Paperclay Sculpture with Ian Gregory
By Joyce Michaud (Clay Times
U.S.A Sept / Oct 1999).
Dozens of participants recently gathered in the clay studios at Hood College, Frederick, MD, to witness the spontaneous sculptural work of Ian Gregory and learn the magic of the paperclay technique. Gregory arrived for his demonstration with only three small tools: a wooden modelling stick, a broken saw blade sharpened into a knife and a felt-tip pen, lid intact. With a small square of 2" styrofoam, a bit of newspaper, a sheet of 1/4" bubble wrap and several braising rods placed at critical angles, Gregory's figures emerged with life and character.
"Ian chooses clay and the 'battlefield of the elements of earth, fire and water' as his medium to illustrate, where others may have chosen paper and paint." Writes his friend Phil Rogers. "Gregory is merely allowing us the privilege to have sight of his own personal vision of scenes conjured from whatever sources that intrigue and amuse him."
As his hands moved, intuitively adding clay and then cutting it away with fluid strokes, Gregory discussed the need for parallel development of expressive form and the making process, and presented in-depth information with an ease of knowledge as fluid as his strokes.
One of three independent inventors of paperclay, Gregory began using paper in his clay to lighten up his sculptures and open the clay body. "The simplest thing is to take the clay you normally use, gather all the scraps lying around and put them in a bucket of water, let it break down, and mix it to porridge consistency. Use three or four buckets of the clay slurry and a bucket of paper pulp and water blunged and drained until it is the consistency of bread dough. Combine it all together and thoroughly mix it, then let the paperclay mixture dry on a plaster slab to a working consistency," Gregory says.
Twenty-five percent pulp is the maximum amount that should be used. The least amount Gregory uses is about five percent. The amount of paper pulp added to the clay is dependent on the project. When the paperclay is well mixed, the openings created by the paper pulp are evenly distributed throughout the clay and remain after the firing to make the clay lighter.
The paper's molecular structure consists of tiny tubes that transport moisture from surface to surface. The tubes slowly feed moisture through the clay just like drinking straws and allow it to dry evenly. Paperclay handles and fires just the same as clay to which the pulp has not been added. The tiny molecular structure of the paper pulp does not interfere with the structure of the clay, but offers incredible flexibility in working. "You can take a handful of wet paperclay, add it to the surface of a huge bone-dry sculpture made from paperclay and the two will bind, balance the moisture content and be joined successfully. Or if after biscuit (bisque) firing break of an ear, just make a new ear from a fresh piece of paperclay stick on the bisqued work, bisque fire it again, and there it is," says Gregory.
If you leave paperclay more than two weeks, the structure of the paper (cellulose) begins to rot, turning the clay black. Once the pulp begins to rot, it loses the quality that makes it paperclay: the tubes are broken down and the paperclay becomes clay with a rather smelly internal gunk. If you want to keep a batch of paperclay wet and usable for about a month, add a spoonful of mild disinfectant similar to that used to disinfect diaper pails when you mix the clay (but do not use bleach). A better way is to prevent the disintegration of the paper pulp by rolling the paperclay out into slabs and leaving it to dry out completely. Once dry, the cellular structure doesn't break down, doesn't rot and doesn't develop an odour.
When you are ready to use the paperclay, lay a wet towel on the table, lay the dry sheet of paperclay over it, and leave it. The tubular structure in the paperclay will absorb the water slowly and gently. Within five or ten minutes, the clay is perfectly plastic and can be used as it is or wedged and worked as before. Just tear off what you need and start building.
Some common sources for paper pulp to use for experimenting are egg cartons, fast food cup holders, the padding of postal envelopes and even toilet paper. You can also buy in bails from paper suppliers and now some clay suppliers stock it, too. Pyramid Atlantic, a paper making studio in Beltsville, MD, sells blunged pulp. A bail of paper pulp can be used to make a half-ton of paperclay, making this medium fairly inexpensive.
