This January after I finished my season at ACT and before I became too pregnant to do building work I was lucky enough to be offered a temporary position as a properties artisan at The Seattle Children’s Theatre. My contract covered one show called “A Single Shard”. This play is set in 12th Century Korea and follows the adventures of a young orphan who wants to become the apprentice of a master potter in a village famous for its celadon pottery.
This was the first time in my professional career in theatre that I’ve been able to work on props for the entire production of a show. While I was at ACT I would occasionally lend a hand in the props shop but never for the entire production. Since I joined the union hoping to be able to build props I was pretty excited to have this opportunity. During the course of the production I learned a lot, and had a lot of fun building interesting and sometimes beautiful objects. However this post is only peripherally about getting to build props for SCT.
During the course of “A Single Shard” two precious pots on their way to the capitol to be presented at the palace are broken by thieves. Early in the planning process a decision was made to have these pots broken on stage in view of the audience and so a large number of virtually identical breakable pots had to be produced so that two could be broken during every performance. The properties master made an agreement with the talented potters at Pottery Northwest to produce bisque ware pots to these specifications along with a variety of other fully fired and glazed pots that could be used in the show. At some point during the rehearsal and tech process the blocking of the action changed in such a way that the audience could no longer see the pots as they broke and as a result it made more sense to replace the actually breakable pots with reusable pots that didn’t break because it eliminated some clean up and some of the element of danger inherent in smashing actual crockery from a great height.
By this time, many of the bisque pots had already been produced and delivered to the theatre and so the dilemma was, what to do with this substantial supply of lovely but fragile pottery. I’m not sure exactly whose idea it was, but someone decided to offer the vases to local artists who had been involved with the theatre to decorate for sale at the annual Backstage gala. In March I received an email inviting me to participate and, being the over achiever that I am, I agreed to decorate two vases.
I started by drawing on the surface of the pots with pencil, and through a completely free and unpremeditated process arrived at the decision that I was going to sculpt two dragon like shapes on one vase and a winged woman shape on the other pot.
I hadn’t worked in such an open ended way in a while and the freedom was exhilarating! As an artist for hire more often than not I’m making something to somebody else’s specifications. The shapes of the vases reminded me of shapes I’d seen in Art Nouveau pottery so I decided that the shapes I was adding to them should follow a similar aesthetic. The main problem I needed to address with the construction of my design was the fragility of the materials I was working with. The pots I was given were already bisque fired so I couldn’t add more ceramic clay to them because I wouldn’t be able to fire the added clay. I decided to use the same air dry clay I used for the tiny groom. I knew I wanted to create sweeping arcs that came out from the body of the vases so in order to achieve that I had to add a wire structure to the vases for the clay to be built on. Unfortunately in my excitement to start sculpting I forgot to take a photo of that phase so here’s a picture of the pots after my first application of clay over the pencil sketches.
I took a long while refining the shapes, and I even got a friend to pose for some photos so I’d have an anatomical model for the woman’s body on the Swan Maiden vase. Once I finished the sculpting part I had to decide what kind of surface I wanted the pots to have. I decided that the wyverns should be in silhouette to draw attention to the shapes being created by their bodies, so I painted the body of the vase black and the wyverns in white. I used a water color pencil to give some shading to the mountains at the base of the vase on a last minute whim and I think it helps bring them out nicely.
The Swan Maiden gave me a harder time. I’d really loved the way the pencil outlines as I’d refined her shape made her look like a drawing on paper that was emerging into three dimensions. After pondering it for a while I decided not to paint her at all, and instead I shaded in the background with more graphite and sealed the pot with a clear varnish. I used the same watercolor pencil on the spirals that decorate the back of the pot.
I feel really pleased with both of these vases and I am eager to see what everybody else came up with for their projects. I also feel inspired to do my own ceramic pieces sometime in the near future. I will be acquiring a small kiln sometime this summer and, baby willing, I hope I’ll be able to get it set up in my shop so I can start doing actual ceramics again.