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The Craft: Doreen Mellen's handmade tableware

February 27, 2010 |  7:13 am

In this edition of our series on Southern California's master craftspeople, writer Barbara Thornburg spends time with ceramics artist Doreen Mellen, who hand-forms her French-inspired dining pieces in her Laguna Beach garage/studio/sidewalk shop.

Mellen, who is from Tasmania, has been making ceramics for only 10 years. A five-piece dinner set runs $150, a mug $35, all available through her website, Bluehouselaguna.com.

You can read Barbara Thornburg's full story on Mellen and her dishes here. We've also got pictures of how the ceramic magic happens after the jump.

-- Deborah Netburn

Making ceramics is labor-intensive. It can take three weeks -- sometimes longer, depending on the weather -- to make a single mug.


Mellen begins by hauling out a 25-pound block of clay and using a wire cutter to slice it 1/2-inch thick, like a big piece of cheese.


She then places the clay between two sheets of canvas. After setting the slab roller to the appropriate thickness, she turns the bright blue wheel to pull the clay through the roller. The resultant rectangular strip resembles rolled dough.


Today she's making a simple mug as a demonstration. She cuts a 4 1/2-inch strip of clay, then wraps it around a pipe she's wrapped with newspaper, cutting off the excess to create the correct cup height. With a serrated knife she slices a row of tiny diagonals  along the clay's seam. Adding a bit of slip -- a wet liquefied clay -- with her finger binds the two ends together.


Next, she sets the cylinder atop a piece of clay slightly bigger than the pipe, cutting around the base to create the mug's bottom, again joining the pieces with slip. She cuts the handle freehand, then gently presses it onto the seamed side of the mug, adding a small piece of clay at the base of the soft handle to support it until it hardens.


"It's got to get leather-hard -- so you can pick it up and work with it. It can't be too dry or too soft," she explains as she puts the cup on a shelf to dry. The 75-year-old Mellen will run up and down the stairs from her home to the studio several times a day for the next week to turn the pieces so they don't warp. When the mug is completely dry she gently sands the surface smooth, then sticks it in the kiln for its first eight-hour firing.


Finally, it's time to paint a diminutive Parisian figure onto the surface. A notebook filled with her sketches of "les Francais" -- a baker carrying a pie, a Parisian with a baguette wedged under his arm, a chubby chef carrying a souffle -- sits on a nearby bench.


After the figures dry, the glazing commences. Mellen has to paint the inside of the mug three times, letting it dry between each coat, then repeat the process on the mug's exterior. This takes three days.

For the last firing -- seven hours at 1,900 degrees followed by 12 hours of cooling --  she painstakingly stacks the kiln with pieces set on small ceramic blocks --"so they don't touch one another" -- a process akin to loading a dishwasher, only much more precarious. "I always say a little prayer when I close the lid on the kiln," she says. "You could break the whole lot if you're not careful."

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Photos: Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times