Contemporary Clay Sculpture: Modern Ceramic Sculpture as Narrative, Object, and Decor

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Contemporary clay sculpture is perhaps the most diverse range of sculpture in existence, perhaps because clay has been used to make art objects longer than any other material. In Contemporary Clay Sculpture: Modern Ceramic Sculpture as Narrative, Object, and Decor, we present four artists who approach clay with different messages through diverse techniques: Scott Ziegler’s highly detailed ceramic sculptures with intricate glazing details; Joseph Pintz’ bold clay sculptures of plain and ordinary objects; Lydia Thompson’s slip cast and handbuilt ceramic wall art; and Magda Gluszek working from a small maquette to a large, highly decorated ceramic figure. Whether you’re investigating large or small scale forms, discovering new designs or techniques for your own ceramic art, or just want some new sculpture ideas to add to your repertoire, Contemporary Clay Sculpture provides an excellent resource.

Check out this excerpt:

Scott Ziegler’s Highly Detailed Ceramic Sculptures

Julie Murphy

Scott Ziegler is an artist and a teacher. For the past several years, while teaching at the high school and college levels, Ziegler has become acutely aware that many students prefer the instant gratification of technologies like video games, iPods and text messaging to dedicating a few hours to complete a ceramics project to the best of their abilities.

As a sculptor of highly detailed pieces, Ziegler has sometimes been criticized for spending too much time on the intricate elements in his own work. Critics have suggested he find ways to speed up his process or look for alternate ways of achieving the same outcomes. But, believing in his process, and pleased with the results of his attention to detail, he continued spending countless hours creating each piece.

Though the criticism did not change the way he worked, he started to question whether he was dissatisfied with anything short of perfection, or if he held himself—and his students—to an unusually high set of standards. He also wondered whether working toward continuously exceeding his own expectations was beneficial.

These questions led him to explore the idea of perfectionism. When applied to the ceramic arts, and especially to his own work, Ziegler suggests that perfectionism is more about the evolution of an artist’s confidence in his processes—it takes courage to enter into new and unfamiliar territory rather than producing the same work repeatedly or simply replicating a process because it gains recognition. Mastery of material, attention to detail and flawless execution sets an outstanding piece apart from the rest.

Ziegler learned this lesson after graduating from college, while working as a toy designer for a small design firm in Chicago. Side-by-side with the owner, learning the detailed work required to produce objects to scale, he acquired the skills necessary to improve his sculpting ability. He explored materials, cultivated patience and discovered the many processes needed to take a project from inception to completion. He was encouraged to be part of the process, and taught not to accept his first idea, or even a good idea, as the gold standard. As he nurtured his creativity, and refined his skills, he sought to exceed his own expectations with the creative process and the outcome.

Expiration Date, 13 in. (33 cm) in length, porcelain, colored slips and glazes, fired to cone 6. Photos above courtesy of the artist.

Ziegler saw a dramatic shift in his work. While his art had always been sculptural, his early years had been spent learning, exploring and pushing the boundaries and limitations of clay; his ideas were material-based, not idea-based. He created large-scale work, pushing the size limitations of his material. He experimented with surface decoration and the glazing process, and he developed work that combined throwing and hand-building techniques. As a toy designer, he developed and refined his meticulous attention to detail and gained confidence as an artist. He began applying the same level of precision to his own work, creating pieces unlike anything he’d ever produced before. Believing he had developed a reasonable understanding of the material, he focused on perfecting the form. He spent incredible amounts of time on each piece, concentrating on symmetry, detail and realism—elements critical to his success as a toy designer.

The precision of his forms and surface detail shifted his attention to glazes and glazing techniques. His work had always been fired in gas kilns, soda kilns and salt kilns using traditional cone 9/10 glazes, but because of the inconsistent results these glazes produced, they weren’t practical for the detailed work he was creating now. He experimented with a variety of low-fire materials (cone 018–01), including underglazes, glazes and lusters, drawn to them because of the wide range of vivid colors available. The low-fire materials met his expectations, producing consistent results and allowing him to be more precise. He began using them exclusively.

Roll Model, 7 in. (18 cm) in height, colored slips and glazes, fired to cone 6.

