Curtis Benzle – Artist Profile

Curtis Benzle has focused on the interplay between porcelain and light for most of his adult life. His porcelain pieces, carefully constructed in a methodical way, reveal themselves when light is shown through the thin, translucent material. Read about Curtis’ creative process and inspiration in his answers to questions I posed.

JW: How has your work developed through time. Would you mind sketching out how you started, and the general trajectory of your creative life?

CB: I received a BFA from Ohio State Univ with a major in ceramics.  I attended the School for the American Craftsman / RIT MFA Glass program and later transferred to the University of Northern Illinois in Ceramics. I’ve been working professionally in the field of Clay for my entire adult life.

JW: Your process looks very labor intensive. It also looks like it’s taken you a long time to develop that process. Did you have a vision of what you wanted to create, or were you mainly just exploring and ended up where you are?

CB: I have always been driven by an aesthetic vision and it is by no coincidence that the work I create now is a direct representation of that vision. While my vision has deepened in complexity over the years, it has remained remarkably consistent.   I have developed many materials and techniques to achieve this vision. Specifically, I developed a clay body that is comprised primarily of glass components and is consequently, highly translucent. 

“This is a very early piece(1975) where I am focused solely on translucency in porcelain. When I began working in porcelain there was very little published about translucency, so I spent about two years developing the clay body by itself. The clay I now use I developed forty years ago and called “Benzle #89”. I developed it to be highly translucent and take color well. Unstained, it is very white and highly translucent when fired to cone six 2300 F in an electric kiln. It takes stain beautifully and requires small percentages to achieve vibrant colors. It is non-plastic but works well for my style of nerikomi.”

I also pioneered the use of several techniques utilizing colored clay, including what is now widely called “nerikomi”. 

“An early example(1979) of the nericomi technique. A funny thing about nericomi is that I thought I invented this ceramic process! I had been in a graduate program at the School for the American Craftsmen, majoring in Glass and focused on “Millefiori”, but eventually missed the tactile sensibility of clay. My thought upon returning to my ceramic origins, in a different degree program at Northern Illinois University, was to bring the millefiori aspect of glass into clay. I translated the imaging and patterning qualities of the “millefiori” glass technique into stained, porcelain clay. It was a perfect match for me—color and pattern in a tactile material. It was only later, after I delved deeper into the history of ceramics, that I discovered that this magical material and technique had satisfied artists for centuries.”

As an aside, when I began developing this technique, I called it “millefiori” as it grew out of my use of that technique in glass.

Because my interest in “nerikomi” technique predated my awareness of the Japanese technique, I was influenced primarily by non-Japanese people and processes. Glass artist Richard Marquis was an obvious, early influence. Richard’s work was highly focused on the millefiori process, and he is to this day considered a master of the technique. When I began adapting the millefiori process to clay my technique was quite similar to that in glass, whereby colored rods(or rolls) are bound together to create a single graphic image.
Another important, early influence from outside of the clay world, was the work and writing of fiber artist, Ed Rossbach. Mr. Rossbach’s work was built on the concept of an object’s surface pattern and appearance being determined by the construction process, as seen when a basket’s woven surface pattern is directly influenced by the construction process. This concept meshed easily with the way the surface of a nerikomi piece is determined by the placement of nerikomi slices during construction.

JW: Can you tell me about your creative process? Do you tend to work out in advance what you want to make (perhaps sketching or prototyping in some way)? Or is your creative process more spontaneous and intuitive? 

CB: I almost always start with a sketch of the piece that I intend to create. These are sketches and not completed drawings as final refinements are worked out in the clay.  The sketches are primarily there to help me organize the visual imagery and work out which technique would be most efficient and effective in completing the envisioned piece.

The word “intuitive” is intriguing to me in light of the fact that I indicated above that my aesthetic perspective has been the driving force for my working porcelain from the beginning.  My BFA studies in Clay, followed by MA studies in Glass, were, in hindsight, attempts to give life to a vision that predated study.  I believe we could say that the origin of my work was intuitive and subsequently I have been engaged in a rational exploration of the best way to create and complete that vision.

JW: Will you tell me more about inspirational experiences you have had, such as your residency in Seto, Japan? Looking back, how important are such inspirational experiences in developing one’s art? And given your experience, how would you recommend someone approach finding those experiences?

