Glynnis Lessing

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Brush Making Tutorial

It is really wonderful to be part of a strong pottery community here.

Everyone is so supportive of each other and I like being with all of them; so when I noticed that our farm cats here were leaving squirrel tails lying around their feeding area (yes, our cats are better at actually catching squirrels than our enthusiastic but clueless dog), I asked Barbara Zaveruha if she would teach a brush-making workshop. My favorite liner brush is starting to wear out and I suspect it is made of squirrel hair or something similar.

Brushes Barbara has made.

My local women potter friends were invited and we convened in my studio one morning bearing various roadside finds and fur bits

to be converted into brushes for slip and wax.

I have a list of what you will need at the bottom of this post.

Step one is laying out the hair/fur.  Set out a straight-edge of some sort and line your hairs up against it in a pretty thin layer.

Then begin at the end and pretend that the hairs are like a mat and roll them up.  The first hairs in line will end up at the center of your brush.  Those will be the tip.

Once you get a good shape, hold your bundle firmly and have someone (another good reason to make this a communal activity) wrap and then tie some dental floss around it where you want your brush to end. This may be the middle of the bundle or closer to one end. Don’t worry how long the excess is, it will be trimmed later. Try to wrap a bit of a band.


What we discovered: coarse hairs should not be tied super-tight. Finer hairs like fox and squirrel hairs can be tied tightly, this does not deform the tip of the brush- but deer hair is much coarser and -my suspicions confirmed from some cursory research on the web– hollow. Which means the tighter we tied the wrap around it, the more it compressed and splayed outward giving us these frustrating multiple-tips results.  

It suddenly came to me that we should try to tie it looser and Barbara assured us that later gluing would keep the hairs in place. A gently tightened but not tightly pulled wrapping yielded the first decent deer hair tip.

Notes on what hair to use from where: Barbara was using deer tail. Colleen had some deer fur also; possibly from the belly or hindquarters? Not sure.**

I took the longest hair I could find on our  poor fox carcass and it was in the area behind the head, between the shoulders. This will work too, even if your only hair source is your (living) dog – apparently the Japanese prefer Akita hair for their best brushes so go ahead and call Fido over.

The fur/hair should have some kink or wave to it to hold the slip/wax/underglaze.

I don’t think curly coated dog’s hair will work nor the super-straight hair of say, a lab  or pit bull (not long enough anyhow). I used the tip of a squirrel tail first and then the side hairs of the tail too- it all seemed to make a nice liner tip.  Also, the finer hairs are probably best for smaller brushes and those larger thicker hairs better for big brushes.

Eventually we ran out of time, went in to eat soup and home-made bread (made by my talented husband) and scheduled a second workshop to finish the brushes.  We all went off to boil our brush tips so they would be dry enough to clip and glue. This is a VERY IMPORTANT STEP because you don’t want your brush to reek after it has sat in water or worse, rot.



We reconvened on a snowy morning with boiled tips in hand and proceeded to finish the brushes.

The boiling loosened the wrappings a bit so I ended up re-wrapping  all the the ends and what I found worked best was about a ½ inch of wrapping to make the base of the brush a solid cylinder.

Barbara showed me a terrific type of knot. Before you start wrapping, you run a loop up that lays along the area you are going to wrap and just past it. Then you proceed to wrap over the loop. When you get to the end of where you are wrapping, poke the string (or floss in our case) through the loop  leaving a bit of looseness and pull on the other end of the loop- the end that is sticking out of the bottom of the wrapping where you started-pulling on it will pull the loop and other end of string under the wrapping; pull until it is about halfway down the wrapping and then cut off both ends.

Next we trimmed non-tip end of the fur to a very blunt end  and then dabbed that end straight down onto a blob of glue and worked the glue up into the hairs. Sometimes we needed a second blob depending on how absorbent the hairs were. To compress the sides in- prevent flaring, we wrapped the end in tape but I did not tape 2 of the ends and that seemed to work too. You will have to judge which ends need the tape. 

