My work is heavily influenced by the abundance of disposable items that I’m exposed to on a daily basis. I use textures and shapes transferred from disposable or single-use materials such as cardboard, bubble wrap, Styrofoam, and plastic containers to build functional ceramic forms.
A variety of techniques including slab building, slip casting, handbuilding, and wheel throwing are utilized in creating my forms. I use a commercially produced porcelain clay body for its plasticity and ability to transfer and preserve fine detail. It’s essential that the clay body is the same recipe as the casting slip to ensure that each part retains the same characteristics and to avoid cracking. Throwing slop and dry scraps are recycled into casting slip. As my finished forms have very little glaze on the outside, it’s important that all parts are consistent in color.
Casting Slip from a Clay Body
To make casting slip, add dry scraps to slop and mix to a very thick slip. Slowly add Darvan #7 one tablespoon at a time while mixing until the slip becomes fluid. When the slip is at a good pouring consistency, run it through a sieve a couple of times to remove any remaining lumps.
I make all of the parts for my flower box ahead of time (including slabs) and store them in damp boxes until I’m ready to use them. This ensures they have the same moisture content and enables me to assemble my pieces quickly to avoid cracking when I bend and fold slabs.
Nylon Fibers (Super Fiber)
For larger slab-built forms and forms that take longer to build, I add nylon fibers to my clay body to increase its flexibility and prevent cracking. Most ceramic suppliers carry nylon fibers and they’re relatively inexpensive. It can be tricky to add nylon fibers to a commercial clay body without tossing it back into the mixer and messing up the quality of the pugged clay. Caution: Don’t put nylon fibers into a pug mill! To get the fibers into the clay, I make a high-fiber content paste that I like to call super fiber.
To make super fiber, start with a one-gallon bucket half full of slip, not deflocculated. Using a drill with a paint-mixing attachment, add as much nylon fiber to the slip as possible while mixing, stop when the slip becomes thick and difficult to mix. Pour the slip onto a plaster slab and let it dry until it becomes the consistency of soft cream cheese. It should be too soft to wedge.
To add the super fiber to clay, cut pugged clay into 1–2-inch-thick slices. Smear a small handful of super fiber between each slice and wedge until the fiber is distributed evenly throughout the clay. The extra moisture in the paste makes up for any moisture lost in wedging, making sure that your fibrous clay is still nice and soft for flexible slabs. Too much fiber will make the slabs difficult to cut. If you find that you have added too much, just wedge in some more non-fibrous clay.
Making a Flower Box
Begin with two slip-cast boxes cast from a plaster mold of a cardboard box—a larger box (8½×6×9 inches) and a smaller box (6½×5×7 inches)—that are ¼ inch in thickness (1). The larger box will be for the lid, the smaller box should fit inside the larger one with about an inch of room on each side. Cut off the top and bottom of each box using a scalpel and a ruler to get a clean straight cut. Save the cut-off parts for another project.
Use a rasp tool to create a 45° bevel around the outside edge on the top side of the larger box (2). Put both boxes aside and cover while you make your slabs.
Roll out three large slabs of the fibrous clay to ¼ inch in thickness. Each slab should be at least 3 inches larger than the large box on each side. One will be for the top of the lid, one for the base. The third slab will be cut into three slotted sections that will make up the interior structure of the base (3). Reminiscent of a six-pack bottle carrier, this will make sure that the flowers are able to stand up. Each of the three sections should be at least 4 inches tall and have room to trim to fit the dimensions of the interior space of the smaller box. Always make sure to trim away the raw edges of a slab right away, as they are susceptible to cracking. Use a soft plastic rib to compress your slabs on both sides and remove any marks or canvas texture. Set aside all but one of your large slabs.
Creating The Lid
Using a large wooden rolling pin, firmly roll a sheet of bubble wrap onto the large slab to impress the texture onto the clay (4). Keeping the bubble wrap attached, flip the slab over and lay it over the top beveled edge of the large box. Use your hand to gently press the slab down into the box to create a concave curve (5). This will later be turned over to create a convex curve for the upper section of the lid.
Trim the outside edge of the slab to hang about 1½ inch over the edge of the box. When trimming, only cut halfway through the slab. This should allow you to gently tear the slab, following the path of the cut line, leaving a nice torn texture on the edge (6).
Cut darts on each corner of the slab going from the corner of the slab in toward the corner of the box. Fold each side of the slab upward, making sure to overlap the darted edges without compressing them together. Score and slip the inside edges of the upturned sides (7).
Lift the slab using the bubble wrap as a support and lay it gently in your lap or on a soft piece of foam, trying not to collapse the curve. Slip and score the beveled edge at the top of the box. Carefully turn the slab over and place it on top of the box, making sure that the edges of the slab are all on the outside of the box (8).
Compress the attachment areas and the darted edges before removing the bubble wrap to prevent damaging the texture.
Making the Base
Roll a piece of crumpled up newsprint onto the remaining large slab to add a wrinkled texture (9). Flip the slab over so the textured-side is down. Place the large box in the center of the slab and trim around the box about 1½ inches from the edge, using the same tearing technique as on the lid (10). Cut darts from the corner of the slab to about ½ inch from the corner of the box. Fold the sides of the slab up and around the outside of the box using a ruler to make sure to get a straight fold (11). Note: Don’t attach the slab to the box, as the box is the lid and should be able to be easily removed. Lift the box out and set aside, leaving it uncovered so the top can begin stiffening. Score and slip the darted corners and compress together (12). Use your fingertips to soften any sharpness on the upper edge of the slab.
Place the smaller box in the center of the slab and trace the outside edge. Score and slip the bottom of the box and the slab and attach them together (13). This forms the part of the flower box that holds the water.
Trim your three small slabs so they fit within the interior of the small box; one to fit long ways, two so they fit short ways. Make all of them 4 inches tall. Cut two ¼-inch wide channels equidistant from the outside edges of the long slab, 2 inches up from the bottom edge (14). Cut one similar channel in the center of each of the shorter slabs. These slots allow the slabs to fit over top of one another, creating a 4-inch tall grid to contain the flower stems.
Fit the longer slab into the box with the channels facing up. Fit the two shorter slabs into the box with the channel facing down, aligning the channels so that they slide down and fit together (15). It’s not necessary to score and slip for this part.
Add embellishments at the darted corners using the same clay with Mason stain added (16, 17).
To make colored clay for the embellishments, add 5% Mason stain to dry clay. Add water and mix with a hand blender until the stain is evenly distributed. Dry the mixture on plaster until wedgable.
Finally, using a round hole punch, cut out holes following the pattern from the bubble wrap on the top section of the lid (18), making sure to soften the edges with a wooden pointed dowel. Soften any hard edges using a damp makeup sponge.
Firing and Finishing
My work is bisque fired to cone 04 and glaze fired to cone 6 in an electric kiln. I use a cone 6 clear base glaze with Mason stains added for subtle color. My pieces are usually lined with glaze on the inside and minimal glaze on the outside to enhance the texture without covering it. I finish by sanding the outside with 220-grit wet/dry sandpaper for a soft surface.
Bonilyn Parker received her MFA from Ohio University in Athens and is currently working as a sabbatical replacement at Central Washington University. See more at www.bonilynparker.com and on Instagram @boniparker.