Exploring Function through Sculptural Forms

Utilitarian Focus

During graduate school, my work was predominantly sculptural. Near the end of my studies, I became more drawn to sculptural vessels; I found that they could carry the content investigated in my previous work, but also had the added dialog that functional ceramics inherently embodies. Conversations about community, domestic space, and daily ritual are important to my work and using the vessel strengthened these aspects.

This led me to explore utilitarian ceramics. I began to look at a single mug or a single bowl as a sculpture, one that came with certain parameters that I could choose to either work within or ignore. I often asked myself where I wanted my work to go after I had completed it, and how I hoped my intended audience would interact with the object. I prefer my work to be enjoyed and accessed by a wide range of people, and the home is the best setting for that to take place.

With functional wares, the user interacts on a more intimate and physical level, touching and picking up the piece, putting their lips to it, and living with it on a daily basis in their home. That’s one of the attributes that drew me to making functional ceramics.

Small mugs, 3 in. (8 cm) in height, press-molded, wheel-thrown red stoneware, sgraffito, terra sigillata, underglaze, glaze, fired to cone 6, 2017.

 

Multi-Layered Surface Decoration

I am interested in what underlying information can be concealed through beauty. In regard to surface treatment, I am interested in ornament and pattern, and the historical information held under such aesthetically unassuming and approachable visual languages of design.

For example, what drew me to the floral patterns and designs on my work was the patterning on the Western American saddle and other similar leather work. Although this patterning is now synonymous with the romanticized American West and the American cowboy, it has a much less idyllic past. It was initially brought to the Americas by the Spanish conquistadors starting in the 15th century, and is undoubtedly connected to a much darker past of European and later US mistreatment of native people and animals on the continent. I find this dynamic compelling and use it in my work to discuss and reference the historic realities that have shaped our modern world, while still creating an inviting and appealing ceramic object.

As the vessel became more important to my content, I started to think about the metaphor of the body as a vessel, and the parallels between the surface adornment of the vessel and the body. The way that a ceramic artist decorating the surface of a pot must consider the curves and undulations of the form is similar to that of a tattoo artist working with the shapes and contours of the human body. I enjoy the similarities between these types of visual languages and hint at tattoo imagery on my work to further explore the metaphor of the vessel as the body.

1 Trace around paper templates onto the clay slab to fit the particular plaster mold used for the mug, then cut out the shapes.

2 Press the cut slabs into their corresponding mold pieces

3 Use a fabric pouch filled with sand to softly and evenly press the slab into large or concave forms.

 

Freedom and Control through Molds

The most satisfying aspect about using molds is the ability to capture and preserve every detail that I put into a clay form.

When creating a new piece, I start with a rough sketch then move quickly to figuring things out three dimensionally. The wheel is a useful tool to work out volume, line, and proportion in a new functional form, and so I prefer to do most of my sketching on the wheel.

I like to think about one form at a time, usually spending several days on one variation of the form, making about a half a dozen versions of that, picking the one that feels the closest to what I have in my mind, then creating the mold from the most successful rendition.

Knowing that I am going to create a mold from the form frees me up and allows me to concentrate on the profile, size, proportions, and volume. Sometimes I will even work from a solid piece of clay on the wheel to focus completely on the form.

Another benefit of press molding is that I can easily and quickly control the final weight of the piece, using slabs to precisely control the thickness of the walls, getting the pot to a place of balance in relation to visual weight, volume, and scale.

Tumblers, 6 in. (15 cm) in height, press-molded and wheel-thrown red stoneware, sgraffito, terra sigillata, underglaze, glaze, fired to cone 6, 2017.

 

Making the Mug

I start out by rolling a slab of clay about 18 inch thick. Normally I use a slab roller but two yardsticks used as thickness guides and a rolling pin work just fine. I use a metal rib to compress the clay as well as to smooth it out, removing the majority of the canvas texture, then trace around paper templates made to fit the particular plaster mold being used onto the clay slab (1). Next, I cut out the pieces from the slab and begin pressing them into their corresponding mold pieces (2).

If the mold is large or especially concave, I use a homemade tool that helps to softly and evenly press the slab into the form without causing cracking or creating thin spots in the slab (3). This tool is made using a soft fabric pouch filled with some fine-mesh sand.

4 Cut off the excess clay, being careful to leave some extra at the connection points to ensure a solid and strong seam when the mold pieces are assembled.

5 Score and add slip to the extra clay at the edges of each section, then begin to assemble the mold.

6 Score and add slip to the extra clay at the edges of each section, then begin to assemble the mold.

 

I remove extra clay from pressing the slabs into the mold using a fettling knife, being careful to leave a little extra clay so that when attaching the separate mold pieces together, there is some additional clay at the connection points to ensure a solid and strong seam where the clay comes together (4).

Once all of the pieces are cut and pressed into their corresponding mold pieces, I score and slip the edges, then begin to assemble the mold (5, 6), pushing the three side pieces of the mold together then securing them using a bike inner tube cut to the necessary length. Large rubber bands or mold straps also work well for this.

I then place the fourth and final piece of the mold onto the other three, pressing the pieces firmly together to ensure a snug fit (7, 8). Using my fingers I press the inside of the mold, pushing all of the seams together as well as ensuring that all of the surfaces are compressed and in place. This creates a number of finger marks inside of the mug. I choose to keep these very much part of the composition as important visual evidence of the making process. The contrast of the less refined interior with the smooth and decorated exterior of the mug is also an intriguing relationship.

The porous plaster mold draws moisture out of the clay, allowing the mug to set up and making it easier to remove from the mold. If the mug is left in the mold too long, it becomes overly dry and may also crack. I wait about five minutes before removing the piece, just long enough to let the clay firm up enough to handle (9), and I often use a heat gun to speed up this process.

