Layered Layers

Kristen Kieffer Yunomi Mishima groupingYunomi detail

I spend most of my studio time thinking about (and blog time writing about) form and pattern interplay. My decoration can’t exist without the forms they wrap around, and the forms are incomplete without their surface layers. I make decorative ceramics because I love clay as a material, function as a parameter, and pattern as a layer that ties it all together.

I’m not sure where my love of decoration and pattern began. Perhaps going to antique shops as a kid had influence. Maybe it was the endless drawings with my Spirograph. There’s just something about pattern that feels like home to me. Like touching my Grandma Idene’s funky necklace or filigree bracelet as a kid during a car ride, and asking her to tell me its story for the millionth time. However it came about, I’ve liked ornamentation forever; pattern and symmetry are in my nature.

Kristen Kieffer Large plate Periwinkle floral Plate deco detail Periwinkle floral
Plate deco detail Frost : tangerine Kristen Kieffer Large plate Frost Victorian Moroccan

Why I choose a particular pattern and layer is no simpler to solve than why pattern at all. I can’t say I layer intuitively. I do pick and chose pattern on impulse, but it’s probably more about what I’ve learned in the 2D and 3D design classes I loved for my degrees than instinct. There’s not always an answer to why we’re drawn to certain colors, shapes, or decoration. I suppose I could just say I love ‘pretty’ and need loveliness in my life, know others do to, and these pieces are my response. But there is more to it.

I’ve been decorating my pots for years, but layering began in earnest when I changed how I glaze-fire my pots, switching from cone 10 soda to cone 7 oxidation in 2006. I could no longer rely on the kiln’s atmosphere to provide depth, so took control of adding levels of richness myself.

Patterns create depth, add visual and tactile interest, as well as invite pause. With forms like these new plates and pillow tiles, I layer in part to create an environment in which my customers can get lost for a moment (like the atmospheric paintings I love by Martin Johnson Heade). In a form like the yunomi cups, the extra layer of stamped pattern can spark reflection on a customer’s own history, culture, youth, or vacations abroad perhaps. What I bring to pattern and form as the maker can be quite different from what a viewer takes. What I see as Art Nouveau flora might remind someone else of their aunt’s cottage garden, for example. I like the personalization that can happen in the translation of decoration.

Kristen Kieffer Large plate Green flora Plate deco detail Green : tangerine
Plate deco detail Periwinkle arabesque 

All of the images in this post represent the recent addition of a new decoration layer; a new series with a ceramic technique called Mishima. Originating centuries ago in Korea, Mishima is a way of drawing on clay by inlaying color into a (usually) fine line. I’ve demo-ed this technique for years, including on my Surface Deco DVD, but this is the first time I’ve incorporated it into my own work. The delicate, navy blue line on all these pieces is Mishima. And for me, that drawn line adds another layer of contrast, another layer of atmosphere, another layer of intrigue.

As I mentioned in my last post, I think of the ceramic layers and assembling the disparate pattern shapes as being like collage. Each of the plates pictured for example (after I throw, trim, and alter) has four separate patterns and techniques layered onto the surface. First, I apply the subtle background texture, kind of the ground for everything else. I brush slip (liquid clay the consistency of heavy cream) across the surface, and press a patterned sponge I make into it, leaving a soft texture reminiscent of the textiles I look to for influence. (This technique is one of many I learned from mentor and friend, John Glick, master of layers extraordinaire.) I use cutout shapes of paper to resist some of the slip-sponging, so there are some smooth areas next to the pattern.

Once the slip-sponging has dried, I apply bright polka dots and stripes of underglaze into those smooth areas, which also requires the use of paper as a resist so the edges are crisp. These pops of color become focal points, and give a perfect contrast background for the next layer of slip-trailing. Once the underglaze has dried, I apply the raised lines, swirls, shapes, and dots of slip with a trailer (like small-scale cake decorating). I think of the slip-trail as the main character of the decoration story. Its imagery ties all the other patterns together.

Pillow tile detail Cornflower blue floral Pillow tile detail Green scroll w. tangerinePillow tile detail Pear Arabesque Pillow tile detail Periwinkle calligraphic

Pillow tiles detail. Full tiles pictured here.

Slip-trail is the last step for most of my pieces, but now I’ll be adding the technique of Mishima here and there, as with these. This requires first laying down a layer of liquid wax to protect all the prior layers. Once the wax has dried, I use an Exacto knife to incise into the leatherhard clay surface, and then fill that line with underglaze. I like the navy underglaze because it’s a dark classic color, and not severe like black. It’s not as quick and easy as drawing with a fine Sharpie, but it does result in a similar drawn line that I love. These lines feel like memories or echoes of the raised slip-trail lines.

All of these ceramic decoration techniques result in very different qualities of line (as I mention when I teach and on my Deco DVD). Each line yields a different shape and pattern, and when paired and layered, they become a formal investigation of 2D decoration on a three-dimensional form. Or they tell a story. Or they’re just pretty. I think all three, but am happy with what you see.

This new series of Mishima pieces is debuting exclusively in my online Etsy shop. I did a countdown to New Year’s listing a pillow tile a day in my shop with updates on my FB page, so those are available now. The plates and yunomi cups will be listed daily throughout this week in the same fashion, so check the top of my shop here. And stay tuned!

