Thursday, August 30, 2012

Third SRAM Bike Part Sculpture

The third of my major SRAM bike parts projects is nearing completion. This piece is the most complicated of the three I have done. I finished building the main form in early August. After vacation I threw some supports to hold the main form upright. In September I plan to finish glazing and attach the bike parts.

SRAM bike parts
I started with a general idea for the form, though I started building before I first sketched my plan. Early on I knew that external bike part supports would be part of the design. Before starting this project I had been thinking about the reason for integrating bike parts. Of course I started incorporating bike parts because I am going to be in a show that requires that artists use bike parts. But the bike part project coincides with an existing interest in integrating mechanical parts. 

I started to think about why, logically, bike parts might be integrated into my work. My usual forms are organic, abstract interpretations of exotic plants, microscopic organisms and undersea fauna and flora. How might bike parts, or mechanical parts in general, come to be incorporated into these plants and animals?

early sketch showing mechanical support

Part of my answer stems from the logic of science fiction and Steampunk. I am thinking particularly of ways in which mechanical elements might conceivably be used to "improve" or repair organic forms. I developed a more refined picture of what organic / mechanical integration might look like this summer while reading "Cinder" by Marissa Meyer. The cyborg main character has mechanical body parts that replaced damaged limbs. These man-made parts integrate with her organic body. The descriptions in the book are vivid and helped me envision some ideas for my own work. Of course in the real world prostheses function this way, as man-made tools to support missing limbs of an organic being.

early stage in building, with bike parts positioned as supports
So in developing my plans for this project, I tried to think about how my psuedo-organic forms might need to be supported. An obvious place for support would be in increasing stability, both to hold the piece upright and to support attachments or top-heavy elements of the form (like a halo neck brace supports a broken neck). 

later sketch showing possible combination of thrown clay and bike part surface decoration patterns

clay wads to plan spacing for parts to be added later

thrown forms for decoration shown above (thrown forms at front left are meant to mimic bike part at front left)

I also thought about the functional, defensive or reproductive functions of a plant form and why a form might need different segments or separated functions. My sculptures are not imitations of existing organic forms; I tend to combine elements of flora and fauna. I also tend to keep my forms relatively simple. My forms generally don't have defined legs, arms or heads like higher order vertebrate animals. Their bodies or forms are more likely to suggest sea cucumbers, squids, mollusks, or the seed pods and bulbs of plants. 

I usually made my forms relatively simple and sometimes repetitive (i.e. the form of the sculpture has similar bulbous forms growing or protruding). My surfaces are generally quite repetitive. I like to think of my forms logically (in a surreal, science fiction logic sort of way) as I build and finish them. Interior surfaces are distinct from exterior surfaces, edges fade into one another or change because of a change in form. The way I planned my forms for this project was to think about how mechanical elements might logically replace or enhance support as well as decorative elements of the form.

If an eccentric scientist on a different planet were to replace the physical support and reproductive organs of a science fiction plant, would the replacements mimic the shape of the original or would the new material require a new shape to achieve the same function?

sketch showing decorations elongated with different bike part extenders
thrown forms with bike part extender

While I've been working on this project, I have also been reading Umberto Eco's "History of Beauty" and I just finished Denis Dutton's "The Art Instinct." My considerations of the relation of "function" to form keeps coming up as I read these books. My work does not mimic nature, though I look to natural forms while I work. My work does not have a mechanical or biological function, though I keep considering function and nature as I design the forms. My work might more accurately be decorative and imaginative, but this isn't what I think hardest about when I am making it. 

bottom section finished with spaces for added decoration and with sprigged gear decorations attached
sprig mold made from a bike part, results shown above and below
The third bike part sculpture, like any of my work, evolved as I built and sketched and re-sketched and altered the form. I was thinking of the row of four spaces on the bottom as a place extravagant display, like flowers or colorful tail feathers. I thought of the rounded sections above as plants blossoms with mechanical stamen to be added later or as vessels that might tempt bugs in then capture them like venus fly traps or pitcher plants.

