In 1995, Jason Green had just earned his BFA in ceramics from the University of Connecticut, and before venturing off to Alfred University for his MFA degree, he spent some time renovating houses with his father.
There was one house in particular in Lime Rock, Connecticut, that sparked ideas in Green about the way our homes become havens for memories. “Part of the house was built in 1739, so we basically had to strip every surface down to the bare substrate and then rebuild it,” Green says. “I would literally be scraping off layers and layers of wallpaper—five or six layers that had been put up over time—and I loved the beauty of that, all these patterns overlapping.”
Renovating that 250-year-old house set Green down a path he is still exploring to this day: one focused on architecture and design and the ways ceramic sculptures can reference buildings, from domestic spaces to Italian cathedrals.
Green has created everything from fully enclosed porcelain rooms to undulating tile sculptures for the wall, but his work is less about structure for structure’s sake and more about the memories that tend to be held within structures. “When I was working on that house, I was also thinking about how each of those layers of decorative wallpaper defined a certain time and defined a person’s memory who lived in that house while it had that kind of decoration,” he says. “The wallpaper became this marker of time and marker of different types of memory through time.”
Green’s focus on the role architecture plays in memory—and vice versa—may explain why his pieces never feel cold. Even though he’s emulating built spaces, there’s an unmistakable humanity in his work. Even though his process is quite calculated, there’s a beautiful spontaneity in the end result.
Though Green’s work has evolved in the 20 years since he finished graduate school, his ideas about architecture and memory are still at the forefront of all he does.
Slipping Away From Function
Jason Green’s introduction to ceramics came in college at the University of Connecticut. Originally, he was studying liberal arts, but when that didn’t feel quite right, he took a semester off and started working at a factory maintaining race cars and building car parts. Green enjoyed the repetitive work at the factory, and when he returned to school, he signed up for a pottery class and quickly changed his major to ceramics.
Initially, Green thought he might make a living for himself as a potter. He saw a relationship between making pottery and the factory work he enjoyed, and he knew some successful potters when he was growing up, so it seemed like a viable career. But eventually, his focus shifted to sculpture.
“Once I was introduced to slip casting and mold making, I got really into those processes,” he says. “I made a lot of pieces in undergraduate school with slip-cast and reassembled slip-cast parts from found objects, especially found scientific glassware.” Some of his earliest work was mixed media that he describes as “mini-installations.” “The ceramic object would be the centerpiece, and then a context would be created around those pieces using other types of materials,” he says.
The Early Years of Architectural Clay
Green’s first year at Alfred was a time of vast experimentation. Everything from casting techniques to glazes and firings changed for him during that time. After trying out a little bit of everything, Green found a new focus that combined the techniques he had learned with his ideas about memory and built spaces.
“I began, near the end of my first year, to get interested in creating more of a complete environment where the viewer could be completely enveloped in the piece,” Green says. “That led me to making a multi-room room installation that was completely unfired porcelain on the inside.” The frames making up the ceilings, walls, and floors were covered with unfired bone china and slip-cast porcelain tiles. Green came up with a process for the walls where he would cast slip on a large mold of embossed Victorian wallpaper. He’d then put burlap down on the back of the liquid slip and wait until it could be peeled off of the mold in one sheet and attached to the wall.
These rooms became Green’s focus during his second year of graduate school, and his thesis project consisted of two framed rooms and a hallway with the interior surfaces covered with bone china, porcelain tiles, and slip-cast wallpaper. “I thought of that space as a place where people might project their own memories of other spaces,” he says. “It was this white, porcelain, pristine thing where you could imagine color would have at one time been there. There was also a lot of reference to decay through all the shrinking and cracking of the clay, so the material gave a sense of crumbling architecture. It gave this weird feeling of permanence and impermanence at the same time.” The elements of decay in Green’s early work referenced that old house he renovated with his father. The cracks in the clay expressed a sense of age and passing time.
These ideas are still present in Green’s work to this day, but a variety of factors have led him to shift his focus from clean, white, room-like installations to smaller, terra-cotta tile sculptures that pop with color and pattern.
