Swiss Ceramic Stoves

Take a few minutes during the cold winter months to enjoy these Swiss ceramic tile stoves. Ceramic factories in Winterthur and Zurich produced elaborate tile stoves for wealthy Swiss patrons from about 1550 through the mid-1700s. The stoves provided radiant heat to keep rooms cozy during long Swiss winters. The enclosed stove chamber also contained sparks to reduce risk of fire.

ⓒHistorisches Museum Basel, Maurice Babey

The stove above, displayed in an architectural setting, gives you a sense of the scale of these pieces. Looking at a close-up of this piece (below), you can see some of the marvelous detailed work on inset tiles, as well as the structural elements of the pieces.

ⓒHistorisches Museum Basel, Maurice Babey (detail)

I found several examples of these tile stoves in the online collection of the Basel Historical Museum. Click the images to link to museum information about each piece.

ⓒHistorisches Museum Basel, Maurice Babey
ⓒHistorisches Museum Basel, Maurice Babey
ⓒHistorisches Museum Basel, Natascha Jansen
ⓒHistorisches Museum Basel, Maurice Babey

Another wonderful example of a Swiss tile stove is exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, shown below. The piece is displayed in a larger architectural setting (the “Swiss Room”) so you can visualize how these stoves may have originally appeared in homes of wealthy Swiss patrons.

Stove, ca. 1684–85; Attributed to the pottery of David II Pfau; Metropolitan Museum of Art

A detail shot of this piece from the Met’s website:

Stove, ca. 1684–85; Attributed to the pottery of David II Pfau; Metropolitan Museum of Art

A few ceramic stoves are scattered around different buildings in Swiss cities. I found this image of a ceramic stove in Restaurant Schlüsselzunft in Basel, Switzerland, on their website.

Ceramic stoves are efficient heaters. They take longer to heat than, say, metal, but once heated the ceramic stove will radiate this heat over a long period of time – for 18 to 36-hours in some cases. Mark Twain had some observations about the efficiency of these “German stoves” in his book “Europe and Elsewhere”:

“Take the German stove, for instance … it is by long odds the best stove and the most convenient and economical that has yet been invented.

To the uninstructed stranger it promises nothing; but he will soon find that it is a masterly performer, for all that. It has a little bit of a door which seems foolishly out of proportion to the rest of the edifice; yet the door is right; for it is not necessary that bulky fuel shall enter it. Small-sized fuel is used, and marvelously little at that. The door opens into a tiny cavern which would not hold more fuel that a baby could fetch in its arms. The process of firing is quick and simple. At half past seven on a cold morning the servant brings a small basketful of slender pine sticks – say a modified armful – and puts half these in, lights them with a match, and closes the door. They burn out in ten or twelve minutes. He then puts in the rest and locks the door, and carries off the key. The work is done. He will not come again until the next morning.
All day long and until past midnight all parts of the room will be delightfully warm and comfortable, and there will be no headaches and no sense of closeness or oppression. In an American room, whether heated by steam, hot water, or open fires, the neighborhood of the register or the fireplace is warmest – the heat is not equally diffused throughout the room; but in a German room one is as comfortable in one part of it as in another. Nothing is gained or lost by being near the stove. Its surface is not hot; you can put your hand on it anywhere and not get burnt.

Consider these things. One firing is enough for the day; the cost is next to nothing; the heat produced is the same all day, instead of too hot and too cold by turns; one may absorb himself in his business and peace; he does not need to feel any anxieties or solicitudes about his fire; his whole day is a realized dream of bodily comfort.

For this reason ceramic tile stoves were used across Europe. I found interesting examples of tile stoves made in Germany, Latvia, Poland and Russia.

Ceramic tile stoves are still produced and used today. Most producers I found are located in Scandinavia, particularly in Sweden. Norrköping Kakelugnsmakeri, a Swedish company “specializing in antique tiled stoves and fireplaces that need renovation” offers a variety of tiled stoves for sale. Click here or on the image below to access their website.

Some Norrköping product photos show disassembled parts, indicating how these stoves are built and assembled.

Contemporary circular ceramic tile stove
Contemporary rectangular ceramic tile stove

Russell Biles – Artist Profile

I like Russell Biles’ work. A lot. But I admit not everyone shares my enthusiasm. My wife, for example. I say this guy is provocative, she says he picks at scabs. Perhaps it depends on your perspective or approach to art. Everyone should be able to agree that he is a skilled craftsman and extremely imaginative.

JW: How do you work? Do you sketch ideas out first and then build them out in clay? Will you tell me about your process?

RB: All my hand-built work is very thin coil built. I model plastilina for the cast work. I like to work directly out of my head with little if any drawing. When making a specific person I use photos. I prefer hand-building. I have developed a very technical style of hand-building on my own.

JW: Are there 2-3 pieces you could discuss in particular detail: where the idea originated, how you made it, decisions you made along the way, etc?

RB: Let’s first look at a sculpture I call “Captain America Calling.”

After I decided to do a RBG piece about her struggle, the image of Granny from the Beverly Hillbillies kept going through my head. (I’m a big fan and have great respect for the Beverly Hillbillies and did a very successful piece “Beverly Hillbillies 911” which was acquired by the RAM; I can recall every TV episode.) The episode that kept going through my head was when the Beverly Hillbillies took on professional wrestl’n – It was Grappll’n Granny vs the Boston Strong Girl and family.

Captain America Calling
Captain America Calling – detail

This is how I saw RBG in her fight against death to defeat Trump. Having taken care of my parents, I knew exactly the struggle RBG was going through. This was a classic fight against death and evil for the good of our country and the human race.