CB: My Seto residency was an exceptional and productive experience.  I was known to the Seto Center staff through several exhibitions throughout Japan prior to the residency.  They invited me to the Seto Center for Ceramics and Glass to create three pieces for their permanent collection and demonstrate my techniques to area artists and the general public.  

Because I developed a porcelain clay which is highly translucent, my colors change, blend and oppose based on the visual response of each piece to its luminous environment. This piece, which was made at the Seto Center for Ceramics and Glass in Seto, Japan, shows the introduction of additional techniques; specifically mishima and slip painting. From the tactile magic of malleable clay to the visual temptation of luminous, translucent porcelain; ceramic materials and patterned Nerikomi excite my senses.

I had long found Japanese culture incredibly inspirational, but the same can be said for my response to travels throughout Central and South America, Europe and Africa. As a visual artist, I am by nature tuned into the world around me. I know this answer seems intentionally vague, but it is true.

The single greatest source of inspiration for me has been my experience as a parent.   Parenthood embodies for me all the energy, insight, expectation, aspiration and dreams that any piece of art could.

In terms of finding inspirational experiences, I would reiterate that they are omnipresent for anyone who chooses to pay close attention to the myriad aesthetic details and beauty around us.  A great, recent example of this could be my current activity creating an apiary. This began as a very tangential interest as I was searching for a dependable source of propolis and, discovering no dependable source, decided to create my own. The process of building and managing beehives has been thoroughly inspirational although I doubt seriously that it will show up specifically in my work with porcelain.

JW: Your website bio mentions that you’ve made jewelry. Has that experience influenced your ceramics?

CB: Only in a very roundabout way. I had a jewelry company for about 20 years and that came about because of my desire/need to generate income to support my family. As I assessed potential, personal resources, it occurred to me that I could create jewelry with the same porcelain I developed for my vessels. I built a jewelry line that sold in over five hundred retail outlets throughout the world.  

Having a viable income source was a very positive influence on my sculptural work in that it allowed me the creative freedom to continue pursuing sculptural work that was not commercially oriented.

JW: Your website bio also mentions a line of lighting and accessories, which seems like a logical extension to the translucent qualities of your porcelain pieces. Do you still work with lighting?

CB: I do still work in lighting and find it incredibly intriguing. For many years my studio production company, Benzle Porcelain, produced and sold a night light line that was commercially successful. I stopped making the nightlights when I moved to Alabama and consciously decided to curtail my production studio in order to focus all my energies on the sculptural vessels architectural scale lighting.

JW: I’m going to assume that your work is very time-consuming. How do you motivate yourself?

CB: I have never really thought about self-motivation as it is so incredibly motivating to be involved in the very act of creation. My biggest concern is how to find time in a busy life to accomplish everything.

JW: Do you have or seek out an artistic community to support you, given the type of work that you do? How important is that to your creative life?

CB: When I moved to Alabama, I knew no one other than my wife, who was born and raised here.   For twenty-five years prior to my relocation, I had been developing and teaching a program called All Artists Making A Living (AAMAL), so I simply implemented that program.

I began by teaching a class at the local Huntsville Art Museum. That put me in touch with people who were interested in Clay. After couple years of teaching at the Museum and my studio, I was asked by the Alabama State Council on the Arts to Chair the Alabama Clay Conference in Huntsville. I did that and I am pleased to say that we built the Clay Conference from an annual attendance of around 200 to over 500. Following that experience, the Alabama State Council on the Arts director asked me to become the president of the AL Craft Council. I agreed to do this, provided we could change the name to the Alabama Visual Arts Network(ALVAN). After seven years as President we had built the organization from one clay event per year, to seven multi-discipline events and increased our funding from $3,000 to over $60,000.  I retired from the Alabama Visual Arts Network presidency two years ago in order to refocus my full attention of my studio work.

 I have always been a strong believer in giving back to the community that supports me and with that in mind I was also the president of the Ohio Designer Craftsman and on the Board of the Craft Emergency Relief Fund(CERF) and the American Craft Council.

 Just short of the magic of being engaged in a creative activity, is the joy of being involved with and supporting other creative artists.

You can view more of Curtis Benzle’s work on his website.

