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Surrealist Ceramics: Joan Miró

Raoul Ubac, "Untitled (Variation of Les vases communicants)," 1937, photograph/collotype

When I was at the Vancouver Art Gallery‘s Surrealist exhibition yesterday, I noticed the sculptures. Most were Giacometti’s …some quite large. Because many Surrealists were affected and inspired by aboriginal art, there is much made of wood, too. Aboriginal masks, bowls, carvings. Noticeably missing was anything made of clay, however. There were pieces that alluded to it, such as this photograph-collotype by Belgian Raoul Ubac. “Untitled (Variation of Les vases communicants),” 1937, is a lovely piece and one of my favorites from the show. There was also an untitled collage by Max Ernst which showed big urns on the right hand side of the work. When I think of Dali’s “Lobster Telephone” and the other objects shown, it makes me wonder why there were no ceramic pieces among them. It seems to me to be the perfect medium for creating fantastical, dream-like objects. I did a little looking around and came across references to a period of time in Joan Miró’s [ʒuˈam  miˈɾo] life when he made ceramics with his friend, Josep Llorens Artigas. They worked in clay in the 1940s and 50s producing  work that was exhibited in 1956 in a show at the Gallerie Maeght in Paris. “Terres De Grand Feu” had 43 pieces. The next year, Miró was  commissioned to make two ceramic murals, “Wall of the Sun” and “Wall of the Moon,” which were installed in 1958 on the UNESCO building in Paris. He later created a similar mural for Harvard University, in the United States, for the Maeght Foundation, in Paris, and at the  Barcelona airport, in Spain. Here is an article published in 1956 in the Harvard Crimson about Miró. After his ceramic period, he cast a number of his small ceramic pieces in bronze, which became his sculpture medium after that. Today, in an incredible stroke of luck, case of synchronicity, what have you, I’ve learned that an exhibition of Miró’s work is taking place until the end of July in Paris in the Musee Maillol. Here’s more information from the Fondation Maeght. It is the first time his ceramic work has been shown for 40 years. The video below shows Ms. Maeght discussing Miró’s work. It’s fantastic!

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Good Impressions Part 4: Saggar firing with Terry Shepherd

Terry Shepherd is an expert in saggar firing and the videos we’re seeing today are from a workshop he taught. His site, Shepherd Clay Works, shows his range of work. Shepherd is the artist-in-residence and director of the ceramics program at the Western Colorado Center for the Arts. His site states that Shepherd “has become known for introducing students to low-fire saggar and thin shell saggar, with fuming techniques utilizing natural combustibles such as tamarisk , salt brined fescue grasses, salt, copper and cobalt sulphate to produce a unique surface embellishment.” Shepherd does beautiful work and I like how he uses material like tamarisk and seaweed. One of my most beloved pieces was made by my teacher Mr. Takehara’s assistant, George. It’s a small porcelain bowl. The interplay of celadon, orange, and impressions from organic matter make it a vessel that has the hallmarks of perfection. George’s technique differs from Shepherd’s but they both create masterpieces. This is a worthwhile series and a person can learn much by watching Shepherd speak and demonstrate his techniques in this workshop. Think about saggar firing some of your own work. You won’t be let down by the results. It’s summertime…perfect weather for such work!

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A closer look at ceramic Penjing figurines

When I reported on bonsai or penjing figurines, I was very curious about the production end. Were they all slipcast? Is anyone creating handmade ones, as they were surely made in early days? Most of these figures today are mass-made and the prices can be embarrassingly low. Craftsman make them, yet the wares go for so little, as with the ones offered by this site, According to Arts by Hand, traditional techniques gave way to  slipcasting and the use of press molds. From all accounts, “Pen’Jing is apparently experiencing a revival in modern day China,” states collector Myron Redding. “It is a nearly lost art form that is once again becoming popular with Chinese bonsai enthusiasts.” Redding also states that the figures were originally made by press mold and that sometimes the fingerprints of people long gone can be seen on the back. (I can related to this because I often leave my own fingerprints on the back or bottom of pieces I make…) Describing the pieces, he says, “After the torso was released from the mould, the head, hands and legs or feet would be added.” He explains that
“hair, hats, beards and other items would complete the ensemble. As a finishing touch, eyes, nose and ears would be pierced to add further detail.” The article by Redding is quite good and it is clear that he is a collector who has a great love for the art and craftmanship of antique penjing. If you are interested, take a look, as he goes on to talk about types and colors of clay and glazes originally used. Evidently, the mud women are highly sought after and are a rarity. If you are interested in collecting antique mud figures, click here for a how-to. Further, I am posting two videos, one of a man making fine figurines and another showing penjing figures in a historical overview by Myron Redding.

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Gold and silver leaf on ceramics, Part 1

The first time I saw gold and silver leaf was in the mid-1970s, as the guest-of-honor at a dinner held in the home of a South Asian gem stone dealer and archaeologist. When the dinner was served, it took my breath away, for much of it was covered with edible gold and silver leaf. The shiny warmth and coolness of each contrasted starkly with the rich yellows, greens,and reds of sauces, and the whiteness of rice and dips. As colorful as a silk sari…. Afterwards, we sipped gold-tip Assam tea, as that was where Mahendra was from, and it remains my favorite tea to this day. Then we chewed betel nuts. We were settled into comfortable conversation by that time, but had all had our mutual shocks that evening, them, learning I was a white woman in her early twenties and, me, finding out the degree to which they were honoring me. It was an incredible entry into a different world. I had eaten curries and other South Asian delights, but this was on beyond zebra. So exquisite! Since then, I’ve had the chance to taste desserts that were silver-leafed up here in Canada. It is a beautiful treat. I thought of metallic leafing again after I saw the Sid Dickens site and it sparked an interest in the idea of using leaf on ceramics. Dickens’ uses it on painted surfaces and his material also seems to be in flaked form, but maybe it is leaf. I also had a boo at this youtube video in which a woman shows how to apply gold leaf transfers to glazed pieces. Here’s the link…there are English sub-titles. She uses pre-designed transfers that aren’t readily available here, so I decided to look further. I had previously posted about using water-soluble metals. In addition, I thought of the materials that must be used in china painting, which often has accents of gold or silver. First, I decided I needed to know more about materials. Here is an excellent video that talks about the different forms metal leaf comes in. Gilded Planet, the source of the video, looks to be a good outfit for resources and it also has many tutorials. In addition to using gold leaf, there is also the subject of gilding, which has a rich history. On to ceramics, though… According to Wikipedia, “Both porcelain and earthenware are commonly decorated with gold, and in the late 1970s it was reported that 5 tonnes of gold were used annually for the decoration of these products.” This article talks about three different ways gold is used on ceramics:

  • Acid Gold – ceramic surface is etched with acid prior to using gold, reported to be a difficult method
  • Bright Gold or Liquid Gold: a solution of gold resins is placed in a bismuth flux; needs application and firing; bright after removal from the kiln
  • Burnished Gold or Best Gold: gold powder in a liquid suspension with flux; needs polishing after removal from the kiln

The method I’m most interested in is the ‘mechanical’ method, which started being used in the Middle Ages, says the Wiki site. Those days, the method consisted of gessoing the object, letting it dry, smoothing it, then rewetting it with ‘glue waster.’ After that, the gold leaf was applied in sheets, left to dry, followed by application of gold painted on (ground gold dust suspended). I’ll stop here today and will resume tomorrow to close with a post about using gold leaf on fired, glazed ceramics.


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