Monday, September 12, 2011

Green Issues

A topic that is red hot in the media at the moment is the environment. We hear about global warming, energy conservation, depleting resources and recycling on a daily basis. As a child I learnt at school about gasses emitted by aerosol cans are causing a hole in the ozone layer, which can result in illnesses like skin cancer. At home that afternoon I neurotically begged my mother not to use deodorants as I feared for my life. Laughing it off because she came from a generation that was consumed by the conveniences of the post –war period, she merrily sprayed away. Besides, it would take such a long time to happen, there was no urgency in stopping then. Many years later we are facing the dilemma and all of a sudden we have switched to panic mode.
Green actually became a trend colour, in interiors, products, packaging and fashion. It became a visual way of reminding us to live more green. Even a large petroleum company increased its turnover, not because their product was more environmentally friendly, but because of making the public aware of its corporate colours. We now go into a supermarket buying organic products at a prime price just to ease our conscience.

Organic – the word also comes to mind when we talk about pottery – organic, wholesome, from the
earth – but is it really? We present our vessels to prospective buyers with a smile on our faces – ‘I
made this by hand, from the earth’ – should it then necessarily be good?
We work with raw materials that is actually quite hazardous. Often the fumes emitted during firing
drives us from our studios coughing and gasping for fresh air. How many of us actually wear respirators when working with glazes often containing deadly materials such as lead bisilicate or barium carbonate? In ancient times potters always outlived a few wives, who always had to decorate the pots, and the toxins from the lead used often killed them.
What could we do to make our craft more green? This could end up in a never ending debate, but a
few solutions come to mind. Pottery, once fired, lasts for a very long time. Archaeologists can tell the level of sophistication of a civilization merely by looking at the pottery they used, purely because it outlasts any other material. Once you made your piece, be very critical about it. If it is not your best and you are not proud of it, reclaim it before you fire it. After all, the joy is in the making. Nobody had any use for a clumsy, badly made pot that lies somewhere in a landfill.
Be more aware of the glazes we use. So often retail suppliers have glazes on their shelves that originates from the sixties. As long as it still sells, they will keep on producing it. A lot of these
glazes will leach toxins into food, and over the years a new generation of potters are not aware of these hazards. Be especially aware of low firing glazes that runs easily during firing, these are almost certain to contain lead and should not be used on domestic wares. Metallic glazes are often not food safe either.
Water is used in large quantities by potters, Disposing of waste water is often inconsiderate and it
just get dumped down the drain. Find a suitable material that will aid in settling the solids . The clear
water can then be decanted and used for watering your garden or flushing your toilet while the solid residue can be dried on plaster of paris or unusable bisque containers and disposed of in a suitable manner.
Raw materials always come in plastic bags or containers, which should be reused or recycled.

Cracked and broken pots once glaze fired can be donated to charity organisations that train handicapped or unemployed people to do mosaics. Cracked bisque ware can be used to aid drainage in container planting.
Electric firing is most convenient for potters and definitely cleaner burning than fossil fuels, but we need to relook our medium. A worldwide trend is to work in the mid-fire range rather than traditional high fired stoneware. A lot of industries have developed clay bodies that vitrify at lower temperatures, but studio potters are often unaware of these developments. There are some spectacular glazes available for lower temperatures, and a lot of colours, that would normally fire away at the higher temperatures, can now assure us of a brighter palette of glazes. We are still very ignorant about this in South Africa, but hopefully we will eventually see the benefit of it. We will conserve a lot of energy by firing at a lower temperature, and we could reinvent our work. If you are doing reduction firing or live in rural areas where you don’t have access to suitable electricity, consider using biofeuls to fire your kilns. It is a byproduct made from recycled cooking oil and is much cleaner burning and more sustainable than fossil fuels.
It would also not harm to include a green glaze in our palette, if we can not make our craft more environmentally friendly, we can at least remind ourselves to do our bit to reduce our carbon footprint.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Young Designers

Looking at a Design Project of 3rd year Industrial Design students of the University of Johannesburg, I was excited by some innovative entries, but couldn't help noticing a few major design flaws.

The first flaw I picked up was in the mould design - the spare is a continuation of the model, and if the object ever get made by someone else than the designer, they would have no clue as where to trim it. Ideally the spare should be indented to roughly the desired thickness of the cast, then trimmed at a 45* angle in one direction and sponged in the other direction.
Trimming - although the opening is neat, there is a lip prohibiting the flow of liquid, thus accidents would be inevitable.
Purpose - is the spout sufficient to direct liquid?
Practicality - if the jug is full, would petite ladies and children be able to handle it without dropping?
 Visual confusion - the obvious direction of pour is in the same direction as the handle.
 Hygiene - how on earth do you imagine a piece like this will be cleaned?

I know my post sound negative, and I probably have put my foot kneedeep into it, but from many years experience as a commercial potter, I am flabbergasted that these  principles are sadly not stressed enough at universities, colleges or pottery schools.

I would like to encourage young (and older) designers to relook their design and ponder the issues. So often I walk into a shop and pick up a beautiful piece, then put it down again for the very same reasons. Asking the assistant about it, I get told that it sadly doesn't sell. That proves that I am not the only person thinking that way. Once that happens, you have lost the retailer as a client, which would require acrobatics to win them back again.

All photographs by Kyle Brand.

Out of the Box Fine Art & Craft Expo


Thursday, May 12, 2011

Belle Terre

Belle Terre, French for 'Beautiful Earth,' is an exquisite range of individually handcrafted jewellery designed and made by award winning ceramist Deon de Lange.

