Monday, January 21, 2013

Large Prairie Dock Leaf Sculpture

A couple of years ago, I purchased, among other things, some Silphium terebinthinaceum (Prairie Dock) to include in my native plant garden. Prairie Dock is a member of the Rosinweeds, including such varied, but invariably gigantic, species as Cup Plant (Silphium perfoliatum), Compass Plant (Silphium laciniatum) and the name species, Rosinweed (Silphium integrifolium). These are all planted side by side in my garden so visitors can see both their similarities and differences - their common height (close to or over nine feet, oftentimes), their beautiful yellow flowers, their differing foliage form and arrangement.

They've also been a consistent source of inspiration for my pottery. In 2011, I collected a number of leaves from my (and a friend's) Cup Plants as well as small leaves from my young Prairie Dock in order to create a series of rather large cupped leaves, using varying stains for the upper faces and many of the warm earth-tone glazes from my repertoire. Like the sunflower leaves I had worked with that season, they had thick midribs which I reinforced with various designs in applied clay. They were as much sculptures in their own right as usable serving pieces - and, personally, I would have preferred them to have been appreciated simply for their botanical beauty.

Prairie Dock is characterized by a basal rosette of large - sometimes three-feet long! - paddle-shaped leaves from which arise the tall, nearly naked, flower stems. It was these larger leaves - perhaps not three feet long, but as long as my material would permit - that I hoped to use in my work to create some really outstanding pieces, if only due to their very size. It's always rewarding to share some of these larger leaf pieces with my audience, informing them in the process that the leaf was actually ten to twelve percent larger when the fabrication process began, that the piece has actually shrunk quite a bit as it has dried and then been both bisque and glaze fired.

In 2012, I harvested a couple of large leaves and made two pieces. I followed my typical process of rolling out a fairly thick slab, removing the texture, rolling in the (in this case, fresh) leaf and cutting it out with a sharp tool. I then carefully flipped it over on the canvas and designed and applied the decoration at the base of the mid-rib. I have found a series of spiraled arabesques (made using clay extruded from a Kemper Clay Gun with a round die) is both highly functional for this purpose - the support is strengthened as their arrangement "knits" everything together, both visually and structurally - but is also a popular motif with many of my clients.

In this case, I took a long coil and made a small spiral at the far end of the overall supporting design and carried it out to the very tip of the leaf as an additional flourish. One dried too quickly and I was unable to rescue the leaf for a second attempt. The piece I thought would not survive - as I had arranged it in the mold asymmetrically, putting additional stresses on the material - actually made it through the bisque firing in one piece.
I finished the piece by staining the top with Woodland Mason Stain and glazing the bottom and edges with Amaco's Potter's Choice Ancient Jasper. Although the color palette for this glaze is very similar to that of the Ironstone glaze from the same series, the results is startlingly different - it really does have the mottled appearance of a piece of polished jasper. Altogether, it makes for a beautiful and unique piece that is a interesting when viewed from the bottom as from the top. It would be quite effective displayed on a glass-topped table with a mirror in the base, so as to enjoy both faces at the same time! 

I harvested the remaining dried Prairie Dock leaves at the end of the season in Fall 2012. I hope to have time to work with them some more this winter.

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