Intent – Casting Clay with Betty Huang


by Robin Gary

Please welcome our fourth featured artist of 2015, Betty Huang! A recent Austin addition, she makes time for clay outside of work and outdoor activities. I work with Betty when we have a chance to cross paths at Fireseed Clay Art Studios. She is like a laser when she comes in to the studio – targeted and bright! Laughter and smiles and hard work! Guided by her thoughtful intent, her forms are straightforward and her often-subtle, tactile surfaces are genuinely inviting.

You can find more examples of Betty’s design work on her website: http://bettyhuang.co/ and ceramic works at http://www.fireseedclaystudios.com/betty-huang.html.

 

When did you discover clay?

High School—wheel throwing for the most part. It was my first introduction to 3d work and is probably the seed that led me to study product design, an industrial application of the arts, while at school.

 

You have a BFA from the College for Creative Studies in Detroit and work in graphic and product design. Is working in clay an extension of that for you or is it an altogether different beast?

Ceramics keeps me rooted in the physical work and creative process; the work I get paid to do is all digital and most of that work is to fabricate or project a tactile experience. I really do love that market and industry as a career, but to work with my hands and keep a space free from commodification is what I really need to grow and experiment as a arts/design/creative. It’s an extension of that design work because it’s a counterbalance to it—a sort of haven that is driven by a process I choose and with few external demands.


You work with molds you developed and cast your pieces in porcelain, making functional ware. Tell us about your process from start to finish?

I throw and trim the base forms I want to cast—I keep a separate bag of porcelain (the smoothest surface) with plaster chunks in it that I usually can get a couple uses out of—and slightly longer or taller. I cast them when they’re leather-hard by wetting the lip and placing them upside-down in the smoothest plastic container I can find. Casting clay at leather-hard stage means you can pull the clay off in chunks after casting and usually the suction power of the clay is enough to keep small things in place while pouring plaster if you’re careful, but for the larger molds, I’ll smooth a thin coil over the edge to add some more surface area to stick to the container.

 I’ve tried throwing large cylinders to pour plaster in, but I find that the smooth plastic releases much easier and the finished molds are more level and easier to maintain (no plaster chipping off). I use Murphy’s Oil Soap cut in half with water to coat the container and piece before I pour the plaster; It will wash out with water while petroleum jelly tends to clog the mold pores after the plaster casting process. I always get bubbles from spraying, so I try and wipe it on, but I’ve accepted bubbles as inevitable…

 I usually use medium or hard plaster—I tried home depot plaster once and it came off like frosting! After pouring the plaster, it’s easy to pop out of the plastic container after an hour or so. I clean up my molds with a rasp and sandpaper when it’s still moist to smooth out any corners areas that might chip off while I’m working with it later on. The nice thing about using the plastic containers is the pouring/top side is so smooth that the clay never pulls off plaster chunks and I only have to buff out any rough edges where the plaster met the positive piece in the mold.

 I have a lot of problems with mold here in Texas, so I keep a thinner slip to avoid inconsistencies. I cast pieces 1/8 to 1/4 inch thick. After pulling the cast pieces from the mold, I use a yogurt cup or other tapered cylinder to push into the opening to keep the pieces round. I usually clean up the lip when it’s past leather hard or bone dry so that the forms don’t distort. I like to be very meticulous about the shape of the lip, so it’s the only time I can work with the lip without ruining the piece! Much of the time I still sand the piece after the bisque and even after the final firing—I keep a small piece of diamond sand paper I had from CCS that I pull out every now and then!

 

What are your current projects?

My personal project right now is focused on a material and tactile experience of functional ware. I think when people pick up a vessel—a cup or bowl—they don’t really experience it as ceramic or glass or whatever, it’s experienced as its function. A friend at Fireseed was explaining to me that when selling her work, she has to give super specific roles for her objects: the bowl for cereal, the vase for flowers, the serving dish for casseroles. With the mass manufacturing of products, people stop experiencing an object without its role; there’s a deep disconnect between this labor-intensive crafts process and the rigid consumer experience of products. People buy ceramics out of utility and I’d like my work to disrupt that in a subtle way through touch and sensation of the clay.

 

What drives your shapes and surfaces?

So far, the shapes I’ve used are almost iconic to their purpose and it’s the texture that surprises and ignites curiosity. The texture is like a surprise hidden in plain view and I wanted the awareness of the clay body texture to be an intimate one rather than a visual one, which is often valued from a distance. I’ve been playing with what kind of clay body to expose, how smooth or porous it should be, and how glaze should interact with the body—which disrupts which and what is the ‘real’ surface?

 

What and who are the major influences in your work?

My aesthetic influences are really based on proximity—I’m always learning new techniques and seeing a variety of work from fellow Fireseed members that stirs up new ideas. I can never work fast enough to keep up with the things I’ve seen! A lot of my own personal experiences, like rock climbing (super intimate with rocks!), brief studies in Critical Theory in school, and my design work in the digital realm makes me think about and look at ceramics differently as a process, form of expression, and objects of social interaction. The deeper influences and motivations come from deciding which narrative my work fits into or is trying to create. I’m acutely aware of how easy it is to mass produce or 3d-print ceramics, so I’m constantly asking myself why I’m practicing such a slow, intentional process and what difference it plays in the lives of the people who use them. It’s probably the internal conception of purpose that influences my decision.

 

You work full time in graphic design making time for clay development at Fireseed Clay Art Studios while living an active outdoor Austin life. What do you do to keep the clay work moving forward? Are you scheduled? Where does your 'get me to the studio' inspiration come from?

That’s a really difficult issue for me! I always find that having responsibilities to others and to set deadlines is the best motivator for me. I promised a number of ceramics to friends and getting in to finish those in a reasonable time is what gets me into the studio and gets me to work on other things in tandem. Being able to work with other potters in the studio and feeling a sense of community also really helps—I can see the progress of others (and feel jealous!) and I like being able to be influenced by their work and processes.

 

Where do you sell your work?

I post them on my website; I tried Etsy and other online sites, but I don’t really produce enough to create a following or produce for demand—it’s mostly friends who purchase or want work from me. I’ll jump in on the Fireseed shows at Christmas or for the West Austin Studio Tour, but I realized my work isn’t really made for selling, it’s for me to make and to share; I still find it really alien to be pricing and ‘valuing’ my work!

 

What are your long-term goals for ceramics?

I’m not sure I have any distinct goals; I just want to keep practicing ceramics and create things I’m excited to share with others. And of course, there’s always more technique to learn. Because everything is about a personal exploration, I like that there’s no monetary goal or production goal, but more to say motivated and to never be bored—try new things and surprise myself.

Betty's Artwork | Betty's TCAA Page  | Betty's Website


Texas Clay Arts Association 2014

Images in header (from left): Annie Foster, Karmien Bowman, Mimi Bardagjy

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