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Moments in Black and White
Maiju Altpere-Woodhead discusses idea, process and materialisation.

Article origianlly published in Ceramics Technical, Issue #20.

Crossing borders and making use of techniques from other mediums is by no means new to ceramics. This practice of borrowing has for centuries allowed makers to enrich their visual and technical vocabulary and achieve new and exciting aesthetic results. Whether used for commercial production or individual artistic expression, various methods of classical printmaking have been part of ceramics since the advent of printing itself.

I was first introduced to the possibilities of ceramic mono-printing through the work of Norwegian artist Ole Lislerud, who has used the technique to create monumental architectural artworks such as the central portal in the Oslo Courthouse and the façade of the Performing Arts Centre in Ålesund, Norway. While impressive in scale and technical mastery, it is the successful match between concept, aesthetic objectives and a technical process that has inspired me most about Lislerud’s work. During a student exchange to the National College of Art and Design in Oslo in 1997, I had an opportunity to study under his guidance and, among other things, learn the basic principles of this method. However, it was only in 2004, when I started working on the Moments in Black and White series and exploring issues around personal emotional responses to various environments, that I returned to the mono-printing technique.

Ever since moving to Australia from Estonia in the Northern Hemisphere in 1992, I have been intrigued by the ways recollections of other places influence and inform one’s relationship with present surrounds. As new impressions are embedded into the existing web of sentiment and experience, the boundaries between past and present, old and new become blurred. Familiarity is found or formed through elusive associations with occurrences from the past and these associations themselves change from context to context. Likewise, memories and meanings are created and re-created, arranged and re-arranged in a process with no finite beginning or end nor a set hierarchical order.

The Moments in Black and White series is a materialised reflection of personal meaning, making and memory processes. It consists of an open-ended number of small cylindrical mono-printed porcelain forms that can be assembled randomly or selectively, separating and banding them together, swapping from group to group. I have limited myself to a monochromatic black and white colour scheme and a basic cylindrical form. Starting with these basics has allowed me to gradually develop more complexity and diversity both in terms of form and surface imagery while maintaining a sense of coherence between individual pieces. While the diameter of the cylinders remains more or less constant, their height and rims vary, creating movement and visual rhythm in different assemblages. Likewise, the colour-palette accommodates a wide range of subtle ‘colour greys’ that result from both the make up of the coloured slips and variations in firing atmosphere.

The method of mono-printing that I use combines elements of classical intaglio printing and monotype. This combination has allowed me to express the constant change and unpredictability of memories as they move in and out of our consciousness, as well as involve the element of familiarity. On the one hand it utilises the spontaneous painterly qualities of monotype and its uniqueness among other printing techniques as a means of producing only one print of an image. On the other hand, it borrows from the classical intaglio techniques in which the imagery is incised into the printing plate, resulting in a print that replicates the graphic markings or textures of the plate and has the potential of seriality.

For printing I use a number of plaster slabs that have been cast on to glass or smooth melamine surface. The slabs are all the same size (40 x 40 cm) and 2 cm thick. First I cover the even surface of the slabs with incised linear designs. Any sharp metal implements such as used fine ballpoint pens, the tip of a knife or saw blades can be used for carving. Wiping the slab with a damp sponge changes the definition and quality of the carved lines and makes the carving easier as the plaster softens and is more responsive. Because of the superbly sensitive nature of cast plaster, every alteration to it becomes visible. However, as plaster is also soft, markings will lose definition and even disappear with subsequent prints. These clashing qualities make working with plaster slabs both challenging and fascinating and I often keep using and rotating the same plaster plates over and over again, sometimes way beyond their practical use. Working the plates by altering or adding new markings to the already existing and fading ones enables me to make a record of change, as images appear, metamorphose and gradually disappear while all along retaining traces of their former identity. Once the printed images are exposed to the irreversibly transformative force of fire, this record of change becomes permanent. After carving, the surface needs to be cleaned thoroughly with a dry brush and damp sponge to remove any fine plaster particles before applying clay slip. I always discard the first cast from every new slab as it may contain impurities such as soap scum or plaster dust, and let the plaster dry completely. Before applying the first layer of clay slip, the carved slab is wiped briefly with a damp sponge. Then, using a wide soft flat brush, the entire surface of the slab is evenly covered with a coloured slip. I usually work with a number of brushes and keep those that I use for darker colours separate from the ones for lighter colours. As soon as the slip has lost its sheen it can be scraped off using a wide straight blade, leaving slip only in the carved lines. Over this matrix of graphic markings I start applying layers of coloured slips, scraping parts of them back much like in classical monotype. It is a spontaneous and rather intuitive process as I keep covering previous layers while working on the composition from front to back. As the surface imagery is built up layer by layer it also becomes an integral structural component for the resulting forms, being embedded in their walls.

Once the composition is finished, four 2 cm wide and 3-4 mm thick masonite strips are placed along the edges of the plaster slab. These will hold the liquid slip in place while the backing slab is being cast. To cast the backing slab I measure a required amount of stirred casting slip into a pouring jug. While tilting the slab with one hand I pour the slip on to the slab, starting from the centre top and moving from side to side. Tilting the slab forces the slip flow downwards and avoids ‘casting lines’ which may cause cracking. Once the slab is covered to desired thickness, it is placed on a level surface and the slip left to set. As soon as the cast slip loses its sheen, the masonite strips are removed and the slightly raised edges trimmed with a sharp knife. At this point I need to work swiftly as the cast slab will lose plasticity quickly and become unsuitable for further shaping. To release the printed sheet, I first carefully lift the corners by easing them from plaster with a thin flat blade. Holding gently but firmly from two top corners, the cast porcelain slab is turned over on to a clean board and the printed image revealed. While the entire process is not complex there is always an element of accident and surprise that, together with the changes that occur during firing, can alter the original idea dramatically.

After removing the printed slab from the plaster, it is cut into segments and shaped into cylinders of various heights. This fragmentation of the printed image creates an aspect of continuation between individual pieces and a sense of movement in the groupings of otherwise static objects. The sense of extension is emphasised by the fact that I reuse and rotate the plaster slabs and while each printed image is different they share certain visual elements. The combination of a painterly imagery superimposed with textured and defined graphic markings resulting from this mono-printing technique allows for the construction of complex yet undefined visual spaces with permeable layered depth. While the surfaces of the printed forms in the Moments in Black and White series can be read as a reference to landscape or natural environment, it is not intended as literal representation of any particular location. Rather, it is to act as a trigger for various abstract associations with natural phenomena and cultural expressions. The tactile contrast between the slightly raised relief of the lines against the smooth satiny surface invites the viewer to pick up the pieces, feel and examine them closely and then reposition them, creating different compositions. It is through these personal responses that the work gains new meanings, taking the original idea to another level.

Maiju Altpere-Woodhead is a potter working in Canberra, ACT. She has won awards for her work and exhibits regularly. Photographs of finished work by Stuart Hay – ANU Photography. Demonstration photographs by Britt Woodhead. The development of this article has been assisted by the Australian Government through the Australia Council, its arts funding and advisory body, as part of its Craft-in-site initiative managed by Craft ACT.

Article © Ceramics Art & Perception/Ceramics Technical.

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