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Clay Culture: Freedom of the Press

Slab Event-43sm

Experiments printing raw clay on rice paper and nonwoven materials led to the birthday celebration for a clay slab that’s been in use as a printing surface for 35 years.

While a student potter in the 1960s, I felt that the time between forming a pot, waiting for it to dry, bisque firing, glazing, and finally retrieving the finished work out of a hot kiln, often took weeks or even months. By the time I received my work back, I had lost the continuity, spontaneity, and inspiration that had first drawn me to clay. That nagging feeling led me to try to circumvent the traditional glazing process by directly adding the color and texture to the wet clay before forming the vessel. This would allow me to keep the continuity intact because the color and texture would become more of a synchronized unity.

To achieve this effect, I added pigmented coils of colored clay into a slab of white clay. I then placed newsprint over the slab, and rolled it with a wooden rolling pin to inlay the colored clay; I continued to add one colored clay coil over another until the design was finished. I noticed that when I rolled newsprint over the clay slab inlaid with colored clay, the ghost images from the colors were transferred to the newsprint. This is when the idea of printing with clay first interested me. I also observed that rolling clay onto canvas and cutting it with a knife left a thin line of colored clay on the surface of the canvas. So I began to wedge more intense ceramic pigments—i.e. iron oxide, cobalt oxide, black iron oxide, and yellow ochre—into white clay to experiment with the idea that colored clay could be used for printing. If it worked on newsprint, then perhaps it could work on better paper.

After weeks of trying a variety of printmaking papers, I found that Tableau rice paper worked the best. It has long fibers, high wet strength, and extreme flexibility when dampened. The dampened rice paper, when placed over the design and rolled with a wooden rolling pin, pulled some colored clay from the slab onto the substrate. For twelve years (1968–80) I tried many different printing and watercolor papers. In March 1976 I took a paper-making workshop, believing that an absorbent surface was the only surface with which to experiment.

Finding the Right Substrate

My journey took me to unusual places to look for a substrate that pulled more clay, not just color from the slab. In late 1979 I found myself in a fabric store and noticed a roll of white fabric hanging from the ceiling that looked very much like canvas, so I inquired about it. I was told that the roll was called Pellon, a nonwoven, nylon-based material that is manufactured and used mostly for the clothing industry (as interfacing material) and is not very absorbent. I purchased a yard, and when I tried it out, it worked much better than paper.

For the very first time I was printing more colored clay from the slab, not just color. What was going on here? Why was it printing better? My thinking shifted with two very important revelations: first, I really did not need a very absorbent surface; and second, since printing with clay was so unique, I needed to rethink my direction to continue investigating this process. That decision was very liberating for me, and so I started to look for other nonwoven substrates that pulled clay from the slab. After all, a new printmaking technique needed a new substrate.

At the same time that I was experimenting further with Pellon, I learned that the DuPont Company in Wilmington, Delaware, had also developed a similar nonwoven material called Reemay, and begun to distribute some to local artists, thinking it might replace traditional painter’s canvas. I was fortunate to receive a sample early in 1980.

Slab Event-9
A detail of a finished print taken from the slab using one of the prepared cardboard window templates.

Reemay is stiffer than Pellon, a little easier to handle, and stronger because it has longer fibers and great wet strength. It also comes in larger rolls, which allows for a variety of sizes. Because it is non-absorbent, it does not stretch when wet; it goes back into perfect registration when printing. Most importantly, it is manufactured with an electromagnetic surface, which eventually made it useful for household products such as Swiffer, the filtering industry (air and water conditioning), vacuum bags, surgical gowns, etc., because it allows water or air to pass through the fibers while the built-in static charge traps impurities on the surface.

Clay bonds to the Reemay because of a physical reaction. The negative static charge of the Reemay attaches to the positive-charged clay, and adheres magnetically. Because no drying agents are used, it is less acidic and non-toxic, making it more archival. The colored pigments become much more light-fast by combining them with clay. Most of the other painting and printmaking mediums have drying agents that bond to substrates chemically and are therefore less archival.

Over the four decades I have been printing with colored clays and colored slips on Reemay, I have never seen any changes to any of the finished clay monoprints. They always retain the charge and keep the clay bonded magnetically.

Over the past 42 years, the process has slowly changed. I only print on Reemay, and I use both ceramic pigments (iron oxide and yellow ochre), and painter’s pigments (Rose Madder, Ivory Black, and Phthalo Blue) to mix with china clay. I use both because painter’s pigments are more brilliant than most raw ceramic pigments.

Birthday Celebration

In September 1980 I rolled out a clay slab that was 6 ft.× 6 ft.× ½ inch thick and started printing larger clay monoprints. To this day, I still use that same wet stoneware slab. It is now over three inches thick with thousands of colored slips layered on top of the original half-inch of clay. I do not scrape or remove any clay or slip from the slab.

September 19th, 2015, marked the 35th birthday of my clay slab. To celebrate this milestone, we invited the community to visit my studio in New London, Pennsylvania, to make their own clay monoprints from the slab. During the weeks before the Saturday event, I added lots of colored slips, textures, and marks onto and into the slab. I also cut out cardboard window templates so my visitors could choose any spot on the slab from which to pull their prints.

Over 100 people turned out for the event, from as far north as New York and as far south as Virginia, to pull a print from the slab and enjoy some birthday cake. It was such a huge success that I may do it again for its 50th birthday.

the author Mitch Lyons is a studio artist living and working in New London, Pennsylvania.

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