Capitan America Calling – in process (Photo: East City Art)

The image developed from the bottom up which is how I work. The choice of black and white was a reversal of the perception white is good and black is evil (a concept I’ve frequently used). 

To the left: “Capitan America Calling” in process.

The second piece I choose to describe is “Nuts” because it was recently acquired by the AMCA and I had to give them an explanation. My belief is every man is possessed by a dog and monkey (monkey drives the dog nuts). They represent the struggle or need for lust and it’s confusion with love. My representation is personal but also inspired by “Night of the Iguana” by Tennessee Williams and the subsequent movie. (This film review may help explain.)

Nuts

I have successfully used the dog and monkey theme in several sculptures.

Here is another example.

JW: Can you give me a sense of the scale of your figurative work?  Some pieces look very small, others look quite large.

RB: I have slip cast works up to 13 ft. long.

JW: You made clay monsters and animals as a child. How have those “characters” changed since your days as a child? And do those changes reveal anything about you?

RB: As Charles Bukowski said, “I don’t hate people. I just feel better when they’re not around.”

Growing up I was considered very shy and paid the price. Now I’m labeled anti-social (born this way). In the first grade I would draw monsters all over my work papers with dots along the bottom of the page (these were people). Now people are the monsters. Actually people have always been monsters to me.

I think this change reveals I’m better at articulating myself without fear of repercussions. Also, I’ve learned to be social.

JW: I see many commercial, religious and political references in your work. Do you incorporate this iconography consciously or do the references come spontaneously?

RB: Very conscious. The images are direct reflections of our culture.

I was born and raised a Christian. I deeply believe Christian philosophy but not the magic. Religion good and bad is another reflection of our culture. 

JW: Is there a trajectory or some type of progression in your figurative work?

RB: I think I will always critique our culture but I do believe my imagery has evolved. I produce what appears in my mind and what appears is figurative. Will I make pure abstract or feel good shit for the market? I don’t think so.

JW: How important is widely distributing your work and making it affordable to a wide audience?

RB: Making affordable work is very important to me. I really enjoy seeing people being able to own a piece of my work regardless of their economic situation. At one point I made gumball machines where anyone could get a series of my work for pennies.

Making affordable work is a creative challenge. People usually don’t realize that I make every one of the little pieces and although they are cast they take a lot of work – mind-numbingly boring work. The main creative challenge is simplifying the image in my head into a form that can be made from a two piece mold. Early pieces such as cookie jars took up to 13 piece molds and at that point the complex mold became a piece of art. 

JW: How would you define your work and what you’re trying to achieve with your ceramics? 

RB: I would define my sculpture as an honest critique of our culture from my perspective. The issues I pursue are historically and culturally relevant. My work represents subjects regardless of their popularity or political correctness and reach a broad audience on many levels. As far as pure ceramics go I would like to be able to say I can take the Pepsi challenge with any porcelain hand-builder in the world. 

More of Russell’s work can be viewed on his website.

Isla Transfers

Jason Bige Burnett

In the past I’ve toyed with newsprint transfers offered by Isla Transfers. I enjoyed the experiments but am no means competent using them. So I sought out Jason Bige Burnett at Isla Transfers to ask him about his company and products.

First of all, newsprint transfers consist of underglaze pigment screen-printed onto newsprint and used to transfer the underglaze onto leather-hard clay. Tissue transfers are similar, but are printed on tissue paper and used to transfer underglaze onto wet, semi-dry, dry, or bisque-fired clay.

The photo to the right shows an example of an underglaze transfer onto a flat tile.

Jason and Cristina Cordova, both ceramic artists, formed Isla Transfer in 2013. They sell underglaze designs screen-printed onto newsprint and tissue paper sheets, as well as tools you need to apply the transfers onto clay. In addition to the fun “off-the-shelf” designs they offer, Isla Transfers will print an artist’s custom designs onto newsprint or tissue, allowing for great design flexibility. The company also provides online how-to instructions.

Some sample “off-the-shelf” design sheets from the Isla Transfer website are shown to the left.

Below is an example of how a transfer design can be deployed on ceramic pieces.

Jason Bige Burnett

I spoke with Jason about the formation of the company and some of the products they offer. I also asked Jason for examples of what you can do with these transfer products. He pointed me to several artists who have used Isla Transfer products very effectively.

JW: Will you tell me more about the original idea for Isla Transfers and how you lifted that off the ground and transformed your original idea into a reality?

JB: In 2013 Cristina invited me to come teach a workshop in Puerto Rico. She had been organizing a workshop series called Travel Arte to provide contemporary craft instruction, particularly ceramics, to those living on the island. We were both living in the Penland, NC area and I was finishing up a residency at Arrowmont School of Crafts (TN) when she initially invited me. During the workshop is when Cristina’s wheels started turning and a month or so after returning back to the States she proposed the idea of marketing and selling this process and product I use for my own clay work. So we did. We created Isla Transfers to celebrate the island of Puerto Rico and where this partnership really inspired this move. We started off with very few colors and patterns and slowly built upon that as interest grew from workshops we taught and we had a better understanding of what students and audiences desired and suggested. It’s still in constant growth, and since creating Isla I’ve held different jobs, have relocated multiple times, and our growth still seems steady.

JW: Has there been strong demand for your transferrable underglaze transfer products? Have your products evolved much as you learn more about customer demand?

JB: Strong demand, sort of. There’s a lot of interest in image transfers for pottery. Newsprint Transfers, screen-printed underglaze on paper, have more of a specific window for application. Whereas, tissue transfers have more application options and some would say easier to use.

