Clay Culture: Public Sculpture

Have you ever looked at a piece of public art and wondered about the process behind getting the piece designed, accepted, built, installed, and approved? Read on to learn one artist’s experience. 

The Eau Claire Sculpture Tour is a nonprofit organization that is celebrating its 10th year in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. Its promotional materials describe the tour as being “dedicated to providing free public art in the form of a year-round exhibit of original outdoor sculpture,” with a goal of including work by local/regional artists as well as national and international artists. The tour is a highlight of the local area and is strongly supported by the community. 

1 Dan Ingersoll’s Ingrain, 9 ft. (2.7 m) in height, stoneware, powder-coated steel, 2020.

2 Proposal sketch for the public sculpture.

Participants and Criteria

Participants are selected by a jury, with a cash stipend paid to each participant for the year-long display of their sculpture. In addition to purchases by local businesses each year, the tour organization supports one People’s Choice Award, a community-selected purchase award aimed at building up the city’s permanent collection.

Over the years, I have participated in the tour as an appreciator of the work. This past year, however, I decided to make a submission. The impetus came from being part of a separate selection committee for a site-specific, sculptural addition to our new arts-center plaza. The committee and I spent many hours going through hundreds of proposals from around the globe. While the submission guidelines dictated the proposals be site-specific, many of them did not meet the site-specific criteria and were eliminated from consideration. This got me thinking about what I would submit if challenged with the same task. In the end, I began making sketches just for fun. Fun turned into thinking, “Maybe I should build it.”

3 Ingersoll applying texture to a clay slab using a sandbag and bisque-fired texture slab.

Creating a Submission

The tour sculptures are not site-specific. The accepted work is expected to stand on its own, regardless of site. I, however, have been a 30-year resident of the community, so it felt appropriate to make a submission that had direct connections to the community. 

Our little town and the surrounding valley have long celebrated the confluence of two rivers, the Chippewa and the Eau Claire, which meet in the heart of the town. The name Eau Claire itself is a French word meaning “clear water.” A beautiful city park and a new arts center have been built at the site. These rivers play into the logging heritage of the town, which is also affectionately known to old-timers as Sawdust City, and it was these things that I chose to focus on as I designed the piece. 

My submission was a proposal that consisted of a 9-foot-tall and 5-foot-wide steel structure that is basically a V form with a circular opening in the center. This structure cradles 85 stoneware logs created from 1/2-inch-thick slabs of clay. The steel V form represents both a valley (the city and area towns around it are called The Chippewa Valley) and a confluence. My proposal dictated that the circular opening in the middle of the piece would showcase a view of the confluence of the rivers. The 85 stoneware logs (each 10 inches in length with diameters ranging from 2–10 inches) are a physical reflection of the city’s logging past. The circular opening in the piece was designed to be viewed as a portal to the future as it frames the two rivers. Clear water that is ever moving, never stagnant, in a state of constant change, encourages reflection on the past history and practice of this place while promoting forward thinking to new and sustainable environmental practices.

4 Ingersoll rolling a textured slab around a log to create a cylinder.

5 The clay log pieces were joined together after scoring and slipping.

6 Red iron oxide wash and 50/50 mixes of Mason stain and Gerstley borate were applied with a brush to the bisque-fired logs.

7 Tests of fired log surfaces.

Getting Real

When I got the word that the proposal for the piece, titled Ingrain, had been accepted into the following year’s tour, things got real. I had never worked on the scale that I was proposing, had never worked with steel, and suddenly began to question my decision to use ceramic logs in an outdoor public sculpture. While I have done a bit of welding and metalwork, I knew what I had proposed was way beyond my skill set. The first thing I did was to make accurate, scale drawings of the steelwork and contracted it out to Artisan Forge, a local company that specializes in custom architectural steel and art. Unbeknownst to me, the lead fabricator assigned to my job was a former high school art student. He did not disappoint, as the work was extremely well crafted and it turned out beautifully. When the fabrication was complete, the piece was powder coated. 

While work was being done on the steel fabrication, I got busy putting together the 85 ceramic logs. Earlier, I had visited a local park that is on the site of a former logging camp and created clay impressions of some bark texture on a large white pine using a slab. Back home, the textured clay dried out and was bisque fired to be used to create the bark texture of the logs. I burned the ends of several pine logs with a torch and then wire brushed them to accentuate the end grain and pulled impressions off of them to create the end grains of the clay logs. Using a mid-range stoneware clay with grog, I first rolled out 1/2-inch-thick slabs on a Shimpo slab roller I purchased to work on the project, and assembled the clay logs using traditional slab construction.

8 The steel portion of the sculpture was transported by trailer to the site for installation. The powdered-coated steel was covered with blue protective tape.

9 Dan Ingersoll installing the first ceramic log.

After bisque firing, I brushed iron oxide on the logs, then wiped the surface with a damp sponge to leave the colorant in the recessed areas of the bark texture. I applied a variety of yellow and orange oxides and stains on the end grain of each log. The logs were then refired to cone 6, and after the firing, they were coated with an exterior stone enhancer/sealer. 

My decision to make the logs out of clay was informed by my experience with garden pots and sculptures. Over the years, I have placed several ceramic pots and sculptures in my garden where they survived unscathed for many years through Wisconsin winters. The only issues I have ever had with this practice occurred when standing water was left in a pot to freeze, or dirt that was saturated with water was left in the pot and allowed to freeze. Given that the logs I was creating were made with the same clay that I had used outside before and the fact that each one had only one small hole that would be placed on the bottom side of the logs during installation, I felt confident they would be durable. 

The steel portion of the sculpture weighed 350 pounds. The finished logs weighed 600 pounds. Once ready, they were moved separately to the confluence site. After the steel frame was welded to the base, I spent a 95°F day installing the logs on-site. I chose to use a heavy bead of silicone adhesive to secure each log to the steel frame and to the other logs. Silicone was selected for its adhesion, flexibility, and UV-resistant properties, along with its life expectancy. 

10, 11 The logs were all installed without adhesive before bringing them to the site for installation to establish fit and design. Prior to disassembly, they were numbered with tape and photographed for reference during the on-site installation. The installation took 8 hours and proved to be puzzling at times even with the numbers and photos for reference.

On Display

At this time, the piece has been on display for 9 months. It has stood strong in the face of temperatures ranging from 95°F above zero to 25°F below zero with snow. Some folks have expressed concern that the ceramic logs may be vandalized, and yes, they could be. They are no match for a hammer or large rock; however, to date, the only thing the community has shown the piece is love. In fact, I was honored to receive the Sculpture Tour group’s People’s Choice Award for the piece, which means that it is now a permanent part of the community collection. 

the author Dan Ingersoll taught for 35 years as a public school art teacher, 17 of them teaching high school ceramics, and continues to pursue his passion for clay and sculpture in his retirement.

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