During the workshop, Gregory demonstrated his use of bubblewrap as an armature for reclining dogs and small animals, which come alive in gesture and form under his skilled hands. First, he rolled a loose sausage shape of bubble wrap and secured it with a bit of masking tape. He then covered the bubble wrap completely with a slab of clay, sealing any openings. The internal armature of bubble wrap remains totally inert and completely stable as clay is formed, manipulated and details added. Because the bubble wrap does not absorb moisture (like wads of paper and other fillers), the clay form remains moist and workable over a period of time.
"To change the internal structure or reduce the volume, stab the bubbles with a needle, compress the clay and make desired changes. When the form is complete, allow the sculpture to dry in the usual manner. As the clay shrinks the bubbles pop or have enough plasticity that the shrinkage is taken up and the clay does not crack. I have never had any cracks with this method," Gregory stated emphatically.
Metal or wooden armatures can also be covered with bubble wrap to cushion clay shrinkage. Gregory uses one quarter inch square aluminium wire wrapped in bubble wrap to make armatures for his life-sized dogs which are made from a sculptor clay / paperclay with a high grog content. The aluminium wire or wood armature and bubble wrap burn out during firing, and the paperclay makes full-sized dogs light enough for one person to carry away.
Gregory captures the essence of personality and expression with his sculpted animals and vivacious figures. Using his braising rod armature he sculpted an animated dog and strutting figure on a structural base composed of a block of two inch styrofoam, a sheet of newspaper, a thin slab of clay, and another sheet of newspaper on top. The sheet of clay (called a setter by the English) remains under the animal or figure throughout the drying and firing process, and facilitates drying and shrinkage. It is a barrier between the kiln shelf and the sculpture, which shrinks at the same rate as the sculpture to prevent distortion during firing. It also acts as a barrier for runny glazes, especially in the salt kiln.
Gregory pierced through the whole lot with his metal braising rods (available from hardware stores) placed at critical angles. The thin-but-strong metal rods serve as an easily removable armature around which the form is built. The styrofoam block serves as an anchor to hold the rods in place at various angles. The rods also keep the clay in place, preventing the sagging which often occurs with the increasing weight of fluid clay. An 'X' produced by the angle of the rods creates an intersection which the clay cannot move past. If clay should begin to slump or slide down the rod in any area, the addition of a diagonal rod pushed through at a thirty degree angle will hold the clay above in place. Most armatures require one to stay within the confines of the original structure, but rods can actually be withdrawn and repositioned at any point in the making process, giving the artist complete structural control.
Gregory intuitively positions the rods at angles, in relationship to one another to determine the pose and define the posture of each individual animal or figure. The basic position of the supporting rods dictates the life of the moving figure: the point of balance, or the body language. To change the pose, he simply inserts a new rod at the proper angle, adding new clay and removing old clay. The leg is repositioned as needed by repositioning the rod. The figure must stand as a person would stand: on the point of balance.
Once the rods are in place, the clay is pinched onto the rods and the form is "skinned up" - putting a clay surface over the rods and connecting the upright structures with a clay bridge that becomes the belly, and then, torso. When the basic form of the piece is in place, Gregory adds an excess of clay with the basic idea of what shape it will take, then cuts away with a sharp knife to define form.
"Model makers add to build," says Gregory. "Most sculptors work by cutting back, looking for the planes and surfaces that define the form." Gregory does not create replications of animals or figures, but cuts back to the core, or the essence of movement. "It's about volume and ultimately how it behaves in its volume and how the light strikes the surface. Just as a good pot is about internal volume, and how interior and exterior forces make that volume, living quality is about the vivacity of muscle and bone pushing out against the outer surface, which imbue them with a sense of life and reality. Each piece must have its own life force."
Rods are removed when the piece is leather-hard. As the clay dries, the rods must be rotated to keep them free and prevent them sticking to the clay. Once the sculpture is strong enough to support itself, the rods should be rotated as they are withdrawn and the piece is allowed to dry. Holes are left when the rods are removed and can later be used to mount and secure the figure on a base for display in exactly the same position.
