Paula Shalan 18hx20'wx8'D "Birches of acadia" slab built, hand polished slip, sgraffito, smoke fired white earthenware
A seed pod has a smooth exterior, and within, a richly complex structure. You might notice the dry, rough, cracking bark of a tree, and beneath is the smooth, fresh, unblemished surface. I’m moved by these sensual contrasts.
I admire the way you do not overwork a piece to the point where people have to guess or be surprised at what the object is all about, other than the obvious, that it is some sort of vessel. do people tend to see right away a sense of either super primitive, or ultra modern? Paula: I think people realize that my pots contain both a sense of primitive and modern design. they see the ancient and traditional techniques but in new, innovative ways. I leave evidence of the way the piece was constructed. I find beauty in seams and joints. overworking a pot may lead towards a seamless perfection, but it can diminish the sense of fresh energy. I want my work to express the constant fluidity of life that honors material and process. the Japanese term “wabi sabi” describes this aesthetic. It is a way of living that finds beauty in imperfection.
What kind of clay do you favor using, and why? Paula: I use a low-fire clay from Sheffield Pottery called Mass White. It has terrific strength at my very low firing temperature. I do a preliminary (bisque) firing in my electric kiln, transforming the clay to a white color. In the smoke firing, “naked” Mass White absorbs less carbon than the areas with the polished slip. the bare clay turns a lovely gray that contrasts nicely with the intense black of the polished slip surface.
Paula, tell me more about your firing process. Paula: outside I have small kiln I built from house bricks. I fill this with a mix of hardwood shavings and my pots. I add a bit of newspaper and light it. Within a few minutes, the shavings are burning and I cover the kiln. It burns for about 24 hours. Smoke firing is very unpredictable. on a windy or rainy day the pots can have a very dynamic and smokey look to their surface. over the last few years, I have been working with either texture or line drawings on my work, and do not want the atmospheric, smokey look to detract from the form and surface design. So I had to come up with a way to achieve a more uniform black/gray surface. to do this, each piece is wrapped individually in a single sheet of newspaper, then in foil, and then placed in the kiln. As the paper burns, the smoke is trapped against the pot by this foil saggar. the results are a very even black/gray.
What do you have in your studio that, say, painters do not have? Paula: In addition to my electric kiln for bisque firing, one of my most frequently used tools is a large rolling pin for rolling out slabs of clay. And of course, I have hundreds of “found tools” for creating various textures. My favorite textures are created from both common and uncommon items: a serrated steak knife, a non-slip
rug mat, an oversized wooden bead from Africa, and the end of a bamboo paint brush. I also have boxes and boxes filled with objects that I have collected from nature: coral, seed pods, sea grass, tiny animal bones... I use these for impressions in the soft clay and for inspiration.
I’ve always loved the glazing process, but your unique surface comes from the use of terra sigillata (polished slip). fascinating! Tell me more! Paula: Yes, I make the terra sigillata myself. It is basically the finest particles of clay separated out from the coarser ones. It is a very refined clay slip that has the consistency of skim milk. I paint multiple coats over the surface of my pot before it is fired. this is done at the bone-dry stage, when the pots are very fragile. At just the right moment, when the terra sigilatta has lost its wet look but still remains moist, I polish the entire surface. Because the particles are so fine, when polished they lay flat, and this allows the light to reflect off the surface, creating a beautiful satin to glossy sheen. the terra sigillata fires white (similar to the clay) in the first firing and can become a rich black in the smoke firing. I’ve always loved to work with different kinds of clays. I love the results of porcelain, the feeling of slip, like mud, the brushing on of the mysterious
THE ARTful mINd APRIl 2016 • 7