I also had to consider and design external mechanical elements as the form became more top-heavy. As I worked it was supported by towels, but the intention from the start was to provided a bike-part as support. As I worked, the piece became more extravagant at top and therefore heavier and less stable. Additional supports then needed to be added to the design.

base done, top part still being formed, at this point I hadn't decided how to finish the top section

temporarily placed bike part additions on top section

top section nearing completion

interior of top section, protruding ball for post-firing attachment

finished form before firing (wet or leather-hard clay)

bisque fired sculpture in kiln. sculpture required stilt supports because my kiln is small

bike part support trial run before throwing additional support bases

Monday, August 27, 2012

Bike Part with Clay: Gears

The big project I have been working on this summer involves incorporating bike parts into my ceramic sculptures. This project is a challenge for me in that I have to work differently and plan ahead more than usual. Generally when I start to work I have several pages of sketches and some photos of forms that I find interesting. These sketches and photos, kept around the studio, help me come up with some basic shapes of thrown or hand-built forms. I create a few general shapes and then work to combine and refine them, adding clay and building up to my finished form. During the summer I work on about 5 -7 pieces during a given two-week span, overlapping the work so that I can build on one piece while another dries.

SRAM bike parts

This summer my studio is more full than last and my time is more carefully planned out than usual. My studio is full of bike parts as well as sketches. I have bike parts in bins and boxes and also all over my work surfaces. I have been working on three major bike part pieces this summer, though I have some smaller pieces, a few test pieces and some functional objects I threw one week but haven't yet glazed.

early thrown forms that might develop into a bike part sculpture

The bike part integrated clay pieces require me to have an idea where the metal and plastic will go in the clay but I can't build these parts in directly. I need to plan for placement and then remove the pieces before firing. I also need to plan for shrinkage; the clay will shrink during drying and during firing. The metal and plastic parts, of course, will not shrink. If I were to build the bike parts into the sculpture, the shrinking clay would crack around the other material (as my friend Laura rediscovered to her detriment on another project). Of course if I fired the bike parts in the clay I would have other, stinkier, messier problems.

sketches planning potential bike part/clay sculptures

So what I do is sketch, build, test, build, sketch, test, build and refine. I am, essentially, building the clay part of my work the same as I would build it normally, but I have to plan where the bike parts will fit and how. I need to make openings that are around 10% larger than the bike part itself so that after shrinking the parts will still fit. I admit I have never been a big fan of measuring carefully. Part of the attraction of clay as a medium was (is) that I can fudge and sculpt over measurement errors. When I have worked with wood or even slabs of clay, I have frequently rediscovered that I am not a very exact measurer. I admire artists who can carefully plan, cut and build with straight, even and regular forms, but I haven't felt much motivation to emulate these artists in my own practice.

Partially built clay sculpture with initial bike part placement

This summer I have worked by building a little, based on a sketch, then adding a few bike parts as planned and squishing them into the clay. I move them around, lightly placing parts where I think they might fit before cutting or sculpting an attachment for them. As I work, I refine my sketches and adjust the parts again. The SRAM bike part project requires that I include at least 25 bike parts in the piece. I have, to some extent, been making this task more difficult because I am trying to make three pieces each with 25 parts. I am doing this because I've never done a project like this before. (I have integrated materials minimally, but the materials have generally been small or flexible--like hair.) I would be out of luck if my one and only bike part piece broke, so I am making three to lessen the possibility of disaster. I am am learning about the process as I go, so presumably the third piece will be best.

an older piece with hair. the hair doesn't need to fit "right" because it can be adjusted (unlike the bike parts)

The challenge of this project is most similar to my previous work with ceramic water fountains. The sculptural fountain forms were made exclusively from clay with a pump and hose to move the water up to the top of the fountain. The water recycled through the body of the sculpture into some form of a water container at the base. The fountains required a level of engineering to make sure the water recycled and didn't splash everywhere. The engineering required for the bike parts isn't the same, but it reminds me of doing the fountains

bike parts placed in cut-outs at the top of the sculpture-in-process

Here at the end of August I am nearing the end of my building time. The primary clay forms for the three sculptures have been built and bisque fired, some have been partially underglazed as well. I have a few wet pieces in the studio that are meant to be supports for these forms. I hope to finish these support pieces early this week (though my daughter's day care just called that she doesn't feel well) and then concentrate on glazing, firing and adding the bike parts in September.

gears integrated into this sculpture require the sculpture itself to be cut into pieces

The bike parts will have to be epoxied into the clay forms and some of the clay forms will be attached to one another via the bike parts. I am still planning more of a base support for the sculpture in this post, as I have only planned for about 15 pieces in the fired part of the form. I also had to build some notches into the interior of this sculpture so that there is more than just epoxy supporting the clay forms. 

the three (or four) gears pictured here require the sculpture to be cut or made in four (or five) different pieces

The tabs, holes and tubes inside the form will help hold the pieces in the correct placement as the epoxy sets. The sprigs on the surface of this form were made from a clay mold cast off of a bike part that is not being used in this particular sculpture. 

these pieces have one layer of underglaze on the exterior and will get another layer in some places before the next firing

