Colin Reid Residency Week 1
Day 1. 9.3.20
At long last the first week of my Amanda Moriarty residency with Colin Reid had arrived. After unavoidable delays the residency I won in 2019 was to take place nearly a year later.
Early on a Monday morning I drove down the small lane to Colin’s Stroud studio in my car laden with tools and propane cylinders. Squeezed in-between all this was my very long suffering shaggy dog Daffy.
Colin’s workshop is in an old 3 storey high mill in a semi industrial/residential area of the Cotswold town of Stroud. It has a delightfully rambling layout and it took a bit of navigation through the mould making, kiln and cold working areas until eventually I located him in his cactus, book filled office working through his early morning e mails.
Colin had prepared a quiet area on the top floor of his mill for me to use as a base away from all the other workshop hustle and bustle. A wonderful spot often used for photography and a dormitory for sculptures that all had stories to tell. …I had my own private Colin Reid retrospective. Perfect in every way except that after I’d unloaded all the ridiculous amounts of equipment that I’d brought up two flights of windy uneven stairs I vowed that when I returned for my second week a sketchbook, phone and pencil was all that was needed especially in such a well-equipped workshop as Colin’s.
After tea and a workshop tour I explained my project ideas to Colin. Previously I had a given him my fairly comprehensive written idea of my plan to construct three pieces of sculpture that would work as a series. Each piece would focus on a different element of support or restriction. Read more about this on my news page.
One of the first technical conversations I had with Colin was about the making of gel flex moulds from a clay master form using a plaster jacket. My aim was to show movement and energy transference within the pieces so picking up detail from the master form became a priority also to be able to fit my steel forms back onto the cast glass forms. Having a wax model from the gel flex mould meant that at the wax stage the form could be worked on to allow for a pretty good final fit. As an artist new to the glass casting process but pretty ambitious with my creative ideas I was hungry for the practicalities of making. Even the type of clay chosen for the master model now seemed more significant that I had previously realised. I settled for a gritty coarser grog clay called Earthstone that Colin made available and would help produce a more textured surface.
I met Karen Browning, Colin’s very knowledgeable and approachable assistant and she showed me a lot of the direct casts that they have been taken over the course of the years both in gel flex and RTV. It was interesting to see so many examples and realise how flimsy the RTV is that picks up so many of the delicate details (and of course expensive) and needs internal and backing support with scrim and fibreglass. From huge palm leaves to the delicate textures on ballet shoes… I was given the full tour.
I was left on my own to start making the triangular tree-type forms. Trying to work fast but also pay attention to detail, creating texture using metal swages made using the mig welder in my workshop. With each thud of clay thrown down onto the wooden table top surface I grew more aware of how well constructed and stable the sculptures around me were. As I shaped the clay with a rolling pin used over cloth and slapped it into shape with a length of wood it was easy to get carried away with the sheer joy of making. By the end of the day I had an army of tree forms that were going be worked in conjunction with the re bar grills that I had created back in my Hampshire studio. Going through my head were thoughts on how I was going to get the best “push through” into the steel grilles without distorting the clay forms. I was also working with the knowledge in mind that I had the opportunity to polish the pieces in Colin’s very well equipped studio (in contrast to my own cold working facilities). So was looking at areas where I could let the light in. I wanted to keep things simple with one piece open faced moulds forms. Knowing that time might be an issue.
With the exception of a twenty minute lunch break and a quick walk with my dog up onto the grassy hills above the studio. It was a very full day .The 5.30 am start from my West Sussex village of Rogate seemed a long way off as I drove out of Stroud to spend the night with my cousin who (thankfully) lived not too far away..
Day 2. 10.3.20
My day started with a short chat with Colin. It became clear that I was being over ambitious with the amount of pieces that I had planned to make during the week. There were no brownie points to be had for over production and this was not my aim for the residency. It was a simple fact dictated by the process involved and hours needed for plaster to dry and gel flex to cure.
I needed to choose from my army of tree forms and wanted to make one more spontaneous piece. I chose a smaller tree piece into which one of the smaller grids was impressed and this will be bent backwards after the initial master form has been created ( as if it had been contorted ) before being finally attached to the glass form. As a partner to this I chose a larger form that stood alone without steel but bore the impression of a previous grille.
For the more spontaneous piece I took a clod of earth from the loading bay (A patch of scrub land that adjoins the studio driveway ) combined it with the grog clay and used the propane torch to dry the outer layer before pressing in one of the many re bar grilles that I made previously in my own cowshed workshop. This cracked texture was vaguely influenced by a ceramic artist I once saw at Collect Art Fair who was showing with Art Court Gallery- Yo Akiyama.I have been making smaller “Clod” pieces in my own workshop at home and it was my hope that this could join that series as a Cotswold Clod.
