Thursday, February 21, 2013

Layers of Clay

The Art of Martha Castillo

Martha Castillo isn't afraid to get her hands dirty. She's not afraid of clutter and mess. She's not afraid of chance and serendipity. She's not afraid to use a medium that (almost) nobody ever heard of. And she's not afraid to make art while being observed or even video recorded.

Martha makes clay prints, a wholly new idea to me. She demonstrated and explained the entire process when I visited her recently; it took over an hour to pull one demonstration print, and that was a rush job.

In the center of a studio bulging with art supplies and tools, Martha has a large work table, perhaps three feet by four feet. When I arrived, it was covered with wet towels and black plastic. Martha eagerly removed the towels to reveal the "slab" that forms the basis of her work; it could be compared to the metal plate in a traditional printing process. The slab starts with a quarter inch layer of potter's clay, rolled flat and kept damp so that it has a leather-like texture. The printing medium is slip, or thinned-down potter's clay of a fine, white type that can be colored with pigments. She doesn't clean the slab between projects, so remnants of each project add thin layers of clay to the slab. All this clay sticks together to form a flat surface because the printing process uses a lot of pressure and evenly controlled drying.

The first step in making a clay print is to apply liquid clay in various colors to the slab. She might paint one area with a broad brush, forming a layer to be marked. She might shape an area of color by gouging a line into the slab. Torn strips of paper can be used as a stencil to create a straight line. The next step is to make marks in the broad areas of color. She might use traditional potters' loop tools or she might adapt some kitchen tool, like a rolling pasta cutter.

Martha creates abstract works and uses a spontaneous approach; each move suggests another. Sometimes she likes the resulting composition; sometimes it feels like a failed experiment. However, the same process could be used for planned abstractions or for more representational images; using pre-cut stencils gives the artist greater control of the end result.

The part of the process that requires the most patience and finesse is drying and flattening the liquid clay. Every time slip is applied, it must be blotted with newsprint; Martha uses a pizza roller to press the moisture evenly into the clay base, as well as to smooth the surface. Blotting and rolling seem to be the most time-consuming tasks.

At a mysterious point that only the artist can recognize, the image-making phase was finished, and Martha began to prepare to pull the print. To my surprise, she used only a portion of the clay-covered surface, framing it with dry-wall tape. She prints on a non-woven polyester fabric called Reemay because clay adheres to it better than to paper. Instead of a mechanical press, Martha uses her trusty pizza roller to apply pressure, frequently stopping to peel back the fabric and check the print. Both the fabric and the clay have to be slightly damp, so she sprays them with repeatedly water. The print that resulted from the demo she gave me was quite pretty, and she decided to keep it. Later she will apply a home-made varnish to bring out the colors.

Martha learned this somewhat counter-intuitive process from an artist named Mitch Lyons, who developed it and teaches workshops in the technique all around the world. She has taken several workshops from him, following his progress as he experimented with different materials and techniques. Now she teaches workshops in clay printing as well.

Martha came to clay printing rather late in her career, after trying nearly every known form of visual art. She had worked with clay, making hand-built containers in organic shapes. She had worked with collage, a medium which uses layers of images to create a design. Layered images are a major fascination for Martha because they express life's complexity. It's no wonder she was attracted to clay printing, where each image is affected by all the previous images.

Rather than try to turn her hard-working studio into a show-room, Martha will be showing her work at Gallery House during one week-end and with a group in another artist's studio another week-end.

Martha's studio with the slab still covered
Photo from Jan's iPad
One of Martha's clay prints and shelf with printing supplies
Photo from Jan's iPad
A clay print in the hall
Photo from Jan's iPad

Martha's website: Clayprint Studios

All that Jazz from Martha's website

Ice on the Pond from Martha's website

When Pigs Fly

The Art of Jaki Ernst

Just to describe the type of artwork that Jaki Ernst makes is a challenge because it is so complicated and unusual. Talented in both fine and graphic art, as well as literary composition,  Jaki tends to devise projects that combine all these skills. Let's look at some of her current projects.

When I arrived at her studio for our interview, she was working on "Birdie Banners." Each consists of a pair of three-dimensional folded paper birds that hold between them a garland of banners printed with a message. She first paints authentic images of birds based on photos, then prints copies of the paintings and adheres the images to stiff paper, and finally cuts the birds out and folds them into origami-like shapes. Some give usual greetings, like "Happy Birthday," but others use clever puns, like "Home Tweet Home."

Jaki originally conceived this idea as decoration for her own bathroom, but she quickly realized that "birds with a message" was applicable in a variety of situations, that it would be attractive to a lot of people, and that it could be reproduced as a marketable product. You can request particular birds and/or messages to celebrate special occasions.

She was eager to wrap up the current phase of "Birdie Banners" so that she could get back to a one-of-a kind book she will exhibit at an important show of artist books coming up in April in Ashland, Oregon. The new book is a sculptural type known as a star book, which consists of five illustrated and folded multi-layer panels. As you open each page, a dimensional scene unfolds. If you unfold all five panels, with their edges pointed inward, the pages form a star. Jaki showed me a copy of a Puss and Boots star book that she was given as a child; by studying it and others, she learned to make one herself. Each panel of her current star book will feature a city in Rome, inspired by her travels there. The result will be craft raised to rare art, the type of thing sought after by collectors and museums.

Much of Jaki's output consists of amazing adaptations of the book form. A little research that she did on finials (round knobs at the end of staircases) produced a "book" with wood covers, each bearing one half of a real finial, and folded cloth pages that are printed with images and definitions of types of finials. A desire to make a memory book for her mother generated a book with padded cloth pages that have lovely and fanciful illustrations on one side and letters from her mother's friends on the other; that became the prototype for a larger cloth book illustrating a story that Jaki wrote. A whimsical sense of humor generated blank personal record books with covers made of vinyl long-playing records, shaped and punched; the customer can chose the LPs.

Jaki's research-y side is manifested in a paper-bound quarterly publication called Wingin' It. Each issue features one focus of her curiosity, from penmanship to perfume. Jaki writes up her findings and illustrates them with copyright-free pick-up art, forming a publication that looks like an historical artifact.

Jaki shows these works and a profusion of others using similar techniques in a studio behind her home called "Pig Wings and Promises." Therein lies a story. In fact, in her art and in her conversation, Jaki is all about story. You know the expression "When pigs fly"? It's a way of saying that something will never happen. It was a favorite expression of Jaki's husband, Ken Holly, when they first started dating. When Ken asked her to marry him, it seemed so impossible to fit marriage into her busy life that she responded humorously, "When pigs fly." Ken persisted, however, and when he won her over, it seemed like they were making something impossible happen. After they were married, Jaki stopped her advertising agency and backed away from her fine art embroidery projects, and the couple concentrated their mutual efforts on book forms. Jaki writes, illustrates, and designs them; Ken assembles them, using both traditional and innovative hand-craft techniques; Ken also does the computer work.

"Pig Wings and Promises" is a good metaphor for Jaki's work in my mind because it seems impossible to me that anyone would have the talent or the persistence to make such painstaking and labor-intensive projects. Even her ostensibly commercial products have the hard-won quality of hand craftsmanship. If you're a fan of craft-as-art, you'll find a lot to like in Jaki's showroom. If you're a novice like me, this is a good place to start because Jaki combines so many types of craft to make art.

Birdie Banners can be adapted for different occasions
Photo from Jan's iPad

Jaki's work table
Photo from Jan's iPad

Is it a book or a sculpture?
Photo from Jan's iPad
Jaki's website: Pig Wings and Promises

Sample Book Form from Jaki's website