The products have evolved with customer demand, but what I appreciate the most within our model of conducting business is that everyone that works at Isla Transfers are studio artists themselves. We strive to put in the quality we can provide. That being said, we’ve taken smaller steps towards greater goals, and that has served us very well. To have met our customer demand we started doing custom orders, offered more options for color, and have incorporated artist limited edition series both to give our clientele something special, but also see what our audience enjoys. Finally, I’d like to add that it’s also where we fit in this ceramic image transfer business landscape. We have competitors who have other options, so many of our conversations is what is something different we can provide to the conversation? We see so many posts on instagram of our clients mixing up transfers from a variety of businesses and that’s pretty awesome!

JW: Where do your design ideas come from? I believe you studied graphic design and printmaking. Do you generate all the designs or do you reach out to external graphic artists?

JB: It’s a mixture. When starting off we wanted to offer eye catching patterns and familiarity so I incorporated old patterns of mine that I retired from my own pottery making and moved them into Isla Transfers.

Cristina has also designed several, and because we both teach they were more natural for us to use. We have reached out to external graphic artists and illustrators. We’ve introduced a couple thus far, one being Catie Miller, and have several more in the works. Our focus is to support artists, those purchasing our work, those we feature on social media, those who create patterns for us, and the working artists themselves like our employees.

JW: Do you still create ceramics yourself, or is most of your time devoted to running Isla Transfers?

JB: When Covid-19 hit the states and I went into unemployment here in Helena, MT, I turned a lot of my focus on creating online content for the Archie Bray Foundation and printing a ton of Isla Transfers. During this time I created a pattern for a video that I loved so much to make a seven color image transfer for Isla. I played with the stencils so much creating tons of color combinations, and then it hit me…hard. I wanted to print these on fabric. Very quickly I pushed clay aside and transformed my entire studio to working with fabric. My involvement with Isla Transfers was much heavier in the beginning, traveling to promote, teach workshops, screen-print all the stock, make all the inks, but as business grew so did my own pottery studio. We’ve had many assistants to take over production. Currently, and with much gratitude I have for Cristina and our current printer, I took a step back of being as involved when I was offered a long term residency at the Archie Bray Foundation. Right now most of what I do are Instagram live demos and reach out to potential designers.

JW: What is the most interesting thing you’ve learned through launching and running Isla Transfers?

JB: It’s been amazing to see how many of our clients and customers have taken something we created and they’ve put their own personal spin on it. That and how our product and process have inspired several of the same folks to find their creative voice and expand beyond. More to the point, for myself, it was finding comfort in seeing my designs on other people’s pots. Having written the book Graphic Clay I started seeing lots of work being made within the realm of what took me years to create. I changed the narrative in my head to “look at the permission you have given to others to explore and be creative through your own studio obstacles and those who have taught you what you now know” as well as understanding this is what it must feel like for surface designers who want their graphics and illustrations to be on items for the world to enjoy. It was a new appreciation and perspective of my work. 

Jason pointed me to several artists who have done really creative things with Isla Transfer products, including these 3 artists featured below. (Each of these artists was extremely helpful and enthusiastic about Isla Transfers and how the products can be used creatively.)

Catie Miller, who describes her work with Isla Transfers this way: “The collaboration with Isla Transfers developed after spending a week at Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts for Pentaculum in January 2020. I hung out with Jason in the studio for the week and we talked about all kinds of ideas including a collaboration for Isla Transfers. I typically hand-draw my own transfers using a slip trailing bottle filled with underglaze, while Jason is known for screen printing his designs. In deciding on what to design, I knew I wanted to take advantage of the precision that can be achieved from screen printing. I created designs with symmetry and small, densely-filled compositions. The Morris-Inspired “Miller and Micro Medallion designs” work well in a variety of applications, whether you want to fill in each shape or blanket the pattern with one single color. They also look great cut up, patched together, distorted, or as full sheet transfers. I’m really happy with the range of compositions and applications you can achieve with them.” (Catie’s website)

David Kenton Kring, who writes: “Here are 2 images of my favorite Isla Transfers creations. Jason is correct that I have started printing my own transfers. But they were a great launching pad for getting me comfortable with the transfer process. Both were created in 2019.” (David’s website)

Amy Brummond, who tells me, “I am a slab builder working with red stoneware clay. When I approach a blank slab I consider pattern, texture, and finally color. The first consideration, pattern, is often checked off the list by using one of my favorite newsprint transfer designs from Isla transfers.  I use handmade and commercially available stamps to add texture to the base layer pattern, with the intention of adding color to these impressions during the next step of the process.” (Amy’s website)

JW: Jason, what are your future plans with Isla Transfers? Do you want to expand into any other areas or products?

JB: We are very much looking forward to 2021 and 2022! Multiple things are in discussions cause we have several plans in the works, BUT our audience will have to stay tuned!

JW: Is there anything you’d like to tell people about your experience with Isla Transfers – or about making products for potters – that I haven’t asked?

JB: It’s an absolute pleasure teaching in person how to use Isla Transfers. When I’d teach workshops on how to create them and use them it’s a gift to witness when someone experiences their ideas coming into fruition. It’s just as great to be equipped with the tools for those who don’t wish to print their own, but have us be an element within their creative process to get where they hope to be. 

Francoise Joris – Artist Profile

Francoise Joris is a Belgian ceramic artist. Her work is identifiable by its ethereal, fragile appearance and suggestions of marine and plant living forms. The best introduction to her work is perhaps this video, which although in French with Dutch subtitles, demonstrates her creative process.

JW: Do you use cellulose or nylon fiber additives in your porcelain slip for strength?

FJ: Yes I use cellulose or flax fibers in my porcelain but not in all artworks.

JW: It looks like you glued balls of packing material on a balloon. What was the glue you used? Or did you use porcelain slip?

FJ: Balls are glued on a balloon with porcelain slip.

JW: How did you develop this technique? 

