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Published Aug 8, 2022

Whether you are working on abstract ceramic sculpture or figurative sculpture, sometimes you just need a little support. When this is the case, nichrome wire is a great solution. Lesley Risby would not be able to create her delicate forms without it.

In this post, an excerpt from the Pottery Making Illustrated archive, Kathleen Standen explains Lesley’s process. - Jennifer Poellot Harnetty, editor

Nichrome wire, steel rods, mesh, copper and steel wire, nails, tacks, and recycled metals have all been added to clay bodies by ceramic artists. Sometimes, the metal is chosen for support, sometimes for interest, and frequently a combination of both. But a good match between the clay and the metal must be found, because metals melt and lose their strength at different temperatures.

Leslie Risby: Curved Framework

‘Organic, skeletal, fragile, and vulnerable’ are words used by Leslie Risby to describe her ceramic forms. Her choice of words is apt: a nichrome wire frame is fashioned into a sinuous curve, covered with fabric and porcelain slip, and then subjected to intense heat that causes partial disintegration. She likens this process to the susceptibility of living organisms to environmental forces, whether natural or man-made.

The initial design of the form is produced with a clay/wire maquette or a sketch. From this idea, a model is handbuilt using crank clay (clay with lots of grog in it so it’s less likely to shrink, warp, or crack during drying), painted with kiln wash, and fired to cone 7 in an electric kiln. The model is needed to support the metal framework during the firing, otherwise it would collapse.

Risby then weaves a nichrome wire form to fit the model, using three gauges of wire (0.56, 0.9 and 1.2 mm) (1). Porcelain casting slip (containing finely chopped fabric to help the slip adhere to the wire; 200-mesh molochite to help reduce shrinkage; silicon carbide for texture; and oxides and stains to add color) is brushed onto the wire form to built it up. She then adds more coats of slip containing 3% black copper oxide and 3% silicon carbide. Finally, two or three coats of a brush-on, semi-transparent glaze are applied. She fixes the piece over the model, then onto a post (2) using more nichrome wire and fires to 2228°F (1220°C) with a 30-minute soak. Crank clay barriers are placed around the work to protect the kiln elements from the clay that spits off the wire during the cooling process. Ultimately the fired framework cradles several lightweight, press-molded, porcelain cups (3).