Karen Orsillo's Porcelain Patterns

Layered clay creates intricate designs

Prices are $50 for yunomis and $25 to $3,400 for vases, bowls, teapots and salt and pepper cellars

At first look, Karen Orsillo’s work looks like a Fimo clay process. Indeed, the process is similar, but she uses a high-fire porcelain to create lasting works of beauty for utility or display. The Seacoast ceramic artist has been perfecting nerikomi, an age-old Japanese technique, for more than 30 years.

Orsillo struggled with the technical demands of the work until she trained with a Japanese master in Boston. With each color layer having different shrinkage rates, nerikomi can present persistent problems at the firing stage. But, even with technical issues aside, the work is a painstaking process.

The color layers start with commercial stains wedged into the wet, light-colored porcelain. The thoroughly mixed colored clays are rolled and layered into 8-inch rectangular blocks, where the number of layers can reach 100 after several folds. While wet, the blocks are sliced with a thin piano wire, revealing a cross-section pattern. Orsillo’s designs often have many subtle shades of layers punctuated with a dark gray to help define the pattern. These slabs are shaped into the final piece by hand-building, or draping over a form. Sometimes the patterns are bookended as mirroring patterns.

Occasionally, happenstance creates a new pattern, but, usually, the process and patterning have been thought out steps ahead. After firing, the surface is matte, as Orsillo prefers, and only glazed inside when necessary for utilitarian purposes. 

Orsillo teaches hand-building clay techniques in a continuing education and BFA program at the New Hampshire Institute of Art in Manchester. In November, she will be selling a variety of her work at the Holiday Arts Tour in Portsmouth.

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