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Published Nov 30, 2022

The surfaces of Stephanie Marie Roos' sculptures are intentionally minimal. She uses color sparingly and specifically to invoke meaning, and the surfaces are deliberately left imperfect. "Smooth makes the work lifeless," she explains.

In today's post, an excerpt from the November 2022 issue of Ceramics Monthly, we get a glimpse into her sculptural and decorative processes. Enjoy! - Jennifer Poellot Harnetty, editor
When I was interviewed by Kira Gutowski for this Ceramics Monthly article, she asked me, “Why are the surfaces of your figures so . . . ?” she searched for the right word. I completed the question, “Why are they so . . . restless?”

 

A Working directly on a kiln shelf, create a rough construction of the bust. Begin sketching the face onto the head. B Build the face by altering the hollow form, adding and removing clay. Roos’ favorite tool is a sharp potters knife that is used for carving or as a spatula.

The word restless came to me without thinking, but it aptly describes the searching process when a figure arises—the trial and error: building, removing, redoing . . . sketching in the clay, like drawing, finding signs. It is not always a happy moment, more a restless kind of thing. But the traces are part of the communication I have with the work, and it would feel like removing a part of the conversation if I would smooth the surface.

Clay allows me to work in this way, and with its different states—from a plastic mass to a hard object, to scratch in, to burnish, or to be used as a paintable slip. Painting with engobe is not just coloring. I also paint with plain slip to apply the smallest amounts of clay, resulting in a delicate change in the surface and the opportunity to scratch there again, to reveal what is underneath. This playing with layers, with rough and smooth, open and closed surfaces, allows me to picture, for example, parts of the body where the skin is very transparent, and you see bones or blood vessels or a transparent piece of clothing, or the layering of clothing. “What is beneath?” It is a fitting question for a narrative sculptor.

C While building out the face and getting closer to the facial expression, support the weight of the head with a wooden bar. D Here you can see the face has changed after the engobe layering.

The surface is not an add-on, it is a painterly and graphical process, a principal part of the piece from the beginning. The illusionistic quality of clay is fantastic and seductive, it makes you want to rebuild the reality.

But, I like to preserve the language of the material: the earthen, the porous.

Color has always been an important (and difficult) question for me. It was somehow not satisfactory for me to picture humans in one color. I started with different colored clays. Today, I use a ready gray stoneware. The gray body of the clay as the base color for the pieces, not absorbing or reflecting light too much, is the best starting point for shadowing and highlighting. Like in drawing. It is perfect as a neutral background, as a mixed tone for highs and lows.

E This close-up shows the sculpture before firing. Only the surface of the shirt is smoothed thoroughly for putting on a glaze. F Butterfly Man, 20 in. (51 cm) in height, coil-built stoneware, engobe, fired in an electric kiln to cone 04, 2020.

I mix a slip with underglaze color or oxides for painting on the piece; the gray that shines through is then a shadowing in the cloth or skin. I have another slip of a clay that has a very warm color, which I often use for the skin when I like it to be felt as a warm part of the figure.

As a rule, I try to use color in the sense of only adding it when it supplies information to the piece in an expressive or symbolic way. I seldom use glaze, for example for shiny objects, or as a surface for applying ceramic decals later in the process.