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.
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.
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 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!