1 Peter Smith pictured with pieces in his Tiller Blade installation. The pieces are press-molded clay and cement, fired to cone 6 in reduction.
Being from the Midwest, agriculture and farming are a part of my culture and visual landscape. I have always been interested in mechanical farming implements, left out to pasture after a life of labor. My current body of work is a reference to the machines used to cultivate the soil. These forms stand as a symbol of mankind, and our relationship to the environment. A shift to a larger scale was essential to capture the beauty of these objects, the magnitude of the changes impacting the family farm, and our connection to food as a society.
The evolution of our species has resulted in a drastic shift in the way we utilize the earth’s resources. Primitive cultures that were nomadic hunter-gatherers respected the world around them without taking in excess. There was a shift in perspective with the evolution of religious ideologies and technological advancement that resulted in man’s transformation to agriculturalists and consumers. We became the deserving species exercising complete control and dominion over the earth’s resources. Today we are faced with tough decisions, as a result of the generations of tillers that have come before us.
As a student of Wisconsin potter Randy Johnston, I was exposed to a variety of complex mold techniques that gave me a foundation for creating large-scale ceramic sculpture. I’ve experimented with a variety of hybrid clay bodies and alternative surface treatments that lend themselves to both the stability and the decayed aesthetic I create in the forms. I have documented the many steps in my process from the maquette and initial problem solving phases, to technical preparation, and the final making and firing of the work.
2 Small-scale models of the whole and segmented tiller form set up to plan the installation. 3 Creating a full-scale model of one of the tiller forms in dense insulating foam and clay. Each half of the tiller is modeled separately.
4 The foam model after finishing the form with rasps and drywall sandpaper. The holes in the three tiller arms allow for bolting the two sides together. This made it easier to separate them after making the mold. 5 Foam cottles are set up around each tiller form in preparation for casting it in plaster. Clay coils seal the join between the foam and the floor to prevent plaster from escaping. Bricks are used to weight down the foam so it stays in place during the process. Plaster is poured over the model, and additional plaster is mounded on top as it sets up.
Beginning a project of this scale can be a daunting task. Starting small is key to understanding the process and form. I was introduced to the wooden drape mold through Johnston’s methods of handbuilding his architectural pottery. By adapting this technique, I created my sculptural Tiller Blade forms. After making a small-scale template, I transcribed the outline of the form onto multiple boards, then cut out the shape using a jig saw (see the background of image 2). The removed sections serve as the area of control, allowing an even volume and form when the slabs are slumped over the space. After establishing the volume and forms, and allowing sections to dry to leather hard, I connected the edges to make a hollow form, then added thrown components with the molded sides to finish the form and reference the axle of the blade. Once constructed, the pieces were dissected in various combinations to create a field of movement throughout the multiples (2). The original series was then wood fired in train kiln for 24 hours with a 4-hour reduction cool using a high-iron clay body to achieve the dark crusted surfaces.
The use of a wooden drape mold is limiting when the scale is increased. Moving large slabs of clay without tearing becomes nearly impossible when working alone. In order to increase the scale by 600%, I implemented the use of a two-part plaster press mold (see 7). To create the positive model, I adapted my working methods, switching from clay to the use of high-density insulation foam that can be refined through rasping and carving (3). Considering the form and the difficulty of scale in making the mold, the design included a bolting method to separate the forms once it was completed (4). A thin coat of resin was applied to the surface of the rough-sanded foam to protect the integrity of the model when releasing it from the plaster cast. The scrap pieces from the initial cuts served as the cottles in the pouring of each side of the mold (5). Each side of this mold used roughly 150 pounds of mixed plaster to cover the object, and after casting they were carved and refined (6) to fit the custom constructed apparatus that raises the molds and allow them to connect evenly, as well as removing the physical limitations of weight and mass (7).
6 After the forms are cast, the plaster mold is refined to remove excess weight and round the edges so they don’t chip while the mold is in use. 7 The two halves of the plaster mold were set up on foam and allowed to dry over several days.
8 Since the molds are so large, aligning them when they are packed with clay required a special wooden frame with two A-frame supports that work as levers to lift the sides and lock together once upright to secure the halves together. 9 One of the mold halves shown on the wooden support mechanism.
My studio practice has always been one of privacy and solitude, to allow for risk taking and uninterrupted problem solving. For me the process of construction has become as satisfying as the finished objects themselves. The first designs of the mold rig were drawn out on napkins and scratch paper. Each edition became more refined as the technical difficulties presented themselves (8). It was clear to me that mechanical advantage would be my biggest ally. The implementation of locks and hinges would provide the leverage necessary to lift each side into position and hold the forms in place (9).
Casting the Form
Filling the mold with the appropriate material combination was another challenge. When releasing a clay piece from a mold of this scale (10), supporting the object required a level of structural stability leather-hard clay could not provide. After multiple failed attempts, I arrived at the formula that would give me the right surface and form as well as structural stability in the green stage. The addition of Portland cement to a high-iron clay body solidified the form after ten hours of curing in the mold. Each piece pressed from the mold used 125 pounds of dry mix material containing wood chips, fireclay, red iron oxide, Portland cement, chicken grit, and Custer feldspar. This combination of materials became structurally stable after a period of curing (11). For my work I was interested in a finished, fired form that created a color palette referencing the patina of aged iron. The pieces were transported one by one and carefully positioned into Syracuse University’s 100-cubic-foot gas kiln (12), then once fired slowly over the course of four days. A careful sequence of burner and air manipulation in the early stages of the firing helped to dry the pieces slowly without excessive heat. Once the door was closed, the pieces were fired to cone 6 in a reduced atmosphere. The scale and positioning of the objects created the contrast in surface in response to the material combination in the clay body. This created a dynamic field of color values dependent on the amount of reduction used in the firing process.
10 The two parts of the mold are filled with a clay and cement mixture, then lifted on the wooden supports and locked together to join the two halves. After the press-molded clay and concrete mix sets up to the point that the piece can support its own weight, one half of the mold is removed. 11 Once the clay sets up a bit more so that it won’t distort, the clay tiller is removed from the mold and supported on foam while it dries. 12 The bone dry tiller segments are loaded into a large gas kiln for firing to cone 6.
Once the kiln was opened, the pieces were removed and flipped over onto foam supports so the bottoms could be carefully ground flat and polished, giving balance of form in the field of movement.
This piece for me as a whole embodies a sense of labor and power that can be felt as the viewer walks among the disused agricultural blades in the field. The movement through time can be experienced, though the machines stand still. The scale of the objects communicates the sense of the individual in relationship to masses. There is sense of mystery left to the interpretation of the decayed nature of the objects, whose hollow interiors and rough and exposed connection points allow the viewer to enter the work with questions of purpose and intent. Each piece is taken from the same mold, though all are slightly different as a result of weathering and experiences.
Detail of the final installation of the tiller forms. The forms taken from the two-part mold were further altered to give the sense that the tillers are emerging from or sinking into the ground in a farm field.
The many aspects of this process presented difficult challenges and moments of setback that all artists and people can connect with. Failure is a normal part of the process of learning every job worth doing. Though the trials and struggles of the day to day are daunting, the harvest will come.
the author Peter Smith is a an MFA candidate in the ceramics program at Syracuse University in Syracuse, New York.