Sunday, September 27, 2009

Wrapped up and ready to go

I've been meaning to make this posting for the past 3 weeks. With Sandor's great help it only took a day to build the crate, and another to pack it (Sorry Honey, for promising to go on site-seeing trips when I'd asked you to arrive a few days earlier!)
So, here is the proof that 3 months of hard work is nothing more than a wooden box of .8x.8x2meters.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Mile 26...

This is it. The last week of this roller coaster of a 13-week experimentation, hard work, focus, practical/stupid/brilliant/sensible/plain-bad ideas, sleep deprivation and many other things. Today, I cleaned out my space, removed all the furniture, recycled all the clay, packaged my leftover materials, cleaned my tools, and ceremonially destroyed all molds but one (this one is saved for two more days for a particular reason). There is a wast empty space again, replacing all the action that had taken place. Weirdly, the space seems to have no memory, it's waiting anew for the new occupant.
The only sign of my being here is ten porcelain "flowers" blooming on the bare gray cement floor. Clemence called the umbrellas "flowers" during my studio chat for their bell-shape and pointy tips; and seeing them all together this way tonight (for the first time), this was my first thought too.
Every week, I manged two cast and carve two of them, the designs (I mean, the maps inside...) getting more and more complicated and challenging to do. Together, they comprise my memory-mappings of all the places where I've lived and wondered around extensively, sometimes being lost, sometimes finding stuff. Tuesday, for my end presentation here at EKWC, I won't yet be able to have them installed according to my original plans, suspended in mid-air. That part needs to be figured out at home, in Seattle. During my run on Tuesday (while I went "zoning-out"), a new presentation idea flashed through my brain. I don't want to reveal too much in advance, but let's hope that the weather collaborates! In the meantime, here are some new pics from the 26th mile...

Saturday, July 25, 2009

First firing

The first two umbrellas were fired last weekend and came out of the kiln on Monday. The temperature we had agreed on trying, due to dangers of warping and cracking, was 1240 degrees Celsius, 10-15 degrees lower than the previous tests of smaller works. As mostly the case when opening the kiln, I was slightly disappointed: the surfaces looked rougher than they were when going in the kiln, as if the porcelain was under-fired. This turned out not being the case; they are perfectly vitreous; unless being put side side by side with the same material fired to a higher temperature, one does not notice the difference. Most importantly, there was no warping and cracking in the kiln. Which is a significant and most welcome outcome, but one that was completely undermined by the fact that the surfaces showed up every imperfection, the entire history of the construction of the piece in the most unflattering way. Patch to cover the drain whole on the bottom? Was invisible before the firing, but now it clearly shows. The place where the two mold parts come together? There is a shallow but clearly visible indentation running around on the inside, looming with a dark shadow in the sparkly whiteness of the clay. The surface was sanded and polished before it went in, it came out with ghosts of every brush- and knife-mark I've ever made. Unforgiving material.
It took me a while to get over this... Reassessing my feelings during repeated visits from every staff member and fellow resident helped me to fume out my disappointment. I reasoned that I was prepared for things happening in the kiln but not for these kinds. Instead of interesting slumping and warping that would have fit into the original idea, this new development only made the work that I had labored over so much look like that it had craft issues. But come to think of it, it's good to know that bone china behaves likes this, and now the next challenge is to change the designs and maybe the process too, in order to make the work in such a way that what cannot be made invisible at least does not become the focus.

Last Sunday, we went to Antwerp (Rubens' had his studio here) to look at some paintings, eat chocolate and drink beer. Mission accomplished. Two beautiful paintings stuck in my mind, both both Madonna with the Child, from the 15th century. This one, by Fouquet, shows her as if she was made out of rubber and inflated.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

And now, the fun part...

