Ceramic Restoration

Repairing Damaged Ceramic Is Tricky

Claire Van Vliet

Acclaimed artist and recipient of the MacArthur 'Genius Award', Claire Van Vliet asked me to restore a prized ceramic artwork known as 'Split-Footed Bowl' by Karen Karnes.

Karen Karnes split-footed bowl 1990
'Split-Footed Bowl, 1990' by Karen Karnes

It had fallen over and cracked. Several damaged areas were visible and a thin but inch long chunk of ceramic was missing from inside the pot, leaving a visible void on the inside and outside surfaces.

Cracked Pot

Claire wanted the piece restored. I mentioned that such restoration, no matter how well done, would likely reduce it's value - that's the way it is with art and antiques these days. She knew this, and preferred that the damage not detract from it's beauty.

Here are just a few examples of Ms. Van Vliet's wonderful artwork including her spectacular 'pulp painting' where she mixes pigment with pulp paper and applies it like paint to her artwork.

The MacArthur Award

Claire won the MacArthur for her innovations in book binding. She founded the Janus Press in 1955. Her groundbreaking work includes a glueless book binding technique. She was honored with the MacArthur in 1989, the first ever awarded to a book artist.

Bonnie and Bob Hannum with Claire Van Vliet
Bonnie Cueman, Claire Van Vliet, and Bob Hannum

The Ceramic Pot

"Split-Footed Bowl' was created and wood-fired by Karen Karnes in 1990 in Morgan, VT.

Karen Karnes (1925-2016), an American ceramist, is best known for salt glazed, earth-toned stoneware ceramics, and experiments with wood firing. She was born in New York City and studied in Italy.

Claire intends to gift the piece to the Racine Art Museum which holds the largest collection of contemporary craft in North America.

Here are just a few examples of Ms. Karnes' stunning ceramic artwork.

The Challenge

Ceramic art is difficult to restore. You can't re-fire pottery. I'd heard this but wanting to make sure, so I checked with a local potter. Sure enough, you can't fill a crack or missing piece with clay, re-glaze it, and place it back in a kiln. You just can't re-fire pottery without destroying the original surface glaze and causing even more damage.

The only is to fill the cracks, grind away the filler to match the ceramic texture, and then match the colors and glaze with paint.

I chose a white epoxy, color-fast acrylic paints, and various Dremel tool accessories for working the epoxy to match the surface texture.

It took about 30 hours. The most fun was applying many layers of paint to match that glazed and textured surface. I stretched the work over many months with permission from Claire who was in no hurry.

Ceramic Restoration Finished
Finished - Inside View
Ceramic Restoration Finished
Finished - Outside View

The Unusual Story of How We Met

Claire and I met a couple years ago, but the path was an odd one.

I was working with my colleague Jim Wenzel for the Office of Cultural Heritage. This is a small group of talented conservators and architects in the US State Dept that care for art and historic properties abroad. Our embassies and ambassador residences contain artwork. Some of our embassies are masterpieces of architecture or of great historic value such as the one where Jim and I were working. It was our ambassador's residence in Tokyo famous as the place where General Douglas MacArthur met Emperor Hirohito following WWII to accept Japan's surrender. Perhaps even more significant, this is where the emperor renounced his divinity.

We were in the basement of the embassy inspecting stored artwork and came across a particularly beautiful landscape print. It was by Claire Van Vliet, and it had been purchased by the State Dept many years ago. It was so beautiful that Jim decided to see if the artist was still alive or had a gallery so he could purchase more of her work for other embassies.

Jim returned to his office in DC and began to search for Claire. He was delighted to discover she was still very much alive and as active as ever creating art and printing books in her renown Janus Press. When he asked to purchase more of her work, she tuned the tables and generously donated over 100 of her prints. She wanted to give back to our country that had so generously accepted her as an immigrant and gave her the opportunity to succeed. Jim asked me to meet Claire and pick up the donation since she lived an hour north of my home in Montpelier, Vermont.

That's when I first met Claire, but the amazing part of the story has just begun!

Shortly after our first meeting I headed out on another assignment in our embassy in Ottawa. While inspecting art, the Legal Attache asked if I would replace some of the art in his office with something related to Canada. I told him that normally this would be a difficult request, but he was in luck! I explained that I'd just met Claire, a superb artist who was born in Ottawa, is now a US citizen, her father was a famous pilot in WWII, and she had just made a generous donation to the State Department.

The Attache, Kevin Vorndran, was not only thrilled, he suggested a special event. Invite Claire to the embassy to officially present her artwork and Kevin and the ambassador could officially thank her.

The event was wonderful. Claire donated a special 'pulp painting' and spoke about her work and her personal ties to Ottawa. Many attended including members of the Canadian and American armed forces in honor of her father's illustrious service. Refreshments and photos and speeches followed. For more details click this article that appeared in the State Dept newsletter.

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