Steeped

R. Notkin Redware paperclay, Ron Propst’s flameware, mason stains, table and chair, porcelain celadon vase, silk flowers, Blackberry, teacup, paper, plastic, steal, epoxy, arduino, ultrasonic nebulizer. H:54″ W:30″ D:54.” 2010.

This ceramic and mixed media sculpture developed out of my interest in the conceptual resonances of tea and teapots. The figure, dressed in a business suit, sits at a table looking through a stack of mail, which includes bills, credit card offers, advertisements, and a Wall Street Journal.  In his right hand, he holds a promotional calendar from a local bank: the paintings of Bruegel the Elder.  He has just looked Bruegel up on his Blackberry.  The Wiki page is visible on the display. At the center of the table is a porcelain celadon vase (produced in Thailand for the global market) with two silk tulips. At his left hand is a teacup; he is waiting for the tea to boil. His head, made from a heat-shock resistant flameware body, is the teapot.  The initial intention was for the tea to be heated on an electric burner housed in the torso.  However, technical implementation proved problematic (see below).  Instead, cold steam, produced by an ultrasonic nebulizer and exhausted by a small fan, escapes from the hair and eyes.

The figure was built solid on an armature, removed, hollowed and reassembled into five body sections: torso, arms, and legs.  These were fired separately. The legs were affixed to the chair and the arms to the torso with a mortar of epoxy and slip.  These two sections remain separate at the waist. The head and hands were built from a flameware stained to roughly match the redware of the body. As the shrinkage of these clays differed, careful measuring was necessary to ensure post-firing fit.

In anticipation of the electric burner heating the interior to several hundred degrees, additional insulation, including Fiberfrax, aluminum, and high temperature caulk were applied—this in an effort to keep the exterior temperature from burning those inclined to touch the sculpture. Sizing the burner and installing it at the proper height and orientation in the torso proved unexpectedly challenging. Indeed, this part of the build took longer than the sculpting. Once everything was in place, experiments in boiling water began.

Initial trials, conducted outside of the torso, were promising. The flameware itself held up well, vigorously boiling water in approximately thirty minutes.  The first problems arose when heating was attempted in the torso.  The high-temperature caulk proved less heat resistant than its specifications suggested, and began to boil around the heating plate.  After this layer was removed and new, aluminum-wrapped Fiberfrax panels added, the neck opening no longer accommodated the burner.  Further reducing the size of the burner was necessary.  At this point, water was brought to a successful boil in the installed head.  These experiments were undertaken in an un-air-conditioned warehouse in summer in Florida. Temperatures were typically above 100 degrees, and though the steam produced was visible, with the ambient temperature so high, it was not copious.

Next the sculpture was installed in a gallery space for final tests and photographing.  This space was air-conditioned to the low 70’s to offset the heat of gallery lighting.  Problems presented themselves almost immediately upon turning the burner on.  Small, sharp cracking sounds indicated that the surface of the ceramic was heating too fast and popping off. To slow the heating, the burner was put on a schedule of three minutes on, three off. The expectation was that, once the body was heated to a uniform temperature, the ceramic would no longer suffer from these small heatshocks.  Initially, this seemed to be the case, as the water came to a boil without further damage.  However, approximately one hour, thirty minutes into testing, an alarmingly loud crack indicated that some larger break had occurred.  A fragment approximately two inches by one-quarter inch at its thickest point had separated from the base.  This break did not compromise the integrity of the vessel, but put an effective end to hopes of producing steam by means of heat. Though disappointing, the already described alternative—cold steam produced by an ultrasonic nebulizer and exhausted by a small fan—does function.

Reviewing the conditions of the break suggest that the cause was twofold. First, the dramatically cooler temperature of the environment led to the initial surface fractures. These were effectively forestalled by slowing the heating of the ceramic body. More significantly, reducing the size of the plate covering the electric coil dramatically reduced its capacity to diffuse heat evenly. This resulted in a powerful hot-spot on one side.  It was here that the major fracture, a well as the majority of the minor fractures, occurred.

I conclude that boiling water in sculpture is possible if a more even distribution of heat can be achieved. This would require sufficient space in the torso to accommodate an unaltered burner, and, possibly, a better burner.