Multimedia Test

Years ago I did some multimedia projects combining audio recordings and photography. I’m interested in getting back to this form, which I think can be very powerful. I’d like to profile some ceramic artists. This post is simply testing the upload of a .mov file format onto this blog. There’s a lot of technical mumbo-jumbo about file formats when you combine different media forms like video, photography, audio and text.

To be honest, the complexity drove me away from this for a decade. I’m hoping the tech world has simplified the process in the intervening years.

By way of background, in 2010 I was working with a photography nonprofit called Working With Artists. That organization arranged a photography session with survivors of breast cancer. I ended up photographing a number of survivors, and instead of just photography I also added some audio recordings of conversations I had with each woman. I combined the two formats into this multimedia slideshow.

Mimbres Pottery at WNMU

In September 2020 I wrote an article on the Mimbres pottery collection at Western New Mexico University. I wrote the article during Covid, so I was unable to visit the museum at the time. Today, that changed.

Although WNMU is a small university, their collection of Mimbres ceramics is outstanding. Simply outstanding. I’m told that more of the collection will be on display in the near future, which may warrant a return trip. (That’s saying something: I drove 675 miles (1,000 km) down here to see this collection and explore the Mimbres Valley where this culture thrived for 1,000 years and then faded or disbursed 800 years ago.)

There’s a lot of mystery about these people and their culture which, artistically speaking, peaked in what is referred to as the Mimbres Classic period around 1000 – 1150 AD). The Museum does a good job documenting the 900 year run-up (200 – 1100 AD) to this magnificent Classic period, and of course the Museum also contains extensive examples of Classic period pieces.

I’m not particularly interested in a stylistic analysis of Mimbres pottery (i.e., what distinguishes on Mimbres phase from another). I enjoy the pottery for its aesthetic qualities. Here’s what I observe when I look at Mimbres pottery.

I’m first impressed by a sense of “balanced contradiction”. Many pieces slap me with an intense sense of energy and chaos. Black decor on white slip communicates strong graphic tension and contrast. It’s about as vibrant and dynamic as you can achieve on a 2D surface — I’m reminded of the ZAP! and POW! of comic book graphics — and Mimbres artists mastered this form of graphic tension more than 1,000 years ago.

Yet what first appear to be randomly aligned graphic elements (swirls, rectangles, triangles, etc) upon reflection follow clear rules of organization: lines are painted around the rim of bowls or to set off a white central space, lines delineate 3- or 4-areas of the inner bowl surface, lines also interconnect and tie decorative elements together. All of these techniques provide an organizational structure for the graphic elements.

In short, Mimbres bowls are rarely “chaotic.” There is an underlying order to their graphic elements. A structure. A logic.

In addition, at times individual Mimbres bowls are interestingly calm and serene. Two patterned fish swim on a plain ground. An individual grasshopper sits in a field of white, carefully observed, meticulously represented. In this respect WNMU’s sometimes closely spaced display of Mimbres pots in the downstairs rooms works well. It’s probably not calculated, but I love the tangled mess of pottery in the downstairs cases. You see intricately decorated pots almost throbbing with kinetic energy alongside simple pots with isolated animal or humanoid figures. I’ve tried to capture this dichotomy in a quick video scrolling across pots in one showcase.

Individual pots with depictions of small animals that you see in the video lead me to my second observation. There’s a strong connection between Mimbres pottery and the environmental context of the Mimbres River basin.

Before I came here, I assumed the Mimbres people lived in an austere environment, largely desert as would be suggested by their location in southern New Mexico. In fact the Mimbres River valley is lush and verdant.

The grasslands rising out of the river basin are full of piñon pine and game. Antelope, rabbits, turkeys, frogs, insects and fish are depicted in Mimbres pottery because they exist in this southern New Mexican landscape. The Mimbres artists painted what they knew.

Coincidentally, I followed the Mimbres River south toward the current US-Mexican border. After starting in pine-covered mountains and winding 30-40 miles south, the Mimbres River dissolves into the desert sands. Like the Mimbres villages that once dotted the riverbanks, the river itself has disappeared into the earth. While vanishing leaving not much more than ceramics and crumbled architectural foundations is not unique to the Mimbres people, that is definitely what happened.

