, it is relatively simple to get things from the bisque kiln into the finish kiln.  The cooling times are also quick so it is possible to do the whole thing in a snap.

“Once my students are assembled, we all take a plastic bag and a spade and walk down to the arroyo.  We walk along the arroyo until someone says “Is that clay”?  Sometimes we decide to get a bit from the first batch or all from the first sighting, but sometimes we hike further afield to gather different colors.  I am sort of getting familiar with where these small deposits are located.  When everyone has a few pounds of dry clay we head back to Pot Hollow and begin processing the clay.

Pots Made From Natural Clay at Ghost Ranch, source:  Barbara Campbell
Pots Made From Natural Clay at Ghost Ranch

“It is a very simple process.  We dump all the clay into buckets…..if we have different colors we use multiple buckets, but if it is all more or less the same we just use one bucket. We slake the clay down and then strain it through screens into another bucket.“Meanwhile someone is taking cheap toilet paper and blending it with water using a hand mixer.  When the paper is pulverized into the water… looks a bit like cloudy white oatmeal, and the clay is a clean sieved slurry then we take two to three scoops of the clay and add one scoop of the paper pulp.  Using the hand blender we mix it together.  Once it is smooth and perfect looking we pour it out onto plaster bats to about 3/8” thickness or so.  I made lots of plaster bats for this purpose and usually there are enough to accommodate 8 to 10 students.

Usually this process takes most of the first morning so while the clay is setting up, everyone goes to lunch.  Barbara  stays in the studio and monitor the dryness, turning the clay over when it is time.  By the time the students return from lunch, the clay is ready to wedge up and use. The clay is soft, plastic and thoroughly usable at this point.  Great transformation from dirt to plastic clay in a short time.

Ghost Ranch natural clay pots
Pots made and fired at Ghost Ranch from natural clay

Because all the students have had to carry the dry clay and then mix it up, most of the pieces are small.  People tend to make things like jewelry, incense burners, seed pots etc.  We fire them in a fuming atmosphere or in a modified pit firing.  No glaze is used, but often we burnish.  Sometimes the terra sig used is a different color than the original clay just for fun, but also made from ranch clays.

Most student reactions range from awe and wonder to plain satisfaction at making something they have dug from the earth.   Most of the students are thrilled to have something dug from the soil of the ranch to take home with them.  One college age student said she had never before known that clay came from dirt!

Information about Barbara Campbell:  Barbara took her first pottery class at CSU in Colorado.  She graduated from CCA in California in Ceramics.  Two undergraduate years were in Eronguarico, Michoacan Mexico building a pottery department for an international program for CCA.  She went to NYC after graduation and began teaching ceramics at Cooper Square Art Center.  Then, she went to  California and set up her own pottery studio and began making a living as a potter.   About 37 years ago, she bought a house in El Rito, NM and moved her pottery where she has continued as a professional potter.  Barbara volunteers for the New Mexico Potters and Clay Artists (NMPCA) as the Ghost Ranch coordinator.  See more about Barbara’s ceramics.

Barbara is teaching workshops at Ghost Ranch this summer (2015) using Ghost Ranch clay:

Working the Magic of Ghost Ranch Clay, July 6-12
Cancelled:  Clay to Lift the Heart,  July 13-19

Have an experience you’d like to share about Ghost Ranch or natural clay?  Please leave a comment below.

Barbara Campbell Collects Clay at Ghost Ranch, NM
Barbara Campbell Collects Clay in the arroyo behind Pot Hollow at Ghost Ranch, NM
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