From The Journal of Modern Craft, Vol 3 Issue 3 Nov 2010
Special Issue, ‘Tools of Trades: Articulating Sculpture Practice”
Guest edited by Jon Wood and Jyrki Siukonen
In this article, artist Cecile Johnson Soliz writes about the complexities of using clay, both in her studio and during her experience of working with clay workers at Red Bank Manufacturing for her project, ‘Skyline’. Tools for making art are of special interest to Johnson Soliz, especially when the very tools she needs do not exist…or do they?
For some years, I have used tools to make sculptures in both studio and factory environments. Each workplace has its own potential, and each has enabled me to make different kinds of work. I have also taken photographs since 1980. I carry a camera – another tool – around with me and record things I see. These experiences in my own studio, in factories and in the world at large have all informed the approach I take to making and teaching art.
In the studio environment, many of the tools I have used are particular to clay. Clay is heavy, especially when wet. It requires you to be very physical, and to take a certain push-and-shove approach from time to time. It is shapeless, it offers no direction and it has no edges. It can seem dumb, formless. It takes shape from what it sits on or next to. When it is a lump, it stays still. It does not fall off a table if you bump into it, like a piece of timber would. If you want to move it you need muscle or equipment, or both. Wet, gray and unformed lumps of clay, whether just extruded as an awkward mass on a pallet or wrapped in a thick, store-bought plastic bag are given form and given shape. This is where tools come into it.
When I first started to use clay, I bought whatever specialist tools I could find, and over time I learned to use them. From this I understood that specialist tools were only as good as I was at using them: no tool would, “do the job” for me, but having the right tool would enable me to realize my intentions more exactly than not. There is also the related question of “skill”: whether one chooses to use it or not. I struggled with this for years after someone told me I was getting ‘too good’ at making things. One does not have to use skill if one has it, but in my view, having the choice gives me the freedom to decide. Like many artists, makers and hobbyists I invented tools because they did not exist. These were either for a particular task or for me, in particular, as a maker. For example, I made profiles that would make a particular shape or I made a tool because it fit my hand better than a standard one, like a modeling knife. If I was to use it everyday, I wanted it to become unnoticeable so I could concentrate on what I was doing rather than it.
I adapted tools, too, to make them particular to my needs. I made a sculpture that was a clay jug and wanted to pierce the entire surface in holes. There are tools that are manufactured to cut holes in clay, but the standard sizes are never particular enough for making art. So I made a “hole-maker” – a plasterboard nail attached to a handle. I pierced the pot at regular intervals to make a pattern that appeared from a distance like surface decoration, but rendering the object unusable. Among my tools now is a whole category of hole-makers, made from things like unwound paper clips, shortened knitting needles, or nails (oval or round). Larger hole-makers can be made from spoons or kitchen knives with their edges ground down or sharpened to make a clean cut. From these early attempts at using and making tools, I began to appreciate artists and other makers who invent tools that bridge thought with the material world in a way that our hands cannot.
During the “’Skyline” project at Red Bank Manufacturing Company between 1998 and 1999, I worked in a building the size of an aircraft hanger. Clay arrived by the ton on pallets covered in polythene. I would look down from the top floor to the ground floor pug mill area and request clay from the workers. “How many pallets?” they would shout back. A forklift truck would arrive and set each pallet down by my workbench. There were 400 men and two women working there. I was one of them.
I worked in the Special Department with architectural “clay workers” (they preferred this job description to “craftsmen” or “ceramicists”). These men followed in the footsteps of their parents and grandparents, working with clay from an early age. The choice they had was either “coal miner or clay worker” they told me. Clay workers made architectural ceramics by commission to replace broken pieces from private and public buildings throughout the country. They also produced dozens of chimney pots, finials and other architectural clay objects that were transported each week across the country and abroad. Each week they were given a list of objects to be made and each object had its given time allocation. If the list could be completed early, then the end of the week would be less hurried. The work was hard and every effort was made to save time and energy.