I suppose that’s my third reaction to viewing Mimbres pots in the WNMU collection: cultures come and go. Sometimes not much is left in their wake except for pieces of ceramic with a few scratches or paint marks on them. It gives me some comfort being a ceramicist.

I’ve enjoyed this visit to the WNMU Museum. I based myself in Silver City, New Mexico. It’s a funky throw-back to a different era. (My morning coffee place, Tranquilibuzz, looks like some undisclosed location on the overland route to Asia circa 1972.) If you come here, take 3-4 hours to drive over to the Mimbres River valley (20 miles) and explore a bit. There’s a riparian preserve along the Mimbres River that’s delightful. It drops you into context. Poke around a little. I wandered into the neighboring hills and discovered an old clay mine just a short distance from the river. This is a beautiful area.

The Pottery Maker (Silent Film)

Here’s a short (7 minute) silent film from 1926 documenting ceramic production. Its a short watch and kinda’ fun: the story-line, the silent movie with musical soundtrack, and the documentation of ceramic production that really hasn’t changed all that much in almost 100 years (apart from bricking up the kiln prior to firing).

That’s one fascinating thing about ceramics: making pottery has been remarkably consistent throughout time, back in the Pleistocene era when humans first started forming objects and vessels to use 20,000 years ago.

Tomorrow I head off to southern New Mexico to view several collections of native American ceramics, particularly collections of Mimbres pottery. I will post from the road.

Mold-Making Experiments

I recently completed a course in figure sculpture. Instead of the typical stoneware clay I use for ceramics, we used oil-based clay for the sculpture. After creating the sculpture in oil-based clay, one normally creates a mold and then either creates bronze or resin casts of the sculpture from the mold. I thought I would test mold-making out.

To simplify matters, I created another sculpture, this time of a head instead of the full human figure. (Creating a mold of the human figure is more complicated: open spaces between the arms and torso and also between the legs need to be filled in.) To sculpt the head, I again used an oil-based clay. I left some details around they eyes unfinished to the mold would come apart more easily.

When the head was ready, I created a silicon mold of the entire piece, mixing and then painting multiple layers of Smooth-On’s Rebound 25 formula directly onto the oil-based clay.

After that, I encased the silicone inner mold with a plaster mold to form a hard shell.

After the silicon and caster molds hardened, I stuffed the clay I typically use for ceramics into the mold. You’ll see that I set up the mold to open into 2 parts so I can access the interior and make 2 cast parts which I then need to fuse together.

Here’s a photo of the two cast parts fused together (before firing), including some details to the eyes that I added.

Photos of the finished, fired head are at the top of this article and below (different angles).

The process worked well enough, but honestly it was a lot of work creating that mold. And it was messy. I’m not sure how often I would want to cast additional copies of this head. I might be inclined to cast multiple sculptures of a figural work (such as the original sculpture we worked on in the class), and in that case creating a mold might make sense, although again creating a mold for this piece would be more complex. So I’m not certain how often I will use this technique, although it was interesting to test it out.

Google Arts: 3D Pottery Experiment

Here’s an interesting challenge for yourself. Take a minute to see how well you do at throwing and decorating a vessel online. It’s not as easy as it looks!

Here’s the link to try this out if clicking on the image above doesn’t work: https://artsandculture.google.com/experiment/3d-pottery/nwHg1D0riJ1ltA

It looks like Google is just building this out right now. I only see 1 pot to replicate (the other links don’t work yet – at least for me).

Sally Walk – Artist Profile

Sally Walk is an Australian ceramic artist whose work I admire very much. It’s exuberant. It’s fun. It’s big and bold and makes a statement. I’m happy to have connected with Sally to ask her about her process, inspiration and plans.

JTW: How did you first get interested in ceramics? 

SW: I went to a high school that had a great Ceramics department and one of those once in a lifetime inspirational teacher’s. I fell in love with clay then, when I was about 15 years old. I even remember making work so large that it didn’t fit into the school kiln, and I had to find another kiln to get it fired in.

In 1987 I went to Monash University in Melbourne to complete a 4-year degree in Ceramic Design. I started when I was 17 years old and loved every minute, even though at sometimes I was still very much an immature teenager. My poor lecturers, I must have driven them crazy. It was a wonderful education in all things ceramic. After my degree I was accepted as resident artist at the Meat Market Craft Gallery in Melbourne and worked there for a year. I worked on and off for a year or so until I had my 2 children. During that time, I turned to painting large acrylic paintings. It wasn’t until my children were in high school that I turned back to my beloved ceramics.

