Letter to Anne Lightwood 20/4/1999
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My clay studio practice has been based solely upon paperclay since late 1992 when I was introduced to the material by Mike Kusnik (see "With but not on paper").
Before this I found that I had difficulties in building tall and top- heavy work. Not that it was impossible, just that the whole process of propping and controlled drying in the hot summer was long and fraught with the risk of cracking and warping. Similarly, I wanted to create more impulsive and expressive works, rather than being a slave to a long and drawn-out technique.
From what Mike told me I decided that it would be good for building a large and light bowl “map of Australia” form I had planned. However, I had difficulty bending the slab of firm paperclay I had made into the convex mold so I started wetting it and using some paperclay slip left over to fill the cracks. As this was the middle of the hot Perth summer (40 degrees plus) it quickly dried and I become sidetracked into building up a surface texture using repeated applications of whipped cream consistency paperclay slip to create a spiky surface. There was no cracking when it dried and the work was so strong. The result was a half unrolled map form with choppy wave like textures on the back. I exhibited this work in the Telecom Art Exhibition in late 1992 and thereafter focussed solely on using paperclay during my undergraduate and honors studies. At about the same time my fellow students begun to alert me to articles appearing in international ceramic magazines so I ended up writing to and establishing contact with Gault and Gartside.
In my third year (1994) I was amazed when my fellow students and lecturers invited (and paid!) me to give a weekend workshop on paperclay (see attached published review of this workshop). It was great that a student from another of my workshops, Christine Baumeister was able to convince Clay Cottage to begin manufacturing paperclay. Prior to this I was giving workshops on how to make and use paperclay and lugging around raw materials, paperclay in slip, plastic and dry form – all without a car so you can imagine the logistical problems I had!
Because I was making up my own paperclay (see CeramicTechnical article - Walli Hawes used my receipt build a huge dragon kiln in Japan) in slip form and drying out on plaster slabs. Consequently a lot of my early work was very flat sided or cube shaped. But once I started dipping string into it and also making paperclay food then I really started to have fun!
In the Studio
In my studio I have very few tools or equipment due to budget and aesthetic reasons. To purchase (or even build) a kiln, wheel and slab-roller I would need at least $10,000, or be able to service this size of debt. With the removal of tariffs on imported ceramics into Australia a number of years ago there are now only a few potters who can make a living and support a family and mortgage from solely making pots or decorative works. Most depend, like myself on part-time teaching or other work.
I also don’t like to use all these same equipment all the time, even when it is available, is that it tends to pre-determine the style and form of work created. The thrown circle or regular and smooth slab dominate the “look” of ceramics. Although I have found myself using the wheel to cut out circles from slabs of paperclay to build the tall open “building” forms, or “throwing” plaster slabs on the wheel!
Throwing paperclay on the ground to made slabs creates a great ”earthy” texture, provided it is not flipped over between throws. The irregularity of the edge and line when a ruler is not used adds interest and personality to the work, plus reduces the amount of washing up afterwards! I notice throwers these days are in increasing numbers “bumping” or altering their pots’ surface after throwing to recreate a sense of accident or character to their work. Perhaps this is an attempt to differentiate it from the machine made mass produced work that now floods the market?
After all these years working only in paperclay I notice other things about how I work which are different to traditional practices. For example I don’t need a damp cupboard, because I make the parts for a work individually, then leave them to dry before joining with slip and firing. This is the reverse of the traditional method of building the whole work and then are fully dried before firing.
I also haven’t wedged clay for many years now as the paper fiber enable consistent dampness through out the clay body and leftover clay scraps go into my “parts” bucket to be stuck onto new works or recycled into slip for joining or covering work. I never know if it’ll be a block or hand or foot I’ll next pull out of my “parts” bucket! Errors can be recycled into new work, one of my adult students made an arm for a figure too short, it ended up on another, smaller figure a number of months later.
As paperclay can be up to 17 times the strength of the same clay with paper then I am happy to travel with paperclay to where ever I can borrow kiln space. Any breaks can be repaired with slip just before firing and with very large work I join it when it is inside the kiln. I have an old kiln out the back but it just doesn’t make sense to spend the money to make it work.
I have become very relaxed about breaks not only before firing, but also after firing. Many of my works are designed to “deconstructed” after firing. That is, to have built on paperclay supports broken off after firing, or even “tidied up” by breaking bits off to improve their appearance. Similarly because there is virtually no limit on size anymore, some works have to be broken to fit inside even large kilns, so gluing together post firing occurs regularly. I occasionally find myself drilling holes or sawing fired pieces! The whole idea of physical integrity of pottery (that a pot is less valuable if it has been broken and repaired after firing) now seems quite strange. In a way the ideas of “plug and play” (this computer) are similar to what I call “dip’n stick” for paperclay.
Of course dust and bacteria safety issues are important when working with paperclay. Good ventilation, safety equipment, wet washing address the former. There have been less written about the latter until recently, but I tell people to think about paperclay pottery like gardening… both have organic material for the bacteria to grow in, and if warm and damp there is a risk. My advice is to do the same thing you do when gardening, that is, wash with soapy water before coming into the house and/or handling food.
I could go on and on with things I’ve learnt. Having given over 60 presentations on paperclay since 1993 I often don’t remember all this sort of stuff except when people ask me questions about it.
Now that I think about it I should tape a few of my next workshops and send you a copy, would you be interested, or have I provided you with enough information?
Letter to Anne Lightwood 20/4/1999
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