World Ground Café Exhibit's Lustrous Colors in Clay

by Julie Scheff

Phyllis Pacin in her studio. Photo by Greg MacGregor.

What do such divergent places as the New York Stock Exchange, Alameda's County Recorder's Office and the Laurel's World Ground Café have in common? They, along with museums across the state, house the ceramic artwork of Laurel resident Phyllis Pacin.

Each of the World Ground Café exhibit's 15 pieces is formed from numerous parallelogram-shaped raku-fired tiles. They are a honeycomb of various shapes bursting with nature-inspired colors. Pacin creates her works in two-dimensional planes but sometimes she teases us with trompe l'oeil. "Folded Fly," for instance, rests flat except for a flap that hinges to the wall, suggesting three dimensions.

Pacin has had her hands in "mud" since the 1960s, when she discovered the world of clay in high school. First, she tamed it on a kick potter's wheel. Then she wrestled it into sculpture. Today she rolls it like pie dough to make individual tiles that she arranges into wall art.

In her studio, her two-car garage, Pacin flattens out as much as 50 pounds of clay into sheets. Then she slices out individual tiles.

Pacin collects found objects: a palm frond, a doll's head, clothespin, a mallet, a spring. Stamping these "wonderful toys"—as she calls them—into the clay imprints it with a variety of texture and pattern. Afterwards, she lets them dry for a week and then bisque-fires these tiles four at a time.

Meanwhile, she'll sketch out a drawing of how she will lay out the tiles and the motifs she will paint across her "canvas."

Pacin paints with wax and glaze to bring to life abstract plantlike shapes or human and animal forms. The designs float across the tiles in wonderful hues of glistening copper patinas, sea greens, and fuschia, which she borders with charcoal-black lines.

Once the tiles are glazed, Pacin lowers them into a bed of red-hot pine needles. The needles smolder and pull oxygen out of the tiles, resulting in "vibrant lustres, cracked glazes, and velvety smoke-blackened clay," as she describes them.

Pacin does everything she can to assure she gets the colors she wants. She has built a color test board of glazed, domino-sized clay pieces. But in the unpredictable process of raku firing, the glazes don't always produce as planned.

"It's ironic to work in a medium so capricious, because I'm a control freak," says Pacin.

Control freak or not, evidence of her organization abounds in her tidy studio. A box of files contains sketches of various shapes for her artworks. Each file folder is labeled with their names—"New Math City" and "Junior Zig Zag" are but two names.

Where do her ideas come from? "New Math City" was inspired by an aerial photo. Pacin also draws from turn-of-the-century photographer Karl Blossfeldt. You can see how his botanical forms—a curled-up fern frond, an unfurling flower, are suggested in her work. Random moments in her life also spark her creative impulses. Pacin said she decided upon the isometric shape of her tiles when she was exercising at the gym and was captivated by a shadow cast from the window.'

Pacin's exhibit runs until March 26.

'Julie Scheff is a Laurel resident and a realtor. She is conducting a workshop on "Buying a Home in Today's Market" on March 21 at 3900 Piedmont Ave.'For more information please call: 541-3386.