Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Casting with Phil Hardaker in Stoke-on-Trent!

Left: Phil and me in his studio in Stoke-on-Trent. Right: Phil's collection of plastic toys and other interesting and bizarre ephemera!

Phil is famous for his use of recycled ceramics and also his beautiful and narrative castings of objects and hand moulded items.  He has amassed an interesting collection of mainly plastic objects, toys and ephemera over the years which is housed in his studio.  Some of these intriguing items are cast and incorporated into works of art.  Phil also hand builds and sculpts narrative objects too,  that are also cast and added to the artworks.  He very kindly agreed to mentor me in this process.

Left and right: An odd assortment of ornaments, twigs and shells for casting!
I turned up at Phil's studio with some very impractical objects to cast!  Things like Thistle's I soon learnt could not be cast and would need to be made by hand!  But objects such as tree bark, shells (which I wanted to try as the shape of clams is so beautiful), twigs and simple ornaments is possible.  All objects were cast in plaster but not without a coating of soap solution applied first, to make removing the objects from the casts possible!  
Left: The finished moulds. Middle: Casting a clam shell. Right: Clam shell, mould and cast porcelain shell ready for firing.
The actual moulds are beautiful objects in their own right and can be used repeatedly as long as kept in good condition. These first experiments of mould making and casting used porcelain, but I have also discovered that white earthenware is a good option too.  More to follow on this!
Left: Phil's cast porcelain decorative found object. Right: the plaster cast it came from.

Thursday, 28 May 2015

Grubs, Bugs and Slugs!

This week I teamed up with the Birmingham Park Rangers to deliver a clay art workshop about local nature.  Holders Lane Woods in Kings Heath was our location of choice and the aim was to explore the woods, pond and see what insects we could find.  By 10am there was an eager queue of parents and children ready to look for bugs, grubs and slugs and to have a go at making them out of clay!
Above photos taken in Holders Lane Woods - a mixture of trees, wild flowers and rich habitats for all living things.
Holders Lane Woods is a mix of semi-ancient and new forest.  There are a variety of trees and plants in the wood that offer a stunning habitat to a variety of animals, birds and insects.  Fallen trees are secure homes for insects which can be viewed by turning over a log or two as demonstrated in the photos below! We found slugs, woodlice, miniature snails, spiders, millipedes and lots of tiny bugs all living together in the rotting wood.
Workshop participants and myself exploring upturned logs.
Jan the Park Ranger provided us with clear containers which we used to collect as many bugs as we could find.  A magnifying glass in the top of the container meant we could see the details and textures of each bug close up. This was important as the children needed to observe such details for making their clay bug later on.
Top left: We found woodlice!  Top right: a beautiful snail.
Bottom photo: the containers we used to collect bugs, grubs and slugs.
We spent the first part of the morning collecting interesting things to use as inspiration including small creatures, but also leaves, berries and fir cones.  I am experimenting with porcelain and white clay when making my own pieces of artwork.  The children used a high quality air drying clay to make their art pieces.  This clay is very easy to use and dries naturally over a few days, changing from a light grey colour to a bright white.  The pieces can either be left white or painted and varnished.  I prefer the white finish as I think you can see details more clearly.
Left: Workshop participants waiting for me to cut and make safe copper wire lengths to use as legs.  Most bugs we made required at least 6 legs each.  I'm glad that the legs of the millipede were made from thin twigs!
Right top and bottom: our first attempts at making creatures in clay - I love the clay leaf.
As well as making our bugs, grubs and slugs in clay, we added copper wire for the legs and antenna!  The combination of white clay and copper worked very well together and allowed us to retain some of the delicate features of the creatures.
Children and parents get involved in the making process.
It was great that the parents were also very enthusiastic about the local nature and interesting to hear that although locals themselves, they didn't necessarily know the woods were as extensive as they were. The workshop certainly gave people an insight into what is on their doorstep and ideas for future activities.
Creatures sit in their own habitats! Check out the oak leaf wings on the bug on the left!
I was very impressed that some of the children also make a habitat for their bugs, consisting of leaves, twigs and bracken.  The children also used some of this natural ephemera to add details such as leaves for wings, seeds for eyes and spindly twigs for legs.
A selection of our finishes pieces - Top left: A Woodlouse. Top right: A Wolf Spider of course!
Bottom left: an Earthworm. Bottom right: a Millipede.
The clay was pretty quick to dry and by the time we had finished the session, the pieces were already starting to become more robust.  I love the detail on the bugs above, particularly the segments on the earth worms body which was very accurately observed.  I also thought it was fantastic that one of the children was very innovative selecting thin twigs for the legs of the millipede!  The beauty of using clay is that is is very malleable and you can mould  a good representation of the individual creatures but can add other materials too.  The twigs and copper legs were embedded within the clay bodies, becoming secure with the drying process.  One of the reasons I am experimenting with clay through my Feeney Fellowship, is that it allows me to achieve specific sculptural forms that are difficult to achieve in printed metal for various technical reasons.  I'm really exited about the possibilities clay offers!
Left: Jan from Birmingham Park Rangers talks to us about habitats and their importance. Right: Jan and I at the end of a successful workshop.
Jan also gave an excellent talk on how to build a simple bug hotel in our own gardens and the reason the food chain is important in nature.
A British Ladybird basking in the afternoon sun!
At the end of our session all creatures that we had collected in the containers were set free in an appropriate place for each. I love this ladybird above basking in the sunshine! And it was based on the British ladybird too which we observed whilst exploring the woods.