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Pre-School Clay Results

This week I unloaded my first (partial) glaze kiln of the summer. On the top shelf were the pre-school bells made by my daughter's class at the start of the month. The students had painted underglaze on the bells during their class. After bisque firing, I painted a layer of clear gloss glaze over their bells. 

glazed bells in kiln before firing

 The clear gloss glaze made the underglaze colors darker, and shiny, of course.

glazed bells in kiln after firing (with a couple extra pieces)

All the bells worked after firing, though one sounded like it had only one small noise-maker inside. I'm not sure what happened, but the bell was made by one of the youngest students in the class. She either put only one noise-maker ball into the bell or she had too much slip inside and all the noise-makers are stuck to the interior of the bell.

I brought the bells in to the class earlier this week. I didn't get to see the kids' reactions since I just handed the box of bells to their teacher to distribute. My daughter helped me unload the kiln and then delighted me my pointed out all the features of her bell and the bell made by the girl sitting next to her. I hope the other kids did this for their parents as well. Or maybe it just delights a potter/mother.

this multi-colored bell was decorated with a flower arranging frog (basically a poky thing like a cat brush) on the side. The wad of clay on the top is reinforcing a crack or covering a too-large hole the kid punched in the bell. 

this bell has a rectangular slot in the middle probably made by pushing in a popsicle stick or similar tool.

I think the green underglaze on this looks like a dragon or jumping lizard

the slab base of this bell was pushed up after the excess clay was trimmed off so that it isn't sharp

a couple of the kids were very careful about applying one even coat of underglaze color

this piece has several indents around the body made by pressing clay stamps into the wet clay

the white part of this bell is the naked clay without underglaze color. The clay body is slightly speckled under the shiny clear glaze
The same piece from above has a tiny rip on the wall at the bottom and an added piece of clay made from a mold of a seashell 

the kid who made this piece really enjoyed layering wet clay bits and lots of underglaze, after he sliced the walls of the bell

this piece has tiny noise-maker balls added to the top. The plug of clay used to close the top of this bell was so thick I was worried it would explode in the kiln.

I believe this kid used a scoring tool to scratch the wall of the piece. there is also a seashell sprig on the side

After the kids had made their bells, Teacher Toni used some leftover clay to make one herself

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Pre-School Bell Project

At the beginning of August I visited my daughter's pre-shool class to do a clay project with the kids. The project was to make and decorate a bell. The kids in the class range in age from about 3 to 5 years old. Half the kids were in the class last year when we did a different clay project. During this year's project I noticed that the kids who did the project last year had a higher level of comfort with the clay and were better able to follow the directions. Of course these are also mostly the older kids.

I prepped this project by throwing some hollow shapes on the wheel. I originally tried the project at home with my daughter and discovered that open-topped forms would work better for the younger kids than closed forms. It is easier for the kids to put in the little noise-making bits of clay from the top than to fill in the space before attaching the base. 

thrown test forms for pre-school bell project
During the project each kid picked a clay form and also got a slab of flat clay for the base and a ball of soft clay for the top and for decoration. The thrown form and the slab were both leather-hard so they would keep their shape when the kids handled them. I also prepared some tiny balls or bits of clay to put inside. Once the clay dried, the little bits would rattle around and make noise. 

The first thing I had the kids do was score the bottom edge of the thrown form and the top of the slab. Scoring means scratching the clay where it will attach to another piece of clay. I provided some scoring tools (like tiny forks) as well as knives for this task. With older kids or adults I would have them measure the bottom slab first and score only the edge where the top clay form would actually touch. Given that this was a one-time project, I just told the kids to score the slab generally. My daughter, of course, measured and scored just the edge because she's done this before. In general the older kids scored a solid circle or hollow ring on the top of the slab. The youngest kids scratched fewer random marks on the slab or cut the slab.

kids scoring slab and bottom of thrown form
After they scored both pieces, I had the kids put slip on the bottom edge of the thrown piece and stick it to the slab. The slip acts like glue for the scored clay so we only wanted it on the bottom ring or the noise-makers would also stick (and not be able to rattle around and make noise). Only one kid slipped the entire bottom slab but she came in late, so she missed some of the directions. Luckilly I caught it and was able to cover the wet clay slab with a small circle of paper so that her noisemaking clay bits wouldn't stick to the floor.

