Made in Shigaraki, Japan: Nel Bannier relates her experience of experimenting at Shigaraki.
IT WAS ALMOST MIDNIGHT. A LONE TRAFFIC LIGHT AT THE crossing and three faces peered into the bus, empty but for me. It had been a long trip from New York to Osaka to Shigaraki, Japan. My knowledge of Japanese was zero. All the information that I had was a note with names, times and numbers. The faces helped me with paying the fare, unloading my luggage and walking up a dark road. There it loomed: The Shigaraki Ceramic Cultural Park. The building, like a retreat, was sparsely furnished, the bedroom the size of a businessman s hotel room.
We drank coffee. We: a potter, a sculptor, both Japanese; an installation artist from Norway and a Dutch artist from the US. A good shower, a night's sleep and then waking up in the scenery of a Japanese wood block print. The strange bird's-eye view perspective, the steaming mountains, the stark contrast in colours, the clear outlines, it was all there.
My background is sculpture, mainly life-sized figures. Though, during my MFA in Ceramics in Carbondale, Illinois, US I learned to work small. It was there that words like Shino, Oribe, Tenmoku became part of my vocabulary. And there I first saw the brochure of Shigaraki. For 12 years I had dreamed of being a good enough artist to be selected for an artist-in-residency and here I was.
The layout of the buildings in the park was very mysterious. It was easy to get lost but later it felt more like a farm layout where clay gets turned. Going to the clay store was more dangerous than going to a donut bar. I over bought, like the others, on clays: Lip red, yellow, baby blue, grass green and all of the shades of beige to red brown and from white to black. Even now, after nearly one and a half years of Shigaraki, water comes into my hands, because they want it all.
My proposal was to work on elements of the whole body, not wishing to make the figure in one piece but to find dramatic solutions in clay to the joining of body parts. As for colour, it was the challenge of the woodfiring and its changes to a piece that might make me step back or forward to ponder a new solution, other than what I might have had in mind. And my biggest wish was to eliminate the frame or pedestal from the piece, just to let it be clay.
This was not exactly what happened to my work. The weather was warm and humid; the clay went up and came down, went up and came down. The hardware store was a good walk away. Walking through all the aisles, I made notes. With it not being a Home Depot, I had to do with what I found.
When I was working in the European Ceramic Work Centre in The Netherlands, cloth had been a solution to make large porcelain slabs. A friend had told about burlap with which he reinforced the back of his work. Burlap. Rolls of burlap in all sizes were available at inexpensive prices. But how did he do it, my friend back in The Netherlands? Sometimes it is good to zoom out and just let the hands do the work. They know so much better how to go about it. Soon my hands had a rhythm of cutting burlap, rinsing out a bit of the starch, drying the fabric, making clay slip, wedging the clay quite soft and then the magic step--smearing the clay in a thick layer with a scraper onto a piece of fabric.
Of course, I made a clumsy start. I smeared small squares of fabric with clay on both sides and placed them like a slab around a metal rod. The rod was wrapped with plastic. As a shrinkage buffer, I had also rolled cardboard around it. The work went up square-by-square of fabric. It didn't come down after 15 inches of work. I found that the clay/burlap slab, when used on the diagonal like a diamond shape, was much easier to pull up and out and shape.
As well as the ease of working up and out and in, I could work very thin as a potter would work. There is joy in working as a potter when making the figure. Then came the first ordeals; how would it dry, come off the rod, behave in the biscuit fire and after the biscuit, when it had to be glazed? All of these ordeals went well and opening the first glaze kiln was so delicious. As good as sake, Dutch chocolate or a donut.
The first works were a tea ceremony set. "Aha, coffee tables" as the Japanese technicians exclaimed when I had explained with hands and feet and drawings, my idea how all of the elements needed to be brought together by an iron armature. The staff, a shocking lot of eight at my table, tried to comprehend my simple vision.
It was around this time that the Emperor and Empress of Japan came to visit Shigaraki and our facilities. Of course we had been hilarious about this visit, but when they entered the studio, everybody fell silent and relaxed. The Emperor and Empress carried an atmosphere of serenity and gentleness with them. They were well informed about us, our country and our work.
