Treasure From France: URANIUM!
A True Tale of Ceramic Adventure and Intrigue
The following story took place while I was in Southern France for two weeks attending Crystallines 2005, an international crystalline glaze symposium. It culminates in my acquisition of Uranium oxide. Uranium oxide, for those not afraid of its associated dangers, is one of the "holy grails" of glaze colorants for crystalline glazers like myself.
The Quest for Ochre
Before I left on my trip to Crystallines 2005, a painter friend suggested that I should buy ochre while in France. Ochre, or yellow ochre (there are other types), is a naturally occurring mineral comprised mostly of clay, typically about 75%, and of red iron oxide, about 20%. In addition, it has trace amounts of some other interesting "wild card" elements, which are one of its main attractions to me as a crystalline glaze colorant. Yellow ochre is usable almost exactly as it comes out of the ground, with no processing other than pulverizing. Some of the world's most famous and historically significant ochre mines are in France.
I had pretty much forgotten all about obtaining ochre while I was in France until I visited Cézanne's atelier (studio) in the town of Aix-en-Provence, where a guide mentioned it. Suddenly, I had a welcome new purpose, a sub-mission to occupy my vacation time: to find and acquire ochre.
Even if ochre turned out to be a failure as a crystalline glaze colorant, it is still an interesting material to have around. For thousands of years it has been mixed with linseed oil and used as an oil paint. It is also used in acrylic paint, in frescoes, in lime washes and to color mortars. The pleasantly earth-toned houses and buildings that are synonymous with southern France are stuccoed with ochre-colored mortars. For an artist, ochre is a great souvenir to have of a French vacation.
My search for ochre began at the atelier/gallery of Christopher and Catherine Torres in Vallauris, France.
Catherine "Cat" Torres is a crystalline glaze artist and a member of AVGECAA, the foundation which sponsored and organized Crystallines 2005. Her husband Chris is a painter. Both were very gracious and spoke excellent English, and I knew that they could help me on my quest.
The Plot Thickens
At Gallery Torres, Chris gave me some leads on purchasing ochre. Now that he was aware of my interest in unusual glaze colorants, he reached into a closet and pulled out a clear glass jelly-jar filled with a bright yellow powder. "Here's something really unique," he said. "Uranium oxide."
My heart immediately began pounding a little faster. Uranium oxide produces vibrant colors in crystalline glazes that are unobtainable by other means. I have always wanted to experiment with it. However, uranium oxide is extremely hard to purchase in the U.S., and is very expensive. "Where did you get it?" I asked.
Chris told me that Monsieur Roger Collet, a potter whom I had previously met, had given the uranium to him. Monsieur Collet is one of Vallauris's "elder statesmen," a well-established and respected artist who works in a style similar to David Leach. The earlier day, when we broke for lunch from the Crystallines 2005 seminar, the audience was invited to tour Monsieur Collet's studio. The attractive gallery was housed in a rustic, arched space, with a very interesting throwing and workroom up a flight of stairs.
Monsieur Collet's father had also been a potter. (Since I haven't yet mentioned it, I should say that Vallauris is famous as a pottery community. It is bursting with potters and artists, and with studios, galleries and shops selling a multitude of ceramic objects in a variety of styles. Vallauris is where Picasso produced his ceramic artworks.) Monsieur Collet inherited his uranium from his potter father, but neither had ever used it. Now, Monsieur Collet wanted to pass some of it on to interested ceramic artists who could make use of it. Well, I was interested, and I could use it, and an appointment with Monsieur Collet was set up for the next day.
The next day, after greetings and salutations, Monsieur Collet reached under a worktable and pulled out a big old barrel that has been in his family for about fifty years. With no protection at all, no gloves or respirator, he pried the lid off and revealed what must have been about twenty-five kilos of bright yellow, powdered "gold." I was flabbergasted. Monsieur Collet gave me a spoon for a scoop and some plastic 35-millimeter film canisters to fill. Again, with no protection, I filled two of the canisters, trying not to breathe while I did so.
At this point, I had absolutely no idea what I was really dealing with or how dangerous it might be. Monsieur Collet claimed that the material was "depleted" uranium oxide and was completely safe and non-radioactive. I wasn't even sure that it really was uranium. It could have just as easily been something entirely different, such as vanadium pentoxide or a mason stain. Or, it could have been something really toxic and radioactive, in which case getting it back to the United States could be problematic and perhaps even illegal. So, although I probably could have taken as much as I wanted to for free, I only took the two film canister's amount.
