French Terracotta Portraits

Terracotta is a coarse, porous clay used in as a sculpture medium, popular for its low cost, durability and versatility. Terracotta has been used widely in different locations and eras, including ancient China, Greece and Mesopotamia. In 18th – 19th century France, terracotta was widely used for figurative sculpture. Many examples remain with us today, some in museums and others in private art collections and galleries.

“Bust of a Man” from the Getty Museum is an example of the technical mastery of these French terracotta artisans. As the Getty states, “Made to adorn a French interior, this type of bust was very popular in the 1700s. Because terracotta was relatively inexpensive, both middle class and wealthy consumers could purchase artworks made of this material for their homes.”

Here are some close-up photographs of the Bust of a Man sculpture, showing detailing of the eye, the smooth texture of the skin, and the rougher, more gestural handling of the fabric.

In another example from the Getty Museum, the sculptor Augustin Pajou created two “Ideal Female Heads” in terracotta clay. Again, look at the amazing detailing of the form and texture of the figure.

Some of these French terracotta portrait busts were made with molds (see below). Other examples appear to be original sculptures or a combination of mold casts with added, unique embellishments, such as this example from the Met by Albert-Ernest Carrier-Belleuse. As noted in a description on the Met’s website, “Carrier-Belleuse regarded the creation of sculpture and the decorative arts as a commercial enterprise… To reach the widest audience through the mass manufacture of his designs, he transformed traditional processes and exploited new technologies.”

Fine detailing and severe undercuts would be difficult to achieve with a mold.

One example I found (also in the Met collection) was this quick terracotta sketch of a Parisian woman (the artist Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux’s fiancee). I love the spontaneity of the piece, the gesture, the essence so quickly captured. So the works are not always highly detailed and overly refined.

Browsing online I found numerous examples, of varied quality, of terracotta busts. I can’t vouch for authenticity or quality, obviously, but there are many examples, which suggests to me that this type of sculpture was widespread. The portrait bust to the right looks to be made from a mold. (The artist would sculpt the bust, then create a mold from the sculpture, and create multiple terracotta busts from the original mold.)

This “French Style Terracotta Bust” sold at auction in 2020 for $950.00. The detailing on the piece is impressive.

The David Collection

The David Collection is located on Copenhagen, Denmark. The museum is within a 19th century building once owned by the museum’s founder, Christian Ludvig David. Mr. David was a prominent Danish lawyer, investor and art collector. In 1945, he donated his art collection to a museum open to the public.

The David Collection consists of three categories: Islamic art, European art and Danish early modern art. The largest part of the collection is Islamic art from the 7th to mid-19th centuries, spanning from Spain in the west to China in the east, from Uzbekistan in the north to Yemen in the south. A very prominent portion of the Islamic art category consists of Islamic ceramics. The Collection of Islamic Art is the largest of its kind in Scandinavia and is among the ten most important in the Western world.

The museum’s website contains a link to images of 114 ceramic pieces in the collection. (From this URL, click the “Works of Art” icon on the right side which will pop up small images of each piece. Clicking the individual images will bring up a slightly larger image accompanied by text description and background. Clicking on that mid-sized image will bring up a larger image of the piece.) I’ve included a sampling of some images on the museum website below.

The David Collection, Fritware mihrab tile, cast in two parts and painted in blue and turquoise in, and in lustre over, an opaque, white glaze
Iran, Kashan; end of 13th century
The David Collection, Earthenware bowl, covered with a white slip and painted in black, yellow, and green under a transparent glaze
Eastern Iran, Nishapur; 10th century
The David Collection, Fritware bowl, with polychrome decoration and gold leaf in and over an opaque, white glaze. Minai type
Iran, Kashan; c. 1200
The David Collection, Fragmented figure of a horse, earthenware covered with a whitish slip and painted in green and manganese under a slightly toned, poorly preserved glaze
Spain; 10th century

Again, this is just a sampling of some ceramic items in the David Collection’s online image gallery. I recommend that you go right to the David Collection website to view additional ceramics (as well as stunning images of other materials such as glass, calligraphy, miniature painting, ivory, metal, and more).

