Cuerda seca, lion in a landscape, 17th century. Source: Wikimedia
Cuerda Seca: While investigating an Art Nouveau method of tilemaking, cuenca, I learned about the technique from which it originated: cuerda seca. The latter is a Portuguese word meaning ‘dry string.’ Coated string was used to make a line of black resist to prevent glazes from running. Originally, the string was saturated in animal fat and minerals that blackened when fired, like iron or manganese. The fat soaked string was heated, placed on the piece to outline the design, then burned off in firing, leaving a black line that separated colors. Cuerda seca is an Islāmic method of tile decoration that was brought to Spain by the Moors. Wikipedia states that “the craft is still in use in the Arab world” with two main traditions, Egyptian and Moroccan Zalij. “This origin explains the unmistakable Arab influences in many tiles: interlocking curvilinear, geometric or floral motifs.” In Spain, Seville became the tilemaking center where cuerda seca tiles were made. Recently, Christie’s sold a tile panel from Toledo for 10,000 Euros at the Decorative Arts Sale, held in Amsterdam in June.
Vase with palm tree. 8th–9th century CE, Iran. Source: Wikimedia
Cuenca: In the 19th century, cuerda seca was again popularized during the Art Nouveau period. The style evolved during that time. Sometimes designs were simply outlined with black. Cuenca, a Moorish method of outlining with slips and engobes also became popular then. In fact, it became a hallmark of ceramics during the Art Nouveau period. Cuenca means ‘basin;’ a reservoir was created by the trailed slips into which glazes were pooled. There is a tie-in with the Arts and Crafts period, too, as style eras overlapped. It was during this time that the cuenca method also came to be known as tube-lining. Because of the popularity of bungalow style, since the 1990s, there has been a return to the production of these decorative methods and motifs. Motawi, Historic Style, and Du Quella Tile & Clayworks, and are but a few potteries that sell ceramics made in the cuenca style. Today, safer methods are used for cuerda seca, too, which has also experienced a comeback. Now, black wax resist is used to outline designs. Using Aftosa’s product, black lines will remain up to Cone 8. These decorative styles and methods have spanned centuries and are still actively used. That’s what I call staying power! In the early 1990s, my mother gave me an Art Nouveau vase. Little did I know then that I would come to learn about the method with which it is made, cuerda seca, or that I would be writing about it today….
My Art Nouveau cuerda seca vase
I’m taking a road less travelled today to introduce you to a Vancouver artist whose work is informed by the classics, science, art history, research, curiosity, and poetic vision. Sid Dickens’ Memory Blocks are not made of clay, but of beautifully decorated plaster tiles. They are quite thick and I like that…they have substance. Exquisite designs, soulful execution. Highly unique. Dickens, 48, is originally from Prince Rupert, B.C., according to Beladagio. “Until the age of 28 he worked as a commercial fisherman,” according to what must be an earlier site. “Off-season, he served burgers on the ferries and dedicated his spare time to drawing and painting.” Dickens attended Vancouver’s Emily Carr College of Art and design, now a university, was inspired by works he saw in Europe and later learned bronze-casting in Mexico at the Instituo De Allende in San Miguel. He opened his first studio in 1984, then built a studio retreat on Haida Gwaii. In ’91 he opened a studio in Gastown, the oldest area in Vancouver, along the waterfront. The Beladagio site quotes Dickens, who said, “Originally, I created large panels with many elements.” His ideas evolved and he began to work on a smaller scale. His site says his tiles are “hand crafted plaster, 6″ x 8″ x 1 1/4″, finished to a porcelain-like quality, cracked to create an aged look and feel.” He has a studio in Vancouver, employees a team of about 30 emerging artists, according to the site, Sid Dickens Timeless Collectibles, which features some of the artisans involved. Click here to see some photos of the blocks being made and some information about them. Dickens’ current studio in Vancouver is not open to the public, but the memory blocks can be found in many locations or purchased online. I see that there is a retailer in my town that carries his work, so soon I hope to pop on over and see them in person. The tiles can be mixed and matched to suit your tastes and there is a wide variety of themes. The Memory Blocks have an aged, antique look, and I think they are exquisite. Photos are copyrighted, so I cannot show them to you here, but here is the link to his online catalog of works. I saw an earlier version of his website some time last year, the first time I learned of him. I felt a bit put off by the new site because not all of it is accessible unless you ‘join.’ I like free and easy access to information and while I understand that he and his work are enjoying increasing visibility and popularity, it smacks of exclusiveness. In the end this matters little because the work is what counts. I will leave it to you to explore his site and possibly find a retailer that carries Memory Blocks in your area. One of my new favorites is one from a line out this spring and it is called Winged Sage. It is quite lovely and retails for $92.00 CDN. So many forms of art emerge from Dickens’ work, all of which he designs himself. When you gaze upon one of his tiles it evokes many feelings, senses, and memories. One appreciates the beauty, the artistry, and the subjects portrayed. It is so nice to know such beautiful work is being made so close to home, in Vancouver.