I usually sculpt my pieces from a solid block of clay. Many clay sculptors start with a plan and build their pieces in coils from the ground up. I don’t find this method as fun, and it limits the changes you can make once the piece is formed. When you work solid, you can more easily tilt the head or move the legs around to just the pose the piece wants to take. After a piece is finished, I cut it into sections, hollow it out, and then reconstruct it. This helps reduce the weight of the piece, gives it more strength, and significantly improves the chances of it not cracking or blowing apart during the firings. After the piece is dry, I bisque fire it. The final finishes are done with underglazes and glazes in a low fire kiln or in a raku firing.
This is How LuLu the Elephant Came to Be
From a block of clay, Lulu was shaped into an elephant form. She was then cut into pieces (yes, I know this sounds awful), hollowed out, and put back together. She was then dried slowly and fired to a bisque stage (see below).
I knew I wanted to raku fire Lulu. The rawness and unpredictability of raku just seemed to go with her “elephantness.” Plus the black matte finish where the untouched clay goes through the raku process seemed a perfect match for her skin. A clear glaze (glaze is similar to liquid glass) was placed on her tusks and her toenails. Black glaze was used in her eyes. A touch of salmon pink was used at the opening of her trunk. The rest I left untouched so that her skin would show the black of the reduction process.
What is raku? The process I use is a “Western” version of raku where the work is taken to between 1470-1830 degrees Fahrenheit. Once the glaze has become molten, the piece is pull out of the hot kiln. The thermal shock that occurs causes crazing (spider web type patterns) to form in the glazed areas. This is a very sensitive time because this sudden change can cause a piece to crack or break apart.
The piece is then placed into a trash can full of newspaper. The heat from the piece catches the newspapers on fire. The trash can lid is then put on tightly. It is at this time that the process of reduction occurs. Closed away from the atmosphere, the fire pulls needed oxygen from the glaze, and the clay and carbon molecules are left in their place. As a result, the crazed areas and areas where no glaze was applied become a matte black.
In the case of Lulu, her body was left mostly unglazed and produced a predominently dark appearance. On the other extreme, Abigail the Rabbit (below) shows what happens when a piece is completely covered with glaze. In her case, a clear glaze was applied to her body and black glaze to her eyes. The thermal shock of pulling her from the kiln created the crazing lines and the reduction in the trash can filled in those lines with a black color.
So, back to Lulu. Here she is after she was placed in the trash can. (This picture is of my dear friends helping me with this process. I am sorry I didn’t take better pictures of them. The man who lifted her out of the kiln for me and who has played an enormous influence in my work and my life is the very famous clay artist Billy Ray Mangham. The other person is Lisa McPike Smith who is also a phenomenal artist and ceramicist.) Notice the kevlar gloves to protect their hands. It is a hot and smelly process!
After everything cooled off, Lulu was picked from the ashes. She was given a quick bath to spruce her up. This is her drying on my front walkway. I took this picture of her so that I could play like an elephant was walking up to my front door (because some of us never grow up!).
After all that, she was named Lulu (thank you Bonnie Pelts Roberts). In Swahili or Tanzanian, Lulu means pearl. It also means precious, calm, peaceful, and protected. Seemed like a pretty good fit.
Much to my delight, Lulu has a new home, She is with a very sweet and loving family and wandering a savannah at their house in San Angelo, Texas.