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Hollow figure construction: Laura-Harris Gascogne describes her process.

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ONE OF THE QUESTIONS I GET ASKED MOST IS, "how do you build your ceramic figures?" Well, if I had been classically trained in figure sculpture, my answer would likely be that my process uses an armature. However, I wasn't classically trained to build figures. Allan Rosenbaum, a figure sculptor and former professor of mine, trained me in my undergraduate studies how to build sculptural ceramics using traditional coils and slabs but no one really taught me specifically how to build ceramic figures hollow without any armature at all. I learned mostly through observing graduate students such as Lynne Kelly at Virginia Commonwealth University. It was there that I learned the basics for my method and became pretty proficient at the process, the technique and the pace. Students and teachers from nearby schools used to walk by my figures and ask if I had wheel thrown the parts. Others thought I used photographs for reference. I neither used photographs nor wheel thrown methods for my sculptures.

In graduate school, I became interested in Indian temple figures as a source to reference, many of which are contorted and twisted. Although most temple sculptures in India are made of stone, temple builders are trained first in clay. I learned this in 1998 on a trip to India, when I travelled to the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu. South of Chennai is a small coastal village called Mamallapuram, where several hundred stone carvers carry on the long tradition of carving figures in stone for temples and homes. Many are trained at a local college nearby, where I walked around the premises to see how aspiring stone carvers are trained. Interestingly, I found that they were trained in an additive process, using clay on armatures that were never fired. The medium in which they would finalize their training would be the subtractive process of carving stone.

My short trip to India, while interesting, did not teach me better methods of building hollow forms in clay. Instead it gave me more inspiration, possibilities and challenges for building my figurative forms. Over the years, people have asked me how I build. I used to keep my answer short and terse, as if the process should be obvious. As I started teaching after graduate school, I realized students really needed more insight and direction on the process, so I became more patient and methodical in my teaching of hollow figurative sculpture.

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THE MEDIUM

While I was in undergraduate school, I was taught how to make my own clay using prepared raw materials and a clay mixer. The predominate recipe was a cone 04 terracotta that used RedArt, Fireclay ballclay and different grogs. It proved wonderful for building hollow figures: it was a plastic, groggy clay body that was forgiving enough for the most amateur handbuilder. I altered it by adding more grog and handfuls of nylon fibres. I have always had a penchant for substantive clay bodies. When I ventured to graduate school, I continued using a similar clay body, until the price of RedArt went up enough to convince a poor grad student to consider alternatives. We had a local brick clay supplier that would dump unfired bricks in to a pile outside the studio that would disintegrate and age. It was free, so I began figuring out ways to alter my recipe. Brick clay is very coarse and it also has industrial plasticizers in it. I later learned that it has a good amount of manganese as well, to provide colour. By itself, it fires to what terracotta bricks normally fire to, an intense orange-red to a deep dark red. I created a recipe using bucket measurements. I would mix two buckets of brick clay to one bucket of fireclay and another bucket of Tile 6. I added Tile 6 because it has less iron than EPK and was cheaper at the time. I wanted less iron so I could experiment with high firing smaller pieces in a wood and salt kiln. I found this body was very difficult to use in building complicated forms so I used it to build large heads that were three feet in height or more. Today I build using three main bodies: a commercial porcelainous clay with sand, a groggy stoneware and a groggy terracotta. I still believe that the groggy terracotta body is the best for anyone starting out in hollow figure sculpture and that is what I have my students use. A bit of advice however: make sure the body has aged a week or more before using.

THE METHOD

My method is to start several figures simultaneously. I have no plan, no picture, no sketches. I start several pieces at once, otherwise, I would have to sit and wait for each piece to stiffen, or get frustrated at the fact that I was building my piece too wet and too fast. I simply start with a slab as a base and begin coiling up on it to make a basic 'single chamber'. I usually start with the torso in various postures. My pieces are consistently one half inch to three quarters of an inch thick. This gives the piece strength (and weight) as well as allows me to build fast and do a lot of carving later. After awhile, I have a general idea of where the piece is going. The idea then becomes an issue of feasibility. Building complicated pieces with clay has a lot to do with physics, in that I am constantly struggling with the forces of gravity against the mass of the clay. It becomes a challenge of whether I can pull off winning a fight against gravity and still end up with something that does not look massive or heavy.

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THE PROCESS

After starting the basic single 'chamber' for a figure and getting an idea for what the piece will look like, I make a variety of limbs, heads, hands, and feet. Sometimes these are shaped before attaching; it depends on the complexity of the form. I pinch these forms from solid lumps of clay, and paddle them into approximate shapes. If I am working on three figures, I might have several sets of parts setting up under plastic. I like being more intuitive with hands and feet because I feel these elements are so expressive and I don't like being too formulaic in my process. Also, hands and feet are small and can be added after the arms and legs have stiffened. Usually, I have more legs and arms, which I make by impaling a fat lump of clay with a dowel, and rolling it until the walls are even. I like this method because it is faster and stronger than slabs and allows me to shape the arms and legs quickly and work them into a nice taper that I could not achieve with an extruder. Once the limbs are stiff, I hold them up to the figure and cut them to the angle of the pose that I have in mind. Before I attach these, I slip and score them using a cocktail fork and prop them in place. I usually add the head, hands and feet last. They are smaller, dry faster and have less need for propping. All in all, using this method, I can build about three one-third life size pieces in a week and a half if I work about six hours each day. This is by no means the end of the process; the piece has to cure, dry and be fired twice, each stage taking at least a week or more once the building process is completed.

BASIC FINISHING

I allow pieces to 'cure' wrapped tightly under plastic for at least a day or two before finishing. This involves cleaning up rough areas and smoothing the surface. I liken it to preparing a canvas. Once the piece is uniformly leather hard, I begin the surface sketching and drawing or sgraffito. When this part is complete, I cover the pieces thoroughly and allow them to dry for several weeks under plastic.

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Cone 04-06 Groggy Terracotta
Sculpture Body Recipe

50 lbs. RedArt
25 lbs fireclay
25 lbs ballclay
5 lbs fine grog
5 lbs medium grog
5 lbs coarse grog
1 lbs flint
1 lb talc
2 handfuls of nylon fibers
Add 1 lb Iron Oxide for colour
boost if desired


Laura-Harris Gascogne has travelled most of her life, which includes having lived on a sailboat during her youth. Her work is represented by the Blue Gallery in Kansas City, Missouri, US. She teaches college in the Kansas City area, where she makes work and lives with her family.
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Author:Gascogne, Laura-Harris
Publication:Ceramics Technical
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2009
Words:1456
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