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  • Writer's pictureClare Palmer

Collect 23: the creation process

Updated: May 25, 2023

March 23 was a landmark month for my practice, as I exhibited at Collect for the first time.

Collect Art Fair is the UK's leading international fair for contemporary craft and design. And as such a goal for emerging artists like myself. It is held annually in the glorious, Grade 1 listed, neoclassical building Somerset House, on The Strand in London. Providing a stunning backdrop for the 40 specialist craft and design galleries from across the globe, to showcase the work of over 400 artist makers. I can't recommend it enough - if you have the opportunity - as a smorgasbord of craft delight.

A huge thanks to gallerist Varuna Kollanethu of Ruup & Form for inviting me to create two large-scale wall-hung ceramic sculptures for the show.

The two sister wall-sculptures "Still" and "Always", which I exhibited at Collect, are concerned with the nature of upheaval. Through these works I explored themes of emotional impact, acceptance, evolution and continuity.

My process, as always began with writing. Unusually for a maker (at least, amongst my maker friends and colleagues), my sketch books consist of more words than sketches. My process begins with a written exploration of an emotional experience or state of mind. This activity results in a strong visual impression of the direction a piece will take, which I may doodle-sketch as an aide-memoire. A one or two-word working title will also have come to me during the process – a synopsis of what I’m trying to say. With these, I start working with the clay - the ideas leading the work. I would call this act of making ‘controlled spontaneity’.

The inspiration for these "Still" and "Always" dates back to January ‘21. A radio programme sparked the remembrance of a life-altering experience, prompting a visceral, instantaneous response. On reflection this occurrence brought to mind the observation of a friend on a personal trauma they had undergone: “I know it will always be with me”.

As with all my wall sculptures, they are constructed from textured slabs of clay (in this case both stoneware and porcelain clays), which I press-mould from moulds which I make from the surfaces of natural objects.

The making process step-by-step

My process has multiple stages to it.

Here is a 1 minute 25 second, lightning trip through the 2 months of making that went into the creation of the artworks for Collect.

The first step is to create the moulds needed. (Which I then use to make the slabs from which the pieces are then constructed.) I do this by pressing wet clay into the surfaces of natural objects. I then fire these once (known as a biscuit or bisque firing), so that I have solid moulds from which I can create the individual, thin slabs for constructing. (As an aside: I have always thought that slab is an odd word as it denotes something thick and massive to me. A slab is just the term ceramicists use to refer to a portion of clay which has been flattened into a sheet.)

Creating the moulds is one of the many processes of making which gives me great joy. Particularly if I am in my local park - with my pre-prepared slabs of wet clay - making impressions from, say, a plain tree, and a toddler comes up to me and asks me what I am doing. Their parents will have initially stayed a bit further away, wondering what this odd woman is up to. But social (or maybe British?) reserve won’t keep down the inquiring mind of a 5-year-old.

The first step of creating the actual sculptures comes when I press slabs from the moulds. This is probably the most repetitive of my making processes. However, it has a certain meditative quality to it, as I press the clay into the moulds, wait for the clay to dry to the right consistency and then peel off each unique slab. The uniqueness comes from the combined pressing/drying/pulling-off actions on the clay which creates the infinite variety of shapes and particularly edges of each slab. I never cease to be delighted by the little details that are gifted from the moulds. The challenge then is to preserve these gifts intact, from ‘birth’ to final firing: which you will see (if you read more about my process) is not an easy journey to survive.

Once I have made enough slabs for one ‘sitting’ I will wrap them in plastic to keep them at the ideal wetness. Too wet and they do not hold their form. Too dry and they will snap when bent. As one of my tutor’s on the life-changing City Lit Ceramics Diploma once said to me, “The secret of making is 95% about the wetness of the clay”.

Then comes the most fun part of the process: the actual construction. This stage is all about form. (And, of course, preserving those edges.) I construct all my handmade sculptures directly onto the kiln shelves. This is because if I were to lift them up once they are completely dry, they would fall apart. Trust me – I learned this the hard way. Having them on the kiln shelves means that they can go straight into the kiln once dry without being moved. So the first time they can be picked up is after the first (bisc) firing. Which for me is 1000 degrees. It is then possible to handle them. But with great care. If they are treated too roughly they have a nasty habit of breaking at this stage.

This is one of the reasons why I fire my work at the second firing to stoneware temperature (which from me is 1260 degrees). This makes the pieces as tough as nails. Although, of course, you still have to be careful of those edges: in the same way that you can chip a ceramic mug if you don’t treat it with respect. People often ask me about the fragility of my work. And, in truth, it is something of a trick of the eye. Although the edges themselves are very thin - and I wouldn't advise knocking a hammer against them -the slabs themselves are similar in thickness to a plate. Another oft-heard ceramic quote: "It's all about the edges".

On to the next stage of the process: oxides. Once the pieces have been bisc fired I then layer up oxides and stains. I brush on a variety of different combinations to enhance the surfaces, and create subtle variations of tone and colour - with occasional dark accents - to reflect the narratives explored through the work. This is another favourite part of the process. Highlighting, or detracting from certain textures and elements in the pieces is immensely satisfying. This stage is all about texture and detail.

Next is my least favourite process: glazing. I have to admit to finding it rather stressful. I either pour my glazes on to the pieces or dip the pieces in a bucket of glaze. This depends on the size of the piece and also if I am using 1 or more glazes on a piece. If it is more than one, I need to use 'wax resist' which allows you to preserve one glaze from contamination by another during the application process.

My work requires extensive propping during the glaze firing otherwise

the work will warp too much. I'll talk more about why another day.

My process for hanging the fired pieces continues to evolve as I finds different ways to cope with the challenges of gravity and hiding the fixings. Suffice it to say it involves holes made at the wet-clay stage, wire and nails. And a lot of patience.

Both "Still" and "Always" comprise around 20 individual ceramic elements.

They were acquired by the same Client at Collect and are now installed in Mayfair, London.

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