Sprigs offer an endless variety of options for embellishment. Applied to enhance the surface, they accentuate curves and delineate transitions adding a variety of visual density, depth, and complex textural elements. Beyond the surface application, sprigs may also be used as structural components when building smaller objects such as cups or tumblers. With a simple system of foam supports, sprigs may easily be assembled giving rise to various repetitive patterns or discordant textural elements for visceral dynamism and vitality of form.
For ease in assembling, press out and store sprigs ahead of time. A clay humidor can easily be made from a plastic snap-lid container in which a plaster slab has been cast into the bottom 1⁄3. After the plaster has set up and dried, soak it with water, then set your freshly-pressed clay sprigs on top of the plaster to keep them damp and pliable (1).
Foam Construction Materials
Use foam to support individual sprigs while building up forms. From 1-inch-thick foam sheets, use an X-Acto knife to bevel-cut a circle that correlates to the diameter of the cup you plan to build. Increase the circle diameter by ½ inch as you cut each sheet (see figure 1). These concentric rings of foam can be stacked accordingly for individual pieces while nesting a form to work on.
I suggest keeping the cutout circles as well. These can be stacked to create an adjustable handbuilding chuck when inverting your piece to attach a foot ring (see figure 1).
For an interior support system, cut a dome shape from a 4-inch-thick piece of foam, with a base diameter equal to the diameter of the circle cutouts (see figure 1).
1. Humidor with damp plaster, wet clay sprigs, sprig molds, and foam supports for assembling.
2. Press out fan shaped sprigs which flare to easily nest rings of sprigs as you work up form.
Building the Cup Base
To form the bottom curve of the cup, press several wide-shaped sprigs about ¼-inch thick (2). Clean the edges with an X-Acto blade and sponge.
Working in a counter-clockwise direction around the dome-shaped foam support, shape and place each sprig by overlapping the preceding sprig edge by ¼ inch (3). Score, slip, and attach, then reinforce the attachments by ribbing the overlapped area. It’s important to use a tool that makes similar markings as those on the surface of your sprig when reinforcing any seam. This tends to limit damage to sprigs while building.
After completing the bottom portion of the cup, enclose the base with a sprig of correlating size. I usually use a sprig with a completely different texture for this part. Shape the sprig to follow the curve of the base before scoring and attaching (4).
3. A foam dome supports the sprigs as you construct the cup base.
4. Attach a bottom sprig to fill in the base. Reinforce the seamed areas.
5. Flip the base over and into the foam. Begin overlapping the next layer of sprigs.
Building Up the Body
After the base has dried to a point where it holds its shape, place it upright in your stacked foam support rings. Smooth the inside seams, then score the top inside edge of the wall ¼ inch down from the lip before adding the next layer of sprigs.
Press out four more wider-shaped sprigs that are slightly larger on the bottom and top edge ratio than the sprigs used in forming the base of the cup. Clean up the edges.
Place the sprigs in a counter-clockwise manner, overlapping the preceding sprig edge by ¼ inch. Score, slip, and attach, then smooth the seams (5). Let the form stiffen.
Adding a Foot Ring
Place the foam dome support inside of the cup (6), and invert both the foam and the cup at the same time. Now the foam dome pieces act as a chuck (7). Note: Make sure the height of the chuck is taller than the cup to prevent damage to the rim.
Center the cup on a banding wheel and mark the diameter where a foot ring should be attached.
Press out four more sprigs that correlate with the height of foot you want. Assemble the foot ring by overlapping one sprig edge over the preceding one as you work. Score, slip, and attach the pieces to form the foot. Make any adjustments to the curve and pitch of the foot ring as needed (8). Use a tool to match the texture of the sprigs, such as a rib edge, as you blend the foot into the form. You may also want to run a band of slip around the attachment area to further adhere the foot to the base.
Once the base has stiffened and it can hold the weight of the cup form, invert it, then feel free to embellish the cup with smaller decorative sprigs. This is a nice way to cover up seams and draw the user’s eyes and hands around the cup.
6. A foam dome supports the sprigs as you construct the cup base.
7. Attach a bottom sprig to fill in the base. Reinforce the seamed areas.
8. Flip the base over and into the foam. Begin overlapping the next layer of sprigs.
Creating a Handle
When creating and assembling a handle, the options are numerous. Dynamic curves and counter-curves exemplified through texture can be formed from sprigs to create a truly eccentric attachment. Explore all options, however discordant, before committing to one handle as your answer to this visual component. Play is essential.
Press two to three oblong tapered sprigs for a handle (9). Cut and clean the sprig edges with a sponge, then form them into curves to form a handle shape appropriate for your cup form (10). Overlap the ends of the sprigs by ¼ inch, then score and slip them together. Let the handle stiffen on foam before scoring its ends and attaching it to the cup. Add decorative sprigs to the handle for further embellishment (11).
9. Press oblong, tapered sprigs that can be used for handle construction.
10. Curve and overlap the sprigs to form a handle. Allow the handle stiffen up.
11. Attach the handle to the cup and add sprig embellishments. All process photos: Adam Gruetzmacher.
Finishing the Form
Dry the piece slowly upside down with the supporting foam chuck in place and, if needed a support for the handle. When the cup is at the leather-hard phase, smooth out any interior seams.
Once adept in this construction method you can explore the endless combinations of shapes and textures that sprigs have to offer when building cups and other small-sized vessels. Embracing the variables and remaining open to the process inherently gives rise to more dynamic forms, adding depth and variety to your repertoire.
Tumbler, 6 in. (15 cm) in height, handbuilt porcelain sprigs, fired to cone 6, 2016. Cake stand, 10 in. (25 cm) in height, porcelain, slab and sprig built, fired to cone 6, 2016. Candle holder, 10 in. (25 cm) in height, handbuilt porcelain sprigs, fired to cone 13, 2014. All photos of finished work: Peter Lee.
Kate Maury received her MFA from the New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University. She is a professor of Art and Design at the University of Wisconsin-Stout in Menomonie, Wisconsin. Check out her Ceramic Arts Daily Presents DVD, Function and Adornment: Handbuilding Functional and Decorative Forms with Kate Maury, available at https://ceramicartsnetwork.org/bookstore.