FJ: I wanted to get aerial artworks without the support of a shell so the only way to reach my goal was using a balloon and porcelain slip to build my artwork.

JW: How has your work evolved over time?

FJ: I had a classic history: working the clay, turning, stamping, plate work, creating molds, studying high temperature Shino enamels, working with polished and sigillated clays.

After more than 10 years of experimenting, I made very thin and translucent bowls where the thickness of the porcelain and the enamel was almost identical.

I then decided to do personal research to open porcelain to almost all possible fields, by associating it with fibers and / or cellulose.

At the beginning my pieces were white because the porcelain is sufficient on its own.

I then introduced color through Nerikomi techniques and made personal adaptations to these techniques.

My porcelain is colored in the mass, there is no transfer, nor coloring by hand.

JW: Much of your work involves Nerikromi. Where did you learn that technique?

FJ: My research on color introduced me to Nerikomi techniques.

I made many tests to finally bring my personal touch to these techniques to adapt them to my work.

JW: What are your sources of inspiration?

FJ: When a little girl I lived in Africa and my childhood was influenced by the rhythm of the seasons and the surrounding nature. I have always felt in harmony with my environment very close to land and water. So yes we can say that the land-based and aquatic nature influences my current work. Even today throughout my travels, nature continues to feed my imagination.

You may enjoy more of Francoise Joris’ work on her website.

Cybele Beaudoin – Artist Profile

Cybele Beaudoin is another Canadian ceramic artist doing interesting things with a lighter, more lyrical tone. (What’s with all the Canadian creativity? Is there something in the water?)

Cybele describes herself as a 30-year old French Canadian and a full-time ceramic artist for almost 4 years. She works at home in her small studio (in her garage) in a very urban area in Montréal, Québec. Cybele studied ceramics at Bonsecours Ceramic Center in Montreal

Cybele completed a 3-year intensive technical program at Bonsecours offered by the provincial government, leading to a post-secondary degree. She also has a university degree (BAC) in communications, a field she worked in before making the leap to ceramics.

“I was always drawn to surface decorations,” Cybele says. “Ornamentation takes a big place in my work as much as in my speech about it. I address pattern as a form of visual communication through functional art. I work with patterns from my French Canadian cultural heritage (quilting, candy molds, Popular TV show openings credits, etc.) and transpose them into my ceramics. Each collection is the result of an endless amount of variations on the same theme and all the pieces are one of a kind (i.e., different).”

JW: You say, “I do not seek perfection in the form. I like weirdness and ambiguity.” I really see this in some of your tripod pieces. Do you consciously push your forms further and further toward “weird” and “ambiguous”? 

CB: In fact, it’s the heat that makes the legs bend and sometimes gives the tripods the appearance of a living insect. I know that a certain leg’s length will provoke a curve. It’s both random and wanted at the same time! There is a part of randomness in ceramics that is always present and it makes it such a painful material to work with but also very fascinating and exciting at the same time. 

I stopped throwing my pieces on the wheel this year to push the organic look of the shapes a little more. I want to get as far as possible from industrial aesthetics, straight lines and perfect geometry. I also have more fun making my shapes like that and this is an important aspect to consider in manual work! The gold, the elaborate ornamentation and the porcelaneous clay give a little “princess” touch to my pieces which contrasts with my sometimes rough and weird shapes. Nothing consensual really exists but yes, I like to work with ambiguity because it brings out the particular, the uncanny. 

JW: What attracted you to ceramics?

CB: Handicrafts have always attracted me. I’m an object lover. When I was little, my grandparents took me to decorative arts museums and I remember that I wanted to become a glassblower. I was fascinated by quilt designs, jewelry, and wooden miniature circus.

Studying communications at university was a more rational and safe choice for me but at the same time, I was taking evening classes in jewelry. Once an adult, with diploma on hand, I had enough courage to follow my heart. I enrolled in ceramics on a whim, as I had never made a pot of my life! Clay was a material that attracted me because of its large potential. At the time, I was working for an environmental organization and I was reading a lot about fermentation and vermicomposting. In my head, I was going to reinvent the fermentation jar and create a vermicomposting pot. I didn’t do any of that but I fell in love with ceramics! 

JW: Have you explored other art forms?

CB: Before ceramics, creation has always been part of my life. My twin sister is an author and my parents were visual artists when I was little. However, my relationship with the art world is ambiguous mainly because I have very bad memories of that time in my life. So I have always approached projects with an artistic twist while simultaneously rejecting the art world. Choosing ceramics was maybe, in a way, a rejection too. Now an adult and a mom, I am surrounded by artists in my life and have accepted who I am. I also think that ceramics is a valid art practice. I don’t have an academic degree in arts but that doesn’t stop me from creating art!

This year, I had the chance to make murals and transpose my patterns on large surfaces. My life partner is an illustrator and he helps me a lot with those projects. I would like to continue exploring painting but clay remains my favorite medium.

I am a material girl and love working with different media haha!

Last month, I played with beeswax and caste ceramic models to make sculptural candles.

An example is shown to the right.

Right now, I have the chance to do an art residency around ornamentation in my city. It keeps me awake and curious. I think that creation is not limited to one material, but I am profoundly interested in the everyday object and a pot is such a democratic and accessible artistic device! It remains my favorite form of art mediation! 

JW: You say, “I create functional art for daily rituals. My work explores pop culture and patterns from my French-Canadian cultural heritage.” Can you tell me more about your sources of inspiration? 

CB: I consider ornamentation as a second raw material in my work. (In a sense, the pot is also an « ornament of domestic life » ) I therefore work with patterns that I find in Quebec popular culture and in my immediate environment. I transpose them on my ceramics. It can be an old woven blanket, a quilt, an iron fence, etc.

