Fish Tales: A Ceramic Artist Interprets Personal History Through Raku Sculpture

The daughter of a taxidermist, ceramic artist Lisa Merida-Paytes was surrounded by unusual sights when she was growing up: hanging carcasses and freezers full of animal hides were common to her surroundings. So it comes as no surprise that her artwork reflects what surrounded her as a kid. She uses her ceramic work to come to terms with the graphic imagery of her childhood. In her words, she tries “to evoke the animal spirit that was once destroyed and to make amends for the discord and waste.”


Today, Lisa tells us more about her work and takes us through the process of creating one of her skeletal fish sculptures. – Jennifer Harnetty, editor.



My father’s taxidermist and slaughterhouse business was an overwhelming environment for me as a child. Scenes of hanging carcasses of deer, piles of sawed-off animal feet and freezers full of animal hides left me with powerful images, ones that presented a lack of empathy for life.

The goal of my artwork is to create a sensory experience or narrative that refers to memories of this provocative atmosphere, and also to evoke the animal spirit that was once destroyed and to make amends for the discord and waste. While my father’s vocation was to permanent displays frozen in time, my work conjures the past, present and future to invoke a contemplation of our existence. I attempt to expose the unseen core, the essential structure of skeletal or embryonic animal references. I find that these references offer me an opportunity to understand our own growth and decay.

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Catch of the Day


There are many ways to prepare fish — fried, grilled, smoked, sauteed. You can even make a clay fish using a plaster mold and “barbecue” it in a raku firing. Ironically, my mold (left) is the same taxidermist mold that my father used for thirty-five years to mount fish. I remember the day I helped him make that plaster mold after he caught a twelve pound bass and decided to make it one of his “frozen memories”.


To follow the process for creating a skeletal fish similar to the ones I use in my work, begin with twenty pounds of white raku clay (or whatever amount is appropriate for the scale of your press mold).


Compress the clay into the completely dry plaster mold. Smooth out the surface of the clay and allow it to stiffen for at least two hours.


As soon as the clay sets up, gently begin to separate it from the plaster mold.


Next, cut away the excess clay using a fettling knife.


Shape the bottom of the fish by carving away more clay.


Begin to bend and alter the fish into a more active gesture and prop it up using wads of clay so that it maintains this shape.


Now you’re ready to begin carving away the clay to create the skeletal framework of the fish. Use small and large loop tools to carve the space between the spine and the ribs, and define where the skull begins. In addition to carving, add more clay to enhance the form, creating a more anatomical structure.
For instance, add more clay to the body to create a fish tail. And other objects can be used to create texture, for example I use a sea shell to imprint a simple line pattern on the tail (figure 9). Finish defining the head by adding and subtracting clay to define the eye and mouth area if desired.


After completing the body and tail structure, use a wooden skewer to pierce the head and bore out a hole for hanging, then clean up any loose bits of clay that might block this opening. Next, cover the clay sculpture with plastic and let it set up for up to three days so that the carving won’t be distorted when you work on the other side. Slowly unwrap the piece and gently flip it over to carve out the back side, following the same steps as above.



This article appeared in theJuly/August 2009 issue of Pottery Making Illustrated.

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When finished, allow the piece to dry for about a week under plastic, then unwrap it and let it dry out completely. Allow it to dry slowly for up to two weeks because the uneven thickness created by the carving and handbuilding processes may make it prone to cracking. Taking this extra time helps ensure a safe passage through the bisque firing. Bisque fire to only cone 05, this leaves the pores of the clay body more “open”, which will later allow the raku firing post-reduction to impregnate carbon into the clay.


After the bisque, you can apply glazes by brushing, dipping, pouring, etc., to suit your own aesthetic. Whatever your method of glazing, remember that applying the glaze is just as important as the glaze itself, and where and how the glaze is placed on the piece can enhance, emphasize or obscure particular areas. I like to apply glazes with several acrylic brushes, a pointer to retain a high degree of accuracy and several soft towels for applying and wiping away large areas of glaze. I’ve found that wiping off the surface of a freshly applied glaze with a towel allows the carbon from the post-reduction process to partially enter the clay body, creating a mottled effect. As a result of diverse glazing techniques, the ceramic piece might have three coats of glaze applied next to an area that only has one coat of glaze, or even an area that hasn’t been glazed at all.


