Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Water Ways: Making the Ceramic Mural

Among the many artful elements of our new Water Ways environment is a stunning ceramic mural handcrafted by Peter Geisser and Mika Seeger, a team of artists and educators who have collaborated for two decades to create ceramic sculpture and mosaics from wood-fired stoneware and porcelain.  This is their fifth major public project together, though they have worked separately on dozens of murals and mosaics.  As a team, they have a particular interest in bringing people together through community-based artworks; past projects include ceramic murals at India Point Park in Providence and Narragansett Town Beach.

Commissioned by the Museum to reflect the color, feel and movement of water, the duo’s abstract Water Ways mural gives Museum visitors a uniquely hands-on experience with art.  In their words, “Water and waves in clay as relief sculpture and represented by tiny mosaic tiles… engage children on a textural journey.”   Peter also spoke about their medium in terms of the murals’ permanence: “With kids, permanence is a wonderful phenomenon.  It gives a sense of belonging and importance.”

Working at Mika’s Tiverton ceramic studio, the two started their process with research, exploring Leonardo DaVinci’s studies of water and photographs of actual water, though they decided they wanted the piece to be more abstract.  They admit that their styles are quite opposite – Peter's strength is the big picture and his work is naturally more abstract while Mika delves into realism and focuses on detail.  “We meet in the middle somewhere,” said Mika, while Peter described their process as “a push and pull.”

Once they had their inspiration, they ripped big paper into pieces and taped it up to create the mural’s initial pattern.  They transferred the template to a large custom-built table topped with plastic, then canvas, then a ½ inch slab of clay, and finally the paper pattern traced at a larger size so they could start building the sculpture.

They added and molded clay to create a massive sculpture, which they completed in a single day to give it a feel of spontaneity. 

Once the entire surface was complete, they let it dry, cut it into pieces, and hollowed out the thicker pieces so they’d fire more quickly.

When all of the pieces were bone dry (completely air dried), Mika and Peter numbered them, did an initial bisque firing in an electric kiln and then glazed them in a unique way.  After Mika painted three white coats, they applied a wax resist over the tips of the waves to create the foam and poured blues over it to fill in most of the body of the waves.

They fired the pieces again – a second 30 hour+ long firing!  When the pieces were fully fired, they filled the hollow backs with a mix of Styrofoam and cement so they would be durable, yet light enough to hang.

They traced around the pieces on paper to create another pattern, which they transferred to the Water Ways wall to guide the installation.

All told, the incredibly intricate sculpture was made from about 500 pounds of wet clay and includes 91 large sculptural pieces, which went up in one day, plus hundreds of handcrafted colorful mosaic tiles in different shapes, which took two weeks to fill in.  Every piece but the small mirrored bits is handmade.

In putting the mosaic together, they tried a new technique for this project: they left some areas of the larger pieces unglazed and brought the mosaic onto the curved ceramic surfaces, which helped create an illusion of different depths and of movement.  The finishing touches included grouting the tiles and cleaning the entire piece.

Reflecting on the project, Peter said, “It’s the only purely abstract mural we’ve ever done,” and added, “If we’re going to do a mural, we want it to be extraordinary.” 

And that it most certainly is!  We’re deeply grateful to Mika and Peter for creating this incredible piece to complement Water Ways and are proud to count it among the Museum’s collection of vibrant works by talented local artists.

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