Monday, 20 April 2015

Experiments with Ceramics and Metal

Recently I was awarded a Feeney Trust Grant to experiment with ceramics - a new material for me. I am a narrative artist working in illustration and metal.  I have wanted to experiment with bringing ceramics into my work for years and the grant has enabled me to have the time to do this.  I have always thought the combination of printed metal and a ceramic surface had exciting possibilities but with little knowledge of ceramics, I knew I needed some expert advice.  The ceramicists Jitka Palmer and Phillip Hardaker have agreed to mentor me!  Jitka and Phil both work in quite different ways as ceramic artists, exhibiting nationally and internationally, gaining reputations for excellent and fascinating work. 

This is my first blog post for my experiments with ceramics and concerns my first two visits to Jitka's studio in Bristol in  February 2015.
Jitka Palmer in her studio in Bristol 2015.
I am interested in using porcelain which both Jitka and Phil informed me is one of the most difficult clays to use!!  I must admit that when Jitka gave me a lump of porcelain to play with, this fact quickly became evident !  Porcelain is very slippery and difficult to mold when wet and also drys very quickly being equally difficult to work with in this state.
Jitka's beautiful painted vessels and smaller objects in her studio.  Bristol January 2015.
During my first two visits to Jitka's studio I was really concerned with getting used to porcelain as a material.  I wanted to be able to play around and get a feel for it's qualities.  I was also very interested in casting and taking molds from objects as well as creating hand built items.  I brought along some very simple metal jelly molds to use to see if I could use them to practice mold making techniques.
Left: Me at Jitka's studio experimenting with porcelain and stoneware for the first time, making some very simple shapes. Above right: My metal jelly molds. Below right: Later in February - the bisque fired objects.
I was pleased that I managed to make some small hand built simple pod shapes and flower shapes as well as using the metal molds.  However getting to grips with porcelain even at this first attempt was much harder than I thought.  White stoneware felt much more easy to control and it was interesting to observe the different qualities.  White stoneware might be an option for me to use as well as porcelain in the future.
Left: At Jitka's studio mixing some glazes. Top right: my simple porcelain shapes drying out.  Below right: Dipping my objects into clear glaze.
By the end of the first session at Jitka's studio I managed to create a selection of objects that were bisque fired and ready for my second visit.  During this second visit Jitka introduced me to glazing and some very important and basic rules of firing and temperatures for different stages of applying glaze.  All very interesting and complex at the same time.  I felt as if I had a very comprehensive overview of the processes during these first two visits and can see the possibilities for my own work.  The issue if going to be practising with the material.
Top left and centre: Jitka demonstrating glazing techniques. Top right: Dipped and hand painted glazed pieces before final firing. Botton left: Jitka and I discussing my initial experiments. Right: Jitka's beautiful sculpture of her mother.