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Slab houses: reflections of the past.

Architecture is a visual form that surrounds us. Although we are exposed daily to it, much of the richness, details and variety of its forms remains unnoticed or unappreciated. Intrigued by the beauty and mystery of the Victorian architecture in our area, I started planning a unit on this unique building style.

While taking slides of the different "painted ladies" in our community, I began noting the bay windows that are identified with Victorian houses. These windows are meant to allow sunlight into the dark interiors and to reflect the outside environment. In an attempt to explore and educate my students about this aspect of Victorian architecture, I devised a ceramic sculpture project that would incorporate art history, handbuilding and surface ornamentation.

Students began their ceramic unit with a slide-lecture of buildings and features that are representative of architectural styles from the Victorian era. The discussion also included the reflective nature of the house windows and how students could incorporate that feeling in their work. One student suggested that we glue fragments of a mirror to the back of the windows on each Victorian house. This solution proved effective.

The production process is very flexible and adaptable for use with a variety of age groups from grade school through high school. After refining sketches, students cut a template from oaktag in the desired architectural shape. A 1/2" slab is rolled out using rolling pins and rulers. The "house" template is placed on the clay and the piece cut out with a needle tool or knife. Next, window openings, slightly smaller than the mirror pieces, are cut out of the clay facade using a fettling knife. To give the facade a three-dimensional quality, details such as shutters, doors and pediments are cut from a second slab of clay. The individual pieces are then scored and attached to the facade by coils.

The clay facades are loosely covered with a plastic bag and set aside for a week to stiffen enough so that balconies, porches, towers with conical roofs, flared second stories and bowed bays can be added. These attachments are created by rolling out 1/2" slabs of clay, cutting the desired shapes and attaching them to the houses. Scoring the appendage and adding coils holds them in place. Newspaper is crumpled and wedged into the hollow attachments to make the form stable. During the bisque firing, the newspaper is burned out. Surface decorations are created by impressing a variety of materials and tools into the clay.

The bisqueware pieces are completed by decorating them with glazes to enhance the surface textures. Later, small mirrors are attached with a glue gun to the backside of the ceramic pieces. This helps create the reflective quality that was evident in the large Victorian bay windows.

The ceramic Victorians were displayed in the school's lobby showcase resembling the reflective quality of many Victorian "painted ladies."

Ann Cappetta is Art Coordinator for the town of New Haven, Connecticut. Illustrations by Mark Battista, art teacher in West Haven, Connecticut and a professional illustrator.
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Author:Cappetta, Ann
Publication:School Arts
Date:Mar 1, 1990
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