In his letter to artists, Pope John Paul II said, “The purpose of art is nothing less than the upliftment of the human spirit.” Focusing my work through the lens of my Catholic faith has given me an appreciation for the traditions found in the church, including architectural influences. When Notre-Dame de Paris Cathedral caught fire, this disaster sparked a desire to pay tribute not only to the physical structure, but also to everything she stands for. The construction of a monumental cathedral wasn’t just an expression of faith but a means to bring a community closer together. The laborers involved in the building of a cathedral were varied, with many of them being artists/craftsmen, including painters, glass workers, masons, and wood carvers. By way of referencing Gothic architecture, I attempt to connect both the corporeal and spiritual worlds. My hope is to contribute something beautiful to society, something that will impact the human heart, drawing us out of ourselves into something greater and higher, something that can fill us with a hunger for truth, goodness, and beauty.

When I designed my mug, I wanted to combine the mundane with the ornate by making a basic cylinder that is highly decorative. Not only is the church represented visually because of the reference to Gothic cathedrals but also symbolically by bringing ornamentation to our day-to-day lives.

Throwing the Mug Shape

To create a mug, I use Laguna SB Red clay, specifically because of how well it works with white terra sigillata applied over it. More broadly, red clay for me represents a connection to my Mexican heritage. The region of Jalisco, Mexico, where I’m from, is widely known for its red dirt that is rich in minerals. 

Start by weighing out and wedging 1½ pounds of clay. Center and throw the ball of clay to 4½ inches tall and 4 inches wide. When finishing up, smooth the outside with a flat-edge metal rib (1). A smooth surface is best when transferring the design. My carving process can be applied to any form, but the simplest form is a straight-walled cylinder.

Creating/Choosing a Design

The following step is coming up with a design. In my search for inspiration, I have visited many churches during my travels. I take photos to use as resources as well as scour the internet for Gothic architecture. I reference pointed arches, columns, windows, and tracery, and take into consideration the negative space. 

My next step is to go into Adobe Illustrator and make a contour line drawing of the arches I found most attractive, making sure I’m utilizing the entire canvas that will then be printed on an 8½×11 sheet of paper (2). Don’t worry If you don’t have Illustrator or any other graphics software, the key is to have a high-contrast line drawing without shading or extreme details. 

1 Smooth the outside of the mug with a flat-edge metal rib. 2 Use Adobe Illustrator or other graphics software to create your design.

Image Transfer with Tattoo Paper

To date, the best tool I have found for transferring designs is tattoo-transfer paper, which is typically used by tattoo artists. It works similar to carbon paper. You trace a design on top of the tattoo paper with a ballpoint pen or a metal ball stylus and the ink transfers to the paper. When I first started this process, I traced my designs by hand, but it was very time consuming. To expedite the process, I purchased a thermal printer (also used in tattoo studios) (3) that uses the same tattoo paper and printer paper. 

After tracing or printing your designs, cut out the portion of the design that you want to use and position it on the mug. Be sure to let your piece dry to leather hard before applying the transfers. After tracing or printing your designs, peel the paper backing from the ink-transfer sheet (4). The paper will have the imprint of the line drawing you made that can now be transferred to your cup. Cut out the portion of the design that you want to use, and position it on the mug where you want it transferred. Be sure to let the piece dry to leather hard before applying the transfers. Use a fine-misting spray bottle to wet the clay, and then place the transfer paper on the mug and compress with a flexible rubber rib (5). Continue this process all the way around the mug. Sometimes a single sheet of transfer paper isn’t enough, so I cut and splice as needed to fill in spots. After you peel away the transfer paper (6), the ink is left on the surface of the mug. Being an organic material, any traces of the ink will burn away during the firing. 

3 Use a thermal printer to make a transfer with cleaner, crisper lines in the design. 4 Peel away the transfer paper from the ink-paper backing.5 Compress the transfer paper onto the mug with a soft rubber rib. 6 Peel away the transfer paper, leaving the ink on the clay.

Carving for Definition

The carving process begins right after transferring the image. I use the P1 Curved V Tip Carving Tool from Diamond Core Tools to do all the line carvings (7) and the P5 Curved Square Tip 9 mm Carving Tool (aka the Relief Carver) for the relief carving (8). I carve about 1/16 of an inch deep and the tools cut so clean that there is no post cleanup of the carvings necessary.

7 Carve the contour lines using a V-tipped carving tool. 8 Carve the relief areas with a curved square-tipped carving tool.

Making and Adding a Handle

Once you’ve finished all the carving, the mug is ready to have its handle attached. I start off with a ball of clay about 1½ inches in diameter and roll it in my hands into a 3-inch long, carrot-shaped coil. I pick a spot on the mug where the handle won’t obscure important parts of the carved design and then slip and score the attachment area and secure the fat part of the coil to the mug. Then I start pulling the coil into a handle. This is called pulling from the cup. I am not concerned about the carvings; I place my handles directly on top, and as I press the clay coil into the mug, it fills in any gaps.

Decorating the Surface

After letting the mug dry to bone dry, dip it into white terra sigillata (9). I make my terra sigillata by mixing 1 part Grolleg and 2 parts XX Saggar ball clay. I quickly dip the mug into the terra sigillata and only do so once to avoid building up a thick layer on the piece. I like to use terra sigillata instead of regular slip because the fine particles allow the red clay to show through in a ghostly way. 

I sign the bottom of the mug using a sgraffito tool right after dipping it into the terra sigillata. This creates a higher contrast signature between the red clay and the white terra sigillata. Once the terra sigillata is completely dry, bisque fire the mug.

9 Wait until the mug is bone dry, then dip it into terra sigillata. 10 Use an MKM Decorating Disk to divide the bisque-fired mug into 7 sections.11 Apply your choice of underglaze to the sections of the design. 12 Wipe away the underglaze, leaving it only in the carved areas.

After the bisque firing, I use an MKM Decorating Disk to divide the mug into 7 even sections, marking them using a pencil (10). Each section will be painted with a different underglaze color, representative of the colors used in stained-glass windows. I apply the purple, dark and light blue, green, yellow, orange, and red underglazes to the sections (11) and then wipe away excess from each one with a clean wet sponge so that only the low-carved parts are filled in with color (12). 

Finally, I pour a clear liner glaze into the interior and dip the exterior in a diluted glaze wash to seal the terra sigillata and the colors, and then it’s ready for a cone-6 glaze firing. After firing, the final step is a light sanding with 320-grit sandpaper to give it a velvety-smooth feel.

Horacio Casillas is from San Angelo, Texas, and received his MFA from the University of North Texas. He is currently a resident artist at Companion Gallery in Humboldt, Tennessee. To see more of his work, visit and follow him on Instagram @horacio_casillas_jr.