In 2019, a very interesting commissioned project came my way – A Terracotta Wall Mural.
The project tested my skills on many levels.
- Project Planning: It was a big 8 feet by 6 feet installation. It needed immense amount of planning to deliver the work on time. All stages of the project – Designing, Clay testing, Clay procurement, Slab Formation, Relief Work, Slow Drying, Firing, Quality Testing, Packing and Delivery – had to be taken into account and planned for.
- Designing: There were many hurdles to overcome even before I started the work. I had to first of all come up with the theme, design and layout of the mural that had to be approved by the client. The client wanted a relief mural based on various elements of nature – trees, birds, animals etc.
Keeping this in mind, I suggested a mural based on our tribal Gond art as it had all the elements and much more that fit the brief. I prepared a project proposal with the theme, design examples for the individual tile and three possible mural layout. The client liked the idea and I got instant approval.
- Clay Testing: I wanted to make one inch thick, 12″by 12″ slabs and do relief work on it. It required my terracotta clay to have the required strength. I had to manage clay shrinkage so that the tiles reduce to the desired 12″ by 12″ size post firing. I had to make sure there is minimum warpage so that all tiles get aligned well while assembling the final mural. This required to test my clay material extensively to ensure it had all the required qualities. I collaborated with Claystation, Bangalore to test my clay. After many failures and broken tiles, we finally arrived at the perfect clay after almost 20 days of trials. A terracotta with 20 percent coarse grog.
- Clay Procurement: Claystation, however, was producing a stoneware clay at that time. We has to wait for that batch to get over, before the machines could be deployed to produce this clay as we wanted to mix grog right at the clay preparation stage. I needed about 400 kilograms of clay, and manual grog mixing was not an option. So after 20 days of trial and another 20 days of waiting and clay preparation, I was all set to start with the project. i must add that Claystation, Bangalore was very helpful throughout the process.
- Tile Formation Process: I had to make 13.5′ by 13.5″ slabs, so that after shrinkage I get the final tiles of 12″ by 12″. Through trial and error I realized that 5 kg of clay gave me a the required size. So each time, I had to manually wedge 5 kg clay and form a block of clay, flatten it by applying force with my palms and then run it through a slab roller. Rolling it through a slab roller also required skill. I did not have to roll a random rectangle. It had to be a square that was then cut to the required size. Moreover, clay has memory. To avoid warpage at a later stage, I could not lift it with bare hands. I placed a bison board on the slab and with one quick flick turned the canvas (used to roll slabs) upside down.
- Relief Work: The tile was then wrapped in plastic, until it became a little stiff so as to do relief work on it. I had to deliver 24 relief work tiles and 24 plain. I had to, however, account for any damage. So I decided to do 30 relief tiles. Each relief tile took about 2-3 hours depending on how extensive and intricate the design was. I switched between wedging clay, rolling slabs, and creating relief work to maintain my rhythm and sanity.
- Slow Drying: Each tile had to be kept wrapped in plastic and then between dry-walls (bison board in my case) to ensure even drying. A difference in moisture content in a tile could lead to stress and cracks. The dry-walls had to be changed regularly and turned upside down. The relief tiles were kept covered in plastic for a day or two to let the moisture between slab base and the relief work to even out. A tile took about 10 days to dry.
- Firing: Okay. After clay testing, firing is where I faced many initial hiccups. I first tried firing using a fish crank set. A fish crank set is primarily to firing flatter pieces, like plates. I have a small kiln – Skutt 818 – I could fit eight tiles in a single, slow firing. All 8 of them cracked right from the center. During testing, I used a bigger Skutt kiln, and the tiles fired okay using a fish crank set. I realized, that may be tile edges are too close to the kiln walls, and therefore, this method may not work in my kiln. Also, horizontal firing for such big and heavy tiles is not suggested. Next, I tried doing a vertical firing. This did not produce any crack – which was good; but I did get discoloration, there were white patches on many tiles. On consulting with experienced mural makers, I realized that this may be due to insufficient air circulation in the kiln. Next, I tried firing using dividers between tiles when placing them vertically in the kiln. This produced the best results – No crack, No discoloration, No warpage. I used this firing method for the rest of the project and, touch-wood, avoided any kind of damage
The tiles were then packed and hand delivered to the client site. Each tile was unpacked in front of the site supervisor, so that we both are assured there all tiles were delivered in good condition and there is no dispute later on.
I did have sleepless nights during the project execution, but the project was successfully completed. Along with mural making, I learnt project planning, pricing, client management and servicing in the 3 months I worked on this project. It was a steep learning curve for me and I am glad that I had no idea how much hard work would go into the project, otherwise I may not have taken it up 🙂