My studio practice of slip casting tiles and creating wall installations began in the summer of 2014, during my final year at Indiana University, when I had the opportunity to study abroad in Jingdezhen, China, through West Virginia University’s Ceramics in China program. I was excited to learn about traditional ceramic techniques in the porcelain capital of the world, and had no idea what a pivotal role it would play in my studio practice and my life.
I traveled to China the semester before graduating, and up until that point had focused on coil-built and slab-built abstracted forms inspired by nature. While in Jingdezhen, the porcelain was challenging to handbuild with, and therefore made it difficult to construct large sculptures. My solution was to build solid objects. Slip casting is a huge industry in Jingdezhen. By sculpting solid, I would be able to hire a master mold maker to create molds for me. I began sketching forms and trying to figure out how they could create a continual pattern. I developed two simple forms that could interlock and repeat, similar to a wallpaper pattern.
Inspiration and Research
Upon returning to Indiana University after my time in China, I had a new focus and process, and began to create a new body of work for my BFA thesis show. I fell in love with researching pattern making and the challenge of creating configurations that could repeat endlessly.
Islamic mosaics, vintage fabrics and wallpapers, and quilted patterns inspire me. To begin a piece, I research these sources of inspiration and use Adobe Illustrator to develop tessellated patterns. To create a piece with interlocking tiles, I focus on one or two shapes and configure various orientations until I am satisfied with both the positive and negative spaces. In the finished piece, the negative space between two shapes will become a positive tile form as well. For this installation, I was interested in using a three-pronged tile and a star shape on a hexagonal grid. The gray tile form that completes the interlocking pattern was originally the background or negative space in this pattern (1).
The tile outlines are enlarged by 10% to accommodate the shrinkage that occurs when the porcelain clay body is fired to cone 6. I print out the outline of the prototype shapes, cut them out, and trace them onto laminate boards (2). Separate prototypes of the front and back halves of each of the shapes are sculpted out of solid clay using a clay body with no grog to achieve a smooth surface. Wet clay is roughly packed onto the boards in the approximate shape and desired depth of the tile prototypes (3). After drying for several hours, the clay begins to stiffen, then I carve the prototypes into a more defined shape (4). Once the prototypes reach the beginning stages of leather hard, I refine the shapes using serrated loop tools and various ribs to achieve their final forms while ensuring there are no undercuts on the prototype (5).
In preparation for creating the molds of the front half of each shape, the prototypes are refined a final time. To accomplish this, a soft paintbrush dipped in water is used to remove any imperfections, and a flexible rib is used to create a smooth surface and reinforce any sharp angles.
Creating the Molds
Wrap aluminum flashing around the prototype, leaving a 1½–2-inch gap between the flashing and the edge of the clay form. The flashing creates a barrier to contain the plaster once it is poured onto the prototype (6). Once the base of the flashing is sealed with a coil of wet clay, plaster is poured in until the depth of plaster surrounding the prototype is 1½–2 inches.
Once the plaster sets up, the next step is to create the back half. Creating a back to the tile lifts the form from the wall visually, and makes it more dimensional and interactive for the viewer. To begin this process, create registration keys in the first half of the mold. Use a wire tool to carefully release the back of the prototype shape from the laminate board. Place it on top of the plaster mold so that it lines up with the solid clay form that is still in the mold. This step requires patience and attention to detail. It is important to make sure that the front of the tile and the back of the tile line up perfectly. To do this, use a metal rib and shave the sides of the back half of the tile down little by little, just until the edge of the clay from the front tile section becomes visible. Add clay as needed to create a seamless connection, and then refine the back half of the tile (7).
Before wrapping the aluminum flashing around the first plaster mold section to pour the second part of the mold, apply several coats of Murphy Oil Soap to the surface of the plaster. Ensure that all excess soap is removed before pouring the plaster, so that no unwanted marks are captured in the mold. Next, secure a piece of PVC piping to the center of the shape to create a pour hole. Using PVC piping allows me to have consistency with the size and placement of the pour hole when producing multiple molds of the same shape (8).
After both parts for the original mold are created (9), plaster is poured into the molds to create mother molds of the front and back of the tile. In this step it is extremely important to be very liberal with the application of Murphy Oil Soap (10, 11) when coating the two halves of the mold prior to pouring the plaster. If the surface is not sealed well with mold soap, the newly poured plaster can stick to the mold. Once I have created mother molds for both parts of the mold, I have plaster positives of the front and back of the tile (12), and am able to create multiple molds of the same tile form. This allows tiles to be produced quickly. I typically make 3–5 molds of each tile form, depending on how many tiles I need and how quickly a deadline is approaching.
Arranging and Finalizing
While casting, I leave the slip in my molds for 6 minutes to create an 1/8-inch wall thickness for my tiles. When firing to cone 6, I don’t have any warping issues because of the structural integrity and compact nature of the tile forms.
Once the tiles are bisque fired, I arrange them in various configurations in order to find the perfect design (13). I can also do this in Adobe Illustrator, but I enjoy arranging the physical tiles because it allows me to have a better understanding of the different planes and how shadows may be cast over them.
When I have finalized a layout, I use a combination of glazes and underglazes to finish the tiles. For this specific piece, I used Frog Tape to create a crisp resist line, and Amaco’s Velour Black underglaze (14). I applied wax resist over the underglazed half, allowed it to dry, and then removed the tape. I dipped the remaining bare part of the tile in a clear, glossy glaze.
To install, I print out the Adobe Illustrator layout I created to design the prototype shapes, in the desired final layout (using the original size, not the scaled-up outline that accounted for clay shrinkage and was used to create the prototype). Once printed, I use a tile to mark the template with the location of the opening on the back of each tile left by the pour hole. This shows where the screw or nail used to hang each tile should be affixed to the wall. Once the screw holes are marked, I hang the template on the wall, use a drill to place the screws, then hang the tiles one by one.
It has been four years since my BFA thesis exhibition, and I don’t see myself shying away from creating wall installations anytime soon. I always seem to develop problems to solve and challenges to overcome, which keeps me coming back into the studio.
the author Jackie Head received a BFA in ceramics and BS in arts management from Indiana University in 2014. She was a summer resident at the Archie Bray Foundation in 2018. Jackie lives in Indianapolis, Indiana, where she maintains a private studio. Learn more about her work at www.jackiehead.com.