A visit to Daniel Brand’s ceramics studio
What you serve a dish on is just as important as what goes into the dish. Your experience of a meal starts with what you see. Like a frame does for a work of art, the presentation is meant to draw you closer, to make you excited about what you’re about to eat – and to celebrate food. On a recent exploration of Pretoria’s exciting artisanal scene, I visited the acclaimed ceramicist Daniel Brand to find out more about his process – and what exactly goes into creating a ceramic work of art.
For anyone who lives for their passion, the inspiration can usually be traced back to childhood. For Daniel Brand, the acclaimed Pretoria-based ceramicist specialising in Nerikomi ceramics, it started the day he was born. “I grew up on my mother’s studio floor,” he recalls. “We lived in this old house where she converted the horse stables into her work space. I literally sat and played with dolosse while she worked.”
Initially, however, Daniel’s life took a rather different turn. He worked in the IT and finance sectors for most of his career until health complications led to a much-needed lifestyle change. At first, this took the form of graphic design, but when he took up his mother’s craft of ceramics as a form of therapy, he no longer wanted to do anything else. Before he knew it, his work started winning awards and his ceramic career began to pick up at a steady pace.
Although Nerikomi is a Japanese term, it actually originated in Ancient Egypt as a marbling technique. Over time, it spread to Rome, England and China – reaching Japanese shores in about the mid 1400s. Today, the Japanese follow this technique religiously, but with little cause for innovation. “This doesn’t work for me,” says Daniel, “My greatest inspiration is the layers of the earth, which I try to emulate.”
FORM AND FUNCTION
In Daniel’s mind, ceramics can be divided into either art or craft – art being purely conceptual or ornamental, and craft being purely useful. “Function meets somewhere in the middle. It’s very important to me that people see my art as functional. It’s not just something to hang on the walls. It’s supposed to live with you. A chef’s process is very similar, but the artwork lasts as long as the meal. After that, it becomes a part of you.”
Creating a ceramic piece can take up to a month or more. Because most people have gotten so used to buying range items from a store, they find it difficult to understand the time it takes to produce a bespoke piece. In other words, creating ceramics on an artisanal level is best reserved for those with a lot of patience.
NERIKOMI STEP BY STEP
- It starts with wet clay, usually a white porcelain base, after which colour is added and the clay is left to steep for a week.
- Then, you create a pattern with the wet clay by rolling it into basic strings or spheres – or whatever shape you want. It’s important at this stage to have a clear picture of the end result. You also need a good knowledge of which colours will metamorphose and change when baking. For instance, black copper oxide turns green, pink cobalt oxide turns indigo, and so on.
- Then, knead the pattern you’ve created into a cylinder shape before slicing a piece off and placing it on a base clay, like porcelain, terracotta or basalt. Roll both layers out together, just as you would two layers of pastry.
- Choose the size you want (like a breakfast bowl, plate, or platter) by cutting a circle out of the rolled-out clay. Then, place the clay in a plaster mould for 3 – 4 hours. The plaster absorbs the moisture, so the clay will shrink. Then, take the piece out of the mould. At this stage, the clay is relatively hard, so it won’t lose its shape.
- This is where time takes over. Let the piece stand for 2 – 3 weeks, leaving the clay with less than 10% moisture content, the lower the moisture, the stronger the piece.
- Only then is it ready to go into the oven for the first time, where it bakes at 1000 °C and the clay loses all excess chemical water, which is impossible to detect. When it comes out of the oven (after it has cooled to 100 °C), it will have a dull tang when you tap it. After it has cooled off for a day, wash it to remove any excess dust and wait for it to dry.
- The piece is then glazed with a thin layer of glass particles. It’s important not to inhale any of the glaze. It can also absorb through the skin, so work carefully.
- After glazing, the piece goes back into the oven for its final firing (graze firing) at 1220 °C to vetrify. After that, it’s a matter of waiting patiently for two days until the final glaze has cooled. At this stage, your ceramic piece is ready to go out into the world.