Combining Three Disparate Materials to Create Strong Yet Lightweight Ceramic Sculpture

Lighten your sculptures with this simple technique!

One challenge that faces many ceramic sculptors is the sheer heft of clay, especially in a large sculpture. Ceramic artist Linda Mau faced just such a problem when she wanted to build a series of geometric sculptures that were to be suspended by nylon line. The solution she came up with involved paper, clay and steel. By combining those three materials, she was able to create ceramic sculptures that defy gravity. She shares her technique today. Take it away, Linda! – Jennifer Poellot Harnetty, editor.

I had first heard of paper clay several years ago, but it wasn’t until I decided to make a series of cubes that appeared to be floating in mid-air that I realized by combining these three materials-clay, paper and steel wire-I could make clay cubes light enough to be suspended by nylon line. Each material contributes its unique characteristic to produce forms that would be impossible to obtain in any other way. The steel wire defines the form and serves as an armature for the paper clay. After firing, when the steel is weakened, the clay supplies the structural strength.

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The Process

I begin by drafting precise paper patterns of the design. Then, wearing leather gloves, I follow the patterns to cut 1/2-inch hardware cloth (steel mesh cloth that can be found at most hardware or home improvement stores) with tin snips. After the seams are joined with wire, many layers of paper-clay slip are poured or brushed onto the hardware cloth armature. Each coat of slip must dry completely before the next can be added. This process can take many days.

To prepare the paper clay, I mix dry stoneware or porcelain clay into water until it is the consistency of thick cream. To this, I add paper pulp made from cotton linter (available from most art-supply stores). I prefer to use cotton over recycled paper because it lasts longer without smelling rotten. For my sculptures, I find that about 20% pulp to 80% slip by volume is a good blend.

Each new coat of paper clay sticks to the previous bone-dry layer; when the fibers burn out in the bisque, there is sufficient clay remaining to support the form. Insufficient clay can be a problem when working with paper clay; it is possible to end up with so little clay that the piece just falls apart.

Once the wire is covered with paper clay, the surface can be coated/decorated with slip or underglazes. Because of the firing range of the steel wire, I am limited to coloring techniques that do not go above about 1800°F. For most of my sculpture, I use terra sigillata as a source of color and sheen. To further define and mottle the surfaces, I smoke the bisqued pieces with newspaper in an open washtub. This is often followed with a lightly buffed paste wax or shoe polish. If the piece is to be exposed to weather, I protect it from absorbing water by applying a masonry sealer (available at most hardware stores). Other low-fire techniques, such as raku or low-fired glazes, are also possible when working with paper clay and steel.

New materials often demand new techniques and lead to new solutions to old design problems. Using paper clay in combination with hardware cloth has opened up a whole new area of design for me. I am now using the process to fabricate metaphorical vessels and abstract figures.

**First published in 2014.
  • Dolores M.

    Have you ever used fibreglass, the pink insulting material used in house construction? Back in the last millennnium I remember a fellow art school student using it for strength in forms fired to cone 10 in a gas kiln.

  • Diana S.

    You can purchase wire that tolerates cone 5. This high-temp wire might be useful for paper clay sculptures that can be fired to cone 5 or 5. I’ve never used it for that purpose, but I might give it a try.

  • Jan Z.

    I have had a problem with the zinc galvanization of the wire bubbling through the slip. The fumes are also toxic. What is your experience with those issues? I tried removing the zinc galvanization with muriatic acid, but found that this weakened the joints of the mesh.

  • John K.

    It needs to be mentioned that zinc coated or Galvanized steel can spread deadly fumes when fired. Metal should never be use unless a person can ensure it is not treated..

  • As I understand your post, you are not firing out the wire, just the paper. Have you ever tried to fire higher so the steel melts? I am using a similar technique with porcelain paperclay, and I’m very tempted to see what happens. I do only have an electric kiln, though and would really not like to trash it by doing this.

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