Saturday, 3 March 2012

Elephant No. 153: Pinch Pot


I wasn't sure what to make for today's elephant, but I didn't mind the idea of playing with clay, so I decided to try a pinch pot. Although I've made clay heads, and once even a clay chafing dish, I somehow missed the lesson on pinch pots. It doesn't seem like it should be hard, but you never know. In my hands, even the simplest activities can become day-long ordeals.

Pinch pots, or "thumb pots" as they are sometimes called, are probably the world's earliest clay vessels. The oldest known pinch pots date back at least 16,000 years to Japan's Jōmon culture, and pinch pots have been produced on every continent for millennia. The invention of the potter's wheel in Mesopotamia between 6000 and 4000 B.C., revolutionized the production of clay vessels, significantly decreasing the making and use of pinch pots in everyday life.

Early Japanese vessel, likely using a pinching and coiling technique,
ca. 14,000–8000 B.C.

Today, pinch pots are still produced in many cultures, often as simply decorative items. Beginning potters frequently start with pinch pots, giving them a feel for the properties of clay, while teaching them how to form a basic vessel. Because no wheel or formal coiling method is involved, pinch pots allow for a wide range of creative expression. Modern fine-craft versions can be quite highly inventive, featuring incised and pierced designs, glazes, and unusual shapes.

The process is simple. At its most rudimentary, making a pinch pot simply involves taking a ball of clay, poking your fingers into the middle, then pressing the outside walls between thumb and fingers to form a vessel. Sounds easy, but I wasn't exactly sure how I would produce an elephant using a pinch pot technique.

To start, I took a wodge of terracotta-coloured air-hardening clay—which may not actually be clay at all. However, it's what I had on hand, and it acts more or less as clay does, so it was worth a try. I used it a couple of months ago to make a small elephant figure, and didn't like the material much, but thought I might like it better for a pinch pot.

I started by taking out a blob of clay about the size of a small child's fist.

I pushed my thumb into the middle and began creating a bit of a hollow.

After this, I pinched a bit of a trunk shape in the front, and formed the suggestion of ears. I also squeezed a sort of reverse crease at the back as an abstract tail. I found that it helped to keep a bit of water nearby to smooth things out from time to time. Unfortunately, this particular material isn't great with water, so you can't smooth things out much before it gets waterlogged and weird.

I wanted this to look more or less like a simple pinch pot, so I didn't use any tools other than my fingers, thumb and knuckles to shape it. I felt it needed some eyes and perhaps a few lines across the trunk, so I used the tip of a bamboo skewer for those. I did think briefly about scribing all kinds of lines to define the legs, body and perhaps a few wrinkles, but I thought it would look better if I kept it simple. 

This took me about fifteen minutes from start to finish, partly because this type of clay dries out rather quickly, and partly because I didn't mess about with the shaping too much. It might have been better to use real clay, rather than air-hardening clay, just to give me more time to play with it. I have a feeling that real clay might also be a bit more malleable and forgiving.

I don't like the feeling of drying clay on my hands, so I'm not sure I'd rush to do this again. But I'm happy with this as my first-ever pinch pot, and it will probably make an interesting holder for paper clips or something.

Elephant Lore of the Day
Next to water and acacia trees, there is almost nothing an African elephant loves more than mud. For African elephants in particular, mud is important in helping them to regulate body temperature. A good coating of mud keeps their skin from drying out in the searing heat, protects them from sunburn, and actually seals water into the wrinkles of their hide, allowing the water to evaporate more slowly, keeping them cooler longer.

However, mud is not always an elephant's friend. In November 2011, two elephants got trapped in the mud at Kapani Lagoon in Zambia.

The first to get trapped was a baby elephant, sinking all the way up to its neck. Its mother ran to its rescue, only to get trapped as well. The other elephants in the herd moved in closer to help, but became wary when they sensed that the mud would not hold them. As the sun got hotter, the mud began drying out, making the situation even worse.

Elephant calf and mother trapped in Kapani Lagoon, Zambia.
Photo: Abraham Banda

These elephants were lucky, however. A team from the South Luangwa Conservation Society happened to be nearby, and sprang into action. First tying a rope around the baby elephant, they attempted to pull it free. Unfortunately, the baby wanted to stay with its mother, and resisted. It mother was equally unhappy, thrashing her trunk around to try and prevent her baby being taken. Eventually they managed to pull the baby free who, hearing a cry from its herd just beyond a line of trees, ran off to rejoin its family.

Then they turned their attention to the mother. The mother's size was obviously going to make her rescue much more difficult. Tying her to a tractor, they began to pull her free. Exhausted by her ordeal, the mother elephant seemed to have resigned herself to her fate, and was more or less a dead weight. In what was described as an "inch by inch" rescue, the mother elephant was finally pulled about halfway out, at which point she began to sense freedom and started struggling again. This was both a good and bad thing, as it helped her break out of the mud, but also hampered efforts to pull her free.

Weak and wobbly, she finally reached relatively solid ground and, hearing her baby's cry, ran off into the trees to join her.

Although conservation staff and wildlife managers normally have a policy of non-interference, letting nature take its course, no one seeing the elephants' terrible plight felt they could leave them to die. For more pictures and the full news story, click here.

The mother elephant makes a dash to rejoin her herd beyond the trees.
Photo: Abraham Banda

Elephant's World (Thailand)

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