I had scrounged some bamboo pieces from our shed- formerly used to hold up plants. You can buy bamboo in varying thicknesses at garden supply stores . The narrow (usually green) I will use for my tiny liner tips and my two Fox brushes will go in thicker shafts.

Next you will have to drill out the right diameter in the bamboo. Look at the diameter of the bottom end of your brush tip and judge what thickness bit you need for your drill. It’s better to err on the side of too-small. As Barbara said, “you can always make it bigger.”

Where I chose to cut the bamboo shafts had to do with the “joint”. I wanted to have a good ¾ of an inch above the bamboo “joint” which provides a “floor” for the glue and brush tip to rest on.

The inside of the bamboo is soft and the joint floor is harder so your drill should sort of stop at the floor and if you don’t push really hard, you won’t go through it.

Barbara is holding the bamboo just below the “joint”.

Next try out your brush tip in the hole before you put glue in there! You may want to drill it out larger.  Note: if your wrapping is nice and flat and not lumpy, you should be able to fit it inside the opening in the bamboo shaft. That’s why, when you are wrapping it, you want it to be tight and flat and very cylinder-like.
Note how different the end looks from when we first tied the bundles.

Once you can just squeeze the tip in, with possible help from the fettling knife to tuck a few stray hairs in remove it  and put a decent sized drop of glue in there.  

Re-insert your brush tip. Let dry and VOILA! You have a nice brush!



What you will need to make brushes:

  • Fur with some waviness or kink to it but not curly hair. Squirrel, raccoon, deer or canine fur (fox, dog) is ideal.
  • A straight edge of some sort.
  • Dental floss or waxed string
  • Water resistant glue- we used Duco, 5-minute epoxy would work too.
  • Hair clippers are very helpful
  • Fine saw
  • Bamboo (from the garden store)
  • A vice is very helpful
  • Drill and variety of sized bits
  • Paper plate for the glue (our glue started to dissolve a styrofoam tray I had)
  • Fine scissors
  • Tweezers can be helpful
  • Fettling knife
  • Needle tool
  • Toothpicks for the glue
  • Tape

** The best information I found on hair were fly-tying sites and blogs!  I wish we’d read this excerpt before we started!:

“For example, the body of a deer has hollow hair, the tail is solid hair. The body hair of a calf is solid. Tails of all animals, like squirrel, woodchuck, calf, are typically solid.       Solid hair typically is used for wings and tails. It stays compact and does not flare and is relatively hard to stabilize on the hook because it is slippery.      Hollow hair is typically body hair and is used for wings or for spinning where you want it to flare. It is used for tails as well, but there you want to control the flare by thread technique. If you look at the typical hollow hair, i.e.  deer, elk, caribou, antelope, it looks like a carrot, thick tapering to thin, with the thick part being hollow and the thinner part getting less hollow until it is actually solid at the tip. It is actually honeycomb hollow if you look at it under a microscope.”






Posted 7 years, 3 months ago at 9:31 am.


A Big Change


In 1971 and I was a tween, my mother started a commune with her best friend. This was a rural “Intentional Community” in northern Wisconsin.

Instantly there were a lot of people in our lives. We were living with 2 other families with children. Suddenly I was the oldest of 7. Many college students would come and stay for the summer, other people for a year or two. We became acquainted with other people living in the area who were also trying out alternative ways of living.

Throwing in the barn at 17

As a result of these connections and my interest in pottery (which is a whole other blog entry) when I was 16, my first job was working part time for a potter. I sifted straw ash, pugged clay, sat up during wood firings, washed his dishes (I loved doing that because all his dishes were handmade pots- many by Warren MacKenzie, his teacher, mentor and friend) I also met and spent time with a few of his potter friends.

Somewhere in there, I think I assumed I would become what I now call a “country potter”.

