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Ceramics: The Clay’s the Thing
There’s a reason ceramics have been around since the Paleolithic Period. Check out our study of the subject to fire up your appreciation for this millennia-old art form.
No matter how delicate or ornate, all ceramics come from the same stuff: highly refined dirt. Like all clay, the clay used in ceramics is essentially waterlogged soil made of mineral particles, which bond on a molecular level when baked at a certain temperature. The practice of ceramics is the art of turning this raw material into an array of pieces, sometimes with the most basic tools: two hands and some clay are all one needs to shape a pinch pot or simple figurine. Whether molded with fingers alone (called handbuilding) or shaped on a potter’s wheel to create round forms (called throwing), each piece is bisque fired—a relatively low-temperature turn in the kiln that leaves the clay dry and rigid but not quite finished. Paint-your-own-pottery studios perform all the steps up to this point, then let customers coat pots, tableware, or statuettes in colorful glazes and glossy finishes. After a final firing, the work is complete—each piece part of a 27,000-year-old tradition.
Every ceramic piece undergoes shaping and firing, but the applications of the craft have varied from the fragile beauty of dynastic Chinese porcelain to insulation for space-shuttle components. Its vast range of applications can be credited to the material’s more unusual features: though brittle, ceramic is harder than most common metals, and a ceramic knife will hold an edge far longer than a steel one. Beyond these practical advantages, ceramics also remains a part of the fine arts, and is included in modern pieces such as the playfully disturbing works of Grayson Perry, which blend satire of consumer culture with ancient forms.