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Process as narrative
Published in Ceramic review issue 249. The aesthetic of imperfection and the use of metal clays as an additional element.


It may be argued that reference points of human contact are integral to some finished objects, that there is a relationship as strong between the audience and the work, be it on an aesthetic or ergonomic level, as there is between maker and the objects they produce. In ceramics these references may be throwing rings glimpsed through the skin of a vessel, a finger pulled through a layer of slip or glaze, the effects of carbon, salt, or fly ash on a clay or glaze surface, the scar left by an object's journey through a firing, or the ghost of a seam left from a cast. These are all parts of a narrative, a story, a conversation between the maker, the object, the processes, and ultimately, it is hoped, a wider audience.

Intuitively, it seems that imperfection is something to be avoided; however, it may be that it is through imperfection that a deeper understanding may develop. The embellishment of imperfection may be viewed as a celebration of what is intrinsic to human existence. Rather than aspiring to perfection, there can be a recognition that it is never attained, and that often the imperfections become the pivotal aesthetic feature and offer an emotional connection with an object.
Over the last ten years I have been exploring wood-firing ceramics in an anagama-style cross-draft kiln. It produces ceramic surfaces that cannot be achieved by any other means; clay is pushed to its extremes and, in approaching its physical limits, it transforms. Surfaces are flashed by fire, drawing a rainbow of colours from the clay. The fluid fly ash glaze finds the path of least resistance, pooling and responding to the subtlest changes in emphasis.
Placing the work in the kiln for firing must be considered with an overview of the entire load as each piece will affect the pieces behind it, and will itself be affected by the work in front of it. Due to the severity of the firing process, work positioned close to the front of the kiln will merge with the fuel itself, intermingling charred and carbonised areas with fluid fly ash glaze.
This extreme climate inevitably results in some work becoming deformed, intense heat causing the material to become pyro-plastic. A piece may become stuck to the floor or may 'kiss' the work alongside it. These risks and resulting consequences are characteristics I accept, relinquishing control and allowing the firing to impart its own storyline, allowing the tensions created through the process of making to unwind, or to achieve equilibrium within themselves. It is these surfaces that can be the most aesthetically rewarding. Colours and textures may be overlaid, creating complex visual networks. However, all too often the scars created by the fire can create such extreme contrasts, where surface patinas are broken to expose stark white porcelain, that the scars detract from, rather than enhance, the pieces.

It was this problem that led me to explore the possibilities of using metal to patch the scars. In the Far East there is a long tradition of repairing prized ceramics and in doing so enhancing the object's cultural significance. In the West, metal repairs have been more utilitarian, straps and staples giving little consideration to the aesthetic outcome, and used simply as a way of prolonging the life of a useful object.
Initially, experiments were carried out using solder, melting the material and attempting to fill the scarred porcelain. This failed on many levels. The solder solidified as soon as it left the end of the hot iron and proved almost impossible to level or manipulate sufficiently. It also didn't adhere to the ceramic surface, falling out when it had cooled. Also, in some attempts to apply hot metals to highly vitrified porcelain, the ceramic simply cracked. Although these first attempts proved fruitless with regard to application, the results that were achieved were encouraging.
Having explored several other low temperature metals, the material that offered both the most suitable combination of aesthetic quality and workability was silver, mostly due to its ability to reflect the colours surrounding it, collecting the subtlety of surface and reflecting back a reinterpretation. Additionally, its relatively low melting point of between 890ºC-970ºC meant it could be handled with relative ease. Experiments were carried out by simply melting silver into the marks, but this proved to have similar disadvantages to the solder. Without the addition of flux, the metal tended to form balls of alloy that sat proudly on the ceramic surface and did not cover the 'damaged' area. However, it did appear to bond better to the ceramic.

At this point I learned of a material known as precious metal clay or silver clay, which consists of very fine silver particles held together in an organic binder. The binder burns away, leaving 0.999% pure silver. I initially experimented with a material named PMC+, due to the lower advertised shrinkage rate (10-12%). The silver material was pressed into the scars in the pots, which were then re-fired to 900ºC in an electric kiln with a soak of thirty minutes. The surface picked up the detail of fingerprints, which was a quality consistent with the ceramic vessels on which it was being used. One of the slight drawbacks was that in some areas, due to shrinkage, the silver pulled away from the edges of the scar. However, overall the metal bonded to the vitrified porcelain well. Through further testing it was discovered that when the metal clay was applied as a slip before firing, it did not show signs of shrinkage. Subsequent applications, where the plastic material was thumbed onto the fired slip base, adhered to the initial slip layer to form a permanent bond.
This plastic material offers a controllability of application that other sources of silver alloy do not. It therefore allows scars to be filled and fired upright without the risk of the molten metal running out of the scar. On being removed from the silver firing, the metal is coated with a thin layer of oxide that can be easily removed with a stiff brush. The underlying wood-fired surfaces are unaffected by these subsequent lower re-firings.
For purists, this re-submission of a piece of work to the predictable and controlled firing of an electric kiln may grate. However, it may be argued that this post anagama firing becomes just another subplot in the sequence of processes, which when intrinsically linked, form the final story. Reworking the fired surface to once again restore the piece to a whole is a continuation of the narrative, writing the coda to the work, and in doing so, placing a full stop at the end of the maker's contribution to the finished object.


 

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