Four Lives of a Fish


     If a cat can have nine lives, then surely a fish can.  At least, the sculptured and modeled “Fountain” fish, made by Becky Brown has endured through at least four of its early “lives.”

[Note: Here are photos of the fish fountain which is the subject of this Tale.]


       I imagine seeing Becky coaxing two slabs into matching curved shapes, joining them with slip, and then making inside supports of crumpled newspapers to allow a hollow space for the fish belly.  As the model became firm and dried to the leather-hard stage, these newspaper supports could be withdrawn by way of the fish mouth.  However, the heavy weight of the sculpture would still have to be supported from below and at the lower sides.  Great care would be required, because, at any time a “fish life” could be lost. 


     Day by day, and for the following weeks the creation required frequent attention.  No part of the work would be allowed to dry much faster than another, or a crevasse would appear and take away a “fish life”.  Thin edges like those found at the dorsal fin and at the tail had to be kept damp to slow down their drying time.  We must remember that by this time, both Becky and Karl were skilled clay sculptors.  Both knew the techniques for protecting their creations from a too fast drying, and they applied those techniques diligently. 


     Even after the form had dried, danger remained.   A heavy sculpture had to be supported as it was transferred from the work-table to the kiln.  In the kiln some fire-brick supports were strategically placed so that the work could shrink during the bisque firing.  As I look at the picture of Becky holding her “Fountain “sculpture, I estimate that the fish was about fifty inches long before it was placed in the kiln.  Two firings later, it would have shrunk to forty-five inches.  That would still be a big fish!


     We can imagine Becky and Karl carefully supporting and placing the huge unfired fish in the old oil-burner kiln.  I seem to remember this kiln was in part of a Quonset “hut”, a semi-cylindrical building left over from the world war two days.  The firing would have been to no higher than to Orton cones 05 to 04 but enough to allow the bisque fired sculpture to be picked up and moved from place to place without much risk from damage by cautious handling.


     When the Fountain fish and I first met, I’m not sure, but it would have been about fifty years ago.  Indiana University was getting back to peacetime activities, and although several of the wartime barracks and similar buildings remained for a dozen years, some new buildings had been constructed.  The Fine Arts Building was one of the new ones.  Karl’s classes, work places, studios, and the like, were moved there, and a new gas fired kiln, selected by Karl, was installed.  The old oil-burner kiln fell into disuse, but remained where it was, for it occupied little space.  The classrooms and offices in the rest of the Quonset building were used by a group that I called “the engineers”.  I made friends with their faculty, and they invited me to use their clay extrusion equipment, which I did.


     Quarters in the Fine Arts Building were a great improvement, but even so, space was not unlimited.  Near the kiln room was a storage room where clays, firebricks, bulk glaze and slip materials and most of the ingredients and large tools that potters use were kept.  My duties included the task to see that adequate amounts of the supplies were kept near the student worktables.  Hence, I was frequently in and out of the supply room.  Karl would often check the supplies so that he could re-order before they were depleted.  He also kept some of his own ceramics work there while they were in progress, for to him, his teaching and his student’s needs came first.  I once saw there two of his large ceramic bowls that had been thrown and dried, but not bisque fired.  I assumed they were awaiting more decoration.  It seems logical that Becky’s bisque-fired

“Fountain” fish would also be waiting there, perhaps for an engobe slip, or glaze decoration.


      Seeing this huge work, I would have expresses my appreciation to Becky for the skills and techniques excellently expressed in the form.  It was then that she voiced her concern.  She knew that the longer the piece stayed around in unfinished condition, the more likely it could be damaged or mutilated by accident.  She said to me, “I just wish I could get it fired to maturity, but it won’t fit into the kiln.”  I could see she was right, it was too long to fit into the kiln with the door closed.  But I was also puzzled, so I asked, “Just how did you get it bisque –fired in the first place?”

     “In the old oil-burner kiln”, she answered.

     “Then there’s no great problem.  That kiln is still there.  We’ll just take it over to the Quonset hut, prop the fish up on firebricks, check the oil content, set the high-fire cones so that they can be seen through the peep-hole, and we’ll be ready to fire.  We’ll have to use a week-end.  It will have to be when the faculty and students are gone until a Monday, but otherwise, I see no problem. “

     “I see I’ve been talking to the wrong man” she said.  I felt flattered. 


     Soon the bisque-fired fish was in place, and securely propped up with firebricks.  There was a good supply of oil, and I arranged the high fire cones so that they could be seen through the peep-hole.  All was ready for the firing.  No more “lives” had been lost. 


     But now the prophetic words of the poet, Robert Burns, came into play.  He had said, “The best laid plans of mice and men, oft gang aglee.” The time we needed was not easily to be found.   Our plans were “ganging”, but not very gleefully. 


     For me, it had been an expensive undertaking to take two years off from teaching to complete my Master’s degree work, but I knew I would be recompensed later.  My wife remained in Fort Wayne, but I was able to get home for weekends.  While there, I did my homework and used whatever time I could by working.  I earned a dollar an hour mounting pictures in a back room at the Fort Wayne Public Library.  Those dollars were most useful at the time.   


     However, Becky’s fish sat in the oil-kiln, and the weeks flew by.  Final Exam time loomed up, and I saw that the kiln was not going to get fired.  I needed help, so I turned to Karl, and explained the situation to him.  I told him the kiln was set, and all ready to be fired, and I asked him if he could do the firing.  He was very co-operative, and agreed to take over.  The firing was a complete success, and that is how Becky came to have her stoneware “Fountain” fish, ready to fount.