As you may realize from my current work, I’m into black and white ceramics.

It’s not that I don’t like using color: I love it! In fact, that is one of the reasons I fell so hard for mosaic art. I love the brilliant colors and juicy depth of the glass. Theoretically, glaze is also glass, so I should have just as much success with colorful glazes, right?

Well, not so much. I have been trying for many years to figure out the perfect colorful finish for my work. I have tried colored slips, underglazes, stains, majolica, gas glazes, electric glazes, oil paint, decoupage, encaustics, you name it. I was never 100% satisfied with any of these finishes on my sculptural work. Or my functional work for that matter. I never felt that sense of harmony that the surface treatment “fit” the piece and adequately showed off the craftsmanship underneath. For years I liked my pieces best at the leather-hard stage: that is, before they had any glaze applied to them.

Then I tried an experiment: raku glazing one of my sculptures. It was this one, “Dilemma:”

I couldn’t have been more thrilled with the result. The subtle finish complimented my sculpting and carving marks, and looked entirely natural on the piece. The black and white color scheme was striking, and helped convey the somewhat poignant mood I was aiming for.

That was last year, in 2012. Now it’s 2013, and it’s experiment time again. My current studio at the School of Craft doesn’t yet have a raku kiln, although I am working on building one. But up until the kiln is completed (and it gets a little more seasonable to stand outside to do it!) I wanted to figure out an alternate finish for my pieces that I could do in our electric kiln.

And that, ladies and gentleman, brings me to the title of the post: sgraffito! To sgraffito, you must cover your work in colored slip or underglaze, then carve through that painted layer to make your design. If you use black underglaze on white clay, you get a striking, graphic look, much like a linoleum block print. I learned how to sgraffito as an undergraduate, but I never really thought much of it until I took at workshop at Arrowmont in 2007 with the Sgraffito Queen herself, Kathy King. That was my first Arrowmont experience, and was it ever amazing! Kathy was a really fun and energetic instructor, and the group we had in the class was very easygoing as well. Kathy kept the atmosphere good-humored and fast paced, giving us all room to experiment and even goof off a little. She even gave us hand-drawn handouts of her glaze recipes and techniques, which I still consult to this day. Thanks, Kathy!!!

Kathy’s work uses imagery inspired by indie comics, pinup girls, and other forms of pop culture to give her often satirical take on the experience of the modern woman. Her work is often hilarious, sometimes poignant, never apologetic. One that particularly sticks in my mind is her hilarious take on cramps: showing a despondent looking egg dressed in a suit and briefcase, being chased away by devils with pitchforks yelling, “you’re not wanted here!” Here is one of her stacked vessels, “Home Flower Vase.”

I love the movement created by the small carving marks that make up the background of the piece. To see more of Kathy’s work, visit her website. FYI, for interested parties, Kathy is teaching a workshop on these stacked vessels at Arrowmont this summer! I noticed this when I was scoping the schedule, considering applying for a summer internship again this year. Here’s more information on the class.

That same year I took Kathy’s workshop, I also had the opportunity to go to NCECA with ceramics club at Truman State. (NCECA is a giant annual conference for ceramics people, clay heaven basically.) There I was introduced to the lovely work of Karen Newgard. Karen is also a sgraffito artist, currently living and working in Asheville, NC. Her work is inspired by her family home, patterning in nature, and Southern Folk Art. I love all of Karen’s work, but especially her jars. Here are two delicious examples:

“Tall Bird Jars”

“Botanical Jar”

To see more, visit Karen’s website. She has a particularly interesting section called “Pottery Process,” showing a step-by-step creation of her work. By now you all know how much I love process photos!!

So get ready, people. I plan to go sgraffito crazy until I get this raku kiln up and running. So far I have already busted one very well loved carving stylus in this experiment and the second one is on its last legs. Don’t worry, though, there are more tools on the way (thanks, mom!) I am also taking lots of photos for you so as soon as experiment #1 gets through the kiln, you can expect to hear all about it! For now, here is a little sneak peek:

Until next time!