I'm Steve Ember.
And I'm Barbara
Klein with EXPLORATIONS in VOA Special English. At the Smithsonian American Art
Museum in Washington, D.C. you might see two cowboy boots. They are painted with a design of clouds and
They look like
boots that you could wear on your feet. But they are really made out of
carefully formed clay material. The artist William Wilhelmi made these ceramic
pieces. How did he make these colorful boots? Today, we answer that question as
we explore the world of clay art.
Clay is one of the most universal materials
known to humans. Throughout history and around the world, people have developed
the art of forming clay to make ceramic objects, or pottery. Clay is made of
water and earth. It is formed into
different shapes. Then high levels of heat harden it to produce many kinds of
Different kinds of
clay contain different minerals such as silicon or iron dioxide. The kinds of
minerals in clay affect how soft or hard it is to work with. The mineral
content of clay also affects the temperature level at which it hardens.
Earthenware is one of the earliest kinds of clay used by humans. Earthenware
hardens at a lower temperature than another clay called stoneware. Porcelain is
yet another kind of clay.
It is very fine and smooth. All these clays
need to be fired at high temperatures. Early pottery was heated in the sun or
by a fire. Later, potters developed heated devices called kilns to control the
necessary firing conditions.
The development of ceramics
has had an important effect on human history. Ceramic objects permitted early
cultures to make containers that could hold water. This means they could cook
foods like vegetables and meats. Improving food production methods meant larger
populations could survive. Pottery is an
art form that grew out of the daily needs of life.
Ceramics are also important for
historians and archeologists. Pieces of ceramics found at archeological areas
help tell about ancient cultures. These pieces can last for tens of thousands
of years. They help answer questions about cultures we know little about.
There are many different ways to form
clay. The earliest methods involved shaping it by hand. People form containers
by pressing a ball of clay into a given shape.
Or, they place long thin rolls
of clay on top of each other and then make them smooth. Another method is called slab-construction. A
ceramist creates several flat pieces of clay that can be joined together to
make the sides of the container.
Later, ceramists developed the
method of "throwing" clay on a wheel. A ball of clay is placed on a
flat wheel device that turns quickly. The potter holds the clay firmly and
guides it while the wheel and clay turn. Using different amounts of upward
pressure the potter can build up the sides of a container. This method permits
a potter to make similar pieces quickly. But it takes a great deal of skill to
become an expert at wheel throwing.
casting is another method. A ceramist pours liquid clay into a hard form or
mold. As the clay dries, it takes the shape of the form. This method is useful
for making very detailed objects. It is also useful because the mold can be
used over and over again to make exact copies of the ceramic form.
There are also many ways to add decoration to
ceramics. These methods can be as simple as scratching designs and images into
the clay. Or, they can be more complex such as using liquid glazes to change
the color or shininess of the clay surface.
Pottery provides important
examples of cultural exchange. For example, native traditions of pottery in
Mexico changed greatly in the fifteenth century. After the arrival of people
from Spain, Mexican ceramists stopped making their own religious figures. They
started making Christian religious forms instead. Also, the Spanish introduced
materials and methods used in Europe, including the potter's wheel.
Trade exchanges spread ceramics all over the world. As
early as the tenth century, the Chinese traded their ceramics throughout the
Middle East and southeast Asia. Chinese ceramics later had a great influence on
Europe. Europeans started to copy the fine traditions of Japanese and Chinese
ceramics as early as the eighteenth century.
Ceramics also demonstrate the depth
of human creativity. This art shows the local needs and materials of a group of
people. Pottery is often very different from country to country. But it can
also be very different within areas of the same country. For example, in
Mexico, every area has a different clay tradition. In one part of the state of Oaxaca, potters
have been making black clay containers in the same way for centuries.
In another area of this state,
pottery for cooking is made with a shiny green coating. Nearby, artists make
female figures out of orange clay.
In the Mexican state of
Michoacán potters make white clay containers painted with line drawings of fish
and other animals. In another part of this state, artists make green painted
containers in the shape of the pineapple fruit.
In the state of Mexico,
artists make clay candle holders covered with clay animals, plants, and
people. They are painted in bright
colors. These traditions are just a few of the examples of Mexican ceramics.
Imagine how many different
kinds of clay traditions exist in other areas of the world. What kinds of
ceramics are made where you live?
In the United States, W Studio is on a
quiet street in Corpus Christi, Texas. This is where the potter William
Wilhelmi makes his art. Let us go back to the ceramic cowboy boots we talked
about earlier. Listen as Wilhelmi describes why he made these special boots in
WILLIAM WILHELMI: "I'm William Wilhelmi and I made the porcelain cowboy
boots at the Smithsonian in Washington DC. That's the only pair of porcelain
boots. We use here a low temperature fired clay, which is very easy to work
with. The reason the ones at the Smithsonian are porcelain is they were having
a show called "American Porcelain". I was asked if I would enter a pair of
boots in the show. They said, are they out of porcelain? And I said 'Why,
Wilhelmi made these boots with the slip cast method. He took two real cowboy
boots and made a hard form using their shape. Then, he poured liquid clay into
the forms. Once the boot forms dried, he added clay details to the shoes to
represent leather shoe material. Later, he painted a Texas night sky on the
sides of the boots. And he made the points of the shoes a shiny gold.
Wilhelmi is also known for his clay
"monster" creatures. He adds these friendly little creatures to many
of his ceramics forms. He says they add humor and a sense of activity. Another design Wilhelmi likes to use is the
eucalyptus tree. He paints these trees in black on many of his clay dishes,
bowls, and cups.
William Wilhelmi says being a
potter can be difficult. You do not always know if a clay object will survive
being fired at high temperatures. You can spend a great deal of time making an
object only for it to break in the kiln. But he says it is also very pleasant
working with clay. And it permits him to use his sense of design, color and
shape in many ways.
William Wilhelmi's work can be found in museums all over the
United States. Many important people collect his work. For example, the
president of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, owns some of these clay boots. So does
Vicente Fox, the former president of Mexico. To see a large collection of the
artist's work, you can visit the Wilhelmi/Holland Gallery next to W
Studio. Here, people can buy Wilhelmi's
work as well as the work of other artists.
Or, visitors can watch
Wilhelmi at work in his studio. This large room is filled with interesting
objects like photographs, art and books. There are many worktables covered with
tools, color glazes and clay forms. In one area of the room there are three
kilns as well as a potter's wheel.
William Wilhelmi finds new artistic ideas by
traveling and reading books. He tells about how clay art is both universal and
WILLIAM WILHELMI: "The thing about clay is every culture knows
clay, because they use it. That is one of the advantages of working in clay.
Everyone can relate to clay. It's been
part of our human evolution. And it goes from very basic to extremely baroque
things. And also as one lives one's
life, you take in all your experiences. Then when I sit down to work, these
things come out. It is the experiences of life you reflect in your work."
This program was written and
produced by Dana Demange. I'm Barbara Klein.
And I'm Steve Ember. You can read this
program and download audio on our Web site, voaspecialenglish.com. Join us
again next week for Explorations in VOA Special English.