Contaminated Soils in Ceramics

This Creative Exchange project forges links between scientist Dr Elze Hesse and ceramic artist Fleur Winter with the aim to bridge their fields through the use of research material and fired ceramics. Hesse is an evolutionary ecologist working on the use of bacteria in the remediation of metalcontaminated soils. Winter is a ceramic artist and teacher, working at the Leach Pottery in St. Ives. Cornwall has a rich mining heritage as apparent from the significant production of tin, copper, arsenic, lead, zinc and silver during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, which fuelled the industrial revolution. Many mines are no longer working, leaving a legacy of untreated mining waste.

The aim of the project is to explore how such metal-contaminated soils affect the quality of ceramics. Ceramic artists commonly explore a wide variety of raw materials to achieve different textures and colours. Some of these qualities are highly dependent on metal content. 

As part of her research, Hesse has extensively sampled and characterized soils in local postindustrial mining areas. As part of the collaboration a subset of these soils were selected, based on their metal composition and used to explore how variation in metal content affects ceramics. As a first step in this process, Winter produced a series of slip cast porcelain and pressed forms using plaster moulds, taken directly from the lab-ware used in Hesse’s work, ‘the unsung heroes of decades of research’. These lab-based ceramics were then used to create a collection of informative
‘glaze tests’.

Engaging scientists, artists and the public from ESI, Camborne School of Mines and the Leach Pottery, the use of polluted soils as glaze components in this project highlights the impact mining has had on the Cornish landscape. Subtle differences in the clay glazes show the meticulously collected research materials affecting the surface, structure and colour of the ceramics created. The use of lab-ware further links to the use of vessels in clay, draws parallels between science and art and adds to an increased understanding of the world, leaving a legacy of creative and reflective
experimentation.

The first test used pre-burnt contaminated soils in varying amounts (2% and 4%) in Leach Pottery’s Ying Ching glaze and then were treated to two different firings; a reduced atmosphere firing, where the kilns atmosphere is starved of oxygen during the process, and brings out the colours of the oxides within the glaze more vividly, and a simple oxidation firing.

The second test used soil samples pressed directly onto the clay surface and formed using the mould. These pieces were glazed using the base Ying Ching glaze recipe and put through a reduction firing.

The third test used mine tailings from Wheal Maid (kindly donated by Dr. Chris Bryan), where 100% of the soil is used as the clay body and then proportionally mixed with the simple white clay body porcelain in 25% increments (75%, 50%, 25%, 0%). These were left unglazed and fired in an
oxidation firing.

With special thanks to: Pawel Sierocinski, microbiologist, who initiated the collaboration.