The audio file for this article was produced by the Ceramic Arts Network staff and not read by the author.
In the intaglio processes of printmaking, line is always a compromise between spontaneous expression and more routine forms of labor. An etching, for example, may convey the rapidity and finesse of masterful draftsmanship—a fluid articulation of lines under a hand that intuits its way to expressiveness. But, the full process of materializing lines relies equally on such methodical and even mechanical steps as applying a layer of wax to a copper plate, subjecting the plate to acid once lines have been incised in the wax, inking the plate, and ultimately running it through a press to commit the lines to paper. Both before and after the expressive act of drawing lie procedures necessary to the realization of a final print but invisible, so to speak, to the viewer. In the matter of surface decoration, some ceramic artists insist on immediacy in the free sweep of a brush or the unfettered plowing of a tool into clay, but others, embracing the perspective of the printmaker, are content to situate their spontaneous gestures between layers of a more prosaic labor.
Parallels to Printmaking
Having developed a keen interest in printmaking while earning her bachelor of fine arts in ceramics at Indiana University Bloomington, potter and sculptor Liz Pechacek would seem naturally disposed to fall into the latter camp. She does, in fact, employ a multi-step, labor-intensive technique of wax resist and incising to articulate the striated lines of her surface decoration, and she recognizes its parallels to the preparation of a copper plate for etching. “My wax resist technique is a way of reverse engineering the surface that I’m after,” she asserts. “With printmaking you make the plate first and then you figure out what you want. You figure out how to make it in this sort of direct, indirect way. You have to be very deliberate; it’s a controlled process.”
Other aspects of Pechacek’s methods parallel techniques in printmaking as well. Fundamental to the material properties of her work, they also exert influence over aesthetic effects, above all the impression of balance between freedom and restraint that accounts for the tremulous energy of her surfaces. Circles on her vases, for example, may be created by carefully cordoning off a circular shape with wax then using a fan brush to apply a painterly wash of slip to the exposed surface. The effect is a distinctive blend of informality and decisiveness. “Some people have a high level of training with spontaneous brushwork,” Pechacek observes. “They’re masters of it and can get whatever they want from the brush freehand. In my case, coming at the process from a printmaking perspective, I create the environment, and then I can be free within the constraints.”
Although parallels to etching and engraving permeate Pechacek’s techniques and modulate the appearance of her works, her aesthetic is deeply rooted in historical ceramics, particularly those that she studied while earning a second degree in art history at Indiana. The forms of her vases and sculptures echo aspects of Korean moon jars, for example, and her carinated bowls recall a variety of historical wares. Her keen interest in fine-line decoration extends back even further to a childhood familiarity with Acoma pottery, including examples by Lucy Lewis, from the collection of her artist mother. “That was always what I was trying to make when I was a kid just playing around with clay,” she remembers. “Later, when I started studying pottery seriously, the fine-line decoration started showing up a lot, but I’m coming at it more from a European aesthetic. A potter I really love is Lucie Rie.”
Experimenting with Change
While Pechacek creates sculptures, tiles, and large, one-of-a-kind vessels that may never see actual use, more of her production until recently consisted of smaller and simpler utilitarian wares. In 2021, she made a deliberate shift in emphasis that began with the vow to commit less time to each functional piece. Cost effectiveness was the principal driver behind the change. “There’s a definite impulse in ceramics to take your whole tool box and put everything onto a mug,” she observes, “but I found myself in a sweatshop scenario where I was never really getting paid for the labor. I couldn’t make enough decorated functional wares, and that was all I was ever making. It wasn’t sustainable. I had kids, too, so the amount of available time was cut drastically. I had to really think about what mattered to me as an artist.”
Ultimately, Pechacek chose to refrain from hand painting her production wares or using any other time-consuming technique from her decorative bag of tricks while still striving for high-end design. The venture paid off, though not in the way she had anticipated. “An interesting thing happened,” she explains. “Nobody really cared that much about the simpler functional ware, but I was putting more of my labor into the larger vessels, the tiles, and the more sculptural work. I’ve actually been selling more of those, so the shift has enabled me to do the type of work that I really want to be doing. It’s been healthy for me as an artist, because it gives me more time to experiment.”
