Clay has adorned buildings for centuries. In fact, clay, stucco and brick are some of the world’s oldest architectural building materials. Clay tiles have been widely used for exterior facades, interior walls, as well as city streets, adorning edifices with beautiful color, pattern and texture. The stunning tiled surfaces of the Ishtar Gates show elaborate pattern and as seen in the detail of the Lion section, a subtly formed relief. The Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem displays a rich surface embellishment, utilizing decorative tiles that surround the entire building’s facade. This array of four Isnik tile samples is representative of the typical Islamic tile patterns of the 16th century. Intricate tile designs for buildings were usually accomplished through collaborations between architect and artist.
In Renaissance Italy, tin glazed earthenware, known as Majolica was initially fabricated as a substitute for the unknown Chinese porcelain. The tin glaze provided an opaque white surface upon which to paint elaborate decorative elements. This highly sophisticated wall panel from Italy is representative of this painterly style. This remarkable technique, which was developed as an alternative to porcelain, has become one of the longest living art forms in ceramics, and is still employed by ceramists today. The Della Robbia family produced some of Italy’s most sumptuous ceramic wall sculptures. Father Andrea and son Luca, fabricated these works in high relief, and they were oftentimes created in a circular form, called a tondo, or rondo. Many of these pieces were intended for intimate niches in churches. However they are labeled, they represent some of the most beautiful and organically rich examples of tin glazed ceramic wall sculpture of the Renaissance period. The work that was produced by this family was as sophisticated and enduring as the marble statues that most often characterize that extraordinary period. As Luca Della Robbia switched from marble and bronze to clay, so have many contemporary sculptors. Due to the increasing costs of producing bronze sculpture, many artists have re-discovered the techniques of large ceramic construction for architectural and environmental purposes.
Spain produced some wonderful tile work and became famous for their cuenca styles of interwoven bands of white lacing through an elaborate array of colored shapes. They also were masters of lusterware, which utilized gold and silver pigments into their specially fired glazed work. Spain loves ceramic tiles for so much of their architectural constructions. When I visited Spain, more than most other countries, ceramic tile work can be seen on the streets, on ceilings of interior buildings, and literally everywhere in the environment. One of Spain’s most famous architects and artists is Antoni Gaudi (1852-1926). He loved brightly colored decoration in his work and used a great deal of ceramics as mosaic tiles in his buildings and public environmental art. In his Parc Guell’s (1890) bench, which is sinusoidal (a curve in the form of a wave) in shape and the largest in the world, the use of ceramic tiles is extensive. Also in the park were ceramic animals, such as the dragon shown here. Other artists, such as Joan Miro produced ceramic tile floors that decorate the streets of Barcelona. In Valencia there is the National Museum of Ceramics, which houses both historical and contemporary ceramic art. I suggest a trip to Spain and visit these great ceramic centers of Barcelona and Valencia and breathe in the phenomenal ceramic art that surrounds you.
As tile work became more and more popular, people’s taste in the art form became more extreme. As you can see in these two images, the use of tile for interior spaces tended toward the overly ornate and obviously flamboyant. But no matter how you view it, these pretentious spaces confirm people’s love for ceramics in their environment.
Today, ceramic sculpture is viewed as a significant art form. The malleability and aliveness of clay enables artists to work in an thoroughly liberating manner. It is one of the most exciting ways to work in contemporary art. Clay can be hung, draped, and mounted on wood, metal, and plastic, as well as on building facades, walls and floors. Clay is utilized as a decorative element in many large-scale environments, such as this train station and airport lobby wall. As people meander through their lives, they become acquainted with clay in their everyday experience. This is elemental to the concepts of environmental art.
Sculptural clay is also viewed as art inside the home, displayed on walls in the same manner as paintings are traditionally hung. This art form can be viewed as either wall sculptures or three-dimensional paintings, and endless possibilities can be envisioned. The work can be displayed like a painting on a wall, making it portable and transferable. Clay can “float” off the wall or appear grounded as traditional tile work. Some contemporary ceramists are broadening their sculptural milieu by embedding assorted materials onto the clay’s surface to provide further avenues of expression to their ceramics art. Sculptural wall art such as these is a burgeoning art form that many people are enjoying in their homes, hanging these works alongside their paintings. Wall pieces can be made in any size kiln because they are produced in segments. This allows a small studio ceramist to produce large-scale ceramic pieces. The same basic techniques are used for large-scale architectural design as well as smaller presentations, such as wall pieces for interior spaces. I particularly enjoy creating artwork that is sculptural, and like these artists, I have found working on the wall to be similar to a two dimensional format, therefore, this type of environmental ceramics is non functional and purely decorative.
Another aspect of ceramics is sculptural work that is created for the environment, and is sometimes quite large. This work is viewed in a totally sculptural context and has no functional designs.
Ceramics is employed in the home in many venues. Tiles have been traditionally used in homes in kitchens and bathrooms, but now many ceramists are creating magnificent ceramic fireplaces, bars, floors, and decorative additions to walls and moldings. Tiled tables have become increasingly popular as they provide durable functionality, adding beauty and ambiance to any room.
As we examine the status of ceramics in our environment throughout the centuries, we can appreciate a greater vision of ourselves as artists. This soft supple material that transforms into a durable lasting substance can liberate the imagination and creative vitality towards a limitless highway.
16th c B.C.
Dome of the Rock- 7th & 16 th c.
Italian Rennaissance Wall Panel
Andrea Della Robbia Virgin and Child -1475
Luca Della Robbia
Modanna in Niche
Spain Cuenca Tiles- 15th c
Spain, Seville Tiles Tin Glaze 1530
Talavera Spain, Tiles, 1600
Antoni Gaudi Bench, Dragon Fountain,1890
Antoni Gaudi, Bench 1890
Joan Miro Paris Unesco Headquarters
Wall, "Night", 1950-58
Delft Tile Kitchen, Tin glaze, 1734-39
Naples, Italy, Dining Room, 1557
Stan Bitters, Chicago Sheraton O'Hare Hotel Lobbby, 1975,14x 32 ft.