Thursday, December 20, 2012


Small, Medium and Large Poppies in Pink,
Burgundy and Scarlet Red (respectively)
When I first started gardening on my own property (a glorified word for my typical 40 x 120 urban lot on the eat side of Detroit) 17 years ago - before I discovered the beauty and variety of native plants, like many people I worked with a lot of the same types of plants I had seen my parents grow in their gardens. Most traditional garden plants used in the United States are what are referred to as "exotics", meaning they weren't living in a given location as of October 11, 1492, when the European invasion began.

My garden was filled with German, Siberian, Dutch and Japanese Iris; Daylilies (yes there was a time I grew Daylilies), Oriental Lilies, Asiatic Lilies and Toad Lilies; Hosta, Herbaceous Peonies and Hollyhocks; and literally dozens of varieties of Clematis. One of my favorites were the Oriental Poppies, which came in colors ranging from brightest white through pale pink, fuschia, raspberry, scarlet, burgundy and hot oranges. I found their transience - each flower lasts only one day - and fragility - their petals are sheerest crepe - exquisite and marveled at the fact that their stems were never, ever, straight, rather bending in the most interesting contortions from the basal rosette up to the exquisite bloom. The seed heads were fascinating. Although the plants would go through a particularly ugly period after flowering, becoming ragged and dried, finally requiring a good cleaning-out mid-season, I always enjoyed their resilient and reliable performance.

I decided to try to make clay poppies. The first one could have been used as a blunt instrument (if you know what I mean); it had to weigh at least a pound - not at all representative of the fragile beauty I was attempting to capture. But I kept working at it and finally came up with a workable solution.

I started out making a plaster cast of the underside of a plastic tray my Aunt Nancy (also my godmother) had given me for Christmas one year. (This same tray is the means of transportation of most of my work to and from the kilns in the garage.) The underside of this molded plastic tray has a random striped pattern reminiscent of the pleating of poppy petals. I created a template for the individual petal and then replicated it four times into a circular form with four petals radiating from the center, to maximize production. Having decided that my poppies would need five petals to look sufficiently "poppy-like"and that I wanted to be able to put them on stems, I started production.

I roll out a relatively thin slab of clay and cut out the required petals. Each petal is "slapped" rather hard onto the plaster tray mold twice, once for each side, to impress with the petal texture. I arrange five petals in a bowl form, scoring, slipping and smoothing them together at the center and then scoring, slipping and attaching them to one another in various ways at their adjacent edges to create the flower form. In the most successful designs, I score and slip the petals at their adjoining underside edges and pinched together. Using a round Kemper Klay Kutter (at least 1/2" in diameter), I make a hole in the center. The petal portion of the poppy is complete. Now to create the flower's center!

Creating the center of the Poppy has been one of my more challenging occupations in the studio - and I'm not sure I'm done with the process. Right now, I make a clay cylinder around a piece of 1/2" copper tubing and cut it into approximately 1" sections. I apply a slab "top" to each section and incise, using my thumbnail, with five curves radiating from the center to the outside edge. Then I score and slip the upper half of the outside of the cylinder and apply extruded clay (using my handy, dandy Kemper Klay Gun) for the flower's stamens. This is set in each flower with a piece of newsprint between so they will not stick together. Once dry, I remove the flowers from their bowl forms and bisque fire.

To glaze, I apply two coats of Amaco Sahara HF-1 Black as eyespots to each of the five petals; once dry, these are brushed with wax resist. I then apply two (most colors) to three (Lilac and Burgundy) coats of Amaco's Celebration series mid-temperature glazes to the tops of the petals and one to two coats on the underside. (I generally use poppy or poppy-like colors, including Pink, Scarlet Red, Burgundy, Orangerie, Bright Yellow, Clementine, Lilac, Amethyst my own proprietary Gerbera Daisy Pink and Baby Blue to mimic the Himalayan Blue Poppy.) Separately, I coat the flower's center with HF-1 Black and prop it to dry, then place it over the center hole on one of the flowers. The pieces are then fired together.

These pieces can be displayed as a sculpture - I like the idea of "floating" the flowers in a glass bowl with some glass gems - or attached to a stem. I use refrigerator tubing (for the flexibility) cut to 18 inches and bend it around a bit to give that "real poppy stem" look. I use a pipe expander at the end that will go into the flower's base, filling the reservoir with epoxy before doing so and allowing to harden. Although these pieces probably should not be left outside in the winter (the epoxy does break down over extended exposure to the weather), they make a lovely addition to your garden, allowing you to have the earliest, longest-lasting poppies in your neighborhood!

No comments: