Makin’ Bacon…Cups!

I’ve always loved bacon, but never anticipated incorporating the idea of bacon into my work until after visiting the Texas hill country late last year. I met an artist there who was using stained clays to create multi-colored surfaces on various hand-built functional forms, which later would inspire the method I developed to make my candied-bacon cups. When I think about the utility of clay pots, my mind adheres to acts of service and nourishment. “Bringing home the bacon” might be a bit of a colloquialism, but the saying expresses an act of service that implies providing a practical necessity for those we care for.

But what about nourishment? We use functional clay objects in many cases to provide nourishment to our bodies, such as how plates and cups hold our food and drink to be consumed. Bacon is the belly fat of a pig, so when you eat bacon, you know it came from a hog that was well nourished and fed. Conceptually, I like the incongruity that nourishment was provided for an animal to produce a ridiculously delicious product for us as humans to consume that could very well be considered anti-nourishment. Although nitrates might kill us, most certainly the idea of them will not. So, early on during my time as artist in residence at Mudflat Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, while preparing for their holiday sale, I used this method to create a surface that resembles bacon using colored slips.

1 Apply alternating layers of red and white slip to a slab and leave to firm up.

2 Throw the base of the cup, flattening the side of the rim to later attach to the wall.

Getting Started

To begin, first roll out a rectangular porcelain slab and let it dry to a medium leather hard. I roll out 9 pounds of clay to 5/16 inch thick—this ensures its dimensions are roughly the size of the board I transfer the slab onto, which is 18×24 inches. Making a large slab allows me to create imagery for roughly 50 cups. Using a horsehair brush, paint 6 thick, alternating layers of white and red (Mason stain 6021) slip (each slip is the consistency of pudding) onto the clay slab, starting with the red layer (1). Wait until the applied layer of slip loses its sheen before adding each successive layer.

Throwing and Trimming(s)

Next, throw the bases for the cups off the hump. I may throw 10–15 at a time. Make sure to leave enough thickness at the bottom so that a deep foot can be trimmed into it. Throw a short wall into the side of the rim of the base (2), as it’s structurally imperative when attaching the handbuilt portion of the cup onto the base. Use a potter’s knife to cut the base from the hump (3) and allow it to firm up. Once the bases are trimmed, compress the surface and foot ring with your favorite rib to create a nice, tight surface and a smooth foot ring (4).

Carve out trimmings from the slipped slab, cutting through all 6 layers of slip (about ¼ inch). I use a standard loop trimming tool (5), but using different tools creates different patterns.

3 Detach the base from the hump, then trim excess clay from the foot.

4 On the wheel, compress and smooth the trimmed surfaces.

5 Cut slab trimmings from the slip-layered slab to fit the length of the rolled slab.

6 Place the trimmings evenly along the rolled slab.

Creating Imagery

Cut 1/8-inch-thick slabs from porcelain using a wire tool. Place the trimmings onto the thin slab (6). It’s important that both the thin slab and the slip trimmings are very close to the same wetness, otherwise cracking and joining issues may occur. With a rolling pin, compress and stretch out the slab and trimmings to 3/32 inch thick (7). Then, immediately cover the slab with thin, clear plastic. Make sure the plastic is placed securely onto the slab without wrinkles to create a tight, vacuum-wrapped appearance. With a razor blade, measure and cut the thin slab to fit the circumference of the base of the cup. Next, choose a desired height, then trim the edges to this measurement (8).

Attaching Thrown and Handbuilt Parts

Score the wall that was thrown into the rim of the base and the interior bottom side of the slab. With the plastic still in place, wrap the handbuilt portion around the base and so it overlaps (see 9). Make sure to peel away a small portion of the plastic and score the end you choose to overlap for attachment. After slipping the scored areas, I assemble the cup upside down—holding and turning the foot ring clockwise with my right hand, as the middle finger on my left hand presses the slab onto the base (9). Attach the overlapping clay to form a seam (10). I then use a miniature trimming tool to bevel the attached seam and press it down to create a softer seam. With a wet sponge, thoroughly wipe the connection point between the base and slab. Let the cup dry upside down, leaving the thin plastic wrap on overnight to minimize warping (11).

7 Stretch and compress the slab with a rolling pin to a thickness appropriate for the wall of the cup.

8 Cut and trim the edges of the slab to the desired height of the wall of the cup.

9 Attach the slab to the base, overlapping the clay to form a seam.

10 Bevel the seam and press down to ensure a good join.

Final Thoughts

The cups are fired in reduction to cone 10. I enjoy how the reduced atmosphere can create brownish, dark red, and brilliant red tones all on the same cup. When I get brown tones, it reminds me how bacon becomes crispy if cooked long enough. The variation in color can be quite beautiful. You know, you can wrap anything in bacon—so why not art?

11 The assembled cup, with plastic wrap still covering the slab wall to slow drying.

James Lee Webb earned an MFA in ceramics from Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Illinois. Webb completed artist residencies at New Harmony Clay Project in New Harmony, Indiana, and at Mudflat Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts. While there he also taught ceramics in beginning and advanced wheel throwing, juried four shows, and served as part of the tech team. He is currently working in Port Chester, New York, at the Clay Art Center as a resident artist.

  • Kathi O.

    I was trying this layering with different colored slips but don’t think I made the layers thick enough. Now I have a clearer idea to do what I wanted to do.

    • Redgine M.

      Did you mix the slips as well or you layered them on one side and put the slabs together one by one and then carved? Also, did you use a clear glaze before firing?

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