I didn’t think about it consciously. I didn’t even realize at the time that there were “city potters” I just loved the people I knew who lived out in the country in these funky cool houses and made pots for a living (sort of – there were auxiliary sources of income like teaching and employed wives and insurance settlements).

I went off to college at the U (Minneapolis) took ceramics, met my husband there and eventually moved to Chicago. After about 5 years living here in Chicago (and not making pottery), I met a potter at an art fair who told me of Lill street. I called there that afternoon and was signed up for a class that week, teaching there within months.

That was in 1989 and I’ve been there ever since.

I met so many “city potters” and saw the great benefits of belonging to a large community of potters where we could see each other’s work every day and in process and grab anyone to discuss technical or aesthetic problems as they arose. Resources could be pooled, glazes shared, firings happened 2-3 times a week, test tiles came back immediately. I learned a huge amount.

Most of all at Lill, I learned I was a teacher. That I loved teaching, loved imparting information, loved the challenge of finding the best way to help someone understand how to do something. Teaching is an ever-changing, ongoing endeavor as you adapt to your students and their age and the environment in which they are learning. At Lill I came to realize I truly had something to offer people.

And now, I’m choosing to leave.

It’s not that I actually want to leave Lill it’s more that I have never completely let go of my dream, my image of myself as a country potter. Of my children growing up in the country. Of open sky and forests and the freedom of space you get when you live in the country and so we are moving back to Minnesota. Most likely to Northfield where my family is from so we can be near aging mothers and other family.

I will be tackling such challenges as setting up a studio and, most worrisome for me, figuring out how to continue firing my pots to cone 10 reduction. I don’t know if I will build a kiln or buy one or share an existing kiln. I hope to connect with a small community of potters in that area and perhaps find a place to teach again. I have some friends and connections left over from my college days and also some transplants from Lill who have inspired me. I will be excited to see them again.

I look forward to sharing this whole journey with the readers of my blog.



Lastly, in between selling our house and moving to Minnesota, we will be traveling to Nepal!!! I am sure I will want to post about the potters there because I have always wanted to see in person, those potters who throw off a massive hump on a hand-turned wheel set in the ground; the fruits of their labors spread around them drying in a sunny courtyard.

Posted 8 years, 2 months ago at 10:16 pm.


Kohler Midsummer Festival of the Arts

I am pleased to be in this fair the second year in a row. Just 2 hours north of Chicago, in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, it is worth a visit to see the Kohler Art Center as well.

Kohler Festival of the Arts


Posted 8 years, 10 months ago at 11:43 am.

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Minnesota Clay

It was so interesting on my trip to Minnesota to see how clay was ever present and in so many forms!

Naturally my focus was on clay while I was in the Powderhorn Park Art Fair and I was lucky enough to trade with Ryan Myers again- I feel so honored he wants to trade since I love his work! This is from a thrown cylinder.

I also walked around and bought  these e tiles from Martha Enzler I love those breaking glazes!

A potter  was also named the winner of  Best in Show,  giving us all hope.

But even after the fair was over, I found myself buying clay in various forms. We went to the Uptown Art Fair where I saw my friend Bob Briscoe and I bought these wood fired bowls from Sarah Dudgeon. She is so nice!

On a different day, I took my cousin-in-law to the Minneapolis Institute of Art where I commandeered her camera to record these breathtaking pots from China

Afterwards I took her to see the Northern Clay Center as a way of showing her the type of place where I work. It was fun to look at their kilns [-cool chimney!- is it merely decorative or does it serve some sort of pulling/updraft purpose?] and explain generally how so many potters and students share the space. I also  had to try to explain kiln gods- in Spanish!

While there I chatted with and admired the work of Kip O’Krongly and her delicate stencilling technique. It didn’t hurt that she was stencilling my favorite thing- a bicycle! onto a tumbler.