For example, I live in a neighborhood with an industrial past that has been destroyed by globalization. There used to be a lot of food processing industries, mainly candy and cookies factories! I found beautiful patterns on a candy mold from one of those factories that I transposed on my ceramics. I like the idea that these designs not only have a second life, but that they were part of my grandparents’ daily life!

Decorative elements are part of our lives and the « material » l find around me is infinite! Also, patterns are a form of communication that transcends cultures and has always been part of humanity. Humans adorn their environment as a way to make a space their own. Everyone is able to understand what a triangle, a circle, a square is. They are visual elements that connect us to others. In the western world, ornamentation is often seen as something that is meaningless and superfluous, for me it’s just the opposite.

JW: Is this an example of the Fanfreluche TV credits that some of your work references?

CB: Yes exactly! Fanfreluche was a very well know TV show here in Quebec originally broadcast in the sixties and seventies. Here’s an example of a pot made referencing this TV show:

JW: Many of your decorative designs seem very closely connected with childhood and childhood wonder. Is that on purpose?

CB: That’s interesting because I’ve never really thought about this. I paint my patterns without really wanting perfect straight lines, there’s a kind of naivety in it, yes. I want something accessible and simple. I use a lot of colors and contrasts and this is also associated with childhood since children are attracted to that visually. I also love playfulness. I love to think about my mugs as little clowns or candies. Life can be rough so why should a mug be serious?

JW: Can you “take me through” one of your pieces? Do you start with a clear idea, perhaps even a sketch, or is your process more spontaneous? What types of decisions do you make along the way?

CB: I always start a series of pieces with a pattern in mind. I try to define some variations of the pattern on paper before adapting it to cylindrical and circular shapes. Then, I select a color palette with light and dark colors. I try to limit myself to a maximum of 6-7 different shades. For some reason, candy pink and deep black are two colors that have always been present in my collections. 

I then use a water carving technique to paint the skeleton of the design on my pieces. (Water carving is a technique usually performed on bone dry wares. A water resist material, most commonly shellac, is painted to the surface of the pot. The design is revealed only after the ware is wiped with a sponge. It creates a very fine relief surface as a layer of clay is wiped in the process.) This technique allows me to have a base design composed of an amalgam of different colors, different opacities that give depth, gradients, speckled patterns, etc. Once it is done, I add touches of color by painting in the negative spaces of the design. I then fire my pieces, glaze them and fire them to maturity. I add gold overglaze to enhance the pattern in a few places and fire the pieces one last time at Cone 018. In my practice, the possibilities of variations are endless. From the shapes to the main design, to the touches of colors and gold, each piece is unique. A collection is in fact the result of infinite variations on the same theme. 

My first round of 3 firings is always difficult in the sense that it requires a lot of energy and I am never satisfied with the final results. Yet it is this batch that allows me to adjust my production, to see which patterns and color schemes work best together. You can have an idea of the result but nothing will replace a fired piece to give you the real visual result. From batch to batch, the pieces become more and more visually satisfying. At some point, I feel that I have gone around with a certain pattern and I change! 

JW: Where do you see your ceramic art going in the future? You mention perhaps switching to low-fire processes instead of cone 6 firing. Any other changes you are considering?

CB: Yes I want to switch to earthenware for many reasons and also because it is the type of local clay that we found here in Quebec. Working with earthenware was never really valued during my ceramic studies and I realize today that this should not be the case. There are fabulous earthenware clays that are perfectly suited for an utilitarian production.

One of the reasons why people fall in love with ceramics is precisely the infinite number of things we can explore with clay. It can be transformed in so many different ways, it has so much to offer, it’s amazing! I always have a super long list of things I want to do in the studio and a very limited amount of time too! I would say that one of the things I would like to experiment with in the future is to include more local materials in my production. I’ve been reading a little bit about « roadside pottery » and I find it really interesting. The idea is to include elements found on the roadside in your clay or glazes! (I’m not a glaze oriented potter but was very good in chemistry and science at school haha) Even if at first glance, this is the antithesis of my production, I really like very rough pieces that could almost be confused with natural stones. I sometimes use reactive glazes in my production to simulate lichen for example. The contrast with my highly ornamented and glittered pieces is not uninteresting. 

I obviously want to continue to explore painting and working my designs on other mediums than ceramics too.

JW: If 300 years from now an archaeologist uncovers 20 of your pieces, what do you think he/she will make of the discovery? What will it say of our time and our culture?

CB: Oh myyy! This is always a big stress for me. There is an aspect of my reality where I have to sell my things even though I’m not always in love with certain pieces. But people do not always prefer what I like the most! Knowing that my pieces can survive me and remain intact for hundreds years always goes through my mind! Surely, they will see in the pieces something like a desire of distance from industrial production and standardization of our times. I think, however, that ornamental language is something that has no age! My designs can certainly be understood (and hopefully appreciated) in the future! 

More of Cybele’s work may be found on her website.

The Met’s Ceramics Collection

I subscribe to the NY Times. The paper recently ran an article about a donation of arms and armor to the Metropolitan Museum in New York. I looked up the Met’s website to see whether they post online information about their ceramics collection.

They do indeed. In 2017, The Met made all images of public-domain works in its collection available under Creative Commons Zero (CC0) That means each of us has unlimited access to view and use over 406,000 images of artworks in the Met’s collection. Just searching for “ceramics” yielded 24,521 image results.

As a quick sample, I point to this porcelain vase designed by Kate B. Sears for the Ceramic Art Company in Trenton, New Jersey in 1892.

Note the image quality and detail visible when I zoom into the image of this piece posted on the Met website:

Here’s another example, this of a pair of vases made at the Royal Porcelain Manufactury at Sèvres, France, in 1789. Although not a favored style today, this type of decorative vase was all the rage in France just prior to the French Revolution.

