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San Jose schoolchildren give us a lesson in clay mural-making.

San Jose schoolchildren give us a lesson in clay mural-making

"Think big!' said art teacher Nina Koepke to almost 700 youngsters of the San Jose school district who created the giant bas-relief mural pictured above. "Wall sculpture can be as large as you like,' she explained, "as long as it is cut up into smaller tiles for easy handling.'

We've adapted her technique to make the fired clay garden mural pictured below.

You can hang your own creation on a fence or use it as a fountain backing.

Allow about three weeks to complete the carving, firing, glazing, second firing, gluing, and grouting of the tiles and to make a wood frame. Tiles will dry best at room temperature and in low humidity. Apply glazes, glue, sealer, and grout outdoors or in a very well-ventilated area.

To fire the tiles, you'll need access to a kiln (check yellow pages under Ceramic Equipment & Supplies--Retail). Each of the two firings should cost $10 to $15. Total cost of firing and materials for a mural the size of the one pictured at lower left was about $130.

Making the tiles

You'll need a yardstick, pencils, scissors, a large sharp knife, clay modeling tools or spoons, dull knives or tongue depressors, a rolling pin, and a plastic covering such as a tarp or garbage bags. Also:

1 piece of cardboard slightly larger than the size of your mural

1 large pad drawing paper

1 yard 45-inch-wide canvas ($4 to $5)

3 25-pound bags of #5 stoneware clay (about $6.50 each; each bag covers about 2 1/2 square feet, 1 inch thick)

Colored glazes ($1 to $2 per 4-oz. jar)

Masking tape or pushpins

Pencil 8-inch squares on cardboard. On drawing paper, have children draw designs associated with a theme, such as sea life. Most designs should be no smaller than a hand. Cut out the paper designs, arrange them on the cardboard, and trace around their outlines (step 1.)

Stretch the canvas on your work table and secure it under the table with tape or pushpins. To get rid of all air bubbles in the clay--a crucial step--work it well by throwing handfuls hard onto the canvas several times (step 2).

Build up and roll out the clay so that it measures 1 inch thick and a little larger than the cardboard. As you roll clay, press the rolling pin down hard to eliminate any air pockets that remain; add clay bits to fill visible air holes.

Place the cardboard on top of the clay and use it as a guide to cut the slab to size with a sharp knife. Lightly score tile divisions and arrange the paper templates on the clay, referring to their position on the cardboard. Lightly trace the shapes with a dull knife or a ceramic tool and cut halfway through the clay along markings.

With modeling tools, scoop out the clay around the designs until the surface is about 1/2 inch thick (step 3). With slightly wet fingers, smooth the design edges and the surrounding clay (step 4). Let clay dry for an hour; then, using a yardstick and a sharp knife, cut it into tiles (step 5).

Cover the tiles loosely with plastic for the first three days to prevent quick drying, which may cause cracks. Turn each tile over once every 24 hours (or more often, if tile begins to curl) until completely dry. Drying should take one to two weeks, depending on temperature and humidity. Slight warpage will not be a problem when tiles are set in grout.

After tiles are fired, paint them with four coats of colored glaze (step 6). Fire the tiles a second time to flux the glaze.

Making the frame

You'll need a saw, hammer, paintbrush, and the following:

1 piece of 1/2-inch or thicker exterior plywood (see note following)

4 lengths 1-by-1 molding for frame (see note following)

Primer and paint

Finishing nails

Wood glue

To determine the size of plywood backing, lay tiles 1/4 inch apart, allow 1/4 inch all around for grout, and add width for 1-by-1 frame. Cut plywood backing to size.

For frame sides, cut 1-by-1 into two pieces the length of the backing; glue and nail in place, nailing from behind through the plywood. Then cut top and bottom pieces to fit between them; glue and nail in place.

Prime and paint the frame to match your grout (we used white grout and paint) or, for a natural look, stain and seal it.

Gluing and grouting the tiles

You'll need rubber gloves, a 1/4-inch V-notched trowel, masking tape, a paint-brush, grout float or blunt knife, and a paint-mixing stick and plastic gloves. Materials (buy at a tile store) include:

Tile floor and wall primer (about $4 a pint; our mural used 1 1/2 cups)

Ceramic tile adhesive (about $7 a quart; we used 2 quarts)

Tile grout (about $1.50 per lb.; we used almost 3 lb.)

Latex grout additive (about $5 per pint; we used 1/2 pint) to help waterproof and prevent tiles from cracking and shrinking

Silicone grout sealer (about $4 a pint; we used 1/2 pint)

Paint two coats of tile primer on the framed plywood surface, following directions on the container. Let dry.

To prevent skin irritation, wear rubber gloves through the gluing and grouting processes.

Apply a 1/4-inch-thick layer of tile adhesive over the dry primer and draw the trowel's serrated edges over it to make a better-gripping grooved surface. Working quickly so the adhesive doesn't dry, install the tiles in their proper places, allowing about 1/4 inch of space between tiles and between tiles and the frame. Set the tiles in the adhesive at a slight angle to where they belong, then twist them into place.

When iles are properly aligned, press them down firmly. Use warm, soapy water to remove any excess adhesive before it dries. Let dry for 24 hours.

Before applying the grout, use several overlapping layers of masking tape to cover the edges of the wood frame. Following the directions on the containers, blend enough grout additive and grout powder to form a paste about the consistency of peanut butter. To prevent mixture from drying out, mix only about 1/2 cup at a time.

Apply grout with a knife along tile edges, forcing it into the joints. Smooth it with a grout float or blunt knife until flush with the tile edges. Let dry 10 minutes and wipe off excess grout with a damp sponge; rinse the sponge often.

After 2 to 3 hours, wipe the tiles again with a damp sponge to remove any film that remains. Let grout set for about three days, then paint on sealer.

Handle the completed mural carefully, to avoid cracking the joints.

Photo: Grade-school artists pose with their impressive creation

Photo: Made and hung outdoors, mural with aquatic theme measures 26 by 42 inches. Children's signatures appear with their designs

Photo: 1. Cut paper templates and trace them onto mural-size cardboard penciled with tile-size squares. Large, simple motifs will show up best

Photo: 2. To eliminate air bubbles, throw handfuls of clay onto hard, canvas-covered surface. Roll clay into 1-inch-thick slab slightly larger than you want the finished mural to be (tiles shrink a little as they dry)

Photo: 3. After scoring tile divisions on slab, trace templates with ceramic tool or knife. Remove paper; scoop around design until slab is 1/2 inch thick

Photo: 4. With wet fingers, smooth edges of designs and surrounding clay slab so that motifs are clearly delineated

Photo: 5. Use a sharp knife and yardstick to cut mural into squares. Make edges smooth and vertical. Separate tiles slightly for drying

Photo: 6. Point mural with glaze. Use four coats: one or two coats will look like enough, but glazes fade when fired
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Copyright 1986 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Date:May 1, 1986
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