Text and Context: Stephanie DeArmond’s Slab-Built Porcelain Letterforms

Best Beast, 27 in. (68 cm) in length, white earthenware, glaze, 2009.

Best Beast, 27 in. (68 cm) in length, white earthenware, glaze, 2009.

I’ve often admired ceramic artists who have used text successfully in their work. It is not the easiest thing to do well, but it can be a very powerful visual tool.


Well, my latest hero in the text-and-ceramics camp, Ms. Stephanie DeArmond, is one of those artists who really does it well. Instead of merely embellishing the surfaces of her forms with text, Stephanie sometimes cuts letters into simple vessel forms, leaving a void that quite literally, but also conceptually, says something. Other times, the porcelain forms themselves are ornate words or phrases from pop culture, deliberate references to both “high” and “low” art.


In today’s post, an excerpt from a full profile in the June/July/August issue of Ceramics Monthly, Molly Hatch discusses Stephanie’s work and influences. Plus, Stephanie takes us through the process of slab building her letterforms. – Jennifer Harnetty, editor.


Stephanie DeArmond’s work combines ceramics tradition with the ironic humor of appropriated text and kitsch imagery. Employing a wide range of influences from architecture, pop culture, and art history, DeArmond is at the helm of an alternative craft movement, revitalizing non-traditional materials in the art world. With an audience enamored with her work that ranges from subscribers of Elle and Ready-Made magazines to the readers of the popular Design*Sponge blog, DeArmond’s sculptural and functional ceramics are not easily defined by the art-school limitations of sculpture, vessel, and design.


This post is excerpted from a full-length feature article in Ceramics Monthly magazine’s June/July/August 2010 issue. To get great content like this delivered right to your door, subscribe today!



Flask (Darling, Remember), 5 in. (13 cm) in length, white earthenware, underglaze, glaze, decals, 2010. Photo: Danielle Gernes.

At first glance, DeArmond’s crisp letterforms appear to be factory made, cast from a plaster mold. This is in a large part thanks to her pointed reference to the exquisitely ornate 18th century porcelain dinnerware of the French Sèvres and Vincennes factories. The overt decorative surfaces of DeArmond’s work immediately evoke the preciousness of your grandmother’s china—often looked at but rarely used. Upon closer inspection, the decals that appeared to belong to a museum class object reveal themselves to be an odd mishmash of kitschy florals purchased on Ebay—no doubt scraps left over from a hobbyist’s collection. This is just one of several layers of the high/low contrast in DeArmond’s work. Capitalizing on our expectations, the decals create fields of negative space allowing the viewer to read the surprising messages hidden in the detailed script of the letterforms. Drawn to the use of text by such artists as Margaret Killgallen, Jack Pierson, and Jenny Holzer, DeArmond takes advantage of our cultural familiarity with traditional porcelain by using it to humorously parade appropriated text from subcultures of song lyrics, street signs and supermarket tabloids.


Tattoo Regret, illustration for the New York Times Magazine, 3 ft. 4 in. (1.02 m) in length, unfired porcelain, decals, 2007. Photo: John Sartin. I made this in four days to meet the publication turn-around deadline, so it was fun to work with unfired clay.

“Something interesting happens when craft interacts with other creative/pop-cultural forces,” says DeArmand. “Like ‘beat-box’ plus ‘oil painting’ plus ‘pom-poms.’ I think about how and why different materials and cultural references get placed into this high/low hierarchy. I find a lot of humor playing with that juxtaposition. Like Clement Greenberg versus Snoop Dog (not that one is better than the other). I don’t know where Greenberg fits into my work, but I do know where Snoop does.”


Like many of her contemporaries, DeArmond’s work is grounded in history and personal experience. Her poetic subversion of the hierarchies of ceramics places her in the middle of a clearly postmodern conversation about craft and its place in the art world. No doubt DeArmond will further establish her studio practice, taking advantage of the glamour of porcelain and highlighting the idiosyncrasies of American subculture.



A sculpture of the letter E in progress (shown face down), with leather-hard side-wall slabs shown placed on the front slab.

Putting the Pieces Together
by Stephanie DeArmond


After I have created a paper pattern of my design, I flip it over and trace the back of the image with a needle tool onto a prepared and smoothed 1/4-inch-thick wet slab of clay. I flip my pattern so the front of my piece will be flat, lying face down against a ware board. I then cut three-inch-wide strips of clay for the sides of the piece from even wetter slabs of clay, which makes them easier to bend to fit the curves of my pattern. If I am doing a geometric piece, I use leather-hard slabs instead. When the clay slabs have stiffened, I score and slip the side-wall pieces and the face of the piece together. I usually cut the edges of the slabs at a 45° angle so the joint is cleaner, and strengthen the attachments with tiny coils.


Side view of a completed and scraped greenware piece.

Next I have a leather-hard slab ready for the top (back) of the piece. I spray the half-constructed piece down so the top edges of the side-wall slabs are wet and press a sheet of paper onto the piece so it makes an imprint on the paper. After tracing the imprint onto a leather-hard piece of clay with a needle tool, I use an X-Acto blade to cut out the shape. Then I slip and score everything, and flip the back of the piece onto the sides. I press the slabs together with my fingers and a rib, fill any cracks with bits of wet clay, and use a rasp and some silicon carbide sanding screens to scrape away the excess clay until the areas of attachment look clean. I avoid using the sanding screen too much because bits of black silicon carbide can get embedded into the white clay body. I start with the rasp, then the sanding screen, then use a sponge, then a rib to smooth everything. Once smooth, I flip it over between two boards, making a board/fabric/clay/fabric/foam/board sandwich. I flip the piece over onto a piece of foam in case it is not flat on the back, to prevent it from stretching or cracking. I make some pin holes with the needle tool in an inconspicuous place to allow air to escape and then dry the work slowly.



For more information and to see more of Stephanie DeArmond’s work, visit http://stephaniedearmond.com/

the author Molly Hatch is a potter and author living in Florence, Massachusetts. See www.mollyhatch.com.



  • Matthew B.

    GaaVoinkuss! GaaZinckt-Blavoort-Gaavict!!! How does she do it???
    Very interesting…Yet Mysterious. I’ve never seen anything like this
    in all of my years of working with clay. Thaks for sharing. Wonderfull.

  • Mary C.

    I love Stephanie’s work and her sense of humor. I have made a couple of ceramic words/wall sculpture, but nothing like this. Thanks for expanding my ceramic vocabulary!

  • Carole S.

    Very interesting work. I can see endless possibilites for future pieces! Love the decals on the finished pieces in CM. This is an excellent example of narrative work.

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