"The surfaces and tensions I search for, those that preoccupy my time are ambivalent, reflecting the passage of time, the material, the maker's hand in combination with the final metamorphosis of fire," says Gregory. His search continues as he moves to develop site-specific work, both domestic and monumental, using modular systems involving moving water, air and sound. His investigations continue as he explores raw dug local clays, making no concessions to refine the material - thus allowing the organic nature to enhance the surfaces and imbuing the object with a sense of place.
Sculpture and Paperclay - A hands on workshop with Ian Gregory
By Victoria Coulter (Clay Times
U.S.A March / April 2008).
"If it doesn't look alive, it isn't interesting. If you've introduced life into the pieces, you've achieved what you set out to do."
Sculptor Ian Gregory's expression was uncharacteristically serious as he explained what he hoped students would learn during his three day workshop. Students participated in Hood College's "Sculpture and Paperclay" workshop in Frederick, Maryland, ready to wield their cameras and notebooks as sponges to soak up the veritable waterfall of information and new ideas. Amid laughter and lectures, few expected to absorb philosophy along the with techniques for sculpture and the properties and use of paperclay. By the end of the class everyone's skill at infusing life into sculpture had increased exponentially. Creating good karma in sculpture involves a blend of suspending internal and external rules, fearlessness in trying new things, and taking the time to notice details.
In ceramics, as in any aspect of life, we tend to acquire a lot of rules. Rules tell us how a kiln should be fired; how thick a slab should be rolled; or how slowly a sculpture should be dried. Most of these rules are meant to help us accelerate the learning curve and avoid pitfalls. However, these rules can hem you in, not only blocking out other avenues of experimentation and problem solving, but also making you afraid to try new things without a guide. The very first hour of class, English ceramist Ian Gregory told students to ignore all the rules they have learned because rules are only meant as a guideline and there are always exceptions. Gregory answered questions about thickness or lengths with his own question: "How long is a piece of string?" Gregory wants students to understand that the solution depends on the project, and that everyone is capable of making decisions based on their knowledge and observation.
Ian Gregory constantly searches for new ways to solve old problems. His contribution to the use of paperclay defined conventional wisdom and opened up new areas of exploration. Paperclay, made by combining regular clay with paper pulp, has a unique structure. The paper fibers create a structure within the clay that constantly wicks water from wet areas to dry areas. Improbable actions become possible: a dry sculpture can be rewetted and worked on; a broken handle can be reattached to a bone dry or bisqued mug; and even a thick paperclay piece can be dried uniformly without cracks.
Ian Gregory's own introduction to clay was unsupervised by any experienced mind, with spectacularly catastrophic - and educational - results. He shared how he built his first kiln out of house bricks, packed the very large space full of store-bought terra cotta flowerpots, and fired it up. Two days later he had used up his pile of firewood and was uprooting and throwing in his fence to keep the fire going, but the kiln only emanated dull red heat. After a few pieces of house furniture were sacrificed to the cause, he finally admitted defeat. Needless to say, the pots were ruined. Undaunted, Gregory continued researching and experimenting and attained the experience necessary to build a kiln to suit any sculptural or logistical purpose, such as firing large sculpture on-site or being able to pack up and transport a kiln easily. He has even shown that it is possible to fire a kiln to cone 10 in a matter of minutes, rather than hours.
Gregory began the workshop by asking students to suspend all the rules they've ever learned for a reason: he says we must approach our work - or truly, life in general - with an open mind and observant eyes. Rules and preconceived expectations put filters on the information our senses supply, which in turn inhibits the karma in our creative work. Conventional rules surely would have prevented Gregory's initial mishap, but would also have limited the unrestricted problem solving that led to his invention of the myriad alternative kilns that are detailed in two of his four books - and robbed him of a great story!
To break workshop participants out of old habits, Gregory introduced short creative exercises. First, he had each participant create a small sculpture in five minutes. Second, the participants were instructed to close their eyes and create a sculpture again. They could feel the original but not look at it. The exercise was intended to encourage people to focus on surfaces and textures. The students were forced to notice what they touched, not what they saw. Informing the senses is a necessary requirement to infusing life into sculpture; unnoticed features cannot be incorporated to bring life to the form.