Sally’s studio with one of her paintings hung by the door.

JTW: Have you worked with other materials?

SW: Yes, I have worked as a painter with acrylic paint, I have also worked with resin sculptures, woven sculptures and some metalwork. Nothing brings me the same joy as clay, although a short stint as a cake decorator came close.

JTW: You say “…my current work explores the idea of facades and the way our outer self is used to ensure belonging. These aspects of human nature manifest themselves in my work as spikes, spots, carving and heavy texture.”  Can you tell me more about that? 

SW: My inspirations are numerous, but I see myself as an observer of human nature. I am fascinated by people and my artworks are my way of trying to understand human behaviour.

Ceramics, generally, is an outer shell with an inner space, not unlike what it is to be human. Facial expressions and body language are an expression of emotion, and we adorn ourselves with an outer shell that ensures we belong or ‘fit in’ with those we choose to surround ourselves with. These are the adaptations of humanity to ensure survival. I like to investigate this, so that I might understand people more effectively. I use texture and pattern to represent emotions, feelings and the idea of an outer shell or façade. This is also relevant today with a generation of people creating digital facades through social media censorship. The space within the ceramic vessel is where the truth lurks, but this is the place we cannot see.

JTW: Will you tell me something about your creative process? Do you sketch and plan out your work ahead of time? Or is your process more intuitive and spontaneous?

SW: I see the world in textures and patterns, and I’m constantly bombarded with a wealth of new ideas and potential directions for my work.

I take notes and have a filing cabinet of memories stored within my mind that I can draw on at any time. I am very spontaneous, and I refer to my process as one of three-dimensional drawing. I rarely sketch, draw or plan. Sometimes I process over time in my head, but most of the time I think on the spot and in the moment. One of the great joys of clay is that it can be recycled so I feel very free to try new ideas, knowing full well that I can smash it and start again if it is not working out.

Ultimately clay is my obsession, I am compelled to create and can’t imagine a time when I am not making something

JTW: I see a lot of changes from year-to-year. Is there a logical progression of your work – an evolution, so to speak? How would you characterize your development as an artist?

SW: Crazy and spontaneous and completely illogical!! Given my answer to the above question, I am always excited to evolve and change and create new ideas. I often just think ‘What would happen if I try this?” For this reason my work evolves quickly and sometimes without fully resolving a body of work before moving on. This is what keeps me excited. I could never make the same thing repeatedly and I never will. I make no apologies for this. It used to worry me as a younger artist, that I didn’t maintain a recognised “brand’ but I soon realised that there is a definitive ‘me’ in all my work and my haphazard way of working is what keeps me motivated.

I am inspired by what is happening in the moment and I look forward to what new and exciting things that will evolve in the future. I will never be a stale artist, and will always keep everyone on their toes, wondering what will be next.

JTW: Are you using Sgrafitto to carve surface designs in your 2022 work?

SW: Yes, I love the sgraffito process. I find it very meditative and often over carve my work just because I love it so much.

In the 2022 work I am using a white clay with a layer of black clay slip over the top and then carved back into. I carve quite deeply leaving a lovely texture to the surface as well as the bold contrast between black and white. I stumbled over microscopic images of cells whilst researching lymphoma after my mother was diagnosed with this cancer. This led to an array of wonderful shapes and patterns that I often use in my work. Patterns in nature are really interesting to me.

As a child I used to collect bones and skulls from dead animals (weird haha) and I loved the texture of those little wiggly lines that are on the bones of a skull. The patterns underneath the bark of a tree that are made by insects are really beautiful. The textures and patterns on shells and sea creatures are fascinating and the fluid line work in the translucent bodies of jellyfish are exquisite.

I really love contrast; in fact I can remember getting in trouble in high school art class for always being heavy handed and not using a wide tonal range in my drawings. I told my teacher that I just love black and white, she wasn’t happy, but I think it worked out ok for me…. don’t you think.

JTW: You’ve done a lot of international travel (France, Japan, India, South Korea, China, etc) to teach and exhibit your work. Has that restarted after Covid?

