In my prior blog, I talked about making ceramic dog tags to gift at Burning Man in 2011. I got the crazy notion to bring back a bucket of Black Rock City playa dust to somehow incorporate with the 2012 dog tags. That bucket of dust sat quietly in my studio for months.
In December, I got out the bucket. I dumped ashes from the One Mile Clock into the bucket. I sifted both through a fine mesh screen. Playa dust is an extremely fine power; about the consistency of talcum powder. I saved the larger bits that didn’t go through the screen: there wasn’t much but I didn’t want to waste it. In a large ceramic pot, I pounded the clumps and put it through the screen again. I used most of the Playa dust, throwing away only a few ounces of small pebbles.
I now had 5 pounds of fine powder. I mixed it with water, shaking it in a plastic jar like a martini. I poured it into large, shallow pans. OK, I used cake pans. My mother would NOT have approved of using cooking pans to make mud. Over the course of several weeks, the water evaporated from the mud. I watched it carefully to be sure it dried evenly. When it reached the proper consistency, I bagged the clay to prevent further evaporation. With water added, I ended up with about 15 pounds of clay.
The color of the clay is interesting. It’s a peculiar shade of green, almost chartreus. I took a couple pounds of clay with me to a friend’s ceramic studio to experiment. My first inclination was to mix the clay with commercial clay such as stoneware or earthenware.
Before mixing into commercial clay, I had to knead my Playa clay to make sure it was thoroughly mixed and consistent in texture. As I kneaded the clay, I was amazed at its smooth texture: it has the consistency and feel of porcelain. My potter friend, William, was extremely interested in the clay, too.
I began to wonder if I needed to mix it with the commercial clay. William thought not. I decided to test the clay. After kneading the clay for about an hour, I rolled out a slab and stamped out some experimental dog tags to dry. Over the course of a week, the tags dried and William fired them for me.
William called to let me know they had been fired. All he said was, “They’re fired.” He would say nothing more. I anxiously drove to William’s studio with a hundred questions running through my head. Did they explode in the kiln? Did they melt? What color did the clay turn in the kiln? Are they strong? Was the temperature too low? Was the temperature too high? Such questions!
With a sly grin, William showed me the pile of dog tags. “I think you will be surprised and pleased.” The tags came out beautifully! I was truly surprised at the color of the ceramic tags. They fired to a deep red-purple color, which indicates a significant iron content in the clay. The tags are hard, too! I tried to break several of them and only two with existing cracks broke. Klutz that I am , I accidently dropped the bag of tags on the concrete floor: none broke.
I designed a stamp for the 2012 tags and sent it to Socwell, LLC, (www.4clay.com) who made a laser cut stamp for me. The stamp, itself, is a piece of art. It’s stunning. I used this stamp to make my sample tags. However, in use, my design was not all that great.
In the slab, the stamp looks great. Cut out of the slab, it’s not a successful design. Back to the drawing board. I wanted a smaller dog tag: a more compact & simpler design. I decide to use two stamps: one with the Burning Man symbol and another with the date (year). Working with Socwell, LLC, we came up with workable stamps.
With the smaller size I’m dropping the "dog" from "tag"; these are ceramic tags, no where near the size or shape of my military dog tags.
This year, making Burning Man tags has a broader meaning for me. More than just gifts, these tags are from me; from Burning Man; from the Black Rock City Playa; from my art. I am acutely aware these tags are made with ashes from my burned artwork and Black Rock City dust. The clay and ash from Black Rock City and my art will be burned and transformed back into Art once again. This is my personal Phoenix: my gift to Burning Man.
Thank you for listening
Jerry L. Hanson