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ARTISANS : Each Set of Hands Coaxes Clay Out of Ceramics Mold

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It begins the same. A lump of clay, mixed with water. For ceramic artists, the challenge is to make that clay take form, whether it’s a bowl, vase or functional object. Yet despite the fact that these artists start with the same basic material, the end result is often surprisingly different.

Ceramics is one of the oldest and most enduring of art forms; pieces are among some of the earliest artifacts discovered. And despite advances in technology and quality of materials, many of the same ancient skills are needed to create modern pieces. “Throwing” a pot by guiding wet clay over a spinning wheel employs the same techniques used in ancient times. After the pot is thrown or designed, it is fired in a kiln and decorated as the artist chooses. Frequently, a piece may be fired several times.

The following artists, whose works are on exhibit through the end of August at the Sawdust Festival in Laguna Beach, consider ceramics their primary medium. Each uses different methods to achieve their distinctive looks.

Rocket Fuel and More

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Barbara Schuppe of Laguna Beach grew up in a household filled with art and lots of craft projects. Her mother, who is also an artist, encouraged her daughter’s creative interests by keeping their home well-stocked with paints, pencils, and other tools of the trade. Although trained as a painter, Schuppe always loved the “physicality” of ceramics.

“I earned my master’s of fine arts degree at Cal State Long Beach,” she said. “While my education is very valuable, I think I’ve learned a great deal on my own by experimenting and trying new ideas.”

Schuppe’s work combines her love of ceramics with painting. Her fanciful creations include bowls, platters, oversize coffee mugs, teapots and tiles featuring brightly colored rockets, cherries and other fruit (reminiscent of styles of the ‘30s and ‘40s), and numerous references to one of America’s favorite beverages: coffee.

For 17 years, she has created her pieces, working from her home studio and gathering ideas from customers.

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One of her most popular creations is a large coffee mug depicting a blasting rocket. The notation, “Rocket Fuel,” is painted along the rim. The idea came from a customer request.

“Several years ago, a woman stopped by my booth and asked if I’d paint the words rocket fuel on her coffee mug. She said that all her friends called her coffee ‘rocket fuel’ because she made it so strong,” Schuppe said. “With the recent proliferation of coffee shops, those mugs are among my most popular items. And for some reason, the rocket fuel theme seems to delight people.”

Many of her creations, including her teapots, feature the fiery red rockets.

To create her pieces, Schuppe uses a low-fire technique so that the colors remain bright. At low-fire temperatures, the kiln is heated to about 1,850 degrees, as opposed to high-fire temperatures where the heat can reach 2,400 degrees.

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“When you fire ceramics at high heat levels, you lose the vivid colors. I think the brightness of my work is what attracts people,” she said. In more recent years, she has made molds of some of the most frequently requested pieces so that she can create them more easily.

“Working with earthenware is a little like trying to throw peanut butter,” she said. “It can be very time-consuming to get an exact, even fit. By making my own molds, I can slip-cast a piece and still achieve the look that I want. Also throwing clay is physically difficult, especially with large pieces that can get very heavy.”

Once the piece has been cast, it is fired and afterward Schuppe goes about painting one of her designs on it and fires it again. Then the piece is glazed and fired one last time.

So far, by listening to those who enjoy her work and trusting her gut feelings, she has managed to support herself with her art.

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Her oversize mugs run about $22, teapots are in the $90 range, and bowls and platters sell between $45 and $90.

“Most people don’t get rich doing what I do,” she said. “But for me, this is a great life because while the work is challenging, it’s also a lot of fun. I couldn’t keep up with it if I didn’t enjoy it.”

Combustible Finish

Eddie and Patti Kaplan, also of Laguna Beach, got their start in ceramic art almost by accident.

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“Actually, my background is in music,” Patti said. “But in 1973 when my children were young, I decided to stop playing in my band. A neighbor convinced me to sign up for a ceramics class. It sounded like fun, so I did.”

Eddie, in the meantime, was working as a sculptor with no experience in ceramics. One day Patti decided to show him how to throw clay on a wheel.

“It took me quite a while to learn how to do it, while Eddie was just a natural,” she said. “It took him no time at all to learn how to throw pieces that were better than mine.”