By now, every step of the casting process had come together and with that a weekly rhythm of work has been formed. Not surprisingly it takes more time than I expected; it would be difficult to get more than two umbrellas finished in one week. I cast on Monday and take out both pieces by Tuesday. The studio, which used to feel spacious is crowded with molds, drying pieces on kiln shelves,wet pieces I'm still working on under plastic tents, and the barrels and equipment that hold and move the slip. Here is a picture of The Awesome mold with the lift that had raised the piece up still inside right after removing the cast from it.
Tuesday and Wednesday, I work on putting the design into the umbrellas. Each has a map of a real place, a city or a neighborhood, a path or an area that I run around in. This is another time-sensitive part of the process: the designs are done as a shellac resist, wiping away the clay from the areas around the resist pattern with a wet sponge. It takes a few hours of wiping to get the depth I need, and it is the safest to do this while the porcelain is still wet so that it does not crack from the sudden expansion when water is introduced.
The rest of the week is spent on carving, and more carving, and still more carving... and cleaning the designs. Also on doing odd tasks, like cleaning molds, rearranging furniture, finalizing the new templates for the maps to be carved next, building firing molds, etc., which are necessary but always feel like as if I was not doing anything. The carving part is where I can relax and go with the flow... It is fun to trace the street patterns of familiar places but also to get lost in them. Repetitive? No problem.
Fridays, it looks like, will be the days to load the kiln and start the firing. The first went in yesterday. Being a test, I trying my best to keep my expectations low. I'd like to fire the bone china to full maturity (about 1240-1250 degrees Celsius) but it is guaranteed to warp, slump, crack or just plain self-destruct at these high temperatures. These first pieces went in on a bed of sand. Probably insufficient as a support... A firing mold might be a safer solution, but first I need to see what happens in the current firing. The idea started with a discarded, broken umbrella that I found. It would work just fine if the kiln (gently!) did the same for the sculptures. After all, there has to be a good reason why I'm doing this in clay and not some other, more direct and less technically involved material!

Thursday, July 9, 2009


The very first cast got taken out of the mold only on Monday. I did not really have any choice but to wait; I had to get the right materials for the harness at the Saturday market and wait for assistance with flipping the molds when the staff came to work after the weekend. The technology I came up with at the end of last week worked as expected. The de-molding has to happen in two steps: Step one is flipping the cast with the mold still on onto a board (needs lots of foam to pad the dome from the inside in order to prevent collapsing) and lifting the mold away. Drying does not improve the strength of this clay, in fact, makes it even more susceptible to cracks. Unfortunately, an umbrella is not really a half-sphere but a dome that stands on 8 points. One of them gave in to the stress and went cracking along when the cast landed on the board. By the minute the crack grew, opening up a sizable gap along one of the ribs. The cast was relatively clean but the edges still needed attending and with each touch the gash got visibly larger. In step two, the cast was strapped down to the board with 4 strips of fabric and flipped upside down, hanging in this harness-like structure. Two of us lowered it into a pre-prepared sandpit on the kilnshelf and two people cut the straps to get the board off. It worked like a charm. Only that the crack did not hold up (I no longer expected it...) and went straight for the opposite end, splitting the form into two equal halves. It was a huge disappointment! I expected that I would not get away with it (the first casts from any mold are usually not very good), but I still hoped that my luck would hold.
The other residents who helped me with the flipping walked away quietly and tactfully, and I felt as broken as the cast was. For only a few minutes though...
Then, I cleaned up, recycled the clay (it's better for this to happen now than in the firing!), rearranged the space to make room for casting again next day and walked out of the studio.
On Tuesday, I cast both molds. The process is unbelievably exhausting; remixing of 75L of slip, pushing barrels up and down in my studio, moving them with the forklifts took the entire day. This time, I wanted to try casting into the one-piece mold differently: a thin shell was cast first then the ribs got reinforced with gauze, then more slip was brushed on and burnished flat and even. That same night we repeated the flipping process with the harness, and this time it worked flawlessly. No cracks, no damage, the form came out pristine and beautiful.
Removing the cast from the other mold (The Awesome) required a bit of thinking, and trial and error, which took up most of the day on Wednesday. The bottom of the mold was unbolted and dropped down, exposing the bare bum of the cast. Then, a lift was set up with a columnar structure built of bricks, which was narrow enough to fit through the opening but still large enough to support the bottom of the piece. Using that to levitate the piece out of the mold, the rest of the mold was dropped down too. It kind of looked like a flower emerging. Pretty cool!
The only thing left to do is to put my hands under the form and gently cradling move it to the sandbed on the kilnshelf. Surprisingly, it worked. Now, both casts are resting a slowly drying under a plastinc tent.
Of course many things can still happen during the drying and, especially, during the firing. But the first challenges are considered to be solved.
My color tests came out amazing. Thin lines of color on smooth vitrified china. I'm in love.