Guest Post ~ Oribe & Influence

Fellow potter and blogger Ben Carter asked me to write a guest blog post for a new series he’s calling Turning Points, “where artists discuss the effect historical ceramics has had on their studio life.” I don’t post as often as I’d like on my own blog because my thoughts don’t flow as easily as a line of slip-trail, so it was fun to have a writing assignment about specific pots I enjoy, and how objects of influence inform my work. Check out my blog post here, and the latest from Ben and his studio in China by following his blog here! ~Thanks, Ben!

Tea set by Ben Carter

The Economy Hits Home

wccclayclassToday (1/6) I received a phone call that the Worcester Center for Crafts —which has been open for 152 years and where I have taught for almost 8— is closing for a “strategic pause”, and without a serious infusion of cash, will close permanently.  This is very sad news for the metro Worcester community, Massachusetts, New England and the craft world as a whole, and very hard news for those of us who depend on the income from teaching and working at the Center. I, my husband and our WCC friends and colleagues, as well as our students, will be deeply impacted by this.

wcc

Information from today’s (1/7) local online paper:  “Almost all the center’s staff of about 45 people, most of them part time [instructors like me], have been laid off… To reopen, the Center needs about $1.2 million, to retire debt and finance a restart, a steep challenge in the current economic climate.”

wcc_wheelstudio

There is more information about the Center at the WCC website where you can check for updates and make donations: http://www.worcestercraftcenter.org

“Sustaining craft as a vital part of our world.”

Influence—Sugar

Ivan Day sugar birdbasket Last weekend (4/12-13), I was a participant in a two-part symposium held in conjunction with an exhibition at Harvard University’s Busch-Reisinger Museum called “A Taste of Power: 18th-Century German Porcelain for the Table“. The second symposium day, entitled “Extravagance and Drama“, entailed demonstrations and image presentations by me and two other artists, Gala Sorkina and Nicole Peters, at Harvard’s ceramics studio. “Tables of Content” was the title for the first day of symposium lectures, and while I think we were great, that day’s lectures were superb.

Two of my three favorites were about the transition of tableware vessels and sculptures made of sugar and silver into porcelain. This huge part of history was completely new to me. Maureen Cassidy-Geiger of the Arnhold and Frick Collections gave a wonderful lecture called “Sugar and Silver into Porcelain: The Conditorei and Court Dining in Dresden under Augustus III“. (She pointed out that since sugar can’t last and silver could be melted down, the porcelain vessels were often all that remained of this stage of history.)

Ivan Day Chesterfield Dessert2These first two images though come from Ivan Day who gave a lecture called “The Edible Edifice: Sculpture for the 18th-Century Dessert Table“. Mr. Day is an expert in the field of British and European culinary history, and not only does he know it, he makes it! He made the baskets, bird and flowers above from sugar “like in olden times”, shaping the sugar paste like clay. Though he explained to me that the sugar is actually easier to use than porcelain. (I’m still absorbing that fact.) Ivan also made the filigree, brightly colored centerpiece above and white, columned building featured on this table, from sugar. Amazing. I took lots of notes, and am excited for this new discovery of these old forms and shapes. (I was very flattered and honored that he came to watch us demonstrate the next day.)
Valerie Steele corset imageThe third of my favorites was by Valerie Steele of The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology (F.I.T.). She presented images and ideas from an exhibit she curated last year called “Fashioning Luxury“. She gave a wonderful overview of the history of haute couture, gender and class in clothing, and explanations of curious phrases like “popu-lux”, “mass-tige” and “stealth luxury”. Among the myriad of books she has written, one is on corsets (The Corset: A Cultural History), she was described in The Washington Post as one of “fashion’s brainiest women”, and on her blog, she has an interview with John Galliano. Need I say more?

New Gallery Venues and a Story

Stamped cup, honeycombI have packed up work to ship out tomorrow to one new venue, and two “old friends” that have been without my work for a stretch. I am delighted to have work back again with LillStreet Art Center in Chicago for their Wall of Cups, and with Charlie Cummings in Fort Wayne, IN for his on-line gallery.

While living in Detroit in 1996, I entered a show at 16 Hands in Ann Arbor called Container/Containment. The show was coordinated by the National Society of Arts & Letters which hosted the same show, regionally across the country. The winner for each region was then invited to participate in a next competition in St. Louis that entailed several days of gallery hopping, visits to collectors’ homes, a concert by Yo Yo Ma, and lectures by Ruth Duckworth, Robert Turner, Cynthia Bringle and David Shaner. I won First Place in my region, and went on this amazing trip where I met for the first time Sam Chung, Von Venhuizon and David Hiltner, and several other “emerging artists” who had won their regional shows. I’m pleased that 16 Hands will now be carrying my work on a regular basis.

I will post these new venues and their links on my Buy page, and the work should be on view very soon.

PS: For those inquiring about the mysterious whereabouts of the bunny yunomi I shipped out for the yunomi show…I finally received a response from AKAR that they purchased the cup for their permanent collection, so never posted it for sale for the show. Nice end to the mystery. You can always contact me if you would like to order a similar cup.