The David Collection, Earthenware storage jar with a turquoise glaze
Western Iran or Iraq; 8th century

Sarah Anderson – Artist Profile

I can’t remember where I first saw Sarah Anderson’s Sgrafitto work, but having some personal experience doing Sgrafitto, I was immediately smitten. Sarah has an impressive assurance of hand. Carving confidence is difficult to achieve when working on curved surfaces; Sarah has mastered it. Sarah also incorporates a smart graphic sense and popping color into her work. I think you’ll enjoy this conversation.

JTW: You studied sculpture in college. What drew you to ceramics?

SA: I spent a lot of time with metal and wood when I first started out in sculpture. I had grown up wood-working with my dad, so I had a base knowledge of that to begin with. I loved the technical exploration of welding and forging, and the complexity of casting. I discovered lost wax castings, and quickly fell in love with the process. It was so much easier for me to manipulate and control this medium through heat and my own hands for tools. I began exploring glass work because of its relation to wax as a malleable material and manipulation by heat.

I waited until after I had explored these other materials before I began working with clay. I think that was something really important to me, so I could develop a wider set of skills before getting sucked into the best material of all. For my thesis, I made two full figure ceramic women hanging from welded frames on the wall with different creatures of ceramic and glass consuming them.

Ceramic is my favorite for a few reasons: it is easily manipulated by your hands, you need very minimal tools other than your mind, hands, clay, and water, and I can still play with fire in the final stages. I very much enjoy fire. Clay shows so much experience from just a single piece, because of the layers it takes to get to the final result.

Finishing a masterpiece, then having to jump through multiple firings, then what other finishing touches you have shows the level of dedication ceramic artists have.

JTW: Given your background in sculpture, are you exploring different forms with your pottery? How important is form in your work?

SA: When I first started in one of my intro to ceramics classes, I was told that you are either a surface artist or a form artist. I am still taking on that challenge to someday be a mix of both. I began fully diving into the surface decoration through the technique sgraffito. After a few months of playing, I started to drift toward my mug forms, and how I could relate those to the surfaces I was creating.

I think I will forever be playing with the back and forth of these two ideas, always pushing the other to improve. The pipes are new, and I’m now bouncing back to allowing the surface to influence my forms. The pipes are a very literal take of the pipes I carve with my sewer rats. We’ll have to see where that takes me soon!

JTW: Your surface decoration is very striking. Do you have strong graphics background in your art training?

SA: Actually, both of my parents are graphic designers and my brother is an animator. I definitely get my graphics honestly. I think the way I illustrate came very naturally, almost unintentionally. I have always grown up telling stories and finding humor in most situations, and sgraffito was a very clear way for me to depict these things.

I’ve had this specific line of work for almost two years now, and morphing from botanical illustrations to weird sewer rats and frogs that can’t swim has been a huge jump, but an important one for me. I’m learning that I like focusing on the interaction between two characters, and the moment right before the climax of the story. Right when you get the most of a reaction out of something or someone. I think that’s a moment that has a lot of those feelings, and I enjoy freezing those moments in time.

JTW: How carefully do you plan out your surface designs? Do you sketch things first, or is your process more intuitive and you just “go with the flow”?

SA: It depends on the piece. If I’ve drawn it a million times, I usually have a good idea of where I want to place things for my composition so I just wing it. But if it’s brand new, I like to spend time drawing new characters and then physically cutting those out of paper and collaging them with things found in the background or how the whole composition will fit together. Most of the time it’s pretty intuitive, but it definitely took some time and practice to get to that point. 

JTW: Can you tell me more about your Mobile Makers experience? What prompted the trip? What did you learn from it?

SA: Our first Mobile Makers trip was AMAZING. For those that don’t know what I’m talking about – Mobile Makers was created by myself and friend and fellow ceramic artist, Marret Metzger. Ceramics is typically a very stationary medium, and networking outside of your city, let alone state, can be difficult. For those reasons and more, Mobile Makers was born. We packed our trailer, ceramic tools, my dog Pip, and hit the road on March 1st, 2022. Our destination was NCECA in Sacramento, CA but were incredibly blessed to have met and networked with so many others along the way. Community is a large part of why I do what I do and it was an amazing experience to say the least. We have an instagram and website for those who want to learn more about our trip! www.mobilemakersclay.com

JTW: Do you have future plans combining travel and creative work?