A day-trip to Stillwater had us traipsing through antique malls and there I saw endless examples of mass produced pottery. I personally have a deep weakness for mixing bowls. I bought this beauty I love mixing bowls because they are so utterly useful and functional and yet balanced and beautiful. Bowls in general are my favorite form because they are so all about receiving. They are open and inviting. They are voluptuous and curved and generous.

Another daytrip  spent at  my friend Riana’s   is always profoundly inspirational, healing and invigorating.  Her attention to detail and her aesthetic sense means that there is nothing ugly or unattractive at her place. EVER.You see? she COULD have some hideous but serviceable plastic bucket there to catch water but NO- she has taken the trouble to make a pig shaped trough. No plastic, and in fact not much that is mass produced. Her cupboard (which is handmade) is filled with pots made by potters- most of whom are her friends or acquaintances.

Riana was kind enough to accompany me to Randy Johnston and Jan Mckeachie’s place so I could buy these:

and also to ogle their new-ish Anagama kiln.It’s a bit of torture to see scads of gorgeous (but somehow mysteriously flawed) pottery just lying about Jan took time out of her busy schedule to chat and answer my multitude of questions.

At a  party at Emily Murphy’s I was utterly surprised to see all my Lill street friends and we all admired Emily’s amazing and enviable studio as well as to receive beautiful tea bowls made by her. Here’s mineI had such a great time there and the music and  desserts were awesome!!

For our anniversary my husband and I spent the day in Red Wing Minnesota -of shoe and pottery (!) fame.  They have a small museum in the old pottery factory and I found it absolutely fascinating. I learned a lot. I didn’t know the grey was salt glaze and the  brown on all these pieces was Albany Slip!  So simple!

I would never have believed that the early crocks- even the 30 gallon ones were hand thrown!!

I felt compassion for those potters who had to work in what looked like pretty unhealthy conditions with low light. (You can see the belts- in motion above and then running below to power the wheels)

Look at the small windows, the SINGLE LIGHT BULB and all the shavings and loose clay on the floor. I think he’s working a jigger here.

They did get an interesting special privilege,  I very much enjoyed looking at their “lunch work” pieces- things they made on their lunch time with materials from the factory and fired there.

It looks to me like some of the workers took pre-existing forms like sewer pipes to make their “stump” umbrella stands- and others just worked with the raw clay which was mined nearby.

A short movie of the history of the factories (quite a few devastating fires and also mergers) was fascinating and  I was tickled by the amazing range of work that came out of the factories over the years.

If I read correctly, these pieces predate mass produced glass canning jars!

I just love the lines and proportions of this pitcher.

Some of the much later work that came out of the  factory.

Here is an early potter’s wheel from there.

I can’t imagine that they threw the crocks on this wheel- certainly that’s not what we see in the photo.

Outsidea huge old kiln is still standing. I saw a set of rails in the floor so I assume they wheeled in the pre-stacked work. This looks like a gas kiln. There was a huge blower on the other side.

Also in Red Wing’s Pottery Place were more antique malls packed chock full of fired clay too precious to abandon. Look at all that lead!

From Red Wing we travelled to Hastings where we discovered (too late!! It was closed!) a store carrying work from the Mexican town of Mata Ortiz- a town on the brink of poverty and saved by Juan Quezada and his personal quest to teach himself how to make pots like the ancient pots that he found in the hills around his town. The work is gorgeous, hand built and the surface decoration is intricate. To learn more about Mata Ortiz click here.

A few days later, on a trip to Duluth. I saw this beautiful and colorful  Art Deco Terra Cotta, reminding me not all clay is made into pots and dishes.

Then, on a hike in a nearby river, my daughter dug up the very iron rich clay she found  and made me the most basic clay creation of all:

this pinch pot.

So there you have it; a mad dash through the history of clay

from ancient Chinese vessels to various local contemporary potters,

from Red Wing production pottery and building facades to a pinch pot made on the spot…

it’s all clay and it’s all great.

Posted 9 years, 7 months ago at 3:32 pm.


