May 13, 2008

Steampunk Historical Inspiration: Porcelain Alchemist

Today I would like to write briefly about another female turn of the century potter working in the Arts and Crafts tradition, Adelaide Alsop Robineau, who had an important impact on ceramic history, and on my work in particular. She is another source of inspiration for my steampunk persona, Alycia Von Kylnfyre (that is so fun to write!) and a major source of inspiration for my work in general. In fact, the piece above, The Apotheosis of the Toiler (aka Scarab Vase), is probably the one object that seduced me into working in porcelain

So let me tell you my thoughts on porcelain. It is a cruel material, it is incredibly beautiful and sensual, but it is difficult and elusive. It is a clay that is usually devoid of grog, a sandy, granular material that provides structure to most other clays, and makes them less temperamental. Porcelain lacks the structure of grog, and the kind I use feels strangely like cream cheese. It is cold and slippery and the balance of clay and water is always at the front of my mind, and the tips of my fingers. I think of it as a dance of water, earth, and time. Too much water, and you have a messy slurry, with all details melting away. Too little, and you have cracks and crumbles. The balance is very delicate, and I really only feel like I understand it a tiny bit after 10 years of working with it almost daily on a small scale. Even then, it still surprises me. And if I were to change my scale, beyone a two inch cube, and attempt to make something larger, like the Scarab Vase, it would be akin to learning the material all over again.

In fact, the Scarab Vase is an object that I think exemplifies porcelain and its difficult reputation. Robineau is said to have spent over 1000 hours on it, carving the intricate scarab designs in amazing repetition. After its first firing, it was severely cracked, seemingly beyond repair. Any potter or craftsman can probably relate to this and the soul crushing feeling she must have experienced. But she did not give up, she decided to attempt to salvage the work, and experimented with porcelain pastes and enamels, filling in the cracks, smoothing out the gaps, and refiring. Figuring that there was nothing to lose, and the possibility for a porcelain alchemical miracle. And the kiln gods looked favorably on this object of beauty, apparently, because it emerged from the fire in perfect condition, and then gained its title "The Apotheosis of the Toiler".

So what does this have to do with steampunk inspiration? Well, aside from the time period, I suppose it is Robineau's inventive spirit, the mad scientist imagination, and the way she seemed to use her artisan super powers to fight the *evil forces* of fire and physics. And this is where I am drawing my inspiration today, as I await my own kiln full of porcelain to cool. I am aware that I am a total craft geek for imagining figures and objects in art history as super hero inspirations, but that's ok, I will own it and revel in it.


  1. What an amazing lady... and such a cool name, too!

    Thank you for doing this series. This is the kind of history I love to learn. Forget the wars and politics, I want to know about artists, and what they created, and what inspired them, and what they did within the social and technical limitations of their time.

    And oh, how I wish my A stood for something beautiful like Adelaide.

  2. Yes I honestly have little interest for regular history, and almost all the history knowledge I have is gleaned from art history. It is all interconnected, you see.

    And YAY for A names. In fact, Alycia, is my middle name...

  3. I just wanted to let you know I'm really enjoying your steampunk and inspiration posts. It's a facinating topic. I think I'll have to get some steampunk gear. All puns intended, LOL.

  4. Leslie, Thank you so much for stopping by and reading! YAY steampunk gear for all! It is amazing what just a pair of goggles does for you, in fact...

  5. Ms. Kylnfyre, It is always amazing how much our great great grandmothers did. All with out the benefit of modern technology. Her vase is AMAZING! I can only imagine how impressive it was in person. Maybe it was because they were not distracted by it all that they could channel such amazing work...

  6. Oh I would love to see it in person! I think I would. Although it is like a sacred object in my mind, maybe it is not a great idea. Or maybe my brain would explode.

  7. Wow !! Sweet Bodhisatva of the Little Piggies !!
    Talk that Balance you crazy Mystic.. This might just be my favorite post of yours, Dear.. :))
    Love you, charlie

  8. Charlie,
    "Sweet Bodhisatva of the Little Piggies" HAHAHA!

    In case any comment readers are wondering what the heck sort of hubby/wifey language that is:

    "porcelain" from Old Italian porcellana, from feminine of porcellano: "of a young sow" (from the shell's resemblance to a pig's back)

    Thanks sweetie.