Published Nov 8, 2021
David Scott Smith is also a fan of flowers. You might say it's in his blood–his grandfather owned a flower shop and then, after "retirement" became a horticulture instructor. In this post, David explains how he makes bisque texture molds with wildflowers. Enjoy and then go take a walk and find some flowers to make your own! - Jennifer Poellot Harnetty, editor.
As artists, we are constantly reflecting on the motivations behind our ceramics. Where does our work come from, and what makes our work (and us!) so unique and individual?
I have a love for flowers, especially wildflowers, that I can trace back to when I was a young boy. My step-grandfather, Charles Parsons, has always been a great inspiration for me—for 18 years he owned Coldwell Florist in Spokane, Washington, and after ‘retirement’ he worked for 15 years as Instructor of Horticulture at Spokane Community College. Floral design, plant propagation, landscaping—these are all areas of Charlie’s expertise. But he also has a great love for plants that flower naturally in the wild, and some of my fondest memories were chasing wildflowers with my grandfather.
Wildflowers are usually as delicate as they are beautiful. Sometimes only a few inches tall, their cycles might last a brief couple of days to a week, and each warm spring day welcomes new growth, and new flowers. If you live in the mountains, you can follow blooms with the elevation as the snow recedes; but even the first few weeks of spring on the flatlands are a riot of flowers that will disappear with the heat of summer.
Capturing Delicate Textures in Molds
When I first started exploring mold-making in the early ’90s, I only worked with plaster. Try making a mold of a wildflower with plaster sometime—it’s a catastrophe. So for years I made molds of easily castable objects and shied away from plants and flowers. However, some years back I started using clay to make molds, which opened up a whole new arena of possibilities.
We are all familiar with sprig molds, or simple stamps and rollers made with clay. However, there’s no reason why a bisque clay mold can’t be as large as you want (or as large as you can fire in your kiln). I’ve found that clay molds give you the opportunity to easily cast textures that are nearly impossible with plaster. I have clay molds of alligator skin, insects, tree bark, carpet, lace, braids of hair—and of course wildflowers! The best part is, once you’ve made the mold, you can use it for just about anything. I’ll use the same mold for slab-built pots, lamps, fountains, tile, etc. And if you keep your molds clean (and never use a ‘release’ agent) they will last almost indefinitely. I remember when I first started using large clay molds I foolishly thought I had developed the technique, and a professor showed me the work of Bernard Palissy (French ceramist, 1510–1590), not to mention the ceramic work of a dozen ancient cultures. People have been using clay molds for thousands of years, and if you buried your bisque molds below the frost line someone could dig them up in a thousand years and use them. In many respects, clay molds are superior to plaster, and certainly easier to make.
Making the Homemade Texture Mold
I prefer a smooth high-fire clay body for making bisque molds. For small or delicate flowers and leaves I use a slab about ¼-inch thick, but you can use a thicker slab for plants with more relief. First, carefully wipe the slab smooth of any texture; I use a lightly dampened sponge, but you can also use a rubber rib.
Wildflowers are delicate and wilt immediately; I use a large ice chest with several inches of ice water to transport my cut flowers. Even if they are immersed in water they will stay fresh; pat them dry before pressing them into clay.
Collecting and Transporting Wildflower
Get out of your car. Some of the best flowers are tiny, and you won’t see them hurtling down the road in your vehicle.
Don’t just look for flowers—new spring leaves, fresh and unblemished, can be used to create wonderful compositions. Horsetails, ferns, moss—just about any natural texture can be captured in a clay mold. Just as you might create a floral arrangement in a vase, I will also ‘arrange’ a variety of flowers to be cast together, into one unified composition.
I often wrap and press large slabs of clay around tree trunks for bark texture, or driftwood, or even interesting rock formations. If the clay sticks to the surface of what you intend to cast, spray it with WD-40 or a vegetable oil. These will burn away when the mold is bisque fired.
Make sure you know what you’re collecting is legal to collect! There are several protected species of native plants, and it’s also illegal to collect in national parks.