The clay workers used many tools, including molds, to do their work. They made tools from anything. If needed, there was a resident carpenter whose skills might be employed in exchange for Mars Bars, but everyone learned to have a go at improving a tool or way of making an object. Butter knives disappeared from their kitchens at home to end up, for example, as a tool for smoothing off finials. Yet a good tool was meant to last for life. It was unheard of to borrow or take someone else’s tools – they were irreplaceable, and great pride was taken in having a good collection of them.
After seeing a traditional “Captain Pot” at Red Bank, I became interested in the iconographic potential of the spiral. Practically speaking these spirals guide wind up and rain down a chimney’s shaft. Visually, they guide the eye up and down the profiles’ patterns and play with the space in between the pots. I thus developed a series of wooden profiles incorporating architectural features such as stairs, chimneystacks, roof frames, doors and other geometric shapes. My spirals, it seemed, protruded much further than in any previous chimney pots and there was much discussion about my designs and tools – about whether they would stand up with so much additional weight packed on to them. Would the spirals peel off when fired in the kiln? Could they be lifted when wet? One of the first “tall” pots I made, which was six foot tall and nearly three foot in profile, was so heavy that when my coworkers tried to lift it, it toppled over and was returned to its original, formless state within seconds. The clay workers were surprised that the weight of these additional spirals made the daily task of moving a tall pot from one place to another so challenging and unfamiliar.
The profile tools, pieces of hard wood made to fit my hand and shaped mainly from scraps, were all experiments: Some designs worked and some failed. At the early stages of the project I returned to the Sculpture Department at Cardiff School of Art and Design and used the computer-engineering program “Form Z” to visualize the profiles on the pots before heavy labor began. I was nervous about turning up to a factory full of men and not knowing what I was going to do. I liked the idea that I would save myself hard physical work to figure it out, but things didn’t work out that way. With the program I could draw the profiles, place any number of them onto a shaft, push a button and watch each one wrap around the shaft to create an image of the pot as it would be when made. After hours of learning the program I gained some skill in using it and made numerous line drawings that I used to document the pot types that I made. While it was seductive to watch the pots emerge on screen, the labor involved to draw them and the way the process was organized by the computer program itself didn’t allow me to learn how to think visually and spatially about what I was doing physically (with the clay). I had thought the computer could be a useful tool and wanted to explore the relation of the Form Z program to the simpler, more direct processes of drawing and making, but in the end I sketched profile shapes by hand and faxed them to a helper in Cardiff who then made them on a bandsaw and sander and posted them back. As for the actual A4 computer drawings, most of them ended up being folded and turned into templates to draw the diagonals on the pot shafts upon which I would laboriously pack the clay to build up the profiles.
There were days of to-ing and fro-ing from workbench to pot: picking the profiles up and putting them down, dipping them in water to slide them across the clay, watching the clay fill the profile, pulling the excess clay off and pressing the bulk of it into shape. After each experiment, I wrapped the pot in order to regulate the moisture in and around it-letting it into the atmosphere in a controlled way, so the profile would stick well enough to the shaft and dry with it at the same speed. Economy of time and materials are important in the factory; every object with its allocated time for making made my uncertainty appear as a luxury. The notion that I could spend days experimenting with tools and designs was inconceivable to my coworkers.
One last thing that caught my attention was how clay workers were each given a letter or number that they stamped into each object they made. This enables work to be traced back to them in case of faults, whether a single one or many. The name of the worker is never seen, and one of his tools is his stamp, which he uses to sign his engagement with the process of making. At Red Bank, even though objects and material had names, it didn’t mean you had to use them for what they were called – anything went – even better if it entertained. We bantered endlessly about this, about what I was making. Were they chimney pots? Sculptures? A hybrid? One day, Pete, one of the very inventive clay workers, walked across the huge floor and propped himself on my workbench and said, “What you are making is a sculpture that looks like a chimney pot that will be used as an umbrella stand,” and walked away.
When and how do things get names and how useful are they really? In the spaces of studio and factory when faced with inventing tools to give shape to half-formed thoughts, sometimes words don’t help. Words are afterthoughts. They can be used after the creative process is competed but not always during the process. Have you ever lost touch with words and names after a long period in the studio? I have. And it is the experience of losing touch with words that reminds me of the primary role played by tools and tooling in the making of sculpture.
Cecile Johnson Soliz