It was both refreshing and a revelation to remember that a spontaneous unplanned piece of work could give me the same (if not greater) feeling of creative excitement. I certainly felt it had more energy than the other work.
Other chats with Colin on this day covered which textures were effective and which were not. We also discussed temperatures at which the stress is released from a piece at 600 degrees and the casting temperature of Borosilicate (880 degrees).As well as the longer annealing times needed for larger pieces of glass. New to me was the existence of something called polarizing film to check if a piece of glass contains stress and consequently work out its annealing rate. A part of my recent glass casting education that I’d either skipped over or must have happened to have left the room at the wrong moment. My larger tree form was nearly 60 cm long and was going to need a considerable length of time to anneal. The timetable of firing schedules for all the other kilns containing Colin’s pieces were a priority of course. All this helped me understand more about the efficient running of a workshop …
Next was the making of the plaster jacket which would hold the gelflex mould of this clay form. Ensuring that no undercuts were present. I rolled out a 15mm thick slab of clay that would become the void for the gelflex mould. A layer of cellophane separated the model from this clay cloak and a 2” diameter funnel was attached for the pouring of the gelflex as well as pencil wrapped in cellophane to act as a vent hole. The bottom of the clay cloak was notched to provide a key for the gelflex to sit snugly and properly in the plaster jacket. Following this the plaster jacket was made using a ratio of 1.2 kilos plaster. It was reinforced with scrim.
A point here to remember is to mark the model and the plaster jacket and where it is sits on the board so that when the clay cloak is removed both can be replaced in exactly the same spot prior to the pouring of the gelflex. The amount of gelflex needed is going to be about the same in volume as the clay cloak once it has been pulled out from the dried plaster jacket.
The further 2 pieces then had their jackets made and by the end of day 3. One void was poured full of gelflex and the other two tree pieces were nearing a similar stage.
Day 3. 11.3.20
It is a strange feeling to start the day chopping up the gelflex moulds that have been used to create some of the work of one of the best known contemporary glass casting artists but that was how my third day began. I sawed my way through maize cobs, sweetcorn and mushrooms. It gave me time to think of the many ways to pick up an impression. Karen had already explained how using silicone with large quantities of fairy liquid could be used to spontaneously gather a mould whilst on the move. This would be a great way to combine my love of walking with planning new ideas for studio pieces. I vowed that a tube of silicone and a bottle of fairy liquid would join my sketchbook in my future walking day pack. All this texture inspection and reflection reinforced my feelings that there actually is little we can do to improve on natures except present it in a different light or use it in our own work to try and say something pertinent or specific.
My Cotswold clod was fast becoming like a Christmas pudding in my mind. After taking the clay clod out of the gelflex, then washing and thoroughly drying .Karen and I propped the mould up with bricks on the loading bay and poured it full of the melted wax then tried to speed the setting time up by dribbling cold water into the mould. More haste less speed as the saying goes. About an hour later I thought the wax shell was solid enough to remove but under the rim the wax was too thin and started to tear so more wax was needed. The wax needed to be poured at the right temperature, not too hot with just a start of a wrinkle or sign of the beginnings of a skin on the top and a growing translucency.
Another wait (patience has never really been my forte) I spent some time in the plaster room creating spontaneous squashed forms and reminded myself that I would sometimes try and adopt a more playful spontaneous approach to my studio practice.
Day 4 12.3.20 (This was to be a long day)
I had to literally wrestle the wax out of the rtv mould. The difficulty of this process should have rung alarm bells. After half an hour I was exhausted but the new born clod sat smugly on the workbench. A bumpy residue had been left inside the gelflex. This apparently showed that the wax had been poured too hot and I hoped that some of the carefully preserved detail from the clay model had not been obliterated during all my struggles although I felt this was inevitable.
Next I needed to refit the steel grille back into the wax form.There were some discrepancies in the shape and form to fit and this is not a quick process though Colin pointed out that a solid wax mould rather than a thick skin (as I had) would have shrunk more. Refitting different materials back together after either or both have gone through a different process has interesting challenges . Shrinkage can occur at many moments. Even from the first point of the clay, then the gelflex and then the wax.Lots of possibilities.So the more stages in the process the more possibility there is of a change in form from the original. Using a variety of small mould making tools I carefully altered the wax until the steel grid form fitted and had some wiggle room. Altering the wax at this stage was going to be easier than altering the glass form later although I was aware that would probably be necessary too.
Colin gave me a quick plaster mould building lesson.This process was not new to me but it is really interesting how different artists aproach process in different ways. Punctuated throughout my sketch book during my residency week were “ top tips”.Things that I knew I would be foolish to forget. A few of these are here and may be of interest to any one at a similar stage to myself.
