This post is written by figure sculptor Emily Nickel as a supplement to a demonstration in the Makerspace titled “Get Your Fix.” Emily is currently a long term artist-in-residence at Red Lodge Clay Center. The demonstration will cover how to patch and repair ceramic work professionally. Thaddeus Erdahl and Emily Nickel will be presenting the demonstration on Thursday, March 28th at 4pm in Ballroom B. 

Ceramic artists can pour hundreds of hours into a single project. If a crack appears, or breakage occurs in firing, shipping, or in the gallery, should that always doom the piece to the dustbin? We think not. TJ Erdahl and I, two ceramic figure artists, have set out to interrogate assumptions about what it means when ceramic art is repaired. This post, as well as our demonstration in the Makerspace at NCECA Minneapolis, will present the real experiences of ceramic artists who have dealt with this issue, and will present some methods and materials that can be used to mend ceramic work at the green, bisque, or even glaze fired stage.

We are aware that this is a controversial topic in the ceramics community. The solution for many ceramic artists to cracks and breakage is a hammer and a swift trip to the dumpster. We accept that for utilitarian ware, to be broken or cracked does interfere with the object’s function. To mend such an object post-firing with non-ceramic materials is generally considered unacceptable due to issues of food safety and longevity through the microwave or dishwasher. However, we are here to offer an alternative and a discussion.

For utilitarian makers, fired patch materials can get around this issue. There are many bisque patch products on the market, as well as recipes that have been invented by individual artists. In the case of small cracks or handle separation, these products may offer an alternative to the hammer. Many of these products can be seamlessly color-matched to the clay body, and sanded down to match the surface. Then, the mend is glazed over before the final firing, and ends up with the same longevity and durability of the original clay body. In our demo at NCECA, we will be sharing our test results of some of the bisque mend products on the market today. We will also be demonstrating how to effectively use these materials. In our artist interviews for this project, both Chandra DeBuse and Sam Chung reported that they patch bisque ware. Chandra favors Amaco Bisque Fix, while Sam uses his own recipe consisting of ground pyrometric cones mixed with water. Below are images showing how I used Archie Bray’s bisque mending product, Bray Patch, to mend a broken leg on my 2018 piece, “Undoing.”

First, I applied Bray Patch to both sides of the break with a plastic spatula. Then, I pressed the sections together, allowing some material to squeeze out. Gravity aided me in this mend: for more gravity-defying mends, Archie Bray recommends using a clay support or post in the kiln. After the mend dried, I sanded it down to seamlessly match the piece’s surface. When using bisque mend compounds, it is extremely important to wear a particulate respirator during sanding.

Finally, to color match the Bray Patch, which fires bright white by itself, I airbrushed underglaze over it to match the rest of the surface. Bray Patch may also be mixed with your clay body to an extent, to help with color matching. I simply glazed over this mend along with the rest of the sculpture. I will be demonstrating the use of mending compounds like Bray Patch during my Makerspace presentation at NCECA.

For sculptors, food safety and performance in the microwave is often not an issue to begin with. Sculptors may make use of bisque mend products, but many are turning to epoxies as a post-firing solution for mending and assembly. Sculptors who make large or complex work might fire a sculpture in pieces, then assemble it post-firing using epoxies. Tip Toland, Beth Cavener, Arthur Gonzalez, Hannah Cameron, Susannah Zucker, Ariel Bowman, and Luke Huling all told us they use epoxy for assembly or for post-firing repair. Here are some images from Susannah showing a remarkable repair of her piece “With Dog,” that came back from a show badly damaged in shipping.

Susannah begins assembling the broken sections with PC-11, a white two-part epoxy. This epoxy needs 24 hours to cure, so she uses pieces of clay as props to hold the pieces in place. Some sections of the piece were broken into pieces too small to repair or were lost entirely, like the big toe on the figure’s extended leg. To remedy this, Susannah used Aves Super White Apoxie Sculpt to completely re-create the missing pieces of the figure. Apoxie Sculpt is a slow-curing epoxy putty that has a plasticity similar to clay. It has a 2-3 hour window of work time, during which you can use it to build lost or delicate pieces of a sculpture, and easily match the surface texture of the clay around the repair.

After the piece is fully repaired, all mended areas are sanded for a flush surface. Susannah then paints the repaired areas to match the existing surface, using latex primer and paint. Susannah recommends starting with a stain-blocking primer like Kilz Multi Surface Stain Blocker to mask the color of the epoxy. More translucent primers, or skipping primer altogether, may allow the epoxied area to show through in the end. After priming, Susannah layered many colors of paint until she achieved a surface matching the original.  Susannah prefers flat house paints high in kaolin, because the kaolin content gives the paint a surface similar to ceramic underglazes. Some examples are Sherwin-Williams Duration and Emerald lines in the flat or matte colors. When choosing paints, Susannah advises bringing a fired underglaze swatch to the paint store to aid in color matching. Thaddeus Erdahl will be demonstrating some of these epoxy techniques during our Makerspace presentation at NCECA.

I should say that because we are taking a stand in defense of mending, this does not mean we offer it as a substitute for learning the fundamentals of clay and the ceramic process. We believe that the use of bisque patches or epoxies should maintain the same professional standards and concern for presentation that we apply to the rest of our work. This is another purpose of this post and of our demo: to share how to use these materials in a professional manner. Our goal is that artists will learn how to patch, mend and assemble pieces such that they can demand the same market value that a non-patched piece would. On that note, we also believe in the ethics of openness with galleries and collectors. If you use a non-clay medium in your work, and especially if that medium demands special care over the life of the object, we think it is only right to inform your gallery or collector of this fact.

In conclusion, we believe it is long past time for the culture of shame and silence around mending and mixed media in ceramics to end. There are a wealth of techniques out there for mending and mixed media that ceramic artists have invented over years of solitary trial and error. We believe in sharing these discoveries as freely as we share tips around glaze formulation or pulling the perfect handle. We do not believe that doing so will diminish or belittle the ceramic medium or our community in any way. On the contrary: it will only broaden the scope of what is possible in contemporary ceramics. We hope to see you at our demonstration!

-Emily Nickel and Thaddeus Erdahl