Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Allure of Raku

Early this summer, when work on the custom dining table base for Kelly Behun was getting underway, I placed a custom order with WitsEnd Mosaic for some raku-fired porcelain to use in that project.  The tile that arrived was gorgeous—randomly shaped, exquisitely colored, crazed, cracked, scorched, and warped. Ultimately, as the table base project found its design direction, Kelly and Alex decided to limit the materials palette to unglazed porcelain tile in two colors. And so I packed up the raku ceramic for another day.

Some of the raku glazed porcelain supplied by WitsEnd Mosaic. 

But the material called to me. It was simply too beautiful to go unused for long. So not long after Labor Day I unpacked the carton and arranged the tiles on the studio table, expecting inspiration to strike. One exquisite tile--a gift from Leah Zahavi--was key to the plan. Early on I decided to leave the tiles as large as possible, wanting to preserve the ragged edges, uneven contours, and full range of color gradation across each piece. Light and shadow were going to be important elements in this mosaic, and I wanted the material to sit atop the substrate, not be partially submerged in a bed of thinset. 

For a couple of days I shifted the tiles around on a paper template until I settled on a large-format composition into which I could insert some conventionally sized handcut mosaic tile in complementary and accent colors. 

"Sketching" with the actual raku tiles: the design begins to take  shape.
I had recently seen the Terra Incognita show in Pennsylvania (see blog entry of August 27th), where I was transfixed by the dramatic texture effects in many of those mosaics. I decided to create texture from the ground up, as it were. My raku tile seemed to call for a heavily distressed substrate, something that would help suggest a scarred, post-apocalyptic world.

And so I began to prepare a texturized panel of Wedi board for the project. As for process, I made it up as I went along. First I wrapped the exposed edges with fiberglass tape, then applied several coats of thinset slip to cover the tape. Next I by troweled a thicker batch of thinset to the panel and texturized that with a comb. Once dry, I sanded the ridges down a bit, then painted the surface matte gray to complement the scorched edges of the tile. A final coat of tinted thinset applied thinly and unevenly gave me the quality of urban decay I was looking for.    

The prepared substrate before application of mosaic tile. 

I transferred the tiles from the paper template to the textured substrate. I experimented with overlapping and cut some tiles into smaller shapes in order to embed small mosaic accents.  A network of vertical glass strips helped unify the design. There is something a bit unsettling in seeing shards of metallic glass amidst the field of destruction. 

As the mosaic developed I photographed it from above and made adjustments to the design in order to keep all the formal elements in balance. Only when I was fully satisfied with the composition did I start attaching the tile to the panel with premixed tile mastic. I used clear silicone adhesive for the glass.

The resulting mosaic, titled Aftermath, is a dramatic departure from my usual small-scale precision style, yet very much in keeping with my fascination with color and texture and abstract composition.

Aftermath, 43 h x 33.5 w framed, 2012, in raku-fired glazed porcelain tile, unglazed porcelain tile, stained glass, tinted glass.

When Aftermath was complete I immediately began another smaller panel, again using raku tile as my principal material. I combined the surplus tile with a small collection of raku shards I had purchased earlier, these in brighter colors, some with a metallic luster. Alongside this tile I placed large shards of textured opaque stained glass in complementary colors. Some of the glass had random patterning that played nicely off the random markings in the tile. I came up with my design by shifting shapes cut from Kraft paper around on a paper template. Only later did I assign color values to the tiles. 

I came up with my design by shifting shapes cut from Kraft paper around on a paper template. Only later did I assign color values to the tiles. 
In this mosaic I was trying to establish a visual rhythm that suggested a theme-and-variation march across time and space. Once again, I created the mosaic against a heavily textured substrate created in the manner described earlier. 

Progression IV, a single-panel abstract, 21 h x 37 w framed, 2012, in raku-fired glazed porcelain tile, unglazed porcelain tile, stained glass.

Progression IV, detail shot from side, showing heavily textured surface.