Friday, July 3, 2009

The Monster, The Princess, and The Awesome

I have three molds of the same form now. One has to work. If I'm lucky, two will work.
The first one, which made me so excited last week (a.k.a. The Monster) is no awaiting to be carried out to the dumpster. It turned out not very useful for casting as the multiple parts made the fitting back together complicated and also unstable once one part is removed. The edges of each part lost definition due to the parts moving and rubbing together in this unstable fit.
The flaring out shape of the upside down umbrella creates a number of complications; turned over to be a dome rests the entire piece on the 8 ends of the ribs, risking stress fracturing. It's a no win situation. Somewhere between casting and removing from the mold to a kiln shelf there is a minefield of challenges to overcome. So, to test some theories and see the potential outcomes I made two more molds early this week; a one-part (The Princess, - she is a beauty!) and a two part (The Ultimate, a.k.a. The Awesome). Of course, each have an additional casting ring added to the body of the mold. It may seem like a waste of my time, considering that the first one took 4 days to make and ended up unpractical, but without making that first I would have never figured out what was needed to be done.
On Thursday, with the generous help of a staff member, Mark, I set up the casting system. The mold takes 50Liters of casting slip. That is about 80kg (160lbs). In bone china, that is about 200 Euros worth of raw material, by the way. It was important that the system was simple (only the necessary steps), foolproof (the mold won't tip or break under the weight), efficient (no loss of casting slip and no heavy lifting) and could be managed by me, on my own. For an entire day we were testing possibilities and trouble shooting. By the end, we arrived to a functional set up of two pallet lifts and a 60L barrel with heavy duty plumbing.
The mold was leveled and in went the 50L of slip. It took my breath watching it flow in, so creamy smooth and slow; it seemed not to rise in the mold at all, just sitting still. We poked at the edges, excitedly taking out test samples of the wall to judge the amount of buildup. Fishing in a huge pool of liquid light gray silk... When we opened the drain on the bottom of the mold to let the slip out, it went gushing back to the barrel, making a cute "belly-button" vortex in the middle of it. It was beautiful. Almost more interesting than the sculpture that it makes can ever be.
The next day, today, the new challenge is to take out the cast form the mold. Being a one-piece, the only option is turn the mold upside down and de-mold the cast, similar to kids making sandcastles on the beach. Except for the exceptional fragility of this particular material. Any pressure at a single point or surface will make it crack and break. We brainstormed through many options with Peter and each seemed to be too risky. At the end we settled on a sling-type construction that will be put on once the cast is flipped to the board, then the whole thing turned upside down the sling hopefully cradling the piece evenly. We will put the theory to the test on Monday. In the meantime, I have lots of thinking and testing to do with regard to the maps that will be carved inside the umbrellas' bowls.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Monster Mold

