Support Systems: What it Takes to Make Lightweight Wheel Thrown, Altered, and Assembled Ceramic Sculptures

Looking at Wouter Dam’s ribbon-like ceramic sculptures, one half expects them to flutter in the wind or blow away. They have a remarkable lightness to them considering they are made of a relatively heavy material. So how does he achieve this lightness? Making thin, curved walls out of clay requires support throughout the process.

In today’s post, Wouter explains how he uses foam swimming pool floats for support during construction, and customized clay supports to get the pieces through the firing. – Jennifer Harnetty, editor.


Blue sculpture, 16 in. (41 cm) in length, white stoneware and engobe, 2010.

Blue sculpture, 16 in. (41 cm) in length, white stoneware and engobe, 2010.

I grew up in Utrecht in the Netherlands in the late 1970s, in an atmosphere of freedom where you were encouraged to pursue your dream. Then in 1980, when I graduated in Amsterdam (Rietveld Academie), it was clear to me that I wanted to be a ceramic artist, and in spite of the difficult economic situation at that time, I set up a ceramic studio while also doing odd jobs to pay the bills and make ends meet.

From 1985 onward, I was able to make a steady income from creating and selling my work. I was fortunate enough to receive the occasional state grant for the arts, allowing me to spend more time in perfecting my technique.

In the 1990s, I made the challenging and difficult decision to change my tried and successful format and identity and pursue the adventures and stimulating course of sculptural ceramics. This, at the time, was a major crossroads, but it felt like the natural direction to follow as my ideas were leading me away from more traditionally inspired pots and bowls and taking me into a new phase of my life.

 

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Those who buy my work are mainly collectors and museums. I work with private art galleries in the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Germany, Japan, and the US, and occasionally I take part in group shows, the main benefit to me being that the general public is introduced to my work. The actual sale of my work is almost entirely via private art galleries.

The benefits of having a good gallery is that they promote your name and product, showing it in the best possible light, exhibiting it at major shows and art fairs, looking for and focusing on the right customers. The down side is that the customer database stays with the gallery, even if that gallery ceases to exist.

The main technical challenge I face in my work is keeping my vision for a sculpture true through the many changes and stages of its production, to make sure that it is, in my eye, perfect while still an example of hand-crafted workmanship. I have to stress how important it is to stay close to your original creative idea, and find ways to produce it. I have witnessed many times many brilliant ideas that have become stuck in a technical trick where the artist has forgotten what he or she originally wanted to achieve, thus not achieving it.

 

Another technical challenge during production is to find the right stage of “leather hard” that allows me to assemble the sculpture from the clay rings made on the potters wheel.

Custom clay supports are made for each piece so it remains supported during firing.A major point that cannot be ignored is the importance in making the correct supports for the sculpture, as this is critical during the drying and firing process. This can be very labor intensive, but is critical for achieving good results. Sometimes more time is spent on making the supports than making the actual sculpture itself. Many years ago I used to use sponges to temporarily support the work in the wet state. Later I discovered that using parts of swimming pool floats gave me more freedom to construct more complicated shapes.

For many years, I used to rub dry oxides into the surface of my work by hand, but this technique proved to be unhealthy. I have since changed from using pure oxides to glaze/body stains. These are mixtures of oxides that are high fired and then ground again into a fine powder, and I spray these onto the surface.

 

My advice to those interested in becoming sculptors is to develop a highly personal style, and perfect your technique. This can take years.

Purple sculpture, 14 in. (36 cm) in length, white stoneware and engobe, 2010. Wouter Dam lives and works in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. You can see more of his work at www.wouterdam.com. His work is also available at Frank Lloyd Gallery (www.franklloyd.com) in Santa Monica, California; Galerie NeC (www.necdesign.fr) in Paris, France; Puls Contemporary Ceramics (www.pulsceramics.com) in Brussels, Belgium; Carla Koch Gallery (www.carlakoch.nl) in Amsterdam, the Netherlands; and Mitochu Koeki Co. (Mr. Hayashi) in Tokyo, Japan.

Comments
  • I love seeing these smooth flowing forms. it blows my mind how perfect they look.

    I came across something the other night and the ceramist was using Aluminum Oxide powder to help support their work. I cant remember for the life of me who it was. Couldnt you riddle in a bunch of AL Ox into a box form to help support a figure? Obviously a un glazed form that is.

  • I think your work is stunning in the illusion of simplicity and finesse. Mesmerising.

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