I moved to Louisiana in 2002 to attend graduate school at Louisiana State University (LSU) in Baton Rouge. Louisiana is a crazy, wild place, and provided thousands of memorable experiences that helped change my world outlook (especially concerning food, music, culture, and fun). The experience also shaped the way I create art and work with molds.
Prior to graduate school, my focus was primarily making molds of interesting objects and using the castings to create more objects. I had made molds of toys, tools, fruit, appliances, light bulbs—the usual mold-makers fare—but at LSU I became interested in the texture of cypress trees, peeling paint, rusty junk in the salt marshes, beads and baubles, flowers and plants, palmetto bugs, and trash. After living in Louisiana, I realized that the surfaces and textures I was collecting through mold making were moving away from casting generic objects and toward an attempt to record a specific place, or even the feeling of a specific place. As a result of my interest in unique locations, I started making more molds on-site, using slabs of wet clay.
Creating Clay Molds On-Site
Most people associate mold making with plaster, but soft clay can be used to make molds that would be very difficult or impossible to make with plaster. Clay molds might not record pristine detail like a plaster mold, but they can still capture exquisite details of textured surfaces and, once bisque fired, can be used to transfer these details to slabs for building vessels.
All you need to make the clay molds is a flat surface (plywood or section of drywall), canvas or newspaper, a rolling pin, a sponge, and water (I bring a spray bottle and a gallon jug of water), a cutting wire, and wet clay. I also bring a can of WD40 or cooking oil, in case I want to press clay into a non-absorbent surface (wrought-iron fence, aluminum can, marble, plastic, etc.).
When I first started making clay molds, I pre-rolled out a bunch of slabs before I hit the road. However, even wrapped up in plastic, the pre-rolled slabs would often stiffen to the point that it was difficult to really press them down into a textured surface. I highly recommend rolling out slabs on-site from a soft block of clay.
To make a mold, roll out a slab approximately 1 inch thick and use a lightly dampened sponge to smooth away any canvas texture (1). Carefully place the slab over the surface you wish to cast (2, 4), and then use your fingertips to press each inch of clay into the surface. I’ve found it usually works best to start pressing at one end and work toward the other side of the slab, or start pressing in the middle and work outward (as opposed to just randomly pressing everywhere). When you’re finished with your mold, carefully pull it away from the surface that was cast. Inspect it when leather hard (3), and carve away any undercuts with an X-Acto knife before firing. I prefer to use high-fire clay to make molds, which I bisque fire between cone 08–010; high-fire clay that is bisque fired to a lower temperature is very absorbent, and clay pressed into the bisque mold will release easily.
Compositions and Teapots
Although I no longer live in Louisiana, my latest series of Recycle teapots was inspired by southern Louisiana and a recent visit to New Orleans, specifically a few of my favorite places in the French Quarter. I spent three days making clay molds in the French Quarter and another week making molds from the Atchafalaya Basin all the way down to Grande Isle (see 1–5). Each time I made a mold, I scratched the address or details about where I collected that texture on the back of the mold. I have a friend in Baton Rouge who bisque fired the pressed slabs for me, which I then shipped home.
Once in the studio, I spent an afternoon pressing wet slabs into all of my bisque molds (6). For larger molds, I place the mold on the table and press the slab into it, using my fingertips to work the clay into the texture. I handle my molds carefully—after all they are only bisque-fired clay and are somewhat delicate.
Instead of starting with a design or sketch, I prefer to start assembling slabs and see where they take me. I spend a lot of time playing in my studio and creating puzzles with my compositions (7–9); I also frequently edit or discard forms that don’t seem to be working. I’m thankful clay can always be recycled.
I score and apply slip to slabs as I attach them (10), but then reinforce seams from the inside, using a brush and thick slip to fill gaps and cracks. I often dampen my fingers and massage the clay slab from the inside to round out the forms (11). After completing the teapot body (12, 13), I use plywood forms to create handles (14), and I also bend slabs into spouts, which I allow to dry to leather hard before attaching to my pots (15).
I take my time (several days to complete a teapot), and prefer to work on more than one project at a time. Creating any elaborate, slab-built form is a series of processes that can only be accomplished at various states of dryness, from wet to leather hard. When making more than one pot at a time, I’m less likely to overwork them and more likely to allow the time needed to dry them slowly. Between stages, the teapots are covered with plastic sheeting.
Even if I’m not sure how I’ll use them, I enjoy making molds of textures that interest me, and have developed quite a bisque-mold library. Instead of re-creating an object, I encourage you to make molds of interesting surfaces, press slabs into the molds, and then see what kinds of relationships these surfaces inspire!
David Scott Smith is an assistant professor of ceramics at Salisbury University, in Salisbury, Maryland. He is the co-owner of Little Lane Pottery with his wife, Paula, who is also a potter. To see more of his work, visit https://davidscottsmithceramics.com or on Facebook @littlelanepottery.