The umbrella carcass I found by the pond last week quickly gathered enough momentum in my mind to result in a complete mental image of the pieces I want to make for the installation. More specifically, I'm going to use the shape of the distorted umbrella to make the forms of the units, each is different, - that then will be used together to build a maze like environment.
Even when I first considered this shape, I knew it would not be simple to make it, but I don't think I fully comprehended the problems inherent in casting such a fragile material as bone china on such a large scale. Bone china is the finest porcelain, with a consistency that is silky soft in liquid form, then goes to unmanagable cream cheese state, then into a brittle and fragile crumbly mess, then, with a wrong move, back to powder and broken shards. But when it turns out it is the purest, smoothest, whitest porcelan with almost a shiny polish on it.
An umbrella is a relatively basic form: a dome shape with slight ribs and indentations. Since I only need the outside, in any other situations a simple one part bowl-shaped mold would function well for most purposes. The complications come form de-molding the bone china porcelain form once the slip is cast in there. It is safe to assume that the material does not have the strenght to hold itself unsupported or be handled in the unfired state. No one here has seen it made into such a large and open bowl shape.
So, after a day of consultations with several expert staff members, and million drawings on the blackboard of the steps involved, a plan was hatched. The mold would have to be a 6 part one with a complex system of supports and interlocking, that allows the whole form to be safely transferred to a kilnshelf while the porcelain is still wet and also allows the parts be removed one by one as it dries. Everybody got excited when I presented the idea and the challenges with it. It seems that the staff here really lives for interesting technical solutions. The plans got so complicated that after days of thinking I would wake from sleep to realize that a new solution just generated 2 other new problems. The other nagging thought is that I might jut get away with just a simple one part mold...
But I went ahead with the plan. Being here is about experience after all... (or so I say to myself). I've never done a mold this complex on this scale that needs this kind of precision. The umbrella I got for it is a kids' one, but still ends up being about 2.5' (80cm) in diameter. I figured, I will do it slow and deal with the challenges one by one as they arise, instead of trying to anticipate everything at once.
I know only one person who likes mold making, for the rest of us it is a necessity. Into the 3rd day of working on it, when it started looking like it may come together, I finally started enjoying it. Yes, it is messy, it's tedious, it's heavy and hard to work with, but every problem can be solved in a variety of clever ways. It has been a great learning experience; a crash course in advanced mold making. It was finished in 3 nights and 2 days with only some cleaning left to do. It's a little over half of my weight. We still have to figure out how to hold it while putting about 15-20 liters (maybe more, maybe less, I better measure the volume before I go any further...) slip into it.
I will start a second mold of a different umbrella later this week. This time to test if the same could have been done as a one part mold. It will be interesting.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

A found umbrella

On my way home from the Sportiom yesterday, I found an umbrella in the park by the pond. Apparently, it had been blown into the water where it must have stayed for some time. It was finely coated with sediment from the pond.
The shape is beautiful; it shifted my mind into high gear. I could not stop thinking about it all day. Finally, in the evening I walked back to get at least pictures of it (the whole thing turned out to be too large, too fragile, and too stinky to bring back into my studio).

Monday, June 15, 2009

Those late night thoughts...

It is remarkable, that one week can go by without venturing much further beyond the perimeter of the studios, my apartment, and the courtyard they enclose. The only exceptions are my daily runs and a few trips for groceries.
I nearly forgot how the ceramic process (especially when molds and casting is involved) takes on the life of its own, a steady rhythm of making parts, putting them together, drying, cleaning, wetting, fixing, polishing, drying, making parts, putting them together,etc...
The studios are truly amazing! EKWC resembles more to a laboratory than a messy art making place. Everything is set up as if someone had thought long and hard how to optimize every process, making each step of it as convenient as possible. For example, the plaster room: stainless steel tables, floordrain and a spray hose for easy clean up. A scale (to measure the ratio before mixing) with a vent, next to a rack for the plaster to be measured, which is adjacent to the sink (for the water). Recycled clay is in closable plastic bins (just the right hight, so I don't even have to bend down), clamps and tools on the wall, boards for mold walls in every possible size on a separate rack. Plaster chunks refuse go to a series of plastic tubs, which are just the right size for being picked up for emptying out during clean up. Slips have their own separate mixer, conveniently next to the dry materials, another sink, another scale and another spray hose, just near the clay mixers and pugmills for making plastic clays. The glazeroom is separate from all of this. It has its own ventiallation system, materials kept in well labeled bins, sinks, scales, everything is organized and clean! Did I mention that there are two dryers for molds? Or the fact that there is a staff member for research on materials? Or that the kilns are hooked up to computers, which not only control them but archive and can print a diagram of the firing cycle (the rate of temperature increase over time)? Or that there is a whole library of clay and glaze tests tiles that one can consult before choosing materials?
It's been a week and I'm still overwhelmed.
...and at this point, already sleep deprived. Working until 2-3am every day, I'm having a hard time to make it to the morning coffee time at 10am. I used to be a morning person..!

There are 3 different things that I've been working on this past week. They all feel like tip-toeing around a still shapeless idea that I have somewhere in my brain but I could not yet fully formulate. I think, these projects will eventually all become by-products, but right now they help me to figure out the form and the visual solution to what I'm looking for. At around 1 am tonight, I considered throwing everything that I have made aside and doing something wild, something that does not look like the work I usually do. Before I got to that, though, I decided to call it a day (or a night?)...

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Getting settled in

After 24 hours (+9 hours time difference) of flights and trains, Sandor and I arrived to 's-Hertogenbosch (Den Bosch) Sunday evening. Apart from the momentary scare of the suitcases, loaded with with my tools and clothes for the next 3-months, are not showing up on the conveyor belt at the baggage claim, the trip was uneventful, and numbing. At least, I got to catch up on the movie hits of the past year on the plane.
Den Bosch is charming. Clean, old, and slow paced. But on Sunday afternoon everybody was out, milling around the Markt (Market square). From one vantage point I could count 6 pubs with outdoor seating (all full) and 3 stalls selling fried food. Near the Sint-Janskathedraal, the town was hosting a big public sing-along event. (Think karaoke with hundreds of people.) Getting our orange straw hats (the national color of the Netherlands) and the printed lyrics of the songs played we were drinking beer, eating waffles, and singing our hearts out until late at night.

We arrived to the Centre Monday morning, me ready to begin and Sandor ready take more trains and flights, this time to Hungary.
In the morning, I was given keys to my apartment and the studio and showed around. The apartment is tiny but it has everything it needs. The studio is amazing! I went speechless seeing the work space I was given: It's almost as big as our entire house in Seattle, at least a 1000sqfeet! 20-foot ceilings, clean white walls, smooth, clean cement floor, a sink with a system to trap particles, floor drains, and a whole wall of huge windows looking out to the courtyard. Everything is clean, spacious and frighteningly empty (for the time being). Later that day, sitting in my space racking my brain on what the next step should be, the studio looked intimidating in its vastness and emptiness.
Unpacking my tools and supply did not take any time, as the result also did not take up much space. The first challenge: I need paper! I did not bring any drawing paper for sketching and planning out ideas, in fact I even left my large sketchbook at home.
After ransacking the copier I started making some ink drawings, trying to decide about the shapes for the clay forms (units) and cutting the drawings out. The plan I arrived with was to cast multiple parts for and eventually make a suspended landscape-like installation one can walk into. I've been conflicted over this plan, I like the idea, but the scale and hassle with shipping it home keeps me from embracing it fully. By the end of the first day, I covered some walls, and some floor and was introduced to the plaster and mold making area in detail. Every shop or technology here has its own expert staff. If a resident needs a meeting with a tech, we put our names on the board and they show up before the end of the workday, to brainstorm, troubleshoot or consult on the possibilities of getting from an idea to the finished product.
By tonight, I made a mold, some bone china clay (both a plastic body for building and a casting slip), explored options of using CAD to design the units I need for the installation. I also fell in love with the possibilities of porcelain-foam and got a crazy idea of using that with pink clay to make sexy little forms (I hope I will eventually ditch this idea too).

I promise to write about the shops in detail in the next post.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Packing up

I was thinking today, leaving is like dying a little bit. (I don' claim to be the first one to note, songs were written with this lyric, but today it struck me anew.) Everything I know here will cease to exist when I board the plane in a few days. Everything that is awaiting me is still unknown, no shape, no image, no thoughts for it in my mind.
Hard to plan for something like that.
Everybody keeps asking "are you excited?" "have you packed yet?" "are you ready to go?" ...
- What should I take with me? Other than my running shoes and all my summer running gear I have a hard time imagining what I will need, what I will actually be doing in the Netherlands. I already miss my yard, - full in bloom; my kitty and Sandor; and the sweet summer time that give people the reason to endure the rest of the 8 months of the year in Seattle.