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Exceptional Embellishments: Liz Smith’s Lovely Layered Pottery

Ever since first learning it in an art history class her first year of college, Liz Smith has loved the term horror vacui – the fear of empty space. While she appreciates the Modernist phrase “less is more,” it is rich ornamentation and pattern that excites her in her own studio.


In today’s post, and excerpt from the February 2013 issue of Ceramics Monthly, Liz shares some of her techniques for creating elegant pots with complex layered surfaces. – Jennifer Harnetty, editor.



From the moment I first heard it, looking at the Lindesfarne Gospels in my freshman year art history survey course, I have loved the term horror vacui—the fear of empty space. I still smile when I repeat it in my mind. The Modernist phrase “less is more” has never comforted my soul. While I can appreciate visual restraint, rich ornamentation, complex pattern, and dizzying color combinations leave me feeling visually satiated. In my home I have work by artists that would fit into both categories, from the most perfectly thrown simple form to pieces so over-the-top they look like they are buckling under the weight of so much glaze! I love both, but in my studio I am drawn toward applying layered surface treatments on functional forms as I attempt to achieve the complexity I see in my mind’s eye. Creating a successful three-dimensional form while maintaining the functionality of the object and applying surfaces that both reiterate the form and break it up—while considering the visual and tactile experience of the pots in use—is exciting and endlessly challenging.


Like so many makers, I have many influences. These include lectures on art, one in particular by Leopold Foulem at the 2002 NCECA titled “Surface as Surface as Surface;” a thoughtful essay on the complexity of combining form and surface; European porcelains of the 19th century, from the tactility of Wedgwood to the colorful patterning of Sèvres; the textiles of Somalia; and the Egungun masquerade costumes from the Youruba people of West Africa, which I admire for their complex pattern combinations and the artists’ inherent need to create beauty and meaning through function.



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Of course, in my studio, I don’t really think about all of these things. I would never get anything made and would be paralyzed by confusion. I only think of them this literally, all at once, when I am asked to write them down or give an artist’s talk. However, once a piece is completed, the entirety of these influential experiences and interests are the things I check the work against to determine if it is successful.


I don’t speak a second language fluently, but I assume it is an experience similar to making artwork. I have been told fluent speakers don’t translate their words to their native language as they speak. Instead they are able to speak clearly because of their learned experience and practice with the language. Of course, with any language, poor choices happen and mistakes are made. In my studio I have enough successful work to keep me inspired, and enough failures to keep me feeling challenged. In the end, I love making, practicing, and experimenting more than I love perfection.



Click to enlarge!

Shaping the Form, Segmenting the Surface


It’s the negative spaces created by the various attachments on vessel forms that interest me. When thinking about the initial form, separate from the surface, the Chiwara headdresses created by the Bamana people of Mali are a primary influence for me. I studied African art history as an undergraduate student at Skidmore College and was fortunate enough to go to West Africa and then intern at the National Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C. To this day, the Chiwara headdresses stand out in my mind as some of the most masterfully designed objects in the world of art. I aspire to the clean and dynamic negative space and gracefully contained energy that these objects possess.


I work in series of four to six pieces that are iterations of preliminary gestural sketches and begin each piece on the wheel. I start with the body, then the handles and spouts are cut and shaped from a slab rolled between two square dowels, and finally the feet are formed and cut from a sprig mold. After using a cut paper template to trace out a decorative pattern on the bottom, I trim away some of the surface to create the shape in low relief using a small loop tool, then refine the edges of that carved shape with a rubber-tipped tool (1). The lines, echoed in a low-relief shape, are carved using a small loop tool on the neck of the pitcher. (2). I also cut the flat, top edge of the neck into a more curvilinear finish using an X-Acto knife and a paper template. Finally, I use a rubber-tipped clean-up tool to refine the edge of the shape carved into the neck of the piece to complete the vessel form (3).


Layering on the Surface


After the form is constructed, I apply surface treatments at every stage of making. I think it may be my fear of the proverbial blank canvas. I can imagine almost nothing more daunting than looking at a table full of blank bisqueware without marking or color. To avoid having to make all of the right decisions with glaze at the end, I carve, sprig, slip trail, resist, and underglaze prior to bisque firing.


I begin the decorating process by laying a vinyl-cut template onto the leather-hard pitcher, and burnish it with the rounded edge of a wooden tool (4). I brush a slip over the vinyl template pattern (5), then I peel the template off the surface while the slip is still damp (6).


I apply a colored slip to the bottom of the form using a small slip trailer (7). After applying the slip trailed decoration, I make a few sprigs using press molds (8), which I further carve and refine for additional detail and then apply to the neck of the pitcher. For the final pre-bisque decoration, I carve a linear pattern through sections of the slip decoration on the body (9).



For more interesting ceramic decorating techniques, download your free copy of Five Great Pottery Decorating Techniques: A How-to Guide for Decorating Ceramics with Slip Transfers, Chinese Brush Techniques, Ceramic Slip, Sgraffito, and More.