By Kip O'Krongly
As a ceramic artist, I have always been drawn to functional work. From the first moments I touched clay, I immediately zeroed in on creating pieces I could use. While my love of utilitarian pots runs deep, a curiosity with exploring sculptural forms has been simmering for years. When I was awarded a grant from the McKnight Foundation (which culminates in an exhibition this July), it was the nudge I needed to unearth those inklings and explore some sculptural possibilities. The following post will take you through my progress to date on this new direction - if anyone has feedback or ideas about other ways to approach something like this I am all ears!
My recent body of functional work has largely revolved around ideas of agriculture - meat production in particular. I wanted these sculptural pieces to pull from my pots, to take the two-dimensional animals I was drawing on my ceramic forms and render them as three-dimensional objects themselves.
Cows it would be! I started with some planning, including the initial installation sketch below, along with getting some invaluable advice from Carleton College professor, Kelly Connole, (here in Northfield, MN) regarding her methods for building wall pieces (THANK YOU, Kelly!)
With a plan in place, I began by putting together support armatures. Each armature is made up of a section of 1” x 6” board with a floor flange and pipe attached (I found a tutorial for making these here). The length of the pipe varies depending on height and orientation of the head. I created templates to help me determine the distance I wanted each head from the wall and then could determine the resulting pipe length I would need.
Next it was time to sculpt with paper and tape! After tracing a neck diameter onto each board, I used balled up newsprint and masking tape to construct rough cow head shapes around the pipes of each armature. (NOTE: I did one of the armatures with packing tape instead of masking tape and the clay totally stuck!)
With the armatures complete, I smooshed (very technical term here!) handfuls of wet clay to cover the form, using photos mined from the Internet as a guide for overall proportions. I spent a good deal of time at this stage tweaking the form so that I (hopefully!) wouldn’t have to make any major adjustments after I began to refine the face. [Unsurprisingly, I DID have to make some major adjustments to some of them :) ]
From the roughed in stage, I started in on the features. Typically nose and mouth first, then eyes.
Next came the ears and some additional detail...
Followed by overall refining.
Once things had set up to a stiff leatherhard on the outside, I cut each of the heads apart (GAH!) to remove them from the armatures.
Ears and nose first...
And this is where things got a little dicey… While the ears and nose came off just fine, removing the two halves of the head proved to be tricky. (If anyone has tips for helping clay release from a form, let me know!) But after some (gentle!) prying, wiggling and maneuvering, I had seven cow parts ready to hollow out.
Each cow was made with about 35 – 40 pounds of clay and I aimed to have the finished walls 3/8” – ½” thick. This resulted in removing around 12 pounds of clay from inside each of the heads. The hollowing out, reassembling, and final tweaking, along with adding a hanging mechanism, took me nearly as long as the initial head sculpting! I really enjoyed hollowing each section - trying to keep things a uniform thickness as I removed clay was one of those tedious, yet oddly satisfying jobs.
Once all the parts were hollowed out, I reassembled the sections and repaired the seams.
As of this writing, I have six heads formed and slowly drying. Then it’s terra sig (see my previous video post on how I make terra sig here), firing (accompanied by A LOT of finger crossing), and hopefully a successful installation.
There is still much that needs to happen (and go right!) before this project will be complete. But, I’m amazed by how much I’ve learned working with the same material in such a different way these past few months. I’m excited to see what comes of this new direction and reenergized to return to the functional work that I love.