With a Little Help From My Hens – A Process Storyboard

Chicken Making Ceramic Bowl

I’m not quite sure how this all got going, but here it is: nine backyard chickens are my studio assistants. Even better, they are symbiotic co-creators because their “work” turns my humble pinch pots into Henpecked Bowls. What I’d like to do today is give you an annotated pictorial of this improbable process, start to finish.


Opening a ball of clay for a pinch pot

It begins with a rounded lump of clay usually about the size of an orange. I don’t have specific sizes or weights. I gather the clay up in a solid ball and begin walking slowly around with it. At some point I plunge my thumb down to nearly the bottom and begin the vessel-making. These bowls need to be slightly thicker in order to take the forces of the pecking, but I aim for classically pleasing profiles. I do all the shaping with just my hands and fingertips.



finished pinch pot

I pinch as sweet a bowl shape as I can. Some curve in, some curve out. I try to stay out of my own way. It also doesn’t matter if it is smooth or cracked on the surface. I am looking for a pleasing form with a certain tension between its volume and its profile. When done with the forming,  I tap it down on the work surface to level the bottom and make a bit of an indent in the center to create a faux footring, but that’s about it. For this design (and yes, I have a few variations of this process) I need a thicker sturdier rim.



Seeded pinch pot

I wet the leatherhard pinch pot’s rim slightly and dip it in the corn/seed chicken scratch. I turn it up and sprinkle more treats in the bottom. I set it lovingly before the girls. They do their usual pecking order scuffling, but eventually it always settles in with the hardcore bunch who will attend until nearly the last peckable seed has been eaten.



chickens pecking at a clay bowl

It’s fun to watch. They come and go, take turns (or not) and quite often explore nips of pure clay. They get sticky seedy beaks and clean each other off or wipe them sideways on the ground. They step over and on the piece. It’s a messy Zen Moment every time.



The last hen standing pecking a clay bowl

What you see here is the Last Hen Pecking. It’s always the same one. We call her Carmen (from her Coopacabana days) but sometimes she’s just Little Beard or Asshat. Sometimes I pick her up and hold her out of the way to let the others have a go without her constant badgering. She’s Large and In Charge. And a clay addict. For sure, any big side-pecks in this series of bowls are hers, as she’s turned out to be a clay junkie too.



All pecked leatherhard clay bowl

Case in point, here’s the fully-pecked bowl. The seeds were only along the rim and in the bottom. Guess who took a dig at the side for pure pleasure? Yep, our girl Carmen. I do very little else to these bowls. Maybe I reshape, level up, patch a hole, soften something a little too jagged (but then, I honor this process and leave a lot as it happened.) They are signed, dried and bisqued.



I have determined a Henpecked Bowl palette of glazes. They are based on the colors of my girls’ feathers, currently Barred Rocks, Easter Eggers, Australorps and a Golden Sex Link, with a nod to the gorgeous departed Rhode Island Red. But I also include the colors of their eyes, their combs, their eggshells and of course the eggs themselves. Warm browns, rusts, creams, golden yellows, flashing greens, soft turquoises and burnt brick reds work well. The glazes thicken in the divots, sometimes breaking into a different color. I haven’t worked with glazes exclusively in years and it’s fascinating to see them transform a piece so utterly.



Top view of Henpecked Bowl

Here’s the inside of the piece where you can see how busy those beaks were down in the bottom. And how wonderfully the glaze pools in the pits, revealing its deepest colors, each bowl absolutely reflective of a moment in a very rich partnership.

–Liz Crain, who was intent on just making walking meditation pinch pots when one cold morning, standing in a patch of sun, she thought to offer some seeds to the hens in the soft rawly formed pot and one thing led to another.


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8 thoughts on “With a Little Help From My Hens – A Process Storyboard

  1. I loved reading this post, Liz!
    Here’s to you, your hens and some magical clay moments….

    1. Thank you Cynthia, it really IS all about keeping ahold of the magic, which always abounds.

  2. This made my day, Liz!
    How loving and magical..brilliant!
    I am in Southern California now and still treasure the pieces you created.
    With love..

    1. Thank you Gloria! It’s great to stay connected. With love as well.

  3. The mind boggles- how about squirrel pots? Do you have zoning in your town for goats? Feed your dogs their kibble in bigger ones, OMG! Leave some pots in the woods and see what happens! Unknown species, maybe a fox , a fawn, or even a mountain lion- maybe (be still my heart) a Sasquatch! Meanwhile, I love the chicken pecked ones. Keep it going-

    1. Now you got me going Sandy! I have heard of leaving soft clay out in a rainstorm, too. But now you’ve given me a new thought: I just might leave a pot out in the front yard for the squirrels. I already know the dog LOVES to eat clay – have to keep my scraps out of his reach – and I was thinking of giving him a large portion and then firing the result – never have quite done that. Getting the textures of his munching in a larger bowl would be fun too.

  4. So busy with NCECA I just got around to reading this. You are a wonder with how your brain works. So full of good humor and deep insights. I, of course, will have to try this to see what Bach, Sweet Pea, and Fifi create. I have often thought that it would be wonderful to have those chicken feet in clay as I’ve done with every other two-legged and four-legged that’s passed through our home. (Rats too of course.) I do love Carmen’s colors the best! She must instinctively know that she is the Queen of the flock. What kind is she?

    1. Carmen’s what they call an Easter Egger, which I’m not sure is a specific breed. She and Golda and Lola came from Debbie Manning’s flock and lays pastel blue/green eggs very consistently. Lola is even more striking, almost looking like a pheasant. Throw down some clay for your girls! They will walk all over it, muddy feet and all. (And I’ve learned the mud around here fires brick red!)

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