Ziegler had taught community art classes and, though he found working at the toy company satisfying, realized he missed teaching. He had enjoyed the connections formed with students and missed watching a student grasp a process for the first time, to be inspired and put forth the effort required to be thrilled with their result, so he decided to return to school to pursue an M.Ed. in Art Education. While completing his degree, he was invited to join the fine arts faculty at a high school with a strong arts program. He received his M.Ed. during his first year of teaching there and later continued his studies in art by pursuing an M.F.A., believing one of the best ways to develop as an artist is through exposure to different and unfamiliar styles, techniques and schools of thought.

He knew he would be challenged, and that his work would be critiqued and criticized, and he welcomed the process, hoping it would encourage him to continue testing the limits of his materials.

As a graduate student, he developed a body of work that pushed him outside his comfort zone as he began to confront childhood experiences he had ignored for years—Ziegler grew up in a dysfunctional family, one rooted in alcohol addiction. Building on the precision he had learned as a toy designer, his pieces became more detailed than ever before. Because he spent so much time working with and mastering his materials, he felt a sense of control over his work for the first time. He realized the detail he put into his pieces was as much for himself as it was for the viewer. It was a way for him to counteract the chaos he experienced growing up; the detail gave him a feeling of control. He had finally discovered a way to express his experiences in a way he was comfortable with.

In his quest for control over his art, he revisited his glazes. While pleased with the colors, stability and level of detail he was able to achieve, the porous low-fire materials he had been using were attracting fingerprints, smudges and dirt—highly undesirable effects when work is designed to engage the viewer, draw them in and encourage them to interact with it. Ziegler began looking for commercially available, alternative glazes and tested numerous options, but none met his needs. Frustrated with the lack of options, he investigated making his own cone 6 underglazes and glazes. After months of testing, he started using commercial stains mixed with slip.

He applied it to his pieces in the same way he had been using the low-fire underglazes and lusters, and was able to achieve the same results with none of the limitations. He was also able to produce a wider range of colors than ever before.

Though he has learned an incredible amount about himself and his materials, and has developed and refined techniques that will last him a lifetime, his journey has just begun. He knows he must continue to evolve today to get where he wants to be tomorrow. After all, to Ziegler, the perfect piece is a result of a multifaceted, always evolving process and perfection is always one step away.

The Adversary, 9 in. (23 cm) in height, porcelain, colored slips and glazes, fired to cone 6.

the author Julie Murphy is a writer living in Chicago, Illinois.

The Everyday Clay Sculptures of Joseph Pintz

by Casey Ruble

On the other end of the ceramic sculpture spectrum is Joseph Pintz and his simple yet elegant clay sculptures  some in the form of utilitarian items and some duplicating common ordinary objects. Pintz carves away the clay to get the effect he needs and his application of simple underglazes further adds to the honest quality of the work.

The Ceramic Wall Art of Lydia Thompson

by Glen Brown

Lydia Thompson’s message is for us to see opposites around us in her work: purity and corruption, beauty and evil, attractiveness and repugnance. Through her use of white slip forms and handbuilt earthenware holders, she uses opposing techniques that contrast light and dark, earthenware and porcelain in her ceramic wall sculptures.

The Ceramic Art Sculptures of Magda Gluszek

by Magda Gluszek

Madga’s clay sculptures investigate ideas about consumption, self-preservation, and societal behaviors versus animalistic impulses. Her ceramic technique is to build a form out of solid clay then hollow out the inside. Her use of epoxy resins and acrylic paints allow her a great deal of flexibility for communicating through clay.

Download the free guide right now, and become a better ceramic artist tomorrow. That’s our promise to you from Ceramic Arts Network!

Best regards,

Jennifer Poellot Harnetty
Editor, Ceramic Arts Daily

PS: Remember, the artists featured on Ceramic Arts Network are among the top ceramic artists in the world today, who excel in everything from functional pottery to abstract ceramic sculpture. When you download one of our free guides, you get the best possible advice available and you become a part of our community – enjoying our artists’ stories, gaining inspiration from their work and finding confidence to try new techniques every day!

PPS: Even if you’re not brand new to clay, this guide is bound to have some tips in it that you’ve never heard before – and remember, it’s absolutely FREE, so why wouldn’t you read it today?

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