SA: I’ve always been very obsessed with both of these ideas, traveling and creating. As for the work, I’m still excited about the body of work I’m creating currently. It would be really interesting to see how my work would transform in a different environment. Residencies have been on my radar, and that’s one big reason why we started our Mobile Makers journey. Once covid hit it was really difficult to navigate the residency road, so we decided to make our own. All I can say for now is that I’m very excited for what this experience has sparked, and I can’t wait for the next couple of years to unfold.

JTW: You’ve been a working artist since graduation 3-4 years ago. What have you observed in these years? Is the experience what you expected?

I’ve always been a teacher, ever since I was in high school I’ve been teaching kids in some form. I began teaching at local art centers and programs during college, so I had a foot in the door of Indianapolis’s main art center once I graduated. I became their new studio manager for the next two years, and I am so grateful for all of the equipment and tools I was able to learn how to use, fix, and manage during my time there. I was able to break down and rebuild kilns and fire something about every other day for the two years I was there. Once I started to see a spike in the demand for my work, and connecting more with the community around me, I felt it was as good a time as any to make the switch as a full time artist.

Marret moved to Indy, and we both found a studio space with our friend Becca Otis in a shared artist warehouse (with a sweet brewery downstairs). This studio and being self employed has completely changed the way I work, obviously. But I would not be anywhere near where I am today if I would have passively waited to take the leap of faith. It’s all just as hard as everyone says it will be, but so worth it. And I like a challenge.

JTW: Where to from here?

SA: I’m VERY excited for a couple of upcoming things. I have been teaching in-person classes for forever, but the world post-covid has completely changed the way we are all learning. I am in the beginning stages of making a Masterclass for intro to the wheel, all done virtually. I’ve had a lot of fun teaching through other virtual workshops, so I’m excited to branch out with a longer and more intense version of those classes. I’m also ready to get back into sculpting in more of the traditional sense. I think the virtual teaching will give me some freedom to spend time with that. The last teaser I will throw out is the possibility of opening a store front, or something to that extent in the near future. Not sure what these things will all look like once they unfold, but it’s going to be an adventure along the way!

See more of Sarah’s work on her website.

Gio Ponti’s Floor Tiles

I recently saw some floor tiles designed by Gio Ponti in the recently renovated Denver Museum of Art (the only example of Ponti’s architecture in the United States). Gio Ponti was an Italian architect, industrial designer (in ceramics and furniture), professor, painter, editor and journalist who strongly influenced international design for over 50 years in the mid-20th century.

The tiles in the Denver Art Museum originated from work he did in the early 1960s. In 1959, Roberto Fernandes commissioned Ponti to transform a historic property on cliffs overlooking the Sorrento coast into the Parco dei Principi hotel.

Ponti designed 30 sets of 20×20 inch tiles (in white, light blue and dark blue) to be used throughout the Parco dei Principi hotel, many of which can still be seen in photographs of the hotel today.

Tiles in the Denver Art Museum utilize the original patterns designed by Ponti for the hotel, but are in white, green and black. The tiles can be arranged into approximately 100 different floor patterns.

Ponti’s long-term interest in ceramics is interesting. After studying architecture and serving in the First World War, Ponti took a job as Art Director for a major Italian ceramics manufacturer, Richard-Ginori. Here are a few examples of Ponti’s design work from the 1930s:

Ponti’s designs were incorporated into ceramics throughout his long career. Here is a set of ceramic pieces designed by Ponti in the 1970s:

Additional information on Gio Ponti’s work in ceramics and other materials is available here on the Denver Art Museum’s website dedicated to this exhibition.

Clay Jars Used In Wine Production

Dating back to the days of ancient Greeks and Romans, large clay jars have been used to store and age wine. I found a number of these clay vessels throughout Spain, repurposed as ornamental containers for plants in urban gardens.

The scale of these vessels is impressive, as can be seen in the image below, featuring my wife standing by some smaller examples.