Born with a natural curiosity has always led me to travel and explore. Embarking on several trips crossing the globe, a particularly rich source of inspiration for me, reflects as an overwhelming influence in my designs. Always carrying my camera,  I visually capture ideas. Returning from one of my travels with a mind full of ideas, I started searching for a medium to create them. Then I found clay! I experimented with this wonderful new medium often late into the night, working it into all the forms from and possibilities. Over time I refined my techniques, I read books and visited exhibitions to learn as much as I could about this exciting medium.

The beads reflect my inspiration from nature, ethnic cultures, minerals and ancient artifacts. Each piece is unique and made from ceramic, glass, metal and semi precious stones. I love combining translucent glass with textured clay and polished metal. My designs are simple, refined and pared back to their basic form. They are inspired by the amazing shapes and patterns of the natural world and the wonderfully diverse human cultures I encounter.

The clay beads are sculpted from specially developed porcelaneous body to ensure strength and durability, and fired to optimum temperature to ensure every piece can be worn with confidence. The clay, stained with colored minerals, are overpainted with slips (liquid, colored clay) which often react with future glaze layers. before firing to a high temperature.

What I love about working in ceramics is that every step of the process has it’s own character. One shape will lead me to another, I like to work on several ideas at one time. Often designs change while assembling the pieces. Soft clay is so receptive to rolling, stretching, kneading, texturing, impressing, yet it tells you when it’s had enough. There is excitement and challenges in every stage,  results after several firings are mostly unpredictable, either nerve-wracking or extremely satisfying. When fired, the clay is permanently frozen in time. Forms and colors that I create today will literally last thousands of years after being subject to the high heat.

Although I use glaze formulas that are fairly predictable in terms of color and shine in the final firing, there are a lot of other variables that make glazing an adventure. I paint many layers that blend and you cannot see the real colors until the final firing melts the glazes into a glassy coating. Abundant texture, layering of lines and shapes, and an organic quality in form characterizes each bead into a world in it’s own. Creating  different compositions to wear is exciting.

Growing up in a small town in rural KwaZulu Natal, I have been passionate about art & craft for as long as I can remember and throughout the years completed many arts-based courses involving painting, ceramics, glass and metal.  Moving to Johannesburg after school, I started working in the corporate environment. I eventually found myself missing the process of creating art and craft by hand. As a result I made the decision to leave my job and start working in ceramics full time. One of the great advantages of working from home is that I’ve been allowed the time and space to get my hands dirty and get back into making things I love.

You can view the results here.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Funky Finds

I found these innovative pieces on the web that appeals to my sense of humor:

Wyatt Little designed this piggy bank in the shape of a cross. Called 'Jesus Saves', it has a corkscrew piggy tail in the back. Little says, “If there is one thing everyone can agree on, its that churches are very good at raising and making money.”

Mike Mak designed these dumbbell shaped money box called 'Mo ney is Power'. The more money you put in this dumbbell, the more power you have to lift it up.

The next test results

Since my last disaster I decided to do a more extensive test this time. The first firing was to 1025*C and I used the basic principle of 50% clay and 50% glassformers, with 6%body stain mixed in to firstly see the reaction of colour in the body and secondly to distinguish the tests from one another. Here are the results:

  • A - Same body as my first test. I found the surface satisfactory, colour development was good and so the vitrification. On the downside the bead slumped in the firing and the hole was closed totally. Bead stuck slightly to test tile.

  • B - Standard glaze flux(1) . Body still very porous and colour underdeveloped. Will retest at higher temperature.

  • C - Standard glaze flux(2) . Body still very porous and colour underdeveloped. Will retest at higher temperature.

  • D - Flux used in glassmaking. Body set rockhard before drying. Surface rough and scum formed opaque layer on surface. Bead stuck to test tile. Colour development good.

  • E - Flux used in glassmaking, as above but 20%. Body set rockhard before drying. Surface rough and scum formed opaque layer on surface. Bead stuck to test tile. Colour development good.

  • F - Lucie Rie Bronze slip. Body very short, but otherwise interesting. Slightly vitrified  and nice surface. On the downside it can only be this one coolur. I will refire at a higher temperature to investigate results.

The tests were an interesting learning curve and have motivated me to take the experiments further, I will keep you posted.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Learning from my Mistakes

Every great artist will admit that somewhere in their search for perfection they did make mistakes. The secret is not to dwell on it, but to learn and conquer.

During a recent project teaching people skills, I decided to develop a new clay body that will simplify the process. I wanted something that can be once fired, with colour included in the body and that would eliminate the glaze process, but still give the necessary sheen. I tried researching Soft Paste Porcelain, but could not track down much information, let alone any recipes. 

The next option I thought about was Egyptian paste. Looking at the drawbacks of making, handling and firing, I quickly dismissed the idea. Working with unskilled people with not a very high level of education, the attempt would have been too frustrating for me and them to turn it into a viable option.

The next thing I came across was something used in the 19th century to simulate marble, mostly used for figurines. I came across a recipe in an old book I found at a flea market many years ago, and decided to give it a try.

Working with the first test batch was very interesting. Although the body was very short, it had great green strength, which was definitely a plus point. I need to add something to increase the plasticity. During the firing process it dawned on me that with the high amount of fluxes, the temperature of 1150*C would be too high. The photograph at the top is the result, everything melted down and bloated totally. I am doing more test firings at lower temperatures, but will also experiment with other fluxes to come up with the perfect solution.

The next mistake I encountered was using platinum luster on an unglazed surface fired to a high temperature. What I envisaged as a bright matt silver colour, turned out to be a rather muted grey. Although not totally wasted,  I will not go this route again. The colour would be much better obtained from slips and engobes, as the price of the luster is too expensive to make it commercially viable.

So its back to the drawing board for me, even the smallest mundane pieces can stimulate your creativity, and hopefully great things will come from this