April 10, 2009

Made from Local Clay

Last semester, I had occasion to teach a ceramics course at South Carolina State University. Although my terminal degree is in painting, I had done a lot of work in ceramic sculpture so it wasn’t too great a leap to offer my services. As I reviewed the text book I became fascinated by the section about using local, found clays. Shortly thereafter, I was passing by a construction site and saw what appeared to be a vein of good reddish buff clay in the mounds of dirt piled up by the side of the road. I went home to get a bucket and returned to this site to dig out my find.
After some months, I broke up the dried chunks and sifted them through a strainer. After mixing the clay dust with water I wedged the clay on a clean table. It seemed to be fairly plastic so I made a few small pinch pots to test it out. Alas, they cracked while drying and so I rolled everything up into a ball and put it away.
They say that clay improves with age. That may be so, for six months after I abandoned the ball of clay I took it out of its storage bag again and found it to yield to the kneading process with much greater plasticity than before. It was still an unknown clay and could not be counted upon to stay whole when dried or not explode in a kiln when fired if it did dry to a greenware stage.
So not wanting to expend too much energy on an uncertain product, I filled a plaster cast of a friend’s face with the stuff. Remarkably, the clay retained its shape well enough to work with it.
Releasing it from the mold, it bore the visage of a familiar face, but with only the bare essentials of shape.
When looking only at the shape of someone’s face, stripped of coloring, sounds, and movement, a structure appears that usually goes unnoticed. I’ve done numerous casts and am always amazed at what I find in a face. They are always smaller than in my memory. Often they are surprising and even a bit alarming. The disjointed noses! The jaw receding too much - or truly off kilter. Whether it is a natural desire for symmetry or a superstitious belief in the curative powers of changing an image to effect a change in what that image represents in reality, I cannot say, but I usually exploit the plastic quality of clay to correct these little imperfections. So I cured the deviated septum on my friend’s face in clay by slowly pressing and knocking the nose back into the center of the face. There was this secret, primitive feeling that by doing so I was relieving years of sinus pain.
After my little plastic clay surgery, I added and subtracted minute bits of clay on the face, avoiding any dramatic embellishments. Instead of smoothing out the surface as I usually do, I let the clay determine the patterns on the face by the way it naturally cracked or creased with movement. I emphasized this by rubbing the dried clay with black iron oxide. The clay was at an ancient home on this face - a facade that hid Native American blood.. It seemed oddly significant that a visage was made with the stuff that her ancestors walked upon and used to create their own pottery. Will this unknown clay survive the fire without cracking or exploding? Possibly but I’m not counting on it. If the clay does mature in the kiln then I will use it somehow, some way in the future.

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