I grew up in Chicago, Illinois, a city with massive stone and terra-cotta architecture and towering skyscrapers. Many of the buildings date back to the early 20th-century when ornamentation of architecture was in vogue. These were the buildings of Daniel Burnham, Dankmar Adler, and Louis Sullivan, the last of whom had a big impact on my work in graduate school. When his style of decoration went out of fashion, some of his buildings were torn down to make way for more Modernist designs. During their demolition, some of his terra-cotta facades and iron interior elements made their way to my school, Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, where I had extensive access to them.
Observing this collection of artifacts uncovered memories I had of these ever-present ornaments. I could not have described any of these designs prior to seeing them again, but they were immediately recognizable. I started thinking about how memory is an intangible concept we all experience—at the same time both vivid and unclear, changing with the years. Something that was once concrete and verifiable becomes altered by a lifetime of experiences. I started to make connections between memory and these architectural elements I was studying. Both would eventually erode over time, becoming obscured remnants of the original.
My research into architecture and memory led me to my current work and approach to surface decoration. I decided to use terra cotta with grog to represent the original material that these works are based on. I took inspiration from the three-dimensional architectural ornamentation and re-interpreted it into stylized two-dimensional surface motifs. This diminished dimensionality conveys the transformation of our memories from real-world existence to information preserved in our minds. The imagery is dragged and blurred by my glaze so that the design is no longer crisp, but instead has a sense of decay. These obscured surfaces suggest a cognitive and physical impermanence that we all experience.
I enjoy the activity of construction, taking multiple parts and connecting them together to form a more complete piece. My work starts on the wheel with the throwing of the main body of a piece (1). After that I continue with handbuilding at the soft leather-hard stage. This could include adding slab-built bottoms and lids, or coils that act as a glaze catch (2, 3). Some forms, such as jars, make their way back to the wheel to have attachments thrown onto the form. Lid galleries and raised feet start out as coils that will be slipped and scored into place, and then thrown into the desired size and shape (4, 5). The final additions are handles, either functional or decorative, that are handbuilt and attached to the piece (6).
Preparing the Surface
Once the pot reaches bone dry, several layers of terra sigillata and slip are applied to the surface (7). Any part of the piece that will remain unglazed is covered in red terra sigillata, while all exterior surfaces that will be glazed have a white slip applied. The pots are then loaded into the kiln for their initial bisque firing (the first of three firings). When cooled and unloaded, a layer of black underglaze is brushed on the entire exterior of the pot (8). This underglaze is then wiped off, leaving behind just enough black to highlight both the texture of the raw clay and the slight crackle pattern in the white slip (9). The pot is left to dry overnight before the design work begins.
Applying the design to the surface starts with sectioning off the pot using a circle divider and a template that will evenly space segments on the piece. This allows me to determine how many design elements I can fit onto its surface with even spacing and no overlap. Once the spacing is figured out, vertical lines are lightly drawn onto the pot. These lines will guide me when applying the decoration. Since the lines are drawn in pencil, they will burn off in the next firing.
All of my surface designs are first created digitally in Adobe Illustrator and imported into Make The Cut (10). This software communicates with my die cutter, which is similar to a desktop printer, where a razor will cut each design element out of a sheet of adhesive vinyl. When the cutting is complete, removing the negative section of the vinyl leaves behind my intended design. A layer of transfer tape is laid out and secured to the vinyl and the larger design sheet is cut into smaller strips to be individually placed onto the work (11). After removing the backing from each strip, they are laid out on the pot using the pencil lines as guides, and the strip is compressed to the surface. At this point, the transfer tape is removed, leaving only the vinyl design on the work (12). Once the pot is decorated, I apply a layer of liquid wax to the entire piece and allow it to dry. I add food coloring to the wax to more easily see where the design is on the surface. When the pot is dry enough to handle, each vinyl element is peeled off.
After removing all the vinyl, I brush on two layers of underglaze. Since the entire pot was waxed before removing the vinyl, the underglaze only adheres where the vinyl design was originally (13). I use a black commercial underglaze with a small amount of cobalt mixed in for the decoration. The cobalt will flux during the glaze firing and will assist in the dragging and blurring of the surface design during the firing. Once the underglaze is dry, the work goes back in the kiln for another firing to cone 04 to set the underglaze.
The glaze on my work, both interior and exterior, starts with one base recipe, Low Fire Crackle (listed above). Oxides, carbonates, or Mason stains are then added to achieve different colors. The bright colors I use are reminiscent of the light-filled stained glass windows that reside in many of the structures that inspire my work. The glaze uses a high-sodium frit, which moves rather easily at a low temperature. It also has a high thermal expansion, which will leave a prominent crazed surface when the glaze is applied thickly (a thin application for use as a liner results in much less noticeable crazing).
Wax is applied to any area that is not to be glazed. I pour black glaze in the interior to line the pot, and brush three layers of glaze onto the exterior. The multiple layers give me a thickness where the crazing will be visible, adding to the idea of decay, while also adding to the flow of the glaze. The final glaze is fired to cone 04 and held for up to 45 minutes to allow the glaze to flow. The moving glaze will attach to the cobalt in the underglaze decoration and allow it to flow with the glaze. Because the underglaze is more stable, it will be left behind and keep most of the design intact (14).
Mike Gesiakowski is a ceramic artist living and working in St. Louis, Missouri. He received his MFA in ceramics from Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville. Gesiakowski has been a short-term resident at the Archie Bray Foundation, and was an apprentice for Simon Levin. In 2018, he was named one of Ceramic Monthly’s Emerging Artists. He currently teaches ceramics and is the fine arts department chair at John Burroughs School, an independent college-preparatory school for grades 7–12. To see more of Mike’s work, visit www.mgclay.com.