Back on the Ochre Trail
From Monsieur Collet's studio I proceeded towards Antibes where I procured two kilos of ochre without too much problem from the Ceradel Socor company. Ceradel is a major supplier of ceramic materials and equipment in France, and was a sponsor of Crystallines 2005.
At this point, I will digress a bit for a moment, and mention that this journey was being carried out on a bicycle that I had rented in Cannes, where I was staying. After the "business" of getting my uranium and ochre, my ultimate goal that day was to bicycle to the town of Saint Paul. Diane Creber, the author of the first book ever written about crystalline glazes, and a Crystallines 2005 participant, and her partner Tim De Rose, had earlier rented a car and visited Saint Paul and had raved about it. Indeed, Saint Paul was my favorite place in France.
Saint Paul is a picturesque, ancient, fortified, "perched" town, meaning that it sits atop a mountain. Which means that from the coast of France, I had to gain 600 feet of elevation on my bicycle to reach it. Which wasn't really all that difficult, except that I was now carrying the added weight of two kilos of ochre, along with two film canisters filled with who knew what, all of which I wore in a fanny pack during my ride to Saint Paul, and then back to Cannes. Poor planning.
Getting Uranium into the United States
Safely back at my hotel room in Cannes, I now had to decide what to do with my "uranium." If it really was uranium, and it was detected in my checked baggage, I would probably be in big trouble. If I put it in my carry-on bag, and it was radioactive, it would be detected for sure. Airport x-ray machines work by bouncing radiation to a detector - if something being scanned was already emitting its own radiation, it would look very "hot," and would probably be pretty alarming to a screener. Carrying the two film canisters through airport security in my pockets was a possibly - but who wants to carry radioactive material, if that's what it was, on their body?
Ultimately, I decided to mail the film canisters from France to myself. Although not without its own set of risks, mailing proved to be simple and fast, and it worked.
Determining Just What I Had
I was pretty excited when my package from France, unaccompanied by any members of Homeland Security, arrived in my mailbox. I immediately got on the phone and tried to find someone who could analyze what I had. After about forty-five minutes on the phone, talking to various departments at the local big-box university and to state and local agencies, I finally got hold of exactly the right person for the task: Ruben Cortez, Radiation Safety Officer, Environmental and Consumer Safety Section, Texas Department of State Health Services.
Ruben was extremely gracious and helpful. He placed a very sensitive Geiger counter next to my package and - lo and behold! - it started clicking like crazy. "You've sure got something there." He then scanned my still unopened package from France with a very sophisticated machine that is able to read specific isotope signatures. My package contained uranium 235 and uranium 238. Monsieur Collet had given me the real thing - yellowcake uranium!
It turns out that uranium is fairly ubiquitous in our world, and that we are surrounded by sources of low-level radiation. I'm still not exactly sure just what it is that I have, but it seems to be legal for me to posses it. It isn't exactly "depleted" uranium, but it certainly isn't enriched uranium either. Mr. Cortez informed me that my uranium isn't a great radiation hazard - in fact he showed me a sample of the same stuff in a glass amphora that he keeps in his office. The much greater danger from yellowcake uranium comes from breathing or ingesting it. Yellowcake is a heavy metal, and eating 20 milligrams of it, the equivalent of several sprinkles of salt on one's meal, will cause death. Of course, the same can be said for a lot of other heavy metals that ceramic artists routinely use such as barium, cobalt and manganese.
I'll also mention that yellowcake can be legally purchased in the U.S., and that it is fairly inexpensive, about $10 a pound. The trick is getting licensed to handle it. To see the hoops that one has to jump through to obtain a license for purchase, take a look at http://www.nrc.gov/ reading-rm/doc-collections/cfr/part034/part034- 0013.html . Your average potter is NOT going to get a license.
Was It Worth It?
Coincidentally, there just happened to be a uranium oxide colored, crystalline-glazed bottle at Crystallines 2005. It was included in a display of historic crystalline-glazed porcelain by Gilbert Metenier. Monsieur Metenier was a member of the French arts and crafts studio movement.
In Peter Ilsley's book, Macro-Crystalline Glazes, the Challenge of Crystals, there are photos of some unbelievable Royal Copenhagen vases dating from 1900, that I have always believed must be colored with uranium.
Crystalline Glazer Donald R. Holloway, of Monroe, Louisiana, has done a great deal of work with uranium oxide. These are the best pictures that I have of his work.
So What's Next?
Stay tuned. I believe that I have enough uranium oxide to produce between twentyfive and fifty pieces, depending on their size.
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