A Shift in Scale
After graduating from Alfred in 1998, Green landed a job teaching ceramics and sculpture at a private high school in Massachusetts. After becoming used to the expansive facilities at Alfred, his new studio space required some adjusting. “I had a studio there, but it was about as big as a closet,” he says with a laugh. “I wanted to continue working with these ideas of layering surfaces and decorative surfaces in relation to architecture, so I started to make tile.”
The small studio was the final push, but in fact Green had grown curious about how he could use tile to build sculptures reminiscent of walls and floors for a while. In graduate school, he was exposed to the world of architectural terra-cotta renovation and turn-of-the-century construction by architects like Louis Sullivan, who would have steel-framed buildings that would be clad in terra cotta. He also visited the Boston Valley Terra Cotta factory in Orchard Park, New York, where workers renovate terra-cotta façades. He explains, “At that time, they had a few acres of all these terra-cotta fragments that had been taken off buildings that they were essentially rebuilding. The staff would have to take these pieces off the building, resculpt them by hand and at a larger scale because of shrinkage, match the glazes, manufacture them and then reinstall them on the building. I really liked the fragments that had been taken off. They were old and cracked and had all this cement and brick still attached from where they were cleaved off the building and all this grime from years of being in whatever city they were in.”
After graduate school, he visited the Watershed Center for the Ceramic Arts, which was once a functioning brick factory. “I found all these old wooden molds for bricks and for architectural moldings, like corner moldings, and I started using those molds,” Green says. “I started making pieces with them. I’d press into the mold and then reassemble the pieces into these new sculptural shapes.”
After that, Green started making his own wood and plaster molds to form tiles that were concave and convex and interlocked to form wall sculptures. Around 2002, he began using computer programs to create and print paper templates to get the shapes to match up as closely as possible. In addition to changing up how he formed his work, Green was also working in terra cotta rather than porcelain, and experimenting with new ways to use surface decoration to express his ideas.
“Around that time, I started firing tiles on their edge as opposed to flat so that I would get more movement out of the glaze,” he says. “I was using glazes that were sometimes almost corrosive—glazes that would melt the slip surfaces underneath, glazes that had very different viscosities or different surface characteristics. Some would really flow over the surface, some might be more like a cracked paint surface. So I was using the glaze as another way to allude to this erosion and decay over time.”
In 2011, Green was teaching at the University of Georgia’s study abroad program in Cortona, Italy, and the architecture he saw there inspired a new direction in his work. “We would go to different significant architectural sites, all the cathedrals and things like that,” he says. “I got really interested in the use of perspective in decorative situations. If you have seen the marble floors from these Renaissance or late Medieval cathedrals, they have patterns that look three-dimensional. When you’re walking over them, you almost have the sense that you’re floating above this weird three-dimensional space. They really create this optical illusion of depth on this flat surface.”
Green began capturing these patterns in photographs and keeping a collection of them. He would bring these photos home and recreate the patterns two-dimensionally using computer programs. He has also become interested in mathematical patterns, “The field of mathematical tilings is where mathematicians figure out all the different ways you can tile a plane or a flat surface,” he explains. “Some of those patterns are grid-based, but others are aperiodic tilings, which are groups of tiles that repeat but not on a grid; so they grow exponentially. I started combining those mathematical patterns along with the other patterns I had found through travel. I’d also look at old books on how to make patterns from nature and other sources, along with documents that were teaching people like draftsmen and pattern makers how to make an abstract pattern. In addition, I was also looking at Arabic patterning.”
The patterns he uses reflect either decorative architecture he’s seen in person or mathematical patterns he’s created on the computer. He then projects these patterns onto the flat tiles he’s been making more recently and traces them with pencil. Then the pattern is painted with underglaze. Eventually he glazes these tiles and hopes the end result shows movement and corrosion, the architectural concepts that best illustrate memory and the passage of time.