Many of these jars were made in the town of Colmenar de Oreja, south of Madrid. At one point, there were 32 separate large-scale kilns in operation in Colmenar de Oreja, each producing enormous vessels for use in the Spanish wine-making industry. In the late 1950s, clay storage vessels were replaced with concrete containers at many wineries. Starting in the 1980s, wineries replaced concrete storage containers with stainless steel.

As interest in organic wine production methods increases, some wineries are returning to clay storage vessels in their production facilities, replacing or supplementing aging wine concrete and stainless steel holding tanks with clay. Winemakers say that clay, being porous, provides micro-oxygenation to wine during the aging period and unlike oak barrels, does not add aroma to the wine. Clay vessels also naturally protect the aging wine from temperature fluctuations. As a consequence, winemakers are able to achieve more fruity wines in clay aging vessels – sometimes a sought-after effect.

I found this website of a clay vessel vendor in Spain: Tinajas Orozco. From their website they sell historic clay vessels as well as smaller modern clay vessels. There is an interesting video chronicling the decline of the era of large vessel production traditionally done at this factory:

Equipment & Software Test

I’ve had a wild-haired idea to beef up my artist profiles with in-person interviews and photographs of artists working in their studios. I’m testing out Soundslides, a software platform that allows users to couple photographs with audio tracks to create web-based slideshows. The software has been used by BBC, NYTimes and Washington Post journalists as well as documentarians at governmental organizations such as the World Health Organization and World Bank.

I’m also testing Audacity, an open-source software that allows users to combine and edit audio recordings – and export the result into a file that can be ingested into Soundslides. And, in order to create the original audio recordings (e.g., narration and interview tracks), I have some test microphones and hardware from Rode and Seinnheiser, which I’m pumping into Rode Recorder (an iPhone app).

If this all sounds complicated, well, it is. I’ll spare you the details but suffice it to say that there are lots of parts to screw up and getting proficient (let alone good) at this will take practice.

Ultimately I want to have a very portable recording kit (2 lavalier mics, one mini-shotgun mic plus my iPhone), and with that kit I hope to record interesting conversations with ceramic artists.

Below is a first attempt to combine some images and audio tracks (narration plus some recordings of ambient sound) into a test slide show. I would be very grateful if readers provide feedback or comments on this test slideshow. I’m most interested in knowing if the slideshow loads correctly and if the audio is clear and loud enough.

Thank you for your help.

Grayson Fair – Artist Profile

Grayson Fair’s sense of gooey material caught my eye and kept my attention as I looked through his website. As I have worked a bit with slip trailing, I found Grayson’s “Slipstack” series in particular very arresting. The more I look at Grayson’s work the more I find to relish and enjoy, particularly since Grayson incorporates interesting techniques involving mining his own clay, dripping clay and dropping wet clay – almost acts of arbitrariness. I reached out to the artist and asked him a bit about his process and how it has evolved over time. Hopefully you, too, will enjoy the conversation.

JW: You started ceramics making functional pottery, but you’ve since changed focus and are making non-objective sculptural work. What lead to that transformation?

GF: I spent years making functional pottery, and I was always trying to find my aesthetic, but I never really had continuity throughout the work. As I started making sculpture, I started to find my voice in ceramics. I found that if I made a pot, it was alright, but if I threw that pot on the ground and manipulated it, it came to life. My goal has always been to be a contemporary artist, and while clay is my current medium, I do not want to work exclusively with ceramics.

JW: I see you studied fiber in college. How strongly did working with fiber influence your ceramic work? Or did it at all?

GF: Currently my work very much resembles fiber and fabric. While this is not the inspiration for the work, it still informs the process. I believe that almost every encounter informs who you are and the art you make. My time working with fibers had a lasting impression on me, whether I notice or not.

JW: How would you describe the evolution of your work? Is there a theme (or themes) that tie things together?

GF: As the years have progressed, my work has become more action-based. I think that as my confidence within ceramics grows so does my ability to make quick movements and decisions that lend to an interesting end result. The theme that ties my work together through the last five years is the ability to preserve a moment through action. This moment is a record of a time, a feeling, and a place. At times I have called my sculptures self-portraits, because they have encapsulated who I was in an instant.