Before long, Eddie’s sculpting gave way to ceramics. The Kaplans began looking for new ways to distinguish their pieces. That’s when they discovered the Japanese art of Raku.

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Raku is actually an old ceramic form that has recently regained popularity. Usually fired at a lower heat level, the piece is taken while still hot and placed in a barrel or container with combustible materials such as wood shavings, newspaper, plants and different grasses. Because the ceramic piece is still so hot, it ignites the combustible materials. Depending on what part of the ceramic surface touches the plants or paper, different patterns and color can emerge.

The Kaplans do, however, create intricate mosaic-looking designs in their pieces by applying tape to certain sections. This enables them to create different lines and patterns and to apply different colored glazes, often in shades of turquoise, rose, black and white.

“The taping is very time-intensive and then we have to remove it with a special scraper,” said Patti. “If we scratch it, or the line is uneven, we won’t sell it. It has to be perfect.”

Once the tape has been removed, the piece is fired again, melting the glaze so it adheres to the ceramic. The piece is then carefully removed from the burning kiln and placed in a barrel and “smoked.” Upon removal from the barrel, it is cooled, cleaned and burnished.

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While Eddie is primarily responsible for throwing the pieces, Patti adds the embellishments, which may include leather, semiprecious stones such as turquoise and amethyst, feathers and other natural objects.

Raku pieces with their precise designs are more labor-intensive and tend to cost more than other types of ceramics. A 22-inch platter, hand-painted with five different colors, is priced at $450.

Realizing that not everyone can afford these prices, the Kaplans also offer other pieces, including ceramic vases, bowls, jars and incense burners that have been airbrushed or glazed in more traditional methods so that costs can be kept down.

But Eddie’s true love is Raku.

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“If I could do anything, it would be Raku,” he said. “To me the fun is to create a piece and see how beautiful it looks. Sometimes I feel like I’m part chemist, trying to figure out what’s going to work best. When I succeed, it makes me feel great.”

Fired in the Fire

Robert Jones of Laguna Beach was first introduced to ceramics through an art class at Laguna Beach High School. After graduating from UC Santa Barbara in 1990 with degrees in both art and geography, he decided to see if he could sell some of his ceramic pieces. He started exhibiting at the Sawdust Festival in 1991.

“I enjoy the whole process,” he said. “I enjoy taking clay and making it conform to a shape or a pattern. For me, that’s very gratifying. Having the chance to exhibit with the Sawdust Festival artists whose work I admire has been very exciting. I can learn a great deal from them and it’s helped me in my own work.”

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Jones is among the artists who lost their work in the Laguna Beach fire last October. His entire studio burned to the ground and many of the ceramic pieces in progress were destroyed. Returning to his studio to assess the damage, he discovered that several of his pieces had been “naturally fired” during the blaze. His collection of “Laguna Fire” art is on display at the Sawdust Festival. Splattered with flashes of black, orange, red and purple, most of the “Laguna Fire Art” pieces are priced between $5 and $40.

“I estimate that I lost about 500 finished pieces in the fire,” said Jones. “Then I found some of the pieces, buried under about two feet of ash and rubble. They’re pretty fragile but interesting looking.”

Some pieces were covered with glass and metal shards that actually adhered to the glaze.

“Many others lost even more than I did. I’m still able to produce my work and the fire art has attracted a bit of attention.

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“It was also very gratifying to see how this community stuck together. Everyone was helping each other out. We were borrowing other people’s studios and kilns to try to replace what we had lost.”

Jones’ primary pieces consist of contemporary, functional stoneware including pitchers, bowls, candlesticks, mugs and masks. Most cost between $8 and $25.

“I usually produce about 1,500 pieces a year to prepare for the Sawdust Festival,” he said. “It’s the only place where I exhibit my work.”

While tending to favor solid, primary colors, he has recently begun experimenting with one-of-a-kind pieces that allow him more artistic expression, such as naturally firing pieces in bonfires.

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“I have a new kiln now and I’m working on some new ideas,” he said. “I’m trying new techniques and experimenting to see what different kind of effects I can make.”


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