When I make functional work, I consider the positions of everyday use—stacking cups to store on a shelf, drying plates sideways on a rack, showing the bottom of a mug when you drink, etc. My interest in making boxes is more in the concept of revealing the unseen by opening to a hidden surprise, rather than in its containment or storage. Function invites touch and that gives life to the work. In a slide box, you can only see the whole story by opening the lid. Much of my work is inspired by an old Japanese concept called mitate and scroll painting called emaki, which both involve the viewer’s participation by showing only part of the story at a time and encouraging the audience’s imagination. My slide box series is particularly inspired by the Japanese storytelling style kamishibai that was developed from emaki. It tells a story by flipping through layers of large illustrated boards. It’s similar in concept to flip books, but in kamishibai, when you slide one illustration out, the next is gradually revealed. The viewer is only able to grasp the whole story when seeing both images simultaneously and through the subtle transition of one image to the next. The most important part of a slide box for me is that the outside drawing continues to the inside drawing. This way the audience can experience the passing of time firsthand.
Creating the Box
First, use templates to cut shapes from ⅝-inch-thick slabs for the 4 side walls, and from two ⅜-inch-thick slabs for the bottom and lid. I make slabs using boards of specific thicknesses as guides to make them consistent and even. I later use the same boards to measure and mark cuts. Prepare the slabs a day before to make them stiff, but softer than leather hard. Make sure the 4 walls are all equal in height by holding them together and shaving the top and bottom with a Surform rasp. Next, hold the 2 long walls together and make sure they are the same length; do the same for the two short walls. Cut the joining sides at an angle a little steeper than 45° so the pieces meet together tightly without a gap.
Next, mark the placement of the recessed groove on the inside of each wall slab (1). The groove should be ⅝ inch wide and ¼ inch deep to later hold the sliding top slab. Use a wood-carving tool and a small clay carving tool to make the groove and try to carve it in one pass (2). Refine and square the corners and faces of the groove with a metal tool. Cut one of the short walls straight off at the second line. Keep the smaller piece you just cut off covered in plastic for later (see 3).
Attach the four walls to the bottom slab. Make sure the grooves of the three walls line up neatly. The short wall you cut a piece off of should align with the bottom edge of the groove. Score the edges, apply slip, and push the sides together gently with your two thumbs all the way from the bottom to the top and make sure they’re attached well (4). Carefully clean and compress excess clay on the corner with a brush and a rubber-tipped tool.
Shape the walls to slightly curve out to combat the inward shrinking that happens when the clay dries. If your walls are straight at this stage, they tend to warp too far in as they dry.
Fitting the Lid
The last ⅜-inch-thick slab will become the lid. Make one clean 90° corner. Carefully hold the slab against the short wall, and mark the width between one groove to another (5). Use this mark to cut the slab, making sure the edges are parallel. Wider is better than too narrow—you can trim the width if it’s too tight. Carefully slide the lid in all the way and mark the depth at the outside of the shorter wall. Don’t force it. If it doesn’t slide smoothly, now is the time to adjust. Tip: It’s easier to shave down the slab with a Surform rasp than to try to carefully slice it with a knife.
Once the lid fits, take the narrow piece you saved from the short wall, set it right next to the lid, and mark the height (6). This will be the handle. Cut at the line, and attach the upper piece on top of the lid at the very edge, centered, and in line with the shorter wall. Cut two small triangles from the thinner piece, and attach them under both edges of the handle to fill the overhang of the handle on top of the lid. Carefully slide the lid back in. Adjust the angles of the entrance and edge of the handle on the lid. Clean the top, then flip it upside down with the lid in place to clean the bottom side. I use a paddle, rubber ribs, and Surform rasp. Dry the box with the lid closed and standing on end until it firms up to leather hard to prevent the lid from sinking in when it’s still flexible (7).
Don’t rush the drying process as it’s as important as assembly, especially for a slab box prone to warping. I cover a drying box with newspaper or plastic with lots of air space. After it reaches leather hard drying face up, I dry it upside down, and flip it once or twice a day. When flipping, check the lid for warping. Make sure to carefully straighten and adjust it before it gets
When it’s bone dry, clean the surface with a wet sponge and round the edges, especially the grooved areas on the open end of the box so it doesn’t chip easily. Try not to touch the groove too much so it won’t get dull. Now, it’s time to start decorating.
Drawing a Story
For this box, I’m drawing a witch’s hands in the woods on the exterior, which reveals the spell being cast upon opening. First, make an underdrawing with diluted food coloring (8). Next, cover the inside of the box with wax resist. If you have a part that you want to paint before the bisque firing, do it before you apply the wax resist. I use wax resist inside to make it easier to clean the corners and edges. When the wax resist dries, draw your design with a needle tool (9). Hold the lid carefully in the opened position to make sure the drawing is connected. After you carve the lines of your drawing, apply a layer of thin black underglaze. Carefully wipe the underglaze off the surface, so it only stays in the carved lines. Close the lid and add sgraffito lines to the top that relate to the inlaid drawing. You’re now ready to bisque fire to cone 08.
After bisque firing, it’s time to add color. Make sure to clean up the piece before you start. Apply wax resist mixed with alumina hydrate anywhere the lid touches, including inside the groove and on top of the shorter wall. This prevents the clay from sticking or fusing together during the firing. I use a blue Japanese underglaze called gosu, which is used for sometsuke pottery, to paint the hands on the lid (10). Gosu is a pigment mixture of cobalt, copper, and iron that allows me to emulate watercolor. I grind the pigment and mix it with water to two different thicknesses to achieve varied depth in the blue. I also use various underglazes mixed with clear glaze (about 1:1 ratio). Mixing underglaze with clear glaze helps prevent crawling. Finally, apply a clear glaze to the interior and fire to cone 6.
Momoko Usami received a BFA and MFA from Kyoto City University of Art in Kyoto, Japan. After she completed two years as a resident artist at Lillstreet Art Center in 2009/2010, she built her personal studio in rural Missouri near Kansas City, where she teaches small art classes for the community. Momoko draws inspiration from many things, including Japanese painting from the Edo period, dreams, and daily encounters on the street. Her unique, playful, and often interactive ceramic works have been shown in the United States, Canada, and Japan.