My ceramic work acts as a portrait of daily life. The porcelain forms are illustrated with narrative drawings and observations of my local environment. By showing details of the day that can often be overlooked, I want my work to bring attention to the beauty of the urban landscape. A viewer familiar with the specific setting can recognize their city in the houses and landmarks, yet the vagueness of the imagery has a nostalgic quality, allowing a wide range of people to relate to the content. My ceramic work is primarily functional. In use, the viewer comes in contact with the illustrations, giving them a chance to investigate the form, surface, and drawings in order to identify with the scenes and create their own narrative.
I have always been interested in drawing and telling stories. My mother is a landscape painter and both her parents are artists who worked in ceramics and other media. I started carrying around a sketchbook at a young age. I would create characters and illustrations, as well as take note of interesting and humorous things I noticed in my environment. Although I began working seriously in clay in 2003, it wasn’t until 2006 when working as the apprentice for French potter Jean-Nicolas Gérard that my drawing and ceramic practice merged. The traditional slipware technique used in his studio allowed me to use sgraffito to add my illustrations to the functional work I was making. I took these ideas home, and using sgraffito and inlay techniques, applied these ideas to porcelain.
Making a Vase
In my current work, I explore ideas of illustration and narrative through functional pieces such as mugs and bowls. I also make functional work with sculptural elements, including condiment sets, and larger forms like pairs of vases, which incorporate modular and sculptural elements. I start each vase pair on the pottery wheel by throwing straight-sided, bottomless cylinders. As I remove these cylinders from the wheel by hand, I can easily change them into an oval shape. The oval form gives me a flat surface to draw on, and a clear front and back face for each piece.
While I wait for the cylinders to stiffen up, I roll out a ¼-inch-thick slab to make the bottoms and then let everything stiffen up. After the parts dry a little, but before they reach leather hard, I refine the shape of the cylinder by hand. I then use it to trace and cut out the slab for the bottom (1).
I use a serrated metal rib to score both parts. Instead of using pre-made clay slip, I find it easier to brush on a bit of water and scratch a little more with the rib tool to create a thin layer of slip. I press the slab onto the bottom of the cylinder and tap it with a wooden paddle to attach it. I then use the rounded handle of the paddle to smooth out the inside seam.
I cover the piece overnight to allow the moisture to even out, then I use the serrated rib to shave off extra clay around the bottom, smooth everything out with a metal rib (2), then finish with a sponge.
When making a vase pair, I want the image to carry over from one vase to the other, so I first prepare both cylinders and attach the bottoms before adding the imagery. Next, I draw through photocopies of previously completed drawings, to leave an impression of the image (3, 4). Then I use the pencil directly on the surface to add detail, and adjust the lines to ensure the image lines up on both forms (5).
After the drawing is roughed-in, I have a clear plan for the final form. I alter the form by cutting out shapes from the drawing, like the outline of a building or a tree (6). At this point, it is important for the clay to be a little softer than leather hard so I can easily slice the curved side off of the cylinder with an X-Acto blade, flatten that piece out to make a slab (7), and reattach it to the piece. I hold up the slab to the vase, mark the attachment areas with a pencil or rib tool, and then I cut it to size with a beveled edge to fit it back where it was cut from.
Again, I brush a thin layer of water onto the attachment points, then score with a serrated rib tool (8) to help bond the pieces together. I tap on the outside with a wooden paddle and use the rounded end of a paintbrush on the inside to smooth the seam (9). Then, I clean up the outside edges with a sponge. I wrap them tightly overnight to even out the moisture and prevent further drying.
Next, I use the X-Acto blade to incise the line drawings into the leather-hard piece (10). I make sure to pull the blade forward through the clay, rotating it around curves so I don’t make burrs. In the leather-hard clay, the sharp X-Acto blade makes a nice crisp line and allows for detail in fine line work (11).
I dry each piece slowly. If I see a crack developing, I burnish it back down without adding any water. Even if the clay is nearly bone dry, this technique can often (but not always) fix hairline cracks and keep them from spreading.
When the piece is completely bone dry, I brush on a mixture of water and black Mason stain (MS 6600) (12). I then use a damp sponge to wipe the black stain off the surface (13). This is also a good time to clean up any rough parts and wipe away the indentations left from any extra pencil marks. I rinse the sponge often, and go over the piece about two times to ensure all the smudges are wiped off and bumps are smoothed out.
The combination of bare porcelain and a glazed surface helps highlight the imagery and gives it a tactile and graphic quality. After bisque firing, I carefully brush a colored wax resist around all of the drawn objects (14). The color helps me see the areas I have waxed in contrast to the clay (food coloring works great to tint the wax).
After waxing, I add color to the images. I use a ceramic watercolor recipe from the Ceramic Arts Network article, “Drawn to Surface: How to Make and Use Underglaze Pencils, Crayons, Pens, and Trailers,” by Robin Hopper, and color it with various Mason stains. I have the colors dried out in an ice-cube tray, which keeps the colors contained while using enough water to achieve the watercolor consistency (see page 10).
I try to apply the color in one or two coats (15, 16) and pay attention to the direction of the brush strokes because they are often visible in the finished product. Colors can be layered on to add depth, but the piece needs time to dry
For the final step, I simply dunk the entire piece in clear glaze (17) then wipe off the extra beads of glaze that stick to the wax resist using a damp sponge (18). The piece is glaze fired to cone 10 in reduction.
The muted color palette achieved from Mason stain watercolors and glaze firing in a reduction atmosphere gives the work a soft, unimposing quality. I pair this with clean lines of inlaid black stain, and the contrast of the glazed surface next to the bare clay, giving the work a graphic and tactile quality. The white porcelain clay body acts as a blank canvas, allowing the imagery to stand out and be the main focus of the piece. The illustration is drawn on the surface and in these vase pairs, it crosses from one object to another, giving the work both physical and conceptual depth. With this work, I aim to hover on the line between function and sculpture, allowing the viewer to have options for how to display the work and interact with the illustration. Each piece gives the viewer a chance to identify with the scenes depicted and form their own narratives to create a relationship with the work.
the author Autumn Higgins is based in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where she teaches art at a K–8 school and works from her home studio in ceramics and painting. She received her masters degree from Louisiana State University in 2014. Higgins’ work was recently featured in a solo exhibition at Schaller Gallery (www.schallergallery.com), which opened mid-January, and in the Four Jerome Artists exhibition that is currently on view at Northern Clay Center’s main gallery (www.northernclaycenter.org) through February 25. Learn more at https://autumn-higgins.com.