Workshop participants were split into two groups of about 14 people for the third exercise in the series. Each group took their assorted sculptures and created a tableau. The scene was to have a theme or idea behind it and the group was to name it. Collaborative conversation and laughter filled the room as the animal and human sculptures were arranged and rearranged. Each person offered a different perspective. The relationships in the arrangement of sculptures were seen in a variety of new ways as each peice was repositioned. Finally each team settled on a scene and a name, kept secret from the other team. Then the teams went to the other team's tableau and guessed its topic, giving it a name of their own. The correlation between the two names for each tableau illuminated how people read the stance and arrangement of figures. One scene featured a lone human figure sitting with his head down and knees drawn up, with a towering wall of animal figures curling around him, each animal staring at the human. The positioning and relationships between the animal and human sculptures led both teams to use the word "nightmare" in their title. Gregory noted that humans and animals communicate largely through body posture. As Gregory points out, "you know when a man in a pub is about to knock your lights out!"
A crucial element to these exercises, as well as Ian Gregory's own work, is experimentation, which many artists avoid because they are afraid of ruining work already completed. "That's why I work in multiples," he said. "You can twist and move things around, and suddenly you've found that you've found that you've made something that's empowered."
To demonstrate the benefits of experimenting, Gregory created a standing dog supported by metal rods through each leg and a dowel rod through the body. To alter the dog's posture, he simply repositioned the rods and the clay was repositioned with it. A hostile standing dog transformed into a crouching playful dog with the repositioning of two rods and a twist of the body. Gregory moved the rods frequently and the class watched, mesmerized, as the dog's stance and entire demeanor transformed. Gregory's sculptures often feature dogs, and he spends hours watching his own two dogs observing how body posture creates various gestures. He notices which cock of the head denotes confusion rather than interest and how a dog's muscles bunch when it's upset. He suspends what his mind knows about dogs - four legs, head, body, tail - and allows his eyes to soak up the nuances of body language.
When workshop participants tried their own hand at animal sculpture, Gregory instructed students to work out the body proportions before working on details. If you correctly proportioned the basic anatomy, Gregory maintains, the final sculpture will work and the artist can manipulate the body to play with gesture. Many participants struggled to achieve the sense of life that Gregory captures in his sculptures. When asked for help, Gregory studied the sculpture for a moment and then twisted the body somewhat, or moved a ros-supported leg, or tilted the head around, and the piece effortlessly sprang to life. The posture of the body was the source of the animation and energy of the sculpture.
During a figure study exercise, Gregory again instructed students to create a basic figure first before looking at the model. After the figures were roughed out, the model came in and figures were twisted, folded, and pinned into position. Gregory encouraged students to use the model to see how the body worked, how the parts are put together, and how the body consists of curves and negative spaces. Several times he insisted that students step back from their sculptures and simply look at them and the model before focusing on details. "We unconsciously communicate with and read body posture every day," Gregory observed. The trick in infusing a sculpture with life is to understand the stance and expression that indicates what the sculpture will emote: tension, fear, playfulness, ambivalence. Noticing and including these components helped students achieve what Ian hoped for: better karma!
Victoria Coulter graduated in 2006 from the University of Maryland with BS in Mechanical Engineering. She is completing the Graduate Certificate in Ceramic Arts at Hood College in September 2008.
Ian Gregory's Steps for Creating Paperclay
This easy method results in a 20% paperclay mixture. To decrease the percentage, simply wedge regular clay with the resulting paperclay.
1. Gather four buckets of clay slurry.
2. Fill one more bucket with paper pulp and add enough water to wet the pulp thoroughly. The water breaks down some of the fibers so that the paper can blend more uniformly with the clay.
3. Add the wet paper pulp to the buckets of slurry, squeezing the pulp to drain away excess water.
4. Mix using a drill and paint mixer attachment.
5. Dry the paperclay slurry on plaster until it is a workable consistancy.
6. Paperclay "Superglue" used for joining and repairing green ware or bisque ware - One or two cups of paperclayslip mixed with about half a teaspoon of sodium silicate. "Be careful where you put it, because once it's on it's there to stay!"