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

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