After the legs for my coffee table set named Tea Ceremony 2008, which came with reasonable ease in the new technique, a bigger pair was set up. I wanted each leg to hold up a small child, like a child standing up with one adult leg. It was then that the big surprise of the laminating of clay and burlap revealed itself. Not only the legs went up fast, but with one rod as support I could model a freestanding figure on one leg with arms up in the air. They were child figures, some three feet tall, but nevertheless they stood, light of weight on the toes of one foot.
Now my appetite grew for making something gigantic, at least gigantic in my opinion. Some 10 years ago I had made an eight-foot figure, very heavy, very clumsy. It sagged in the firing. I made a scale model of legs, which is a topic in my work, their being our way of standing on earth. How would three times the size of my own legs be in clay? A foot of 25 inches, a leg nine feet high, and then, of course, two legs, to be complete and standing in a strong and expressive way.
It took nearly two months before the armature was ready. Wood had to be ordered, cinder blocks had to be bought, pipe, pipe joints and a lot of clay and burlap. The winter was very cold, the dorm rather cold, the studio more or less cold and nowhere to go for coffee when the frustration of the work took me down. We were at the time only two in the dorm (a Japanese potter and a Dutch sculptor from the US). There were no parties--just silence, cold and work.
I started the large legs over three times. The length of the pipes was a frustration but the longing to make the work was stronger than the frustration. Slowly a system developed. In the evening I would make a pile of slabs of burlap with soft clay scraped on one side (two sides would make the whole pile stick and all of the work had to be redone). The next morning I would build up height, about 10 to 15 inches. In the afternoon the shaping would be done. The clay would be stiff enough to stand up, but soft enough to pull it out or push it in.
Using large strokes of burlap over the diagonal, bias in fashion terms, made it easy to pull it out or even up. The layering of the burlap and clay, laminating as in plywood, gave the clay an incredible strength. When I came short of shape, I just could cut the clay-laminate with scissors and fill up the dart with a piece of clay/burlap slab. Was the shape too big, then again the scissors and the form could be taken in. It all felt like making a clay dress over thin air with only a pipe as an upright water level.
In order not to lose form on such a big scale, I developed a system of measurements of my own legs, the way it is used in fashion design, times three. Thin wooden sticks were pricked all around the clay form to indicate the width and height I needed. Sometimes I pricked long strips of clay/burlap slabs onto the legs to see how the shape had to be fattened or just to see the direction I had to move in. For five steady weeks it was eat, work, eat, work, eat, work, sleep and so on. The days were long, the sleep deep, the satisfaction intense the farther the piece developed. Twenty long years, leaving bronze and cement and stone behind me, I had dreamed of a simple armature and a large lightweight piece of sculpture in clay.
The staff of The Shigaraki Ceramic Cultural Park was incredibly supportive of my endeavour. For them to see me struggle and not say a word, but to show interest without being invasive, was quite different from my fellow Europeans when they arrived in March. Lucky enough I was close to being finished and not so vulnerable to their remarks.
Following a once-fire attitude that I had developed in Carbondale, I decided to glaze before firing and get the piece leather hard into the kiln, though it felt in my heart not right. In my head it seemed the best to do, because the smaller pieces had been quite brittle after the biscuit firing, even at cone 4. It would be hard to glaze such a large-scale brittle piece.
Glazing beige on beige on beige is very difficult. It had to be very quiet in the studio to remember which beige would be green, which would be blue, which would be brown, which would be yellowish. Of course, I had made a colour scheme and laid out all of the colour tests with the buckets of glaze. Still a slight disturbance in the studio would be enough to make me forget where I had put what colour or if I had put it on at all.
When the day came to load the kiln, it was like a circus. Was it going to go as planned, or had I made mistakes in my vision? We had to go from the studio to the kiln building. The buttocks of both legs came off easily. They ware not too heavy. But the pipe of one leg was just too high for the door. Miscalculation. And getting it off of the board was a struggle. Placing it on the kiln floor was okay. The second leg got through the door, but getting it off the board was even more difficult than the first one, as was getting it onto the kiln floor. It was amazing that both legs survived the hassling. The whole operation took a lot of energy, daring and inventiveness. We were quite proud when the kiln door closed. This part had not been that bad.
