I know many artists who have discovered how to make an object, and they make it, or a version of it, extraordinarily well. Through trial and error, with prototypes, testing materials, experimenting with different tools, and a continuous development of concepts, they arrive at a solid body of work that stands as their signature style. These artists have honed their references, have grasped the subtle quirks of their materials, and know at exactly what stage in the process specific moves must be made. Observing these artists in action is like watching an impeccable dancer move with music that is innately understood.
Most of us strive for this level of fluidity. In my studio practice, I go through a consistent process of decision-making and experimentation, but even though there is consistency to my work in general, each piece I create asks me to make very different decisions. The work evolves, but does not replicate; I consistently need to sketch, cut out paper profiles, and make test tiles. This is all part of my creative process for each new piece. Anticipating the discoveries that will be unveiled while developing new sculptures fuels my creative spirit.
Because constructing a piece can take anywhere from two weeks to two months, it’s crucial to make thoughtful decisions. I begin with a storyboard or collection of images, drawings, and writings from which I extract inspiration. The creative process continues as I cut profiles out of paper that help me see the potential forms to scale. The shapes typically derive from a specific resource, such as Victorian furniture, fragments from botanical illustrations, and curves from the human form. I look for graceful and curving lines, ornate carvings, and dramatic proportions, then I translate these into forms. The cut-paper profiles can be arranged spontaneously and adjusted to create a profile that alludes to the source imagery.
When I begin a form, I consider all options and weigh my aesthetic decisions carefully. Options include: materials, forming methods, scale, firing temperature, surface treatments, color, the timing of processes, and, most importantly, content.
Decisions in Motion
Once I’ve decided upon the scale and proportions, the construction process begins using straightforward coil building. The type of clay body used depends on the form or surface technique. For example, if I’m building an especially complicated piece, or if I’m concerned about an underglaze shifting colors at cone 5, I’ll use a white, low-fire talc clay body. For this particular piece, I wanted to integrate the fine lines created by the mishima process with delicately sculpted patterned petal/leaf additions. Mishima, a slip inlay technique, beautifully lends itself to porcelain, since it’s a fine-grained clay body.
To capture the precise profile, the base of the form was refined at the leather-hard stage using a Surform, scraping with a metal rib, and sponging. The clay was then compressed with a rubber rib to avoid any potential cracks from forming between the coils. Next, I constructed the top of the form, which was coil built directly on top of the base form, but not connected to it (figure 1).
As I completed the form, I expanded the walls from the inside, conveying a sensuality with the swell of the profile. I drew upon the supple curves of the female form, making reference to hips, waist, and shoulders. In this piece I looked at the natural weight of breasts and how they swell and tuck back into the body, as well as the inward roll of the shoulders and the dramatic rise of the elongated neck elegantly craned upward. At this point, the form didn’t so much read as animated or figurative, but more austere.
While building the main form, I also constructed small petal/leaf parts that were applied on the surface. I cut them out of a thin, soft leather-hard slab and then textured them with a plastic embossing tool designed for paper (figure 2).
In determining how to incorporate the delicately patterned small-scale parts with the overall form, I allowed myself time to try out various options and considered each carefully. At first I designed it so that the petals/leaves uniformly encircle the base, but I felt that there was too much of a reference to cake decoration, ornate dresses, or the ruffles of a bed skirt. When the repetitive, small-scale parts were arranged exclusively at the top around the neck of the piece, they too closely resembled a 16th-century ruff (a large, round, pleated collar). Through this exploration, I enjoyed how the fragmented petals began to slide off the neck along the body in an asymmetrical fashion, creating a natural gravity to the piece, like water flowing over an edge or flowers embellishing everyday domestic objects (figure 3). These small constructed petals/leaves were systematically scored, slipped, and attached to one another. They accumulate and cascade over the shoulder of the piece.
The petal/leaf additions were bisqued while on the form, but not attached until they were glazed together. This meant that everything was perfectly sized, and I could separate the parts, thus making all surfaces accessible for glazing, including all of the nooks and crannies of the petal/leaf forms.
