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From Mayan to post-modern.

Architectural ceramics is the term that Peter King, a local artist in Pensacola, uses to label his work. He says custom crafts associated with the building trade are enjoying revitalization. Beautifully executed doorways, fireplace fronts, fountains and murals arc typical projects that he has been commissioned to produce for the past fifteen years.

A clay tile mural was the project chosen to be produced by my students as a permanent artwork to adorn the central and guidance offices of our high school. Previously, my students produced smaller-scale tile designs to decorate our library. It was not until I approached Peter for technical information that I understood the variety of possibilities. He agreed to visit the classes that would be participating in this project, and to present slide examples and discuss his work. The students became intrigued by his work and motivated to begin this endeavor.

Personal Symbols

This educational unit was designed with a content-based approach rather than a product-centered one. The inspiration for the project was derived from a historical investigation of Mayan pottery and architecture; however, the concept for the piece is more sophisticated than a mere replication of Mayan art. It includes individual meaning and expression couched in an effort to maintain integrity and unity of design with an emphasis on collaboration. A study of Post-Modernism enabled the students to borrow ideology and symbology metaphorically, and personalize it for their purposes.

Before the students knew they were to complete the final mural, and as part of an extensive unit on Native-American art, a study of Mayan ceramic stamp designs was introduced. Just as the Mayans produced meaningful symbolic imagery to embellish their ware, students were to design several symbols or variations that were meaningful to them. From these designs two were to be rendered in clay and bisque fired. Next, a revisitation to masks and the transformative effects they have on the wearer took place, and students made impressions of their own faces with clay slabs. These were set aside on bats with supports underneath (to maintain form) until they became leather hard.

Because of physical limitations, I evaluated and finalized the format and spatial considerations, but the decoration of the entire surface and its approach were based on collective decisions and the direction of the piece's evolution. The collective aesthetic experience could be described as similar to a musical group ensemble--like a well-conducted and orchestrated symphony.


The basic design and use of space needs to be determined on paper beforehand. If a design includes physical features that already exist (doors, windows, variations in the surface of the wall, etc.) careful measurements need to be made and a 10% shrinkage allowance must be included in the working dimensions.

A working area or a surface should be available for the duration of the project's construction. I removed most of the furniture from my classroom so that we could work on the floor. We covered the area with butcher paper to keep the clay from sticking to the surface. Grog or silica sand can be used for this purpose but tends to be messy. For exacting work, the edges can be drawn onto the paper with a permanent marker.

Surface Preparation

The only tools needed are a slab roller and a needle tool. If your art department doesn't have a slab roller, all the slabs must be hand rolled. These small slabs need to be trimmed to fit, scored deeply and pounded together. Finally, before the surface can be worked, the giant slab can be smoothed by scraping.

The clay body used in this project was not the typical blend. To prevent curling, warping and breakage in firing, 25% to 30% grog was added to locally mined clay. The base slab was 3/8" to 1/2" thick, but this body can allow up to 1" thickness. The clay was also made wetter than usual. This body will dry more slowly, but an area that is not being worked should always be covered with thin plastic sheeting.

Basic design lines were lightly scored into the prepared surface to guide the students in seeing where and what kind of surface decoration was to be employed. These impressions were made prior to the giant slab and stored wet for this purpose.

The students decorated the surface further by impressing a pattern with their bisque-fired stamps made before the mural project began. The raised forms on the columns were slabs that were draped over PVC pipe before being attached to the surface and scraped with a tool fashioned out of a thin, rigid material. Slip was then used with scoring for all clay additions to the giant slab.


When all surface decoration was complete and the slab was cut into the final shapes for tiles (the tiles can be almost any shape or size because shrinkage occurs in all dimensions at 10%), it was time for drying. Many unexpected problems and time delays can occur at this stage. If it is humid in your area, climate control should be considered. Our floor is linoleum which does not allow for moisture to be absorbed as untreated concrete or other materials might. Fortunately, we had clay bricks to set on the seams when the edges of the tiles began to curl. Otherwise they should be left undisturbed until bone dry.

Glazing and Firing

Careful handling is important up to the point when the tiles are fired because each tile is unique and probably could not be replicated. The unfired tiles were transported flat on rigid boards.

We used three glazing techniques with commercial cone 6 oxidation glazes. Spot glazing with paint brushes emphasized the patterns made with the stamps. In some cases these were protected with liquid wax resist for the application of another color. The area with the faces was covered by using an airbrush. The remaining areas were rubbed with an iron-oxide wash.

There were several firings directly from greenware to stoneware in our electric kiln. Some tiles might curl a little and some might break. To prevent these problems, bring the temperature up slowly!


Tile mortar and grout were obtained from a local building supply or tile store, with instructions on the package. Adhesion created by the mortar keeps the tiles on the wall; an edge from a furring strip tacked to the wall or a few drywall screws keeps them from slipping. Grout is wonderful for covering up mistakes, cracks from breakage and size variance. Use this and all other materials with caution--wear rubber gloves.

I'm proud of the work and efforts of my students; moreover, their pride in the work is important to their personal development. Other key objectives we met include a wealth of technical skill and experience, and a hands-on experience of group endeavor--something that is generally missing from the larger school curriculum, and generally available only to members of the football team and the marching band.

Jay Hanes was teaching art at Gulf Breeze High School, Florida during this project. He is now a graduate student at Ohio State University.
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Title Annotation:high school students make ceramic tile mural
Author:Hanes, Jay
Publication:School Arts
Date:Nov 1, 1992
Previous Article:Hoax!
Next Article:Coil ... blend ... spin ... shape ... coil-building technique in ceramics.

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