Rachael Osborne has created with the help of Lisa Cain’s expertise, quite possibly the largest item to date in metal clay! The bowl pictured measures 290mm x 140mm (approximately 11.5″ x 5.5″).
Their epic journey began with Rachel winning the prestigious Goldsmiths Precious Metal Bullion Award in 2016. This enabled her to recreate her pewter bowls in sterling silver. As Rachael and her tutors at college pondered over the construction of such a bowl, they considered several traditional silversmithing options. Casting, Etching, Raising and so on. However, each technique presented specific obstacles.
With the deadline for the bullion award fast approaching, Rachael wondered whether Silver Metal Clay might be the answer so she contacted Lisa Cain, Founding Director at MCSJ. After a lengthy conversation, Rachael hired Lisa as a consultant on the project and says, “I knew Lisa would be the most knowledgeable person I could go to with this task. Not only does she have a background in traditional silversmithing and jewellery fabrication techniques but she’s also been working with silver metal clay longer then anyone else in the UK. So, she held the best of both worlds to help me figure out if Silver Clay was the right material to create this bowl. I also remembered that Lisa had invented Sterling Silver Clay when the manufacturers had said it couldn’t be done, so I knew she’d have the right approach for an unconventional project like mine.”
The size and complexity of the pewter bowls created unique problems which couldn’t easily be solved by using traditional techniques on sterling silver. First there was the sheer scale- some of Rachael’s pewter bowls were a whopping 460mm across x 180mm deep, sitting on an 80mm wide bottom. (Image:Rachael’s pewter bowl taken at New Designers Show 2016.)
That’s a VERY big bowl. In fact, the bowl they worked on together quickly came to be affectionately known as ‘The Big Bastard Bowl’ or BBB for short!
Another problem was the variety of thicknesses throughout the vessel. At its thickest, the texture was over 1.5 mm thick but it was also very thin in places. So thin, that there were occasional holes right through it!
Rachael says, “I knew all along I wanted a fluid, free-flowing texture and I could see it appearing there and then. Unfortunately it was running back down the insides of the steel former bowl so I was losing some of the effect. Lisa fetched her hairdryer and I set about blowing the slip dry while it was spinning on the wheel.”
“The Result? It was exactly what I wanted! That moment was quite a relief. Even if the rest of the process was still a vast unknown, at least we knew we’d captured the texture.”
Once Rachael had settled on the slip-construction method, Lisa figured out a way to make the slip more efficiently. She dried all the silver clay in her food de-hydrator and then turned the dry clay into fine powder in her coffee bean grinder. This super-fine silver metal clay powder could then be easily turned into slip of the right consistency by adding water.
After making small test bowls they moved on to making a large bowl using a steel former bowl. Rachael continued to perfect BBB at home over many, many days. As the bowl neared completion, she decided to take her chances and separate the unfired bowl from the steel former bowl. Rachael gradually and carefully eased the metal clay bowl away using a long flexible crepe knife. She explains why; “After spending so long getting the inside right, I really needed to see how the outside looked. I didn’t want to just fire it without seeing the other side first. I tried around the top edge and it seemed flexible enough to want to detach without breaking.”
The outside texture of the metal clay bowl hadn’t been visible during construction but after a lot of gentle coaxing, the unfired BBB emerged from the steel intact.
It stood whole and proud, of its own accord for the first time. Lisa says she nearly had a heart attack when Rachael sent her this photo of the unfired bowl sitting on the coffee table. “I didnt know Rachael was going to remove it and my jaw dropped open when I saw this. I was delighted she had created the desired effect inside and out. However, seeing it sit there looking so vulnerable, I was terrified something would happen to it before we could fire it.
Rachael remembers, “Even the biggest kiln at college was only just wide enough to take the steel former bowl. The rim of the bowl was only a few centimetres away from the heating elements at the sides of the kiln. The technicians in the ceramics department were brilliant. They helped us with programming the firing schedule, then Lisa and I set up the test cones for a trial run of the firing. We needed to make sure there weren’t any hot-spots in the kiln and that the edges of the bowl wouldn’t melt.”
As you can probably imagine, the actual firing was a very nerve-wracking event. Lisa says, “This was one of those memorable, career-defining moments.”
“I was relieved to see the bowl had fired without any melting but it had slumped and distorted quite drastically in the process. I must admit I felt a bit disappointed and daunted about how to put it right.” said Rachel. While I was hammering, a large segment near the top broke off which was really discouraging. At this point I was thinking the whole thing was a Big Bastard Mistake! Setbacks like this have such a devastating impact when you are tight up against a deadline.”
Congratulations Rachel. Thank you for sharing your story with us! When I asked how much clay they used–Lisa said, “The pack question is tricky [because] Rachel bought whatever sizes they had & spent a fortune! BBB weighs a whopping 1.2 kilos.” To read even more about Lisa and Rachel’s adventure with BBB, please see this link.
To learn more about artist Rachel Osborne please see her website: https://rachaelosborne.co.uk