Tuesday, November 27, 2012

lessons learned when a project kicks your ass for months, and then the client cancels

For the past nine months I have been working on a large sculptural plate installation. I was contacted by the client around this time last year, he had a large wall with plate railings already installed, that he wanted to see filled with my plates.

My usual glaze has a glossier surface than what the client was looking for, he preferred a more matte surface. I felt uneasy about applying a matte glaze to my plates, but ignored the feeling because I was super excited by the project: 200 plates, in four different sizes, all installed on one large wall. Beautiful. Or it would have been: if I would have stood up for the glazes I already work with. My glazes are all original recipes which I have developed over the past ten years. They work perfectly with my porcelain, which I also mix myself. Feeling invincible, I proceeded to explore totally new glaze colors and surfaces.

I spent four months testing glaze recipes from many sources. I tested seven different recipes and 45 different color mixes, until I found one recipe that beautifully carried the light colors requested by the client. The surface was a semi-matte. The glaze worked wonderfully on small plates (5" in diameter) that I used as test tiles. I proceeded to mix two-gallon batches and apply the glaze to the larger plates: 10", 11.5", and 13.5" in diameter.

The glaze broke every single large plate in the firing:

I was stunned. I immediately contacted my professor from RISD for help, Larry Bush is a master glazer. Larry told me that I was crazy trying to apply a matte surface to one side of a large plate. The shrinkage rate of glaze vs. porcelain puts too much pressure on the piece and cracks it. I never had a problem with the glaze that I usually work with. Again, I should have stood up for my usual glaze. Larry suggested that I glaze both sides of the plates with the matte glaze, and as I don't have a foot on them, here is the process I tried:
1. I applied circular stickers to the bottom of a bisque plate, glazed it, removed the circular stickers.
2. I glued kilnwash feet (a clay mixture that does not stick to the porcelain or the kiln shelf) into each of the circles with Elmer’s Glue. The plates are porcelain, and would sag if I did not have enough support. That's why there are so many feet. Crazy, I know. I was desperate.
This labor-intense glazing process worked, the plates did not crack. They did warp a little, because they were suspended in the kiln on stilts, with the heat and air hitting them throughout the 24-hour firing. Porcelain turns to liquid when it reaches the high temperature I fire to, and is susceptible to subtle movements in the firing. I thought the movement of the plates was lovely, the client didn’t. Again, I should have stood up for my usual glaze, I didn’t.

I kept testing, and finally after many more cracked plates, by accident, got a new glaze to work. This new glaze turned out glossy on a first glaze firing, but then turned satiny-matte on the second, lower temperature fire. I was ecstatic, and as I sat down to write of this success to the client, I got an email from them saying that they are canceling the project. I was too exhausted by this point to argue. But here are the beautiful plates that I came up with for an installation that got cancelled after nine months of really hard research and development:

Did I get a deposit? Yes, I did. Did the deposit cover my expenses for this nine-month-long exploration? Not even close. Here are three very important lessons that I learned from this experience:

1. I should have stood up for the glaze I have been working with for the past ten years. It works and it’s beautiful.

2. If agreeing to test new glazes, I have to request a research and development budget. There must be an understanding that after the research and development stage is finished, there might not be a workable result.

3. For a project this size I must have a contract, spelling out detailed steps of the process, risks involved, and what happens when either the client or I back out.

There was no happy ending to this project, it put me under financially and emotionally, but I did learn a great deal. And, if anyone knows of a wall in need of a sculptural plate installation, give me a ring.