By W.A. WHITE
Daily Press Correspondent
Using small brushes, styluses and palette knives, the half-dozen students focused on their work, painting intricate designs on ceramic cups, bowls, tiles and other pieces.
For the students of Brad Klem’s CLAY Festival workshop on china painting, it was all about control over the final appearance of the piece.
Klem, a ceramics instructor at Penn State University, State College, Pa., was one of the visiting artists during Silver City’s CLAY Festival this week. In his four-day workshop at Syzygy Tile, 106 N. Bullard St., the students learned the technique of creating designs on glazed ceramics with a paint made from finely ground glass.
“You can then mix it with various mediums — oil-based, water-based mediums — like any painter would do, except in this case, the pigment is glass, and then you can paint it onto ceramic objects,” Klem explained before Thursday’s session.
“Then when you fire it in the kiln, that glass fuses to your piece. So it’s just this really nice way to control color and imagery and pattern on any ceramic object,” he said.
“It’s a really great skill, and Brad makes it very accessible,” said Silver City resident Jon Bjornstad, as he worked on a large bowl during the class.
China painting gives the artists the ability to add decoration in a controlled way, Bjornstad said.
“I’m getting a super-low-fire method that if you don’t like it, you can burn it out,” said Robert Arias of Silver City, explaining that firing the piece at a higher temperature will remove the pigment.
Arias, a Bachelor of Fine Arts student at Western New Mexico University, said he was most interested in learning from Klem a method of applying decoration to ceramics using decals for some of his BFA work.
“I’m kind of breaking the rules on china painting,” he said. “We’re gonna see how it works.”
Yen Chu, a ceramics student at WNMU, worked Thursday on an intricate design in white paint on the inside of a bowl. She said the workshop was teaching her patience.
“Painting is very precise, and I am not precise,” she said with a laugh.
Painting was Klem’s major at Arizona State University, Tempe, near his hometown of Phoenix — but as he was nearing completion of his degree, he started feeling burned out, he said. He worked for a lighting design company for several years, along with another company that closed its doors in 2010.
His wife, a nurse, encouraged him to go back to school.
“I had kind of been searching for some creative outlet,” he said. Woodworking projects in his garage excited him about the possibility of creative works that had function.
He took a clay throwing class and was instantly addicted, he said.
“I think two weeks into it, I went home and told my wife I knew what I was going to do,” he said. “Even when I knew that I wanted to do it for the rest of my life, I was very awful at it. I knew that I could get good.”
Klem brings an environmental message into his work, often decorating pieces with depictions of plastic waste such as crumpled bottles and six-pack rings.
That came from his natural tendency to question what people often take for granted, he said.
When he was a boy, his father would often take him to trips in the mountains or fishing in the ocean.
“One time my dad took me on a trip to Alaska, which was really life-changing. It just built an appreciation for those things. I came home and I would need to learn about what it was I just experienced,” he said.
His early ceramics work reflected his outdoor experiences, especially fishing. Then, several years ago, he read a prediction that by 2050, the mass of plastic floating in the ocean will outweigh all of the fish.
“That sort of made me think about this replacement of the fish, and how that is what’s taking place. So then I started to replace the fish on my pots with plastic trash,” he said. “I’m really trying to discover as much as I can about what the issue truly is and what’s going on, what we can do to help solve the problem.
“It’s a really complicated issue. Plastic is not evil. It’s the reason why hospitals are so good now, and we certainly save more lives because of it. But we’re also killing ourselves,” he continued.
Klem said he tries to consider questions viewers of his work might have as he is working on each piece.
“Very often, that question is, why is he representing trash? That seems like it doesn’t make sense, because it is a very ugly subject,” he said. “If they ask that question and move on, that’s all I needed to accomplish.”
But he said he hopes people go further.
“If they can ask themselves a question and move into this place of introspection, then maybe they will do the same thing I did, maybe they’ll take that to the next logical space and think it through,” he said.
“I’m just hoping to spark that one question.”