Reproduced in Why Paperclay? ArtEd Journal, Art Education Association of Western Australia, 2, Sept 2000, p. 8-9 More paperclay articles? click here.
Lacking clay experience or confidence? Sick of clay breaking and being unable to repair it? Tired of preparing or recycling clay? Want to change work after it has dried? Don’t have access to a kiln? Read on…
Paperclay is quietly revolutionising classroom ceramics. John Septimus Roe Anglican Community School (JSRACS) Art teacher Dianne Good invited paperclay artist Graham Hay to work with a year 11 class. This followed his artist-in-residency with the primary school in 1998. Dianne introduced the theme and provided visual material from which the students drew from and developed their ideas.
Then Graham introduced the material, techniques, design considerations and providing assistance in assembling the students’ works.
Paperclay is any type of clay to which paper fibre has been mixed. It was first introduced to the WA ceramic community by ceramic chemist Mike Kusnik in 1987. In 1992 Mike taught students at Edith Cowan University, including Graham Hay, who has since become an expert in this medium. One of Graham’s students, Christine Baumeister, approached Clay Cottage, who, assisted by Mike Kusnik, begun commercially manufacturing paperclay in Perth. Other clay manufacturers have followed Clay Cottage’s lead and now provide their traditional clays in paperclay form, for around the same price and bag size. Most art suppliers deliver paperclay to schools, although it is cheaper buying at the factory.
What is paperclay?
Paperclay is any clay to which paper pulp has been added. This means it feels like and can be fired just like normal clay.
Paper is made from wood, or cellulose fibre, which consists of long, hollow tubes, which are strong and siphon water. Adding paper to clay does not affect plasticity, but when dried the clay is much stronger and absorbs water quickly. It is these properties that make it an amazing material.
So what’s new?
Soft and dry paperclay can be joined to dry work at any time. Work can be left incomplete and then added to when time allows. Delicate parts can be made and added to the work later. Unfinished or substandard parts can be broken or sawn off and replaced/repaired before stuck on again. The students are amazed when I break off a leg or arm off a work and reattach it again! Alternatively another limb can be made out of soft paperclay, stuck on with paperclay slip and remodelled.
For the year 11 students at JSRACS they made long, thin and hollow limbs, which once bone-dry (and strong) were assembled to create functional “dancing teapots”, inspired by circus highwire acts. Some of these were ½ metre high! Life-size and proportional figures can be made from paperclay walls as thick as a finger.
Compare to traditional clay, paperclay cracks less often and can be repaired quickly and permanently with soft paperclay or its slip. This is because the cellulose fibres “bind” the clay together. Similarly, encourage students to try to break and repair their work just prior to firing to increase the structural strength of the work, and avoid heartbreaking scenes when opening the kiln after firing. This also enables you to identify poor joining technique; where not enough or wet enough paperclay slip has been used. Reglueing with the correct consistency paperclay slip will ensure stronger joins.
The paperclay slip is best made by dropping small or thin pieces of done-dry paperclay into boiling hot water ½ hour before the class. Just before the class pour out most of the water, add a bacteria inhibitor, and then stir vigorously. Paperclay slip does get smelly in a hot climate. Making up only enough slip for each class and adding a disinfectant or detergent will discourage bacteria breeding. Similarly, traditional clay hygiene practises should be routine, such as washing hands with soap after cleaning up.
Those with clay experience will at a disadvantage when using paperclay, as it enables works which transcends the learnt limitations of traditional clay. Paperclay moves the focus away from fussy joining techniques, over-building and smooth surfaces, towards more expressive shapes, surfaces and kitset building. Long delicate rods can be made, shaped, and dried lying down, before being placed upright and joined to instantly create tall, thin and elegant structures.
A new way of teaching ceramics has to be learnt. Instead of progressively building with control-drying soft clay, students design, made, dry and then assemble the parts of the work, in a manner similar to wood or metal work. While dry to dry and soft to dry joins are very quick and easy, there is an art to it that has to be learnt. Joints parts need to be premade in ball and socket, or tongue and groove format. Dry parts must be bone dry to ensure quick and strong joins. Generous amounts of slip should be used and while firm joints can be obtained within seconds, these should be allowed to dry, or quick dried with a paint stripper, before excessive loads applied. When joining non-flat dry surfaces, use soft paperclay with a generous application of slip to ALL joining surfaces. Tradition soft and leather-hard joining techniques can still be used on paperclay.
Similarly dry surfaces can be smoothed with a wet sponge or sheets of plastic paperclay stuck on and reworked.
Remember, paperclay is any type of clay to which paper fibre has been mixed and you no longer have to make it. It will change how you think and work.
... Graham Hay has conducted 100+ workshops with educators, primary, secondary and tertiary educational institutions, across Australia, and around the world.