More detail is visible by zooming into this image:

And still more detail is visible by zooming into additional images of these vases:

Some pieces, like this 13th Century Korean maebyeong (plum bottle) vase, are accompanied by audio descriptions and background information. The audio information on this particular piece firsts describes the decorative motif of cranes and clouds, particularly how the stylized cloud forms mirror the shapes of the cranes. The audio then details how this piece is an example of inlaid celadon, one of the most innovative forms of Korean art. Before glazing, the ceramic artists cut shapes of clouds and cranes out of the clay and filled these incisions with a pale clay mixture. Similarly, black lines around the clouds and details on the cranes were also cut out of the base clay material and filled with a red clay inlay. After smoothing the surface, the potters then applied a celadon glaze over the entire piece and fired the pot, turning the red clay inlay to black.

Another example on the website is this early 16th century hanging bottle (refredador), used to cool wine by immersing it in a larger container of cold water.

One final example: an Olmec seated figure (life sized) from the 12th – 9th Century BCE. The Met website offers views from multiple angles.

Here’s a link to the search page of the Met’s collection. Have fun!

Sophie Manessiez-Guinet: Artist Profile

Sophie Mannessiez-Guinet is another heart-stopping ceramic artist working in Quebec, Canada. I was seduced by the sensuality of her Ubuntu Collection. I reached out to ask Sophie some questions about her work.

Ubuntu Collection

JW: Will you provide some information about your background and training?

SMG: I studied photography and visual arts for 4 years in Saint Luc in Belgium, that was a long time ago. Then I continued my studies in artistic communication by studying at ICART (École du Management de la Culture et du Marché de l’Art) and then event communication at L’EFAP (École Française des professionnels de la Communication) in Paris. I worked for 15 years in the organization of events and in 2007 I decided to change my career and professional world, to move towards something more artistic.

JW: Did you study sculpture with Gabrielle Wambaugh? Will you tell me about that experience?

SMG: Before even considering converting my profession, I had decided to reconnect with a creative activity. I chose clay because I remembered how I was in awe of being a kid watching a potter with the wheel. Clay looked so sweet. It was the material that appealed to me.

Ubuntu Collection

Gabrielle Wambaugh taught hobby sculpture classes in the evenings. I signed up for two sessions I believe. Gabrielle gladly shared her universe and her freedom of expression. She gave us a theme and encouraged us a lot to tap into our instinct, the spontaneous idea that emerged in us when the theme was announced, without any justification. Through these courses I discovered clay and its infinite possibilities and it was thanks to Gabrielle’s teaching that I was able to consider going into the field of ceramics.

JW: What attracted you to ceramics?

SMG: It’s mainly the matter itself. I love its touch, its texture and the universe of possibilities it offers. It was part of my childhood where I grew up by the North Sea in France. I loved building castles and sculptures with sand, water and seashells. I have always liked the contact with matter, kneading, shaping, modeling, these are gestures that I really like to practice and repeat.

Ubuntu Collection

JW: Have you tried other materials other than porcelain? What made you select porcelain rather than other materials?

SMG: During my first training at the Ceramuse Studio in the Paris region, I had the opportunity to try out all kinds of clay: earthenware, stoneware and porcelain. All of them had their own specifications, but the whiteness and the touch of the raw porcelain as fired when ripe appealed to me. I believe there was also a feeling of working with a noble material, a material that I associated with the magnificent porcelain sets of my grandmother.

Ubuntu Collection

JW: You seem to have several themes tied to your “collections”: linear collections of small circles (“Horizons”), grid-like collections of small circles (“Matrix”) and organic, starfish-like pieces (“Ubuntu” collection). Do you work on these 3 collections at the same time? Or did you start with one and move on to another?

SMG: My organic sculptures are the first sculptural pieces that I have worked on. In 2007, I made a hanging sculpture made of porcelain picks. I loved working on this simple shape and repeating it, then stitching them together to form something else entirely. The first one saw the light of day in 2009. I resumed exploring this organic form in 2017. Since then, I never tire of creating them in porcelain or black stoneware. The other collection is made from small oval porcelain chips.

Horizons Collection

From this simple shape I explored two avenues: one was to fragment a horizon line through these little chips and the other to repeat it and sew them together to form a porcelain fabric.

Horizons Collection

JW: What is the source of inspiration for each of your collections?

SMG: For the Ubuntu collection, it is the multiplication of unity to form something quite different: the multiplication of a simple form to result in the production of complex, delicate and organic structures. For Horizons and Matrix, I am still in this exploration of the multiplication of unity. It’s just the original shape that has changed. It’s no longer the peak and oval lozenge. The initial form is a pretext, it sometimes becomes a construction element (Matrix), a drawing support (Horizons).

Matrix Collection

More generally, my sources of inspiration are varied: nature inspires me a lot, its shapes, its colors, its contrasts of materials and textures, its strength and weakness too. My travels are also an important source of inspiration, the atmospheres, the colors, the cultures that I discover. Finally, our society impacts my eyes, my mood and my reflections, but I do not wish at this time to have an politically engaged art.

JW: Repetition seems to be a strong element in your work. Do you know why? Is it purely an aesthetic choice?

SMG: Indeed it is the basis of my work. It’s true that repetition brings an aesthetic, but that’s why I believe it is aesthetic. First of all, I like the repeating gesture. I also like the meditative aspect of the repetition. It is the repetition itself that guides the construction of the final piece.

Matrix Collection

JW: Where do you see yourself going forward? Are you working on any new collection now?