SW: Ceramic travel has been one of the great joys of my ceramics journey thus far. I remember when I applied for my first residency in France, I did not tell anyone, not even my family. I was super shocked when I was accepted and remember how hard it was to tell my husband that I was going to France without him or the children. Thankfully he was so supportive and has always supported me in all my travels. Travelling overseas for ceramics is invigorating and motivating. I have worked with the most wonderful group of important ceramic artists from all over the word and developed some lifelong friendships. I have learnt so much and will continue to travel at every opportunity.

Covid and lockdowns have impacted this and I have not travelled overseas in over two years. My hometown of Melbourne, Australia had some very harsh and very long lockdowns. I was unable to even see my own children for many months as they lived beyond the 5km lockdown area. I was thankful to have my studio and kiln at my home and I worked extensively through this period. My gallery “James Makin Gallery” even held online exhibitions of my work and people bought them sight unseen which I was truly amazed at and incredibly thankful for.

Now things are starting to get back to normal and travel is opening again, I am looking forward to the opportunities that are sure to present themselves. I was recently invited to a symposium in Turkey but elected to wait just a little longer before traveling. I will travel to Singapore in September just after my exhibition at the Sydney Contemporary Art Fair. I am also hoping to secure a residency in Spain soon.

More of Sally’s works may be seen on her website.

Puzzle Jugs

Puzzle jugs were used for drinking games in pubs and taverns from medieval times up into the early 19th century. Users had to figure out how to pour liquid held in the jug into their mouths or a glass without spilling fluid all over themselves or the table.

Puzzle Jug, , salt-glazed stoneware with ‘scratch blue’ decoration, Victoria and Albert Museum

So what exactly is a “puzzle jug”?

In this entertaining 6 minute film, potter Michelle Erickson recreates an 18th century “puzzle jug” from the Victoria & Albert Museum’s collection. Ms. Erickson explains both what a puzzle jug is, how they were made, and how they were used in pubs and tavern games.

Here are several examples of puzzle jugs that I found in the V&A’s collection.

Puzzle Jug, ca 1790, Lead-glazed earthenware, painted in overglaze enamels, moulded and pierced,
Victoria and Albert Museum
Puzzle-jug Possibly made in Raeren, Germany, Grenzhausen about 1700 Stoneware with stamped and incised decoration,
Victoria and Albert Museum
Puzzle jug, lead-glazed earthenware with incised decoration. English, made in Donyatt in Somerset, dated 1791,
Victoria and Albert Museum

In another short film, Leslie Grigsby, Senior Curator of Ceramics and Glass at the Winterthur Museum in Delaware, shows several puzzle jugs in that museum’s collection.

Tsha-Tshas: Terracotta Votives

Small votive plaques made of terracotta in Tibet and other Himalayan areas are known as as tsha-tsha. Typically, they were made in molds and carried by pilgrims to place in portable shrines or to be inserted into large commemorative monuments known as “stupas” as a ritual practice. Placing a tsha-tsha into a stupa was believed to add power to the monument and to bring merit to the donor.

Tsha-tsha, 18th century, Tibet or China (Los Angeles County Museum of Art)

Tsha-tshas are relatively small: 3-4 inches high (7.5-10 cm). They are sometimes painted, but more typically are coated in gold leaf. Here are several examples.

Tsha-tsha, 18th century, Tibet or China (Los Angeles County Museum of Art)
Tsha-tsha, 18th century, Tibet or China (Los Angeles County Museum of Art)
Painted Votive Plaque, The Walters Art Museum

Tsha-tshas were often created from brass molds such as the example below, which dates from the early 20th century and was used in Tibet or somewhere in the Himalayas. “Clay, together with ritual materials such as ground incense, grains and/or the ashes of a sacred individual would have been pressed into the mould, removed and then dried in the sun.” (Proser, A., (ed.), Pilgrimage and Buddhist Art, Asia Society Museum/Yale University Press, 2010., p. 87). Some tsha-tshas are fired at low temperature.

The LACMA has a fairly large collection of tsha-tshas online here. Tsha-tshas remind me of smaller clay souvenirs that I found in Thailand a few years ago and wrote about in an earlier blog post. These smaller votive items were meant to be worn or carried, not donated to a shrine or stupa.

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.