JW: Your slipstack series looks like the pieces are composed of slip trailings, layer upon layer. Can you tell me about that process and what inspired your work with slip trailing?

GF: When I lived in North Texas, I was researching and working with native clays. At one point throughout that process I had a large amount of slip and I was trying different methods of drying. I decided to pour a circle of slip on the concrete floor and added a layer every hour for a few days. That first piece cracked and failed but it sparked the idea of stacking the slip into what we humorously called “Spaghetti Castles”. Eventually I worked on 10-20 pieces at a time slowly layering slip with an icing bag.

JW: It seems as though you use an extruder for much of your later work, and then allow extruded shapes to merge together. Am I off on this? Again, what inspired you to tackle this type of work?

GF:  used mostly extruded forms while in residence at the Reitz Ranch. The tubes seemed like the best way for me to record action while still being able to construct forms. I would layer, bend, drop and stack various extruded forms to build sculptural vessels. Eventually I moved away from this technique because the extruder is one of my least favorite tools to operate, and when clay becomes cumbersome I lose interest. Currently my work is made from slabs; thrown, altered, and combined into sculptural forms.

JW: Can you tell me a little about your creative process? Do you prepare any sketches or prototypes before starting a piece (or series)? Or is your work more fluid and intuitive?

GF: I tend to work as intuitively as possible. I am entertained by a technique, and then I try to make my work while exploring that process. I might have a form in mind, but I try to keep my intention separate from the work and allow the material to determine the outcome. Due to this uncontrolled manner of making, I filter and reclaim about half of my before firing to ensure that I am only finishing the best work.

JW: I see some functional pieces on your website. Do you still create functional pieces?

GF: I do still create functional pottery but never outside of teaching ceramics classes. I use pots as teaching tools and tests for atmospheric firing. I keep pottery on my website because I have been applying for residencies for the last six years and I believe that when clay studios are accepting residents, they like to see a variety of skill sets.

JW: How are you selling your work? Do you sell off your website, through a gallery, at art fairs, etc?

GF: I sell a fair amount of work through studio visits and through instagram. In the past I’ve sold through galleries, art fairs, and exhibitions. I was able to sell a fair amount of work last year through my contacts at AMOCA as well as my solo exhibition “Sequences”. I have not been selling much work since arriving in Montana, but I am working towards representation through a gallery in LA.

More of Grayson’s work can be found on his website and on this AMOCA website. I encourage you to take a look at the AMOCA website as it includes one video interview with Grayson following his 2020-2021 artist residency at AMOCA in Los Angeles, plus a second studio visit video.

The Collector’s Cabinet

A final note while in this hard land, from the city of Toledo, Spain. We spent two very enjoyable hours at the Museo de Santa Cruz which houses, amongst other decorative arts items, the impressive collection of ceramics from the collection of Vincent’s Carranza Escudera.

The Carranza Ceramics collection is housed in a relatively small area of this large building (originally built in the early 1600s as a hospital). Yet the space is sufficient to display a large number of outstanding pieces from multiple regions of Spain.

I’ve looked at many examples of Iberian ceramics online. What impressed me most in seeing the items “live” is the gestural quality of the decoration in so many of the pieces – the fluid strokes of the artists as they applied glazes and pigments to the ceramic surfaces. The artists were not tight or rigid. In fact their work was generally very loose, free and spontaneous.

That’s the main impression I will carry away from this Museum’s collection: memory of the gestures frozen on clay that so succinctly capture the essential human urge to create beauty in our world.

Frontiers of Ceramics

One of the objectives of this blog is to highlight innovations and new developments in the world of ceramics. Ceramics are used widely in technology, medicine, construction materials, etc. Given my personal interest in aesthetic and artistic uses of ceramics, the focus of this blog will always be on creativity and innovation within the art world. But we should all be aware of the vast scope and uses of ceramics, even if we don’t delve deeply into such topics.

I found the following webinar about ceramics used as biomaterials and medical implants. It is one of a series of webinars presented by the American Ceramics Society’s Bioceramics Division.

Ceramic artists are part of a much, much larger world.