This blog describes the process and inspirations for the creation of Kanika Marshall's mixed media sculptures.


| 27 August, 2013 00:40

Adinkra Totem
I have always admired the beauty and symbology of the totemic structures of Native American and African tribes. A totem is defined as a being, object, or symbol representing an animal or plant that serves as an emblem of a group of people, such as a family, clan, group, lineage, or tribe, reminding them of their ancestry or mythic past. Click on (More) to see the rest of the article.
A couple of years ago, I got out my rusty-from-disuse potters wheel and began throwing lots of clay pots for the annual Empty Bowls fundraiser to feed the hungry in Sacramento. Since I usually throw only once or twice a year, I must make twice as many pots as I need to submit the best ones to the fundraiser. Last year, I used the remaining pots to build an African totem full of Adinkra symbols. Adinkra are visual symbols, originally created by the Akan people of Ghana and the Ivory Coast, that represent concepts or aphorisms. The symbols have a decorative function but also represent objects that convey traditional wisdom, aspects of life or the environment. My Adinkra Influences totem incorporated vivid tribal glaze colors on the clay pots, as well as shells and glass. All of the pieces were glued together onto a convex steel base. It was gorgeous, but I wanted to find an easier and much more lightweight way to make totems.
My friend, Aiyana Pearson, of Allied Ceramic Art Institute, gave a three-hour totem class in mid-August 2013. She taught her students how to use mundane thrift store finds - like wooden and plastic bowls - as molds to easily make spherical shapes out of clay. Each shape had an entry and an exit hole to allow the piece to slip onto a vertical metal pipe or rebar. The pipe would be welded to a metal base for a freestanding totem.
Initial Clay Pieces from Class
At the end of the three-hour class, I had four small pieces to start my totem. A female form slipped out, as Aiyana suspected it would. I was so jazzed about the process that I went home and spent the next five hours or so making many, many more clay pieces. And all Monday I made animal shapes (which I normally never make), more females, moon and sun shapes, wacky abstract shapes, as well as thin round spacers. I dried the shapes in the hot sun and in my oven to ensure they were devoid of moisture and would be less likely to explode in the kiln. The pieces went into the kiln Monday night for a cone1 bisque fire (around 2,000 degrees). I already had some metal bases ready to go, since I use them in the majority of my garden art sculptures, so Tuesday afternoon, I experimented with placing the once-fired bisqued pieces on the metal stands.
Initial Placement of Pieces
It was so fun arranging and rearranging them to make two interesting/fun/wacky totems! I glazed them all Tuesday nite and did a cone 05 (1900 degrees) glaze firing Wednesday afternoon
In the glaze kiln
Thursday morning was like Christmas opening the kiln! The colors were vibrant, but several items had moved a bit and stuck to each other or the spiky stilts which were supposed to keep the glazed piece from sticking to the shelf. Oh well! That's what my angle iron grinder is for: to grind off unwanted kiln wash or sharp edges.  
The clay pieces were too pretty to adorn my funky old metal stands so I decided to make four new stands in my metal shop before noon, at which time I would leave to visit my dad. The best laid plans .... I found lots of metal treasures in my homage to Fred Sanford (i.e., junk yard "recycling center"). I found some cool metal cut outs and other rusted metal squares, circles and triangles. I laid the pieces out on my artistically painted garage floor, trying different combinations until I was satisfied with four. 
Newly glazed and metal layouts
In order to make a successful weld, one must clean the surface of the metal. Since I wanted as much of the rusted character to remain, I only used the grinder to remove the rust/grease from where I wanted to weld two pieces of metal together. Time to plug in my MIG welder using a strong electrical cord. Then I opened the shielding gas valve to prevent exposure of the molten weld pool to oxygen, nitrogen and hydrogen contained in the air atmosphere. It is critical to put on appropriate safety gear to help avoid blindness, burns, and other possible negative effects from welding, like: long sleeved shirt, knee-length leather apron, socks, closed toe shoes, goggles, breathing mask, hair bonnet, leather gloves, ear protection, and a welding helmet. Ok, I was ready to weld by 9:30 AM.  
Welding Safety
The first stand went together pretty well, except that the 20 amp circuit breaker kept tripping. The welder itself needs 19+ amps, so adding a light or using the highest power setting will trip the breaker fairly easily. So many times during the next three hours I had to turn off the welder switch; flip up my helmet; mosey outside to the breaker box; turn the tripped switch fully off for several seconds; turn it back on; walk back inside the garage; turn on the welder; flip down the face mask on the helmet; and try again. Because I was near the end of a big 10-spool of wire, the wire kept clogging and sputtering molten metal onto my project. Countless times I would have the clean the nozzle area, scrape or grind off excess weld material, snip the excess wire to 1/4" long, and try to weld again. I'm sure that I wasted an hour just with these problems! I used my level to help weld 1/2" wide rebar straight up in the center of the stands. But finally, by 1 PM, four stands were made. Then quick shower, breakfast/lunch then out the door to visit my dad.
New stands
Yes, I had made some really beautiful stands from recycled steel, but when I started loading on hand-sculpted clay pieces, I noticed more dancing and swaying in the wind than I felt comfortable with. The stands needed to be heavier. I tried heavy pots and large clay pieces for the bottom of the totem. I really liked these three totems, but I still wanted some heavier stands.
Three Initial Totems
I went to one of my favorite recycling centers and bought more heavy metal to make more stands. They were gorgeous but were defeating my initial goal of making lighter weight totems. Safety for customers won out, though, and I reasoned that I could roll the totems around on a dolly and stake them down to the ground.
The next day I woke up with a bee in my bonnet to throw some more totem pieces on my potters wheel (since I hadn't used it at all this year). Wow! 30 pounds got used up quick and I thought the results were reasonable enough for totems. Messy though. so I decided to throw another 25-bag of clay, but this time for small bowls and vessels. Not too bad, but I ended up having to trim off quite a bit of clay from the bottoms of the thrown pieces and/or pounding them Into thinner shapes. Altogether, I threw 25 pieces!
My son volunteered to help me glaze the pieces one night. We used a lot of yellows and oranges, as well as other vibrant blues, greens, reds, and shiny blacks. By 1AM, the glazed pieces were in the kiln to fire overnight. The next afternoon, they made their radiant appearance outside, on top of the spa cover. Such luminance! 
Glazed thrown pots
Ok, now the totems are ready for several September 2013 art shows at the Brickhouse Gallery, the Elk Grove Fine Arts Center, and my studio.
Wheel Thrown Totem


Enjoy your blessings,

Kanika Marshall, Sculptor,[email protected]