SMG: Currently I have put my artistic practice on hold for several months to concentrate on my courses in ceramic technique. I am reinforcing my techniques, especially filming, and learning better management of my work. Currently I am working on my graduation project, an entire collection of pottery pieces. Pottery, utility pieces, that’s something I wanted to explore. At the same time, I am currently working on a sculptural piece where I mix the Ubuntu universe and the plate.

JW: Is there anything else you would like to say about your work?

SMG: I have a lot of plans: in May 2021 I finish school, then in June I move with my family to the countryside where I would have the chance to have my own workshop. I have a sketchbook full of sculptural projects and vessels. I have a lot of work to do as they say!

Ubuntu Collection
Ubuntu Collection
Ubuntu Collection (2016)

You can see more of Sophie’s work on her website.

Sophie also directed me to the following short video depicting some of her process:

Conservation Practices

Here is a set of videos from the British Royal Collection Trust on restoring a previously shattered and repaired blue & white porcelain vase. The vase, one of a pair, was originally made in China around 1700. In January 1892, a housemaid accidently broke the vase into 34 pieces. The first video shows the repaired vase, stuck together with animal glue.

The second video shows how the conservator disassembles the repaired vase by submerging it in a water-based solution to dissolve the animal glue.

The 3rd video illustrates the tedious process of reassembling and re-gluing the vase. Watching the process is strangely satisfying.

In the 4th video the conservator completes the reassembly.

Finally, the 5th video the conservator describes how he smooths the repaired surface of the porcelain vase, then prepares and applies pigments to retouch missing portions of the surface painting. The final, repaired blue & white porcelain vase is striking.

Arizona State Museum Pottery Collection

Last November I took a trip to Tucson and stopped in at the Arizona State Museum (“ASM”) to view some ceramics in the back stacks. (Remember when life was like that – going someplace that just interested you?) I met with Todd Pitezel, Associate Curator of the Archaeological Collections at the Museum. I reached out to Todd to discuss the ASM’s collection and some of his experiences as curator.

JW: I was really impressed with the Arizona State Museum’s collection of pottery. Is this collection viewable online?

TP: The Arizona State Museum currently does not have its collection available online at the object level. There is a 3-D virtual tour of the Pottery Vault at https://statemuseum.arizona.edu/online-exhibits (best viewed on Google Maps by clicking image directly below):

Click image to activate 3-D virtual tour in Google Maps

There’s also this YouTube video tour of the ASM collection.

JW: Todd, will you give me a snapshot of your background?

TP: I received a Masters from the University of Tulsa in 1997. During my time at TU, I became interested in the archaeology of Chihuahua, Mexico, specially the Casas Grandes culture and wrote a thesis on Casas Grandes plain and textured pottery typology. I went on to the University of Arizona and completed my PhD in 2011. My dissertation work focused on the only residential hill site in the Casas Grandes area between AD 1200 and 1450. I joined the faculty at the University of Arizona in 2010.

JW: You’re the Associate Curator, Archeological Collections at the Arizona State Museum. What does that involve?

TP: In general, my administrative duty as associate curator is the care and management of cataloged objects in ASM’s collections. I oversee collections storage and requests for access to collections. In addition, the duty includes studying the collections, which I have started by using the ASM’s whole pottery vessels from the Casas Grandes Viejo period (AD 600-AD 1200). As a member of the faculty I also conduct original research; provide university and state service through, for example, committee work; and engage in outreach with students and the public, mostly through tours and collections access — such as yourself.

JW: Can you tell me what you find particularly interesting about the ceramics from the Paquime/Casas Grandes?

TP: Currently, I am studying the pottery from the Casas Grandes Viejo period (AD 600-AD 1200). A major influence of thought about the transition from the Viejo period to the Medio period (AD 1200-AD 1450) has been interaction stemming from west coast Mexico people, or Mesoamerica, into the Casas Grandes area.

Photography from: Mapping the ancient city of Paquimé with drones, https://www.pix4d.com/blog/mapping-the-ancient-city-of-paquime

It was broadly an architectural shift from subterranean wattle-and-daub structures to surface adobe structures and, in ceramics, from primarily red-on-brown painted pottery to a plethora of multicolored-painted pottery. To be sure, there are noticeable influences from Mesoamerica. A second theory sees migrants from the northern southwest United States causing the changes between the Casas Grandes Viejo and Medio periods. There isn’t much evidence for such a migration. Finally, a third general theory is that the changes were locally produced, albeit with influences. That is why I and my research colleague, Dr. Michael Searcy from Brigham Young University have engaged in a long-term research program to, hopefully, unravel the scenarios.

While Dr. Searcy and I have general goals in mind, my specific interest is the painted designs on Viejo and Medio period pottery. There is clearly Mesoamerican “ideas” painted on later Medio period pottery, the early Medio period pottery designs appear to indicate a continuity from the Viejo period to the Medio period. There are painted elements, single strokes with the paint brush, to combined elements as motifs on Viejo and Medio period pottery that are clearly similar, if not identical.

Imagine if the painted designs on pottery indicated, said, or meant something to the makers and users of the pottery. Archaeologists think so, in some cases. Imagine again that the painted designs pertained to a world view, outlook, or identity. Archaeologists think so, in some cases. Why would the painted designs, or meaning, stay the same if the world view or outlook or identity changed because of outside intruders, migrants, or otherwise? It seems to me that the similarity of the designs between Viejo period pottery and early Medio period pottery indicate a continuity between the two Casas Grandes periods. That is exciting!

JW: Where can someone see examples of these ceramics?

TP: There are numerous museums around the world that hold Casas Grandes collections. Museums in the southwest United States and northern Mexico would be the ideal places. The Arizona State Museum has the largest collection outside of Mexico. I have not seen but know of a collection at the Museum of the Great Plains in Lawton, Oklahoma. And, of course, there images on the Internet (for example, see the Casas Grandes Pottery site at University of Texas at El Paso Centennial Museum).

