2014 Summer project: 167 hand painted tin-glazed terracotta tiles for kitchen backsplash.
I’ve treated the maiolica tiles like pages from a sketchbook. And just like a sketchbook, I’ve been painting whatever I want: birds, shells and animals, including portraits of our dog and cat; Palladian villas (I grew up in his home town in Italy), and of course, food! The latter includes cherry pie, pizza, and eggs on a Deruta plate.
While living in Italy, my mother discovered Deruta, the pre- Renaissance center of Italian maiolica. The dinner table groaned under the weight of her spectacular collection. It was my introduction to maiolica and I loved everything about it- the clear colors, the brushwork embedded in the glassy smooth surface and the rings on the bottom where the terra cotta showed through.
Tin-glazed earthenware is an ancient technique that originated in the Middle East and came to Europe more than a thousand years ago. In Italy and Spain, tin-glazed ware is called Maiolica; in the Netherlands and British Isles it is called Delftware; in France it is known as faience.
Maiolica is tin-glazed earthenware that is fired twice.
After the first firing, the terracotta is dipped in an opaque white glaze. The dried glaze is difficult to paint on because it is porous (it reminds me of a thick layer of dried baby powder) and immediately absorbs the pigment. Another technical challenge is that the metallic oxides are a different color before they are fired, so there’s a bit of guesswork that goes into painting and a bit of regret after firing.
Maiolica is a touchy medium that has been referred to as the prima donna of ceramics- it is quite difficult to get all the variables right. I’ve done my share of weeping when opening the kiln to find ruined pieces (which I’ve been collecting for a show to be titled “Maiolica Tragedies”). After a year of experimenting with firing cycles and glaze recipes, as well as lots of Italian You Tube videos on the subject, I’m finally getting the clarity of brushwork and smooth surface I desire.
Hand made tiles have a particular shimmer in raking light that make them quickly recognizable from commercially produced tiles. When rolling out the clay (one of the tiles has a portrait of the maple rolling pin I used), wood sticks placed on either side of the clay slab make the tiles a uniform depth. Once the rolled out clay is cut to size, it is dried between sheets of drywall to slow the drying process and minimize warping. I’m firing the clay at 1938 degrees Fahrenheit for the first firing and 1900 degrees for the second.
I need 167 tiles for this kitchen backsplash. All the images on the tiles are different. I’m also designing the kitchen cabinets- my husband, Doug (of Piotter Construction) will build them.
In this ceramics project, I have sought the delightful balance of elegance, applied art and visual references to daily living that I love in 18th century tin-glazed ware.