It all started out innocently enough; we were trying to figure out a way to modify the Self Portrait Paperweight project for the Hawthorne ELP Artist Residency.  Originally I had planned to have the kids make a clay positive face, then pour a plaster/silica mix mold for each one before doing a pot-melt with recycled bottle glass.

The hassle factor was high, as were the potential material costs. Then it dawned on me, what if the kids made a reverse portrait with clay, I put it at the bottom of a standard size mold, and the glass melts down in.  Reusable molds (in this case, extra deep terra cotta saucers, of which I own exactly 3, but which are cheap and readily available).  Problem solved!

Except no one makes the saucers anymore.  When I bought mine they were everywhere!  I discovered this after submitting my final proposal.  Nowhere in town, nowhere on the web. I’m sure I could have found them eventually, but not in the quantity that I needed (30).

So, to further complicate the process, I decided to make the saucers.  It’s only 30 or so, I have a ceramics kiln and how hard could it be.  Turns out, not very hard,  I made some nice octagonal saucers that fit on my kiln shelf nicely.

The first class to make the portraits is the 6th grade.  They have a great time, understand the concept and do good work.  Back to the studio go the faces.

But there is a problem, what is going to become known as the infamous gap.

The Problematic GapThat gap between the edge of the face and the saucer has to be filled with something.  If it isn’t, the glass will grab the edge and break off as it cools.  Possible options?  Fiber blanket, plaster, or even sand.

Paperweight mold with fiber gap fillerPaperweight mold with sand fillerWhich is a great idea, but it doesn’t work.

Recycled Glass Paperweight - crackedNot all of them cracked, of the 20 that I fired, 3 were useable.  This is a big problem.  I have 220 paperweights to make, my kiln fits only 20 at a time, and a firing takes 24 hours.  With a success rate of around 20%, things are getting ugly fast.  I can’t use the larger kiln because I need a firing temperature of 1850 to do a pot melt, and the Denver tops out at 1650.

So, what if we just fill the molds with the glass cullet and then fire to 1850?  Forget the pot part?  That could work:

Recycled Glass Cullet - PrefiringRecycled Glass Paperweight - chunkyor not.

The gap is the problem, so, how do I eliminate the gap and still use pots?  Most of the faces are pretty uniform in size, so off to the hardware store I go.  I did manage to find azalea pots that are wide enough on the bottom to accommodate the faces.  Unfortunately, they are too tall to fit in the kiln with the crucible pot, so I have to cut them all down into little saucers.

Plan B with Flower PotsThe smaller saucer size means that a.  I can fit more into the kiln, and b. I need less glass.  The expanded capacity also means that I need smaller crucible pots….so, back to the hardware store to buy 30 more pots in a smaller size.

The new saucers seem good, I was able to fill the gap with plaster and load 28 into the kiln instead of just 20.

Recycled Glass pot meltAwesome!  Except with the smaller pots, more densely packed, the bottom layer isn’t getting enough heat in the center, so the middle four didn’t work.  The top layer looks great, but they are getting very close to being a little TOO hot and the surface is devitrifying and wrinkling.  I can’t turn up the heat.

I CAN add a flux to lower the melting temperature though, that will also give the glass better flow through.  I use a borax flux for the next batch.

Paperweights fired with fluxBeautiful!  Until I try to dump them out.  The flux has done it’s job, all 27 pots are filled and look great.  Except that the flux also lowered the wet point of the glass, which seeped through the kiln wash and has stuck to the clay faces like flies on fly paper.  Every single paperweight in this batch cracked.  Most of them into large beautiful chunks.  Two of the clay faces broke.

Recycled Glass Paperweight with flux - cracked

At this point, it is Sunday, June 3rd.  School is out on June 6.  I have a total of 60 finished paperweights.  This is where the desperation kicks in.

It’s not that this project is impossible, it’s just incredibly difficult on a large scale.  The molds have to be prepared with extreme care, the firings are finicky and it’s just taking WAY TOO LONG!!

What to do?

At the 11th hour, I arrive at a solution that is remarkable in it’s simplicity.

Muffin Cup of last resortI call it the Muffin Cup of Last Resort.  It’s two layers of 1/32″ fiber paper folded in half and stapled tightly around each face.  Then thick kilnwash around the edge to seal any small gaps.

final batch pre-glass loadingThe not round faces still have to go into saucers, but I’ve reduced the number of finicky molds and avoided the need to buy a million more pots.

The other problem, I can’t do pot melts in this kiln, so I use my artist prerogative and change the glass at the very last minute from recycled bottle glass to recycled tempered glass.  All of the glass comes from the same sheet, so it is self compatible and large pieces, so it’s fuseable.  Since the kids are expecting color, I coat the chunks with a dilute borax flux and then add Armstrong Float Fire powders and frit.

Final batch prefiringThis batch of glass took 13 hours to prep and load.  I finished loading at 4:30 Tuesday afternoon and set the firing schedule for a full fuse with a 20 minute soak at the high temperature.  At 5 a.m. Wednesday morning, I have this:

Final Batch after firingSchool is out for the year in just 7.5 hours.  The faces are not perfectly smooth around the edge, every one needs some coldworking.

Final fired paperweightThe faces are also still too hot to get wet, so I spend some time peeling off the muffin cups and dumping out saucers.  By 9 a.m., they are cool enough to saw without cracking.  I opted to use the tile saw, since I have a nice blade on it and not a lot of time.

Final face with glassFinished Final Recycled Glass PaperweightBy 12:00, I’m ready to deliver 5 out of 7 of the classes projects.  Unfortunately, one of them is for the 6th grade, which, unbeknownst to me had graduated the day before and isn’t at the school.

It’s okay.  My most amazing volunteer coordinators have found volunteers to distribute the last project, I have successfully completed my first full scale artist in residency.  Hopefully the kids had a fabulous time, because I know I did.  I would go back in a red hot minute!  But not without my Muffin Cups.

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