- Colin uses a polysterene block as the reservoir for the glass .
- When cottling up the box, cottles on the inside of the corners which of course makes more sense (if they are accesible prior to settling the box around the form to be cast..)
- The amount of water for the mould mixture can be reduced by 70% from the calculated volume needed of the mould box because the added plaster and silica increases the volume by a third.
- A quick spray of water on the mould box helps with the adhesion of the clay cottling.
- The amount of fibreglass strands is far more critical than I thought.
- Mixing with the paddle attatchment on the end of an air line gives a far smoother mould mix (and preserves your hands!)
Having poured the mould in the morning. By the afternoon I was ready to steam out the first Cotswold Clod mould.
The steaming process was carried out on the ever valuable loading bay.The ground splashed with water so the steamed wax can be easily removed and reused. A metal frame like a table but without the top supported the plaster mould on 2 lengths of 2 x 4”. A hose from a wallparer stripper was wired between the pieces of wood and directed into the underside of the upturned mould ( after the polystrerene had been removed).The whole of the base of the mould was encased in polythene and taped with packing tape and a small hole pierced on the underside to let the steamed wax run out. Despite its Heath Robninson appearance this was an excellent way to steam out the wax.The process took about an hour and I finished off by using a soft brush and boiling water gently removing any last wax residue out the moulds.
Once I had used a water displacement test to asertain the amount of borosilicate glass that was needed the mould was ready for loading into the kiln. To ensure all the glass would be directed into the mould a box funnel created from kiln fibre board pegged in place by Kanthal wire was placed directly on top of the mould.
By 5.00 pm all that remained to be done was ‘ just’ the two tree forms to be cottled up, the plaster mixed and moulds poured. It was to be a long evening. Thank goodness for the early week ‘time management’ tutorial with Colin otherwise I would have needed a sleeping bag on the workshop floor. On the plus side being the last one to leave the workshop I learnt valuable skills such as how to drain an aircompressor …which has already come in useful. On the negative side one Cotswold stone wall looks very much like the next at 10.30 pm and there were many missed turns on the way back to my cousins house that evening.
Day 5. 13.3.20
All that remained was for the two tree form moulds to be steamed out of the mould, water displacement and loading the kilns. This would have been impossible without Karen’s help as the moulds were heavy and tricky to get into the top loading kiln. As it was we found ourselves in some very peculiar positions during the whole process (she forbid me from taking any photos but if I could have possibly got to my phone I certainly would have, much laughter and I did wonder if I was going to have pull her out of a kiln feet first). Working with large moulds and heavy amounts of glass is certainly not for the unfit or faint hearted.
The kilns were going to be programed by Colin later in the day and I hoped that we would be able to discuss the chosen programes on my returm in a weeks time. I now have the kiln programes Colin chose and it is good to be able to compare them with ones I have been using. I do not yet have great confidence in programing and have in the past relied on trial and error. This can get very costly and waste time and I am looking to develop a more informed aproach.
All that was left was for me to do was tidy up and pack up. I did think about leaving some equipment stowed under the work bench for my return but It is lucky that I didn’t because 7 weeks later I’m still in West Sussex and my moulds must sit patiently until lockdown ends and Colin has the time and space available for me to finish the residency.
It was a valuable week in so many ways but to finish I’d like to highlight a couple of things that made an impression on me aside from the fact that I have become much better informed about the casting process.
Time management is crucial to productivity and creativity. By watching the running of the workshop. Colin’s assistants and how the workshop day was organised I now find myself tweaking my own day. Trying to establish a routine that contains breaks and varies type of work (both practical and desk) to adapt to my own energy levels (and in the case of desk work) boredom threshholds.
I was able to watch Colin unload one of his big wheel colour saturation pieces. Using Kiln bricks and fibrepaper he was able to bypass the whole process of making a heavy plaster mould. Although the form of this circle was simple and not needing the many stages of the plaster mould. It did sow in me the germ of a thought that there could be a more environmentally friendly way to create forms without unrecyclabe plaster moulds and I’d like to maintain a curiosity about this and learn more.
Time spent in planning is never wasted. I am prone to rush to the practical process part of things mostly because I just love making and the craft process and am impatient to see results sometimes. Planning and conversations at the beginning of the creative process can help inform the outcome greatly enhance the attention to detail and texture and how in my case cast glass, steel and copper sit together.
It was a fasinating week and exceeded my expectations. Colin and Karen were so generous with their time, knowledge and facilities. I am so looking forward to going back for the second week of the residency.In particular with a view to learning more about the cold working process and theory behind kiln programing.