scoring the slab and bottom of form
Before we started the project, I explained to the kids that clay needs to be scored and slipped when attaching one part to another. I also explained that slip is wet clay and that scoring means scratching with a scoring tool, knife, fork or whatever is available. Between each step of the process I kept asking the kids to repeat what we needed to do to attach clay pieces together. One of the kids very excitedly pointed to the slip each time I asked this. After they attached the slab to the bell form, I held up one kid's bell and asked all the kids if it looked okay. They said we should cut off the extra clay sticking out around the bottom (which is what I was hoping they'd say).

kids cutting off excess clay slab after attaching thrown form
Once most of the bells had bottoms and were somewhat cleaned up, I asked the kids to put in the noise-makers. I'm glad I prepared these bits ahead of time, since some of the younger kids seemed to be nearing the end of their ability to follow instructions. I don't mean they were misbehaving, they were just very excited and ready to play. My daughter and another boy were both very excited to put the noise-makers inside the bells. They finished preparing their bells before the youngest kids were ready.

kids cutting slabs and tearing off cut clay
Earlier, before we moved to the table, I introduced the kids to the clay and the project, I shook some different bells for them and asked them to listen for the different sounds made by a few balls of clay or many balls of clay. These example bells had already been fired. I also brought in a jar of unfired balls of clay and asked them to listen to the different sounds made by the raw clay. I explained that their bells probably wouldn't sound like anything until they were dry and fired. Interestingly, later in the project when their teacher pointed out that the bells weren't making any noise, the kids were quick to explain to her that they wouldn't until they were "cooked."

a tray of texture and surface decoration tools
Once the balls of clay were in the bells, they used a (hopefully) small amount of clay to close the top. I then brought out a tray of various items with which to decorate their bells. The results were quite varied. One boy sliced his bell almost to the point of breaking apart. Another stuck many many small bits of wet clay all over the surface of his bell. The girl below collected all the little balls of clay that were left-over from the noisemakers and stuck them on the top of her bell.

a bell decorated with lots of noise-maker balls on top
I didn't give the kids a lot of guidance on using the tools, though I reminded them how to attach clay to clay (score and slip). For function, there was only one more requirement they needed to know before they finished. Some of them fulfilled this requirement on their own. During firing clay shrinks. Air, on the other hand, expands when heated. If a clay piece contains a fully enclosed bubble of air, the clay piece is likely to explode during firing. All the kids needed was to put a tiny hole into the enclosed section of the bell. Some kids punched multiple holes in the bell. Others had to partially cover their holes because they were so big the noise-makers would fall out. 

some plastic tools stuck into the bells at the right
A few kids understood that that they could use any tools but didn't understand that they were supposed to take the tools out of the clay. At once point I walked to the end of the table and discovered a couple of plastic tool and clay porcupine bells. I laughed and then had to ask the girls to remove the knives and scoring tools before firing or they would have a burnt plastic bell. Another kid on the other end of the table inserted a small plastic disk into a big hole in his bell just before I reached him. I had to cut apart his bell to retrieve the plastic disk. 

punching a hole (or decoration) with a wooden "knife"
This project had quite a few steps for a big group of very young kids to follow, especially when most of the information was new to them. Last year I explained to the kids about forming clay shapes, attaching wet and drier clay and firing. I also warned them against using clay pieces that were too large because they can explode in the kiln. This year I needed to to tell the kids about attaching wet and drier clay (scoring and slipping), using tools to decorate clay, adding clay inside to make sounds, leaving an air escape hole, and firing. I didn't have time to explain why they couldn't use thick pieces of clay. One girl  did add a thick piece of clay on the top, but I was able to fire it very slowly so it didn't explode.

bells with incised, added and stamped decorations
The kids all completed functional bells that were ok to fire. The teachers were a little worried about one of the bells that had been sliced during the decoration stage. The bell had started to collapse a little bit during the project, but it dried and fired in the right shape. It was actually a neat effect the kid achieved with his excessive cutting.

adding surface decorations and cutting or scratching the bells' surfaces

After all the kids had a chance to finish and decorate their bells, I put away the cutting and stamping tools and brought out some underglazes and brushes. Underglazes are like paints, in that the color in the jar is the same as the color after firing. They don't get shiny on their own like glazes because they don't flux (or melt) during firing. They also don't stick to the shelf if kids paint them on the bottom of their bells.

applying underglaze
applying underglaze
After the project, I took the bells home to dry and fire. I let them dry for several weeks (since we went on vacation after the project). After the first firing (bisque firing) the bells were stronger and the underglazes were adhered to the clay. I painted a shiny coat of clear glaze over each kid's bell. The glaze will make the bells shiny and the colors a bit darker. (I will post results soon when the bells are out of the kiln).

applying underglaze
applying underglaze
All the bells drying and ready to fire