Photo Credit: Jennie Anne Benigas



May 2009

"…the competition between the art of Florence and the art of Venice was really a battle for supremacy between drawing and color. In the 16th century, the Venetians favored 'colorito' (the direct application of color to the canvas, making painting essentially a one-step process), while the Florentines favored drawing, or 'disegno' (a two-step process: drawing, then coloring in)."


Sebastian Smee, "Critic's Notebook/Showing their true colors: Exhibits highlight great artists' different methods" Boston Globe, Arts & Entertainment, 4-12-2009.

Exploring a New Medium: Ceramics

Dear Reader,

Last year, I promised myself that I would try a new medium. I did not feel pulled in any particular direction; I simply wanted to try something new. The closest I came was the blast of inspiration from visiting Antoni Gaudí's Parc Güell in Barcelona (Judy's Journal-June 2008). The urge to go home, smash all of my pottery, and create outdoor mosaics soon passed when my right brain kicked in and reminded me how much I had paid for it. Instead, I ended up making a series of fourteen rollicking paintings which mimicked mosaics (Judy's Journal-August 2008). Making real ceramics did not seem like the "new" medium I would be trying.

"New" is in quotation marks because it has been fifty years since I glazed bisque forms and had them fired. During four years of high school studio classes, we worked with every medium, even those recently developed paints called acrylics. I recall not being enamored with ceramics for the very reason I ended up becoming a painter: my joy comes out of the tubes, onto the palette, gets mixed, and used. My impatience and need for instant gratification makes me favor the "colorito" method of painting. I also work with oil sticks, a medium which allows me to even skip the palette and mix colors directly on the support! To draw, then color in with paint, "disegno," just isn't my process. Working with glazes frustrated me in the extreme because I could not see the colors until the piece was fired. I was not called to become a ceramics artist.

Not until last month. My brother, Al, passed away in late February, leaving us heart-broken and devastated. He was doing what he could to help redo the kitchen with his wife, Barbara, and her sister-in-law, Terry. One day, he went to the hospital for a procedure and died shortly after it was completed. The chaos of the kitchen could not match what we felt when we lost him..

One of the decorative ideas Barbara and I had talked about was to float several ceramic tiles on the painted backsplash. Since my husband and I were going to Portugal for a week in March, I said I would look for colorful tiles to compliment the wall paint (ochre warmed up with red, inexplicably called "Apple Crisp"). The requirements were: warm colors, an abstract pattern, no blue.

John and I went, searched and did not find the above ceramic tiles. This was amazing to us, since Portugal is the second largest exporter of tiles (after Turkey) in the world.

On the flight home, I asked myself, "Could I make the tiles?" I did not remember much about my high school experience when I had that thought, but the body has a strange and wonderful way of storing memory. It all came back when I sat down at a table in the studios of Clay Time in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts ( I wore one of Al's shirts each day I worked there. It became part of my mourning for him. I was testing the axiom: Art Heals.

Writing heals, too. From the first day the project started, I knew that I would need to use this journal to explore my return to ceramics. It was a strong and positive experience in so many ways. The Clay Time staff, Becca, Christine, Kerry, and the owner, Laurel, made me feel welcome and guided me through the project with respect and patience.

After selecting the bisque tiles, my first step would be to make the designs. Antoni Gaudí to the rescue! I scanned close-up photographs of the bench at Parc Güell and printed them in grayscale. I needed to delete his original riot of colors, because I would be substituting a restricted palette of reds, yellows and browns.

I returned to Clay Time for my first work session. Becca supplied me with transfer paper to trace the images onto the bisque tiles, small tiles that corresponded to the glazes, and the metal tip bottles of glaze. After tracing the intricate designs onto the seven tiles (3 three inch and 4 eight inch squares), I was ready to begin applying the glazes. I worked for six hours that day and did not move or blink.

And then I remembered why I became a painter, not a ceramicist.

What IS this? It was déjà vu all over again. I felt as if I were flying (color)blind. Becca assured me that once I became more experienced, my brain would translate the mauve and beige colors into reds, yellows and browns.

My curiosity kicked in. I wanted to see what would happen. Days passed in the clay studio. I was obsessed. I was in a trance. I had drawn or traced the shapes, now I was filling in with color (well, not exactly, but I had to use my imagination) - I was painting in two steps - disegno - like a Florentine, not a Venetian!

And then came the hardest part: waiting to have the pieces fired. Talk about pressing my instant gratification button! Agony. And then one day, while I was working on the larger tiles, Becca brought me the 3 fired small ones. Shock! My brain was still expecting the mauve and beige colors of unfired glazes.

What worked?
1. The abstract designs are super effective! Now to decide the directions to situate them, so the set of three will have an overall pleasing effect. Let's do the math: how many combinations will the squares have and where is left, right and middle?
2. The effect of the unglazed "breaks" that mimicked grout between the broken "pieces" looks terrific. When I made my Landscape Mosaic painting series, I had to work with pencils and inks to get the grout effect. There is one step less when making these ceramic tiles.
3. It was crucial to stay with one group of (warm) colors, so that the designs for the set could be read with some consistency. Given the sizes, 3" and 8" squares, and the complexity of the designs, too many colors could cause confusion. Welcome to the decorative arts!

What needs work?
1. There seems to be an unevenness on the solid areas. Should I have used other glazes and/or brushes instead of metal tips?
2. The dark edges are ragged. At first I was disappointed in this, but then I realized that I would not be breaking perfect ceramics to use in mosaics. I would be looking for imperfect pieces. Potters have lots of them. I have mimicked the flawed pieces.
3. I need to take more breaks while working. This is intense and close work.

I gladly took the risk of failing in doing this project.. As Donald M. Murray said, "That's what artists do." Someone looking for a finished, elegant looking set of tiles might say that I failed. As I write this, I do not know whether or not these brightly-colored squares will end up in Al and Barb's kitchen. If they do, that could be seen as a mark of success. If they do not, their success will lie in how much the experience has taught me. On the surface, I learned about making ceramics, but I also learned another way to mourn the loss of my brother.