Kohler Festival of the Arts

For some odd reason I’d hoped to get through this latest art fair without any dramatic incidents but of course that would not make for a good story!

We rented a trailer again- it’s really easy to load and then we have our own car the whole time.  The drive to Sheboygan was lovely.

This person travels heavy!

When we got there, there was ample space to just pull up and it was shady too.  We unloaded and then ate a picnic lunch right on our spot.  As we prepared to set up they decided they had to do some last minute mowing!

Set up is getting smoother as we become more practised and find short cuts and routines.

We had a really nice spot.  

As soon as we were done, we went right over to the Kohler Arts Center. The exhibits were excellent. Interesting, thought provoking and sophisticated.

Then there were the bathrooms.  Luckily our little group (my family)  had genders of both kinds and so got to give each other the “all clear” sign so we could view ALL the bathrooms (there were 4) Here is the main Men’s note that the mirrors are reflecting the other wall – all of it was AMAZING.

my favorite was this Women’s Bathroom.

And the other Men’s was also great.

it was all about water. Although that paisley pattern has a germy look.

Next we went out to eat at Il Ritorno- OMG!  The best pizza I’ve had in years!  Possibly ever! Also a great salad.  Sated, we went off to our hotel which has an attached water park and we all went on slides and inner tubes etc. until we were exhausted and saturated with chlorine.

The next morning dawned beautiful and sunny but I had a fairly slow day. At some point I left the husband in charge of my booth and walked around.  I was really impressed with all the great pottery. I now own some pieces by Michael Kahn of Greenbush, Mi. and also Ryan Myers (who won an award at this fair) of Mudhead Studio.

As soon as we packed up for the night (all the pots in boxes on the ground) we went over to the(  free)  Artists Buffet and Awards Dinner. This is the 40th anniversary of the Festival.  Chinese food, great salad and beer or wine; very nice.

Another winner was Sarah Chapman a fellow Lill denizen- a jeweller.

Back to the hotel where we had a walk on the beach and the kids did the water park again.  So far incident free, right? Everything going smoothly… BORING but smoothly.

The next morning we got all set up- we had the awnings down overnight because of possible wind- and right after we got all set up it rained on us pretty hard.

Unlike 57th Street, that didn’t scare the customers away for the day- they came out with the sun and I had a slow but steady day.

THEN with 45 mins left to the fair, while a volunteer was shopping in our booth, this HUGE TORNADO SIREN goes off. We were about a half a block from it

it was so loud it obliterated all thought and all my decision making functions in my brain shut down.  Should I take my kids to the nearest basement? Should I try to pack up my pots? Was it a REAL TORNADO?? What if it was just a strong wind? Kids would be okay but the pots could be detroyed…. but what if it was a REAL TORNADO? Then I didn’t care about the pots at all….. finally the sound stopped and my brain unfroze. The jeweller across the way who had already lost a tent that weekend (his wife was in Iowa at a different show and wind destroyed their better  tent) was packing up extremely rapidly – to put it mildly.

It looked to me as though the artists all decided, “okay, the customers are gone, it’s been a fair with lackluster profits* let’s just call it a day”

*let me just reiterate here- the fair itself was really really nice- well run, great art, lovely setting, good treatment, good music. These are just tough economic times.

So we all began to pack up.The sun actually came out again and everyone was pretty relaxed.

Amazingly, some customers did return only to find the things they’d been eying for several hours packed away.

Load out was easy, and we were headed home by 6.

Oh, and by the way, there WAS a tornado- north of us!

Posted 9 years, 8 months ago at 8:19 pm.


Kohler Arts Festival- Sheboygan, Wi

In the land of Porcelain! What could be better!?

Posted 9 years, 11 months ago at 4:49 am.

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57th Street Art Fair

This is the only art fair I’m doing in this state (Illinois)this year!!

I’m  proud I was able to get in!

Posted 9 years, 11 months ago at 4:21 am.

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