JW: I believe the Casas Grandes culture emerged a bit later than some cultures to the north that also have impressive ceramic traditions (e.g., Hohokam, Mogollan, Anasazi). Are there strong links between the ceramics of these various cultures?

TP: People first lived in the Casas Grandes area, in pre-pottery times, from about 1500-700 BC. There is no evidence of habitation again until about AD 600. The early painted pottery in the Casas Grandes is similar to types in southeast Arizona and southwest New Mexico in that they are primarily red designs painted on a brown-fired body. The tradition expands into more color about AD 1200. Then about AD 1300 the painted imagery looks influenced by Mesoamerican ideas.

JW: Where can someone learn more about ceramic traditions of Northern Mexico/Southwestern US?

TP: Online sources include:

JW: When I met you at the Arizona State Museum, you told me that a big museum effort is cataloging and documenting ceramics before they are returned to tribes. Can you tell me a little about that?

TP: I was referring to the Native American Graves and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA; https://www.nps.gov/subjects/nagpra/index.htm) that is federal law requiring federal agencies and museums to document and return human remains, artifacts associated with human remains, and sacred objects to a claimant tribe. The Arizona State Museum was a pioneer in the law in that the late Dr. Raymond H. Thompson, a former Arizona State Museum director was a participant in its development. Dr. Patrick D. Lyons, current Arizona State Museum Director, just completed a four-year appointment on the NAGPRA Federal Advisory Review Committee (https://www.nps.gov/subjects/nagpra/review-committee.htm).

John Davidson – Artist Profile

John Davidson lives and works in the province of Quebec. He is the 2nd Canadian ceramic artist that I’m profiling. John’s work and more about his background can be found on his website.

JW: You have a well-crafted artistic statement. You discuss 3 areas of focus: (1) form, (2) surface treatment, and (3) color. Will you tell me more about your initial focus on form?

JD: I make molds of the forms I wish to reproduce. There is nothing specific I am looking for, more a shape or combination of shapes that I find pleasing to the eye. It could be the angle of a bowl, the form of a bottle or the uniqueness of any object I come across.

A few years ago when in Venice, I saw several interesting pieces of Murano Glass. I photographed them and then proceeded to create molds that modelled these forms. Once I created a form using a small football and then carved to the rest in the plaster. It no longer looked like a football, but I liked the volume that was created using the ball.

Often I visit thrift shops looking for pieces I can make molds of, alone or in combination with other shapes. It really is just as simple as finding, or creating forms that I find pleasing.

JW: You break your raku into 3 sub-groups: raku, horse-hair raku, and naked raku. What is naked raku?

JD: A few years ago I took a two week workshop at La Meridiana, a ceramics centre in Italy.

The workshop was given by Will and Kate Jacobson who were involved in creating the technique of Naked Raku over 30 years ago. Any colour on a piece is added before the bisque. Afterwards a very thin layer of slip is added to act as a resist for a glaze that is added last. The piece is pulled from the kiln after reaching about 1500F and then placed in a reduction container filled with sawdust or other combustibles and closed off.

The change in temperature causes the glaze to crack and the smoke in the reduction chamber causes the dark lines on the piece. When the piece is removed from reduction it is sprayed with water and the glaze falls off, thus Naked Raku. Many do give me a sideways glance when I mention “Naked Raku” and I have to assure them that the clothes stay on.

JW: That’s comforting to know. You’ve done woodworking, stained glass and ceramics. What attracted you to ceramics? Are there similarities between these art forms that attract you?

JD: When I retired I went back to university to complete my Fine Arts Degree with a major in Sculpture. We had to take a number of courses in another discipline and after doing one course in ceramics, I enjoyed it so much I completed all the courses in both sculpture and ceramics. It seemed to me that what one could do with clay was limitless.

JW: Can you give me a sense of how your ceramic work has developed over the 10 years you’ve been working in this medium?

JD: Very early on I became fascinated with Raku. I think it was that although you push a finish in a certain direction, there was always an element of randomness and surprise that is out of your control. This led me to pursue other alternative firing techniques, pit and barrel firing, Naked Raku and working with ferric chloride and Horsehair Raku. They all have the element that produce results that are at least partly out of your control. For the most part, happy surprises but not always. Such is the nature of these techniques.

JW: Recently you’ve started working with colored porcelain similar to the Japanese techniques of Nerikomi and Neriagi. Will you tell me about that? What inspired this evolution? Where do you want to take it?

JD: Given the cold and snowy winters here in Quebec, doing these alternative techniques outside is not possible so rather than just doing prep work all winter for the firings in spring, I was looking for something I could complete in the winter. I took an online course with Curtis Benzle which got me started on the Nerikomi and Neriagi techniques. Depending on how you approach them, they are techniques that can be manipulated in a manner that again produce somewhat random outcomes. I guess I really like being surprised. I will continue working with the coloured porcelain in different ways to hopefully come up with new and exciting results.

JW: Will you tell me a little about the ceramic art scene in Quebec?

JD: Quebec has a huge art scene. Lots of galleries, lots of crafts. In the Eastern Townships where my studio is there seems to be art and craft everywhere. I am in my 3rd year on the Tour des Arts which has been going on for 32 years. About 40 artists open up their studios for 10 days in the summer and receive over 20,000 visits. There are several similar tours around Quebec. Check out www.tourdesarts.com

JW: Is there anything about you or your work that you would like to tell people?

JD: When I was younger I always said that I like to make things. As I have gotten older I realize to be happy, I have to make things. To quote Montessori “The product is the process”