Making a Reliquary, Part 1

This week, I am beginning an interesting new ceramic piece. I am making a latex texture mat, which has text and imagery that will be incorporated into a funereal reliquary. The reliquary will be used for the ashes of two much-loved and exceptional people, husband and wife, who requested that their remains be joined after their deaths and interred at a wild and beautiful spot on the Oregon coast. These two individuals were Floyd George Steele, and Dorothy Jane Petersen Steele, my father-in-law and mother-in-law.

The design of the imagery records their shared, lifelong appreciation of music, and F. G.’s passion for mathematics. D.J. loved plants and flowers, and enjoyed having them in her home. The names of their six children are part of the design.
The imagery will be incised into a 1/2″ thick slab of white, grogless, low-fire clay. I like Seattle Pottery Supply’s LF06 for this use. Like all talc bodies, it is a pain to recycle, but has many other fine properties. The slab was cut to the largest dimension that will fit into my Skutt 1227 kiln. Once the imagery is complete, the slab will be carefully dried before bisque firing to Cone 04. After firing, a 2-part latex mixture will be applied in three coats, and a mat will be lifted. This mat will be used to texture a slab for the body of a reliquary, and can then be used to create keepsake pieces for family members.
In the image at the top of the page, you can see a quilter’s oval template laid out to align with a center mark on the clay. I will use this oval to define the text area, and also to inscribe consistent and correct lines in the clay.
Lettering with stamps must be done well before carving can take place. For the letter stamps to work, the clay should be fairly soft. Carving can be most easily accomplished when the clay is harder than a brick of cheese.

I’m controlling the drying of the rest of the slab while the central lettering is taking place with plastic. These letters are available at Georgies, and are made of plastic. I prefer the metal letter stamps that are available from Tandy Leather, but I did not have the correct size for this project. I might have been able to get a better impression at a dryer clay state, but I wanted to get this project started since the drying of the slab can take a week or more. I have about three weeks to complete this project before the scheduled memorial service.

Lettering of the central oval is complete. Now, I will dry the slab on a piece of plywood in the open air for about four hours, until it is dry enough to begin the rest of the imagery.

I use a commonly available wire-tipped tool to incise imagery into the prepared clay. I’ll take a picture of the tool I use and post it on the blog.
The floral imagery I use is part wild rose, part dogwood, and part magnolia. My own mother used a similar generic flower in her textile painting and other handcrafts, which I loved to observe in process as a child.

Here’s the slab after three or four hours of pattern application. All this imagery will be refined again at a drier state. From here to bisque firing, I will cure the slab in such a way that both sides loose moisture evenly and equally. This will prevent warping during the drying process.

The finished slab is ready to be dried between layers of gypsum board. Every day, I will uncover it and have a look at it, and rework lines and letters until I am satisfied with the surface. When the slab begins to change color, I will dry it on a wire shelf so air can reach each side simultaneously. Subsequent blog posts will show the making of the mat, and the creation of the funerary vessel.

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