Tip: As I apply glazes to my pieces, I take lots of notes and draw diagrams in a sketchbook. By recording good notes, it’s possible to develop a quasi-controlled outcome in the unpredictable firing process. For the past several years I’e used five glazes. Three are from Amaco’s Old World Crackle Series (Fog Gray, Amber and Satin White), while the remaining two are recipes I mix in my studio (White Crackle and Copper Matt.) All five glazes mature between cones 06-05.


I’ve been very selective about my glazes because I want a wide variation of color, hue and texture in my palette. I knew that the more glazes I introduced, the less control I would have on the surface effects and I wanted the glazes and alternative firing process to enhance my sculptural forms. Through countless firings and a limited number of glazes, I’ve been able to achieve a wide range of surface color and texture using the variables of the glaze selection and application, firing temperature and atmosphere of the kiln and the post-reduction chamber.





After glazing, make a bed of combustibles in a metal can for post-firing reduction. When making the bed, think how a bird would make a nest and use sawdust, newspaper, straw, etc., to make the perfect nest for your piece. I prefer using a combination of combustibles to prolong the smoldering period, which is usually 15-20 minutes. I use pine wood chips, sawdust, shredded newspaper and a little bit of straw or leaves. You can buy pine wood chips in pet supply stores as pet bedding in several different sizes. I like to use more pine wood chips rather than sawdust for two reasons: pine burns hotter than other woods and the wood chips are larger than sawdust, which allows for more air flow in the chamber. Using sawdust in the bed makes the can smolder for a longer period of time, and a small amount of shredded newspaper ignites the wood chips, while straw and leaves actually imprint their organic textures on the ceramic pieces as they burn. The smoldering of combustibles helps make the glazes appear to have depth versus using more newspaper which burns fast and creates only a carbon-filled surface.


After the bed of combustibles is made, place your piece in the kiln and raku fire to 1600-1800 degrees F, depending on your glazes. Using raku tongs and protective wear, gently grab the fish from the kiln and place it in the post-firing reduction chamber filled with combustible material.


Note: Work in a well-ventilated environment. Extra airflow is beneficial with the combination of Satin White and White Crackle glazes over the ceramic surface. This rapid cooling causes the glazes to shrink even more, allowing for more carbon to reach the body and create large, bold black lines.


Once the heat from the piece has ignited the combustible material, put a tight fitting lid on the can to create the post-firing reduction. After the can has smoked for a least fifteen minutes, remove the piece and set it on a non-combustible surface to slowly cool. This is a very critical time because your piece is extremely hot and fragile and can break easily due to thermal shock. It’s imperative that you use a raku clay body containing a medium grog and/or kyanite to withstand the rapid cooling that takes place. So, never throw water on your handbuilt piece right away; the uneven thickness throughout the clay body will compound the stress caused by the sudden shock of temperature change, and may cause the piece to crack or break apart. Instead let the piece cool for another ten to fifteen minutes before “freezing” the color with cool water.


Finally, use a scouring pad or kitchen scrubber to wash away the surface carbon. I typically resist the urge to leave the metallic color, even though it can be very attractive, and continue to wash the surface to reveal an even more beautiful inherent coloration with many tonal variations in the glaze and clay body under the surface carbon. Experiment, test and have fun!
My work has always considered the many possibilities of inherent coloration through experimentation with various applications of color and firing techniques including raku, pit fire, gas kiln reduction, etc. By varying the application of the versatile Copper Matt glaze, I’ve been able to produce a wide range of color that’s very receptive to atmospheric changes inside the kiln as well as outside the kiln during post-firing reduction. From experiments with the application of the glaze, I’ve been able to get a beautiful mottled surface with a gorgeous luster sheen and opalescent color. In particular, I’ve discovered that applying less is better-one thin coat of glaze that is then wiped off with a dry towel works best to achieve a matt, speckled brilliant surface.

Lisa Merida-Paytes has an M.F.A. in ceramics from the University of Cincinnati and is currently the Gallery Director at FUNKe Fired Arts in Cincinnati, Ohio.


  • Antoinette B.

    It is fantastic, I am going to try it, I live in Austraia and love the Pottery Illistrated but I have not received my July and August magazine.
    Looking forward to seeing it in there when I get it.
    You were very good in explaining it all.
    Warm regards

  • I like it very much.Original idea.Interesting.a lot of work.Perfecly done !

  • thankyou for a very rich and generous description of your work and its philosophy. it felt to me that the process of your work provided a means of repairing a painful part of your early life. remarkable.

  • wow, it makes me wish i had saved my kids first fishes

  • Absolutely beautiful. Thank you for such a detailed explanation.

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