The last time I made a pot at my wheel is now more than 18 months ago. I had made pottery on a daily basis for more than 25 years, and it was time to take a break. I had been thinking of developing a new body of ceramic work that did not rely on my demanding salt kiln – AKA The Beast – for some time… for a number of reasons. I am now 73 years old, and plan to sell my farm within the next few years… and move, probably into Portland, and it’s likely that I will have only an electric kiln to fire my work as many clay artists do.
I had been giving a lot of thought to a majolica process, again, starting with delicious Red Art terracotta clay that I enjoyed so much in an earlier epoch of pottery making. I am still thinking about that…. I did some experimenting in 2018, and even had a little show with the new stuff. There are many decorating possibilities… this piece was thrown, painted in the green state with black slip, and then incised to set off the painting. Later, I coated it with Red Art terra sigillata, and buffed it up to a nice sheen – just a minute or two of polishing on the fragile green cup. After bisque firing, I poured in a liner glaze and refired to 04 to set the glaze.
But one day I was just playing around in the studio, and decided to make a little mosaic with some pretty buttons I had made that had not yet had backs attached to them. I built a little wooden box frame, and filled it with grout. I wanted to press the buttons into the grout, using it as an adhesive instead of acrylic adhesive, so I would not have to clean the grout out of the carving in the buttons. It’s crude, but it was fun, and it was the start of mosaic making for me.
I began to watch mosaic making videos on YouTube. I learned about gifted Minnesota artist Michael Sweere, whose incredible mosaics opened me to the possibilities of a new kind of work that would not only be fun to learn, but which presented unlimited possibility for graphic expression. I also watched the videos of Caroline Jariwala, whose MangoMosaics.com website and YouTube videos, like this one – Making the Fence Panels – were full of information and exuberant design.
Each of these accomplished mosaic artists creates their mosaics from shaped pieces of fired clay. Mosaic ready, the are called tesserae, and Sweere and Jariwala obtain them by breaking down tile or dinnerware into component parts. Jariwala includes glass objects and other materials into her compositions as well. But I am impatient, and I did not want to fill up my precious studio with mountains of odd tiles and old dishes – or new dishes, as are seen at Mango Mosaics Studio. I thought… why not just make my own tesserae from lowfire clay and glazes I have on hand in the studio? I could make my own to precise thickness, and with every color available in low fire purchased glaze.
At this point, I make tesserae by cutting them with straight-edges from tempered slab, cutting slices from extruded rods of clay, and by freehand cutting of floral and other special shapes from tempered slab with knives. I have developed a technique to rapidly glaze them, which makes a tedious process ever so much better. All of these techniques are informed by years of fiddling around making ceramic buttons, beads, and jewelry components – all electric kiln processes.
Yup, that’s a jeweler’s saw *improved* to make a tiny chop saw for extruded clay. Works great to create precise miniature tiles.
Lately, I’ve been playing around with a different technique. All those years I made functional pottery, one of my favorite parts of my process was carving on the green pots. I have always loved to draw, and *drawing* on my pots with a carving tool was just something I had to do to really make it mine. With the same tool, I have been experimenting with carving on stiff clay slabs – deep enough that the carving lines will hold grout.
First, I prepare a slab of clay – what a fascinating topic! I may blog about this later – and when it has reached the correct stage of dryness, I cut it to a precise shape to facilitate later framing. I have accidentally created a few trapezoids or parallelograms, and they are a bitch to frame artfully once they come out of the kiln. Then, I transfer the drawing to the slab of clay by laying the pencil drawing over the clay slab and tracing over my drawing lines with a not-to-sharp pencil or deceased ball point pen. After a bit more drying, I use my carving tool to create what will later be grout lines between the *faux tesserae.* After careful bisque firing, I paint out the blocks of color to match my vision for the piece, and refire the piece, which is basically an oversized tile. Here’s a floral bouquet mosaic and its’ drawing in progress, almost ready for the bisque.
Once the image areas are glazed and fired, I adhere the *tile* to a previously painted or stained wooden frame, and a day later it is ready for grout. Here’s a finished mosaic that I created earlier this month. Fun!
Artist pal Jill Mayberg created the original painting from which this was adapted for our joint show at Valley Art in Forest Grove, Oregon. This piece (16″ wide x 14″ tall) will be on display there until the end of February.
LIttle Bear features a center *tile* surrounded by conventional 1″ tesserae.
I will be leading a workshop at Valley Art on February 1, 10-4, where all these techniques will be demonstrated. Send an email if you would like to reserve a place in the workshop, $50.