I love to make new work; new challenges tease my creativity. The challenge of creating objects that are innovative and extraordinary motivates me to keep working as a ceramic artist. I believe in the principal that creativity is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration. I try to use everything in my conceptual toolbox to turn my ideas into reality, so I am constantly embracing new techniques that I can adapt and use in my own processes.
A trip to Italy inspired my direction in ceramics. It was not only the architecture, the art, and the music, but also the small antique items I came across that influenced me. My background in graphic design and an interest in the history of handwriting attracted me to objects from the 17th and 18th centuries that were used in the process of writing—like ink stands, quills, and containers.
I bought a couple of antique-style ink pens for my collection and felt that they deserved a permanent display space. A handmade ceramic box or stand with storage compartments can be a special place to store keepsakes—objects with sentimental value or that have a sense of preciousness. At the same time, it could be an object of contemplation that ornaments a desk. It takes more than just a glance at a piece to see its total beauty; I want the viewer to discover more every time they use it.
I start by sketching, and during this process, I consider the forming methods, the materials I will use, and different surface treatment options. I also think about function, scale, decoration, and firing temperatures. Handbuilding, wheel throwing, and making specific molds are a few techniques that I have incorporated in the process for making a keepsake box.
On my first attempt at constructing a new piece, I am not seeking to keep it; I am just interested in figuring everything out. During the making process, I solve any problems that I encounter. After the bisque firing, I check for any structural problems like warpage or cracks. This also gives me a good sense of the scale and functionality.
For this project, I chose a low-fire, white clay body, which combines the smoothness and brightness of porcelain with the benefits of less shrinkage and minimal warping during firing that are characteristic of low-fired clay.
Creating Templates and Throwing Boxes
Make the templates by drawing a full-scale, two-dimensional design of the piece. The templates need to be slightly larger than the real piece to compensate for the clay’s shrinkage. In this case, the template dimensions are: 9½ in. (24 cm) wide × 2 in. (5.5 cm) long × 1 in. (3 cm) high (1).
To make the storage pieces that fit into the stand, throw three small, straight-sided cylinders with a slightly larger rim and set a gallery for each lid (2). Use about 7 ounces (200g) of clay for each box. Usually, the three boxes end up slightly different in size (about 2½ inches (6.5 cm) in diameter and 2⅓ inches (6 cm) in height each), but I like their uniqueness.
Throw the lids upside down, like small shallow bowls, and use calipers to measure the box gallery to ensure the lid will fit (3). Then turn the lid onto its rim and trim it into a rounded dome. These pieces are about 2½ inches (6 cm) in diameter × ⅝ inch (1.5 cm) high.
Form a knob on the wheel using just the tip of a centered hump of clay. Throw knobs in varied sizes and shapes, cut the knob off the hump, let it stiffen to leather hard, then hand carve lines on it (4). Wrap it in plastic to attach later.
Constructing the Stand
Roll out a slab ¼ in. (0.7 cm) thick, then use a firm rib to compress each side in all directions. When the slab is at a firm leather-hard stage, fit the template on the slab, trace around it with a needle tool, then cut it out with a sharp knife.
Start building the body by scoring, slipping, and attaching the first three sides to the large slab (5). Using a square, trim the excess clay at the end of the two shorter sides. Score and slip the last side slab and attach in place. Press down gently on the body using a board to make sure everything is on the same level.
Gently paddle the sides to compress the joints—I use a custom-made paddle with a flat bottom to do this. Add thin coils to each joined seam. This reinforces the piece’s structure and prevent cracks. First, press the coils with a rounded end tool to compress them into the joint (6) and then use a larger tool with a rounded end to blend and smooth them in.
Cut four small triangles from leftover slab pieces and attach them to the corners of the body. These triangles provide stability during construction. Use the paddle to support the exterior of the corners while attaching the triangles to the interior (7).
You will need to build an internal structure within the underside of the piece for support so it does not sag during the firing. Start by incising a line on the bottom of the stand that divides the piece in the middle lengthwise. Cut a slab to the matching height and length, score, slip, then attach the slab to the bottom of the stand. Incise lines that divide one of the halves into three equal parts and add two smaller slabs in the same manner (8). Now add small coils to all the joints, blend in and smooth the inside corners. Press the finished slabs against the paddle to straighten and compress the divisions. Carefully flip the piece right side up while sandwiched between two boards so as not to distort it.