“As my patterns and surfaces change during the course of my studio exploration, so do my glazing strategies,” Green explains. “In earlier pieces, I often used glaze to reinforce the existing geometry and organization of the dimensional pattern. I also made color choices that resembled stained glass windows as another way of suggesting dimensionality to the surfaces—a window as a layer or barrier—but always with something behind it. More recently I have been interested in approaching color more subtly, and use glazes with less color intensity—glaze color that is less nameable. My recent approach to color is aimed at calling attention to the dimensionality of groups of shapes that exist within the overall pattern. I now try to use color as another way to amplify the illusion of depth that the patterns and layering of pattern also suggest.” Depending on the piece, Green makes choices about the amount of flow that the glaze will have. He observed that glazing within the lines and firing tiles flat tends to give a much more graphic quality to the pieces while firing the tiles upright, and allowing the glazes to flow and mix, amplifies the inherent phenomena of the materials.
Green says that, when it comes to the color combinations he uses, he “enjoys finding colors that are on the edge or between nameable hues—transparent glazes that are subtle pinks, purples, and beiges—while also being interested in the way we might name a group of similar but different hues with a single color name. While color choice is always somewhat intuitive, I do enjoy finding unexpected combinations and juxtapositions of color.” As everyone who works with clay has experienced, ceramics has a relatively unique relationship with color. Green explains that, in history, color used in ceramics has an absolute connection to place and the availability of materials, which, for him, led to an interest in how glaze can be used as a conceptual reference. “Specific glazes can bring to mind certain time periods and geographic locations,” he says, “while also having strong ties to different cultures and the historical exchange between these cultures.”
Green is an adjunct professor at Alfred University, teaching two classes per semester. For this academic year, he is teaching full time as a visiting assistant professor. He teaches a tile class every year, and he also teaches foundations or a throwing class. He makes and fires his work in the studio at his home in Alfred Station, which he and his wife purchased in 2009. However, he has also been interested in making tools, designing technical tooling, and custom fabrication, and the university provides him access to facilities and technologies to explore these ideas that are beyond the reach of many studio artists who do not have an academic or maker-space affiliation. He also takes classes with a master machinist, and takes online software courses in order to expand his skills.
Making Patterned Relief Tiles
To draw his architecture- and mathematics-inspired patterns, Jason Green uses Grasshopper, a software plugin for the CAD program Rhinoceros (more commonly known as Rhino). Grasshopper is a graphical algorithm editor that allows users to build forms and patterns that can be controlled parametrically. The user interface is graphic, so users do not need knowledge of coding to use Grasshopper (1).
He exports his patterns as vector files that can brought to the laser cutter. He cuts out a piece of ¹⁄8-inch thick Masonite to the size of the entire pattern and then cuts the pattern out of chipboard (2). He sprays the back of the cut chipboard patterns with spray adhesive and attaches them to the Masonite (3–5).
Green seals the surface of the chipboard with several generous coats of Plasti Dip spray synthetic rubber (6). This seals the relief surface without warping the Masonite.
After the sealer is dry, he pours plaster onto the template to create a plaster mold (7). Once the plaster sets up, it can be separated from the template (8).
Next, he secures wooden boards around the plaster mold, creating the walls of the tile, then presses terra cotta into the mold to create the tile (9–11). After pressing the tile, and building interior cross supports, he disassembles the wooden frame around the mold (12) flips the tile and plaster mold over on a board and removes the mold (13).
After pressing, Green lets the tiles dry completely and paints them with white underglaze (14).
Green then creates patterns in Grasshopper that he will project onto the tile for tracing (15).
He arranges all the tiles onto a large easel board in the position he’ll want them in for the final piece (16), and then projects a more mathematical, dimensional pattern onto the surface (17). This is traced onto the tile with a graphite pencil, which acts as a resist for the underglaze. Green darkens the graphite lines, then uses a fine brush to paint lines using black underglaze (18), after which the tiles are bisque fired, glazed, then fired again.
Learn more and find additional images of work Jason Green has made over the last 20 years at http://jasongreenceramics.com.
the author Jessica Cabe studied arts journalism at Syracuse University and has been a clay hobbyist for two years. She lives in Chicago, and works as a freelance journalist. Learn more at www.jessicacabe.com.