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Insanely Complex Ceramics Made By Hand, Not 3-D Printer

Irish artist Nuala O’Donovan draws on patterns found in nature to create impossibly complex abstract sculptures. And she makes them using something else found in nature: her own two hands.

The aesthetics of rapid-prototyping are so ingrained in design nowadays that one can assume, with a fair measure of accuracy, that any lace-like pencil holder or vaguely biomorphic lamp emerged instantly from a 3-D printer. Nuala O’Donovan‘s porcelain ceramics look in every way like the stuff of high-tech manufacturing. They’re intensely complicated sculptures, riffing on some of nature’s most elaborate visual spectacles, from snowflakes and flowers to pine cones and radiolaria. The difference: She makes everything by hand. In her words:

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All of my pieces are hand-built. I roll the clay by hand and make each of the elements from wet clay, scoring the surfaces of each one so that it can be joined to the other elements. The components are allowed to become bone dry, and are then assembled using slip.

The forms are built slowly so as to allow sections of the piece to dry and the slip to harden. I don’t use hot air dryers as I feel the structures are too complex for fast drying and it would result in cracking due to uneven movement. The forms can sometimes takes months to finish so I work on two to three pieces at a time.

Hear that? Months. Which is downright gobstopping when you stop to consider that rapid-prototyping can generate similar forms in just hours. Or can it?

One thing it can’t do is dream up the little flaws that result, inevitably, from shaping and firing clay day after day, month after month. “My work is about the inclusion and acceptance of the imperfections in the patterns and forms,” O’Donavan, who hails from County Cork, Ireland, says. “That is the reason that I don’t use extruders or mechanical rollers as I feel that the surface of the elements of the pattern would be too regular … [T]he possibility of change and unknown outcomes are the exciting part of life, as well as art.”

O’Donavan’s work will be exhibited in October in Dubh, Dialogues in Black at the Irish American Historical Society in Manhattan and again in April at SOFA New York. Lots more images and information on her website.

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About the author

Suzanne LaBarre is the editor of Co.Design. Previously, she was the online content director of Popular Science and has written for the New York Times, the New York Observer, Newsday, I.D

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