Start the main part of the feet with a pre-made sprig mold. Use circular metal cutters to cut out disks from a thin slab of clay (9). Score attachment points and apply slip, then secure the small disk on the top part of the foot and a wider one onto the bottom. When the feet are leather hard, wrap them in plastic to use later.
Form a Curved Tray
Measure the cylindrical boxes and use a slightly larger diameter circular metal cutter to make three holes in the stand, one in each of the three smaller sections separated by the support slabs. These will be where each of the boxes are stored and displayed. Cut out a long, rectangular shape with round ends from the larger section of the stand to create a space for the tray compartment (10).
Roll out a fresh slab of clay slightly larger than the tray area and position it over the rounded-corner rectangular opening. Curve the edges a little bit and coax it into the space. Using a damp sponge, press down gently to form an even, concave depression (11). Trim the edges to size so it is flush with the surface, then add a thin coil to the joint and smooth it with a soft rib (12). Turn the piece upside down and add a small coil to the bottom joint in the same fashion. Compress the joints with a soft rib to smooth out any imperfections.
Cut out two side template profiles (one of the longer sides and one of the shorter sides). Trace the templates onto both sides of the piece with a pin tool (13). Use a sharp, thin blade to cut away the profile (14), then use the cut-out portion to trace the opposite side. Tip: Insert a pin tool in the intersecting points of the traced lines, making a tiny hole before starting the cutting. Begin to cut from these points; the compression from the needle tool will help prevent nasty cracks from forming. Cut off the corners of the division slabs and the triangle ends by curving them up to meet the profile of the newly cut sides. Refine and smooth out all the cut areas (15) with a damp white Mudtools sponge.
Preparing the Surface
Add texture to the entire piece using a serrated metal Mudtools rib. Using a mini extruder, make flat, thin coils of clay to frame the sides, around the curved tray, and the holes where the boxes will sit. Using water, attach the coils and smooth all of the seams (16).
Score the feet and corners, thoroughly coat the attachment points in slip, then secure them to the corners (17). Tip: Because the attachment area is small, I stick a piece of Nichrome wire halfway through the foot and halfway into the piece to secure it in place. Level the piece by adjusting the feet so it sits flat on the table.
Wrap the assembled piece very well in plastic for one day to allow all the parts to equalize in moisture content.
Decorating the Surface
To reference the embossed decorations and ornate carvings on historical pieces, I used stencils to add white slip motifs. I recommend using thicker slip so it does not run under the stencils (18). Clean any smudges that inevitably occur.
Apply underglaze transfers to add decorative floral-patterned details and color to the piece. To me, it also refers back to the ceramic history of decoration. I use commercial Chinese Sanbao transfers, which are easy to apply using water. I apply the transfer to the trimmed lid, then center the jar on the wheel, place the lid on the jar, and score and slip the knob in place.
Insert the lidded jars into the holes in the tray to let them dry together with the piece.
Drying, Firing, and Glazing
Because this piece has many seams, I let it dry slowly over a few days before bisque firing it. Loosely drape a piece of fabric over it and then cover the piece with plastic to slow the drying process. The plastic traps the moisture and the fabric prevents condensation. After one or two days, remove the plastic and leave it covered with just the fabric. When the piece is close to the bone-dry stage, remove the fabric and let it dry completely.
Slowly bisque fire the piece to cone 04. Brush a clear glaze over the entire piece, except the bottom, gallery, and rim of the lid, and then glaze fire to cone 05 in an electric kiln.
All photos: Marco A.F. Brandão.
Célia Zveibil Brandão is a ceramic artist and teacher and has been a potter for 30 years. Her work has been featured in ceramics books and magazines and has been exhibited nationally and internationally. Celia maintains a full-time ceramics studio in Toronto, Canada, and one in São Paulo, Brazil, for few months of the year. To see more, visit www.celiazbrandao.com and on Instagram @celiazbrandao.