7 Secure the three sections using a strap, then place the fourth and final piece of the mold onto the other three, pressing the pieces firmly together to ensure a snug fit.

8 Secure the three sections using a strap, then place the fourth and final piece of the mold onto the other three, pressing the pieces firmly together to ensure a snug fit.

9 Further press the inside of the mold, pushing all of the seams together as well as ensuring that all of the surfaces are compressed, then wait for the piece to firm up and remove it from the mold.

 

After the mug is out of the mold, it’s ready to be cleaned up and to have the foot ring attached and thrown on the wheel. I attach the foot by throwing it on the wheel for a few reasons. The first is for practicality: I would have to make a much more complicated mold with more pieces to incorporate the foot. Second, I enjoy the freedom of being able to vary the foot size and shape with each mug by throwing it on the wheel.

I center the mug on the wheel, then roll out a small coil and cut it to the right circumference (10). I slip and score the coil and the bottom of the mug then attach the coil, getting it as close to centered as I can. Afterward I use the wheel to better center the coil, then shape it using a cut credit card (11).

After letting everything reach the leather-hard stage, I apply white terra sigillata. For my purposes, spraying the sigillata is the most effective. It’s fast and gives an even consistency without any brushstrokes or other marks (12). Because the terra sigillata is being applied to leather-hard clay, it tends to run. To prevent this, I spray three thin layers, letting it set up between each coat. To create a whiter and more opaque surface, I add a teaspoon of tin oxide to each cup of terra sigillata. (The base clay for the sigillata is OM 4 ball clay.)

After spraying, the mug is placed back onto the wheel. This step is to remove the terra sigillata from the foot to reexpose the dark clay body. I use a trimming tool and a sponge to remove the unwanted terra sigillata (13).

10 Roll out a small coil and cut it to the appropriate circumference for the foot.

11 Slip and score the coil and the bottom of the mug then attach, getting the coil as close to centered as possible. Use the wheel to better center it, then shape it using a cut credit card.

12 Apply white terra sigillata. For my purposes, spraying the terra sigillata is fast and gives an even consistency without any brushstrokes or other marks.

13 Use a trimming tool and a sponge to remove the excess terra sigillata from the foot.

 

Making the Handle

My handles are also made using a press mold. Initially I create the handle using a solid piece of clay. I use trimming tools, sgraffito tools, a small piece of a hacksaw blade, and various ribs (especially the serrated rib) to get the handle exactly right. This process can take up to two days to complete, but once I make the handle mold, it can be replicated fairly quickly (14–16).

Once the handle is pressed and removed from the mold, I trace the contact points of the handle onto the mug, then remove the white terra sigillata from that area. Then, I score and slip the attachment areas to ensure a strong bond (17).

14 Press clay into the two-part handle mold, leaving it slightly elevated above the surface of the mold to aid in attachment.

15 Score and add slip to the edges of the handle, then press the two halves together.

16 Wait until the clay releases easily from the plaster, then remove the handle from the mold.

17 Trace the outline of the handle ends onto the mug, carve through the terra sigillata, slip and score the contact points on the mug and handle, then attach.

 

Surface Decoration

After the handle is attached, I start carving the floral patterns on the mug, initially drawing the flowers free hand, using a needle tool to scratch and carve through the white terra sigillata to expose the darker clay body underneath (18). The needle tool is sanded down to get a duller tip, creating a smoother, softer line quality that leaves fewer burrs. After finishing the line work, I use sgraffito tools to carve in the shading and use leather stamping tools to add more detail (19).

The last step before the bisque firing is to add a thin layer of Cedar Heights Redart terra sigillata to the handle, foot, and inner lip of the mug (20). I wait until the mug is bone dry to apply the terra sigillata for easier application. The terra sigillata gives a richer and deeper color while softening the points where the user’s hands and lips most often come in contact with the mug.

18 Carve patterns onto the mug, starting with a needle tool to create sgraffito lines.

19 Use sgraffito tools to carve in the shading and use leather stamping tools to add more detail.

20 Add a thin layer of Cedar Heights Redart terra sigillata to the handle, foot, and inner lip.

21 After the bisque firing, use liquid latex to mask off any areas that you want to remain unglazed. If applying underglaze, wait for it to dry before spraying on a thin layer of satin clear glaze, then after the glaze dries remove the latex using the tip of a needle tool.

 

Glazing and Underglaze

After the initial bisque firing, finishing the surfaces requires a few more steps. For the interior of the mug, I use a cone 6 Val Cushing glaze (see recipe on page 104) that breaks well over texture and accentuates the interior fingerprints. For the exterior, I start by masking off the flowers, the foot, and the handle using liquid latex or wax resist. This allows me to apply underglaze and glaze without worrying about getting it on the flowers and areas coated with red terra sigillata. I shade the space around the flowers using a watered-down black underglaze, sponging on multiple layers to give the surface more depth and dimension.

Small mugs, 3 in. (8 cm) in height, press-molded and wheel-thrown red stoneware, sgraffito, terra sigillata, underglaze, glaze, fired to cone 6, 2017.

 

After the underglaze dries, I spray on a thin layer of satin clear glaze, allow it to dry, then remove the latex using a needle tool (21) before applying white underglaze highlights to some of the flower petals and leaves. These details contrast nicely with the glazed and unglazed surface. The last step is glaze firing the work in an electric kiln to cone 6.

the author Ben Jordan received an undergraduate degree from Northern Arizona University, and a masters degree from Virginia Commonwealth University. To learn more, visit www.benjordanclay.com.


Subscriber Extras: Archive Article and Video

Click here to read the archive article by Nancy Gallagher on making sgraffito tools from the April 2013 issue.

This clip is of Erin Furimsky demonstrating sgraffito techniques.

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