The firing went slowly. Drying, firing and cooling took altogether about a week. The day the kiln was to be opened, I could feel the staff had peeked. They had not only peeked but also wheeled out the cart, and everybody was watching my reaction. The legs were there! Bingo. And a dull beige/brown piece with beige/whitish glaze had turned into my vision of warm vibrating legs. So far, so good.
Unloading the piece, it was clear it had been fired off too low for the Shigaraki clay. We had stopped at cone 8, fearing the work might sag. It had sagged about 10 degrees, though there was barely any deformation or shrinkage. The work was kind of soft. The glazing had separated the top layer of clay/burlap from the layers below. The piece, amazingly light for its size, was put together to see if it would stand up and hold up to its height. It did. So far so good, again.
Visitors came and were drawn to the piece. Under their touch it started slowly to peel. Then a frustrating time started. I wanted a re-firing at cone 10; the staff said I should take it the Japanese way and accept the outcome of the firing. To me that felt like the easy way out. I tested and tested to figure out why the clay of the other pieces had been OK and why this one was less in strength. The result of the testing was: fat clay with no more then 10 percent grog, with no bigger particles than one mm, was the best to use with burlap. Also, we knew that the piece had to be better supported in the kiln to avoid sagging at a high temperature.
A compromise was made with the staff. We would re-fire at cone 010. A new time of frustration began. I was testing ceramic glues and testing colours for repairs at this low temperature. Then the repairs were done, the glazing, the loading, the firing, the hoping it all would be okay and another week of waiting.
Though the piece wasn't as bright, it was much stronger. It had sagged only two degrees more. A pedestal was designed and made. It was in the shape of a metal shadow that the legs cast on the ground. The pedestal had to camouflage that it was a counter weight to the height of the legs.
The work was exhibited, received a lot of attention and was in a big newspaper. With the knowledge from the mishaps, I started a new piece; a full figure in porcelain/burlap laminate, nine feet tall. After 20 years I came full circle with my dreams.
Carried on the energy of Shigaraki, another wish, another dream, was fulfilled. The installation Pacifiers, the two kids each with an adult leg on a skate board, done in the clay laminating technique, was selected for the 5th World Ceramic Biennale, Icheon, Korea, 2009. In the meantime, the large white porcelain /burlap figure stood up well. I wanted it to be woodfired. It came off the board and pipe easily but it was lying in the wood kiln, instead of standing. The expansion and contraction of the quartz. inversion pulled it apart. The colours were beautiful. In our debriefing we decided that next time the piece should first be fired, well supported, in the gas kiln. Then it should be fired in the wood kiln. Use should be made of gravity in supporting it, which means it should be on a slope of kiln shelves.
I am back in the Netherlands, about to return to New York. It is 2009. I just have to continue dreaming. You never know when these dreams will come through.
Now my appetite grew for making something gigantic, at least gigantic in my opinion. Some 10 years ago I had made an eight-foot figure, very heavy, very clumsy. It sagged in the firing. I made a scale model of legs, which is a topic in my work, their being our way of standing ox earth. How would three times the size of my own legs be in clay? A foot of 25 inches, a leg nine feet high, and then, of course, two legs, to be complete and standing in a strong and expressive way.
The installation Pacifiers, the two kids each with an adult leg on a skate hoard, done in the clay laminating technique, runs selected for the 5th World Ceramic Biennale, Icheon, Korea 2009.
My proposal was to work on elements of the whole body, not wishing to make the figure is one piece but to find dramatic solutions in clay to the joining of body parts. As far colour, it was the challenge of the woodfiring and its changes to a piece that might make me step back or forward to ponder a new solution, other than what I might have had in mind. And my biggest wish was to eliminate the frame or pedestal from the piece, just to let it be clay.
Nel Barmier, a Dutch sculptor, was an artist-in-residence at the Shigaraki Ceramic Cultural Center, Japan from September 2007 till December 2008. Barmier has an MFA in Ceramics from Southern Illinois University Carbondale US. Currently she maintains a studio in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, New York, US. Her work is in the collections of several museums worldwide.