When the clay was at the leather-hard stage, I was ready to begin the mishima process. I used a number of small, pointed carving tools to draw shallow lines in a dense flower pattern over the form’s surface (figure 4). I allowed the clay to become almost bone-dry, then painted AMACO underglaze over the lines. I let it dry then delicately wiped the piece with a damp sponge until only a residue of the underglaze remained inlaid into the carved lines (figure 5). Last, I used a circular hole-punching tool to cut small patterns from floral-patterned Chinese cobalt transfer tissue paper sheets. Using water, the tissue paper pattern was transferred to the center of each flower (figure 6). All of this delicate detail will ultimately peek out from beneath the sculpted petal/leaf forms and a glossy runny glaze.
Simultaneous Surface Considerations
While constructing the form, I simultaneously built and explored surface options by working on small leather-hard tiles (figure 7). These crucial surface explorations provided the opportunity to take risks with color, pattern, composition, glaze, and multiple firings that I might not have otherwise tried if I only had the bisque piece to work with. Furthermore, I used these tiles to test several glazes on top of underglaze surface work to confirm that I could achieve the desired effect. This is imperative for my creative process.
Referencing my finished test tiles, I drew, painted, and/or printed snippets and sections of detail and ornament extracted from the investigations. On this piece, I used small circular sections from the tissue transfer sheets. These carefully chosen fragments accumulated organically across the final piece. One might recognize floral motifs, snowflakes, microbes, or calligraphy within the multi-layered surfaces. The final result is a sense of order achieved by creatively coupling linear patterns and areas of solid color.
Glazing Follow Through
After the piece was bisque fired, it was time to dive into glazing. Typically, I paint on commercial glazes or spray on hand-mixed glazes. For this piece, I started by applying tape as a resist to create crisp vertical lines (figure 8), then painted a few coats of a blue glaze onto the piece before removing the tape. I regularly use cut paper stencils on leather-hard clay or tape on bisqued clay to provide a crisp and definitive edge of color.
Next, AMACO low-fire LM-10 clear glaze was applied over the mishima flowers (figure 9). This glaze can be fired hotter than recommended, which allows the glaze to shift, softening the lines when over fired. Wax resist was then carefully painted over the outlining contour of the flower drawings, previously covered with the clear glaze. The wax-covered edge provided protection for the glaze work underneath and created a precise perimeter between each glazed section. For the yellow glaze, I chose from a series of color tests with varying proportions of yellow stains mixed into AMACO LM-11 Opaque White. This soft, matte yellow glaze was painted and sponged over the entire bottom portion of the piece, even in the little negative spaces between the mishima flower drawings (figure 10). Finally, I layered three different AMACO glazes from the Opalescent series to provide a runny and luscious surface on the petals/leaves.
The rhythm in everyone’s studio is different. The time and energy spent designing, crafting, experimenting, and making committed decisions is a personal balancing act. With the completion of each new sculpture, I am provided with a valuable opportunity to learn from my decisions and their execution. I sometimes open the kiln to some level of surprise. In this case, I was thrilled to find no real problems, like a crack or a glaze flaw. However, due to firing a bit more slowly than I did during my testing, the glaze runs were more than I had anticipated. Luckily, they were a pleasant surprise, contributing to the rich, layered surface.
I Think of Blue Flowers, 13 in. (33 cm) in height, coil-built porcelain, tissue paper trans-fers, mishima, underglazes, low-fire glazes, fired in an electric kiln to cone 5, 2014.
Erin Furimsky is a studio artist and educator in Normal, Illinois. She received a BFA from the Pennsylvania State University and an MFA from The Ohio State University. She has exhibited her work nationally and international and has been featured in numerous books and catalogs. She was an emerging artist for NCECA and had artist residencies at the Archie Bray Foundation, The Watershed Center for the Ceramic Arts and the Oregon College of Art and Design.
Subscriber Extras: Images