Spotlight: Red Clay

Ceramics Monthly: What made you start working with red clay, and what draws you to continue to work with it?

Lynn Duryea: Initially, working with red clay was a necessity. My first solo studio was on the waterfront in Stonington, Maine, where all of my equipment was borrowed or salvaged. Literally. A mentor loaned me his electric kiln, which meant shifting from the high-fire reduction process that had been all of my previous clay experience, to low-fire oxidation. Fortunately, I quickly came to love terra cotta for its richness and depth, and the wide-ranging colorful palette possible in low-temperature ranges. This shift required experimentation and exploration, which ultimately helped me move in a direction more suited to my evolving aesthetics.

My work in those early years could be described as decorative functional. Primarily, I worked with slips and underglazes layered over the red clay. I experimented with some low-fire white clays as well, but found them less satisfying in terms of surface, and not as strong as terra cotta. In 2001, Pete Pinnell’s graduate students at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln did a series of tests on the MOR (modulus of rupture) of 50 clay bodies and found that glazed red-earthenware clays fired to cone 04 were the strongest. Those with 50–70% red clay worked best. Now there’s a ceramic surprise!

CM: How does the clay you use help to convey the ideas behind your abstract forms?

LD: Most of the pieces produced over my many years as a studio artist in Maine were thrown. This work was interspersed with several series of slab-constructed vessels that led to later work. Once in graduate school at the University of Florida, I shifted entirely to slab work and began working on a much larger scale. I formulated a custom red-earthenware body that worked well for these constructions, balancing workability with strength, and invented The SlabSling™ to support the pieces in drying. The forms I’ve been making since then can be described as abstractions of structures, ranging from letters of the alphabet to mechanical, industrial, and architectural elements. Carefully and painstakingly pieced together, they have many seams. It therefore makes sense to work at low-fire temperatures so there is less movement of the clay, and thus less warping.

My slip and glaze surfaces are formed by means of layering, building up, and wearing away. Low-fire glazes are more inert than high fire; layering and working the surfaces is a way to achieve a feeling of depth and nuance. These processes help to suggest weathering and the passage of time. The terra-cotta clay color makes sense to me as the base layer, since it has a more industrial feel than other clays, suggesting rust. Many of the glazes I use are dry and crusty or beaded after firing, effects that are easiest to achieve in the low-temperature range.

Photo: Michael D. Wilson.

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