Ceramics Monthly: What appeals to you most about using red clay?

Shanna Fliegel: The color! But my love affair with red clay began circa 2003. It’s the sort of cliché ceramics story where I touched it and was hooked. At that time I was a studio assistant at Greenwich House Pottery, slinging mud as a New Yorker. My responsibilities included mixing clay and glazes, firing kilns, all the typical stuff. I distinctly remember mixing up red clay and dipping my hand in the large studio bucket. It was lovely, plastic, smooth, and rich. Prior to that pivotal moment, I had fired every atmospheric technique and used every other type of clay.

Now, sixteen years later, with a few short-lived visits with white stoneware just for fun, my allegiance remains with the red stuff. I find its tone to be a welcoming, inviting, rich surface, begging for layering. Even when drawing on paper, I prefer toned Rives BFK (my favorite!) and respond to a colored surface. I find white to be void-like and intimidating—anemic, if you will. With layering in mind, the iron permeates and changes applied glazes and slips, creating the depth that can be difficult to achieve in low-temperature firing. Drawing imagery through applied white slip on the red clay reveals an indelible trace, dark and confident.

CM: How do you approach creating compositions of imagery through layered materials, processes, and surfaces?

SF: My aim is to counterpoise intentional awkwardness with structured tightness. It’s a balancing act between allowing the clay to be nothing other than clay—visceral, expressive, and playful—with tight imagery defined by clean, etched lines. Often I respond to the cracks and fissures, drips of slip, and embedded textures as inherent framing devices within the compositions.

Wall pieces in particular allow a great deal of possibility to play with surface. After creating them face-down, either with a press mold or as a thick slab, there is a bit of magic in flipping them and deciding where to create the narrative. Once the white slip is applied, I typically find a horizon, considering atmospheric perspective and other methods of drawing with depth. Main characters are drawn with a pin tool or printed with simple Thermo-fax screens. My lexicon is variable, but favorite motifs include young girls, snails, birds (often coupled with nets), fish hooks, balloons, and architecture.

Following sgraffito and printing processes, I enjoy dripping and spraying small blobs of Amaco Velvet underglazes to create watercolor-like, almost ephemeral environments. After it is bisque fired, the drawn surface is treated with a black copper oxide wash, which is then wiped away. The effect is a weathered surface and the black suggests lines of a coloring book. Using a handful of commercial glazes such as Mayco Stroke and Coat and a small glaze palette I’ve mixed up myself, I aim to create a multi-dimensional surface with kisses of color and gloss, with a healthy range of matte, semi-matte, and textured glaze surfaces. The ultimate goal is to not overwhelm, but to appropriately suggest finish, and allow the imagery breathing room.

CM: Do you develop compositions on wall pieces and functional pots differently?

SF: Yes! Since the flat work is essentially space defined by edges, I approach wall pieces as a painter (which I was before becoming a clay artist!). With the larger wall pieces, I find more freedom to develop a richer narrative that is more aligned with a poem than a story that has a beginning, middle, and end. My intention is to create an impression of a time or event. Each piece begins with a nice slathering of brushed-on white slip that invites printed or drawn imagery.

Vessel forms lend themselves to lighter content meant to be enjoyed closely while holding, sipping, and serving. Often they may communicate humor, even one-liners. The animals are quite illustrative and I enjoy referencing old etchings and focus more on the line work than a developed idea. Drinking vessels are all thrown and dunked in white slip, creating a smooth canvas, followed by laborious glazing, waxing, cleaning, and more glaze dipping. Mugs take forever to make! Both bodies of work satisfy my desire for production, spontaneity, predictability, and story telling.

Topics: Ceramic Artists