The experimentation has been both technical and formal. Consistent throughout Pechacek’s work is her commitment to cone-6 porcelain and a dark cone-6 stoneware, but her method of working the clay, even in her one-of-a-kind pieces, has followed the imperative she set so decisively for her production wares—that is, her emphasis has shifted to economy of means even as she has pursued more complex articulation of surfaces in her sculptures, tiles, and large vessels. Exemplary of this tendency is her development of a specialized tool designed to reproduce a natural effect of handbuilding: the pinch marks left from joining coils. Such marks are crucial to a surface treatment that Pechacek frequently employs in her works to achieve an appearance analogous that of an engraved or etched plate that has been inked in preparation for printing. “The pinching of the clay creates a dappled surface,” she explains, “and when you add a black wash over the white porcelain it sinks into the deep spots and crests wherever there’s a hill. The contrast creates a lot of surface energy.”
As Pechacek now frequently builds with slabs, the pinched or dappled texture doesn’t always occur as a natural consequence of process. In order to achieve the effect but avoid an increase in labor, she turned to invention. “I’ve made a roulette, a pony roller, that’s something like the jade rollers that people use on their faces,” she relates. “I have a series of them that have the reverse texture of my pinch mark on them. I can roll them over the clay and match the appearance of things that I’ve put a coil on and pinched. It’s a quicker way of getting the effect of that process on the surface.”
The convenience offered by these specialized tools doesn’t reduce the overall labor invested in Pechacek’s work so much as shift a greater part of it to such intensive tasks as applying her incised-wax-resist and slip-inlay technique to the decoration of a pot or stippling fields of tiny dots and dashes of white glaze on a sculpture to generate “a kind of buzz of surface energy.” Such details are consciously employed to pique the visual and tactile “covetousness” that Pechacek considers a primary target of her work. “I’m very interested in preciousness, something you want and treasure” she states. “I’m also interested in what we value and how to make something valuable.”
Making objects valuable can be as simple as incorporating expensive materials into their construction. Pechacek does, in fact, apply lusters to the interiors of some of her open forms and has even begun to experiment with gold and silver leaf, but her use of the term value should be understood as invoking something at once subtler and more consequential: something ultimately more relevant to labor than to materials. She frankly acknowledges that the labor generating her art is an investment in commodity production and a means to the seduction of potential consumers. But those contextualizations, too, fail to address fully her concept of value, which encompasses something more like a respect for pottery than simply a desire to own it. “There are a lot of poetic, living, breathing aspects to pottery,” she asserts. “I’m always thinking about volume and that breath when I’m creating these. One of the strategies I use to imbue forms with as much energy as possible is literally to work them over and over: lots of pinching and smoothing and hammering and adorning and carving and dotting and really activating the surface. That amount of labor creates a sense of value, like precious metal does, but I’m trying to evoke things that matter to your fundamental humanness. Pottery is a part of human history. You know what to do with pottery; it’s almost ingrained in our DNA. There’s a sense of value in that I want to bring to my work.”
Faux Pinched Mug
by Liz Pechacek
I love the way pinch pots look and feel, but my hands get tired! I started using thin slabs and a textured pony roller to achieve a similar appearance—and it’s quicker and more consistent. Begin by making a very simple template from cardstock and covering it in packing tape so that it’s wipeable. Then, roll out a 1/4-inch slab of clay (dark brown stoneware from Standard Ceramic) and roll it all over with a pony roller that has a pinched texture to create a touched appearance (1). Cut out a rectangle for the body and a circle for the bottom (2), then bevel all edges and attach with slip (made from the same clay body and deflocculated with Darvan 811) (3). I like to use a hump of thrown bisque-fired clay when working the seams because it helps keep the rim round. Next, use a D-shaped hand extruder from Diamondcore tools to form the handle (5). The same pony roller can be used to apply texture (5), then attach the handle with more of the deflocculated scraps. It’s helpful to plop a balloon with a little air and sand in the opening as you move the piece around and allow it to dry to prevent warping (6, 7). This is such a simple technique, but I love using it for dinnerware and for parts of larger pieces that have coil and pinch components.
the author Glen R. Brown is a professor of art history at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas.