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

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