Narrative Panel: Maria Gaetana Agnesi

Posted June 20th, 2011 by Nancy and filed in Porcelain Art Gallery 2010-11
This piece consists of five porcelain elements that each represent a significant phase in the life of the eighteenth century Italian mathematician Maria Gaetana Agnesi.  The mathematical imagery was provided to me by the Spanish mathematician, Nuria Joglar, a dear friend of my sister Louisa.
Eighteenth Century Italian Mathematician

The Life of Maria Gaetana Agnesi

Beginning from the left:  Agnesi was born into a wealthy Milanese family and demonstrated scholastic brilliance and devotion to Christianity at an early age.  She was often called upon to demonstrate her talents at her father's social events.  Second from left:  Her father asked her to educate her 20 siblings.  She agreed to do so, writing Instituzioni Analitiche, a highly regarded text on differential calculus, during that period.

Close-Up, Left Side

Center:  During this period she also wrote a notable analysis of a geometric curve which now bears her name, "The Witch of Agnesi."  The term "witch" is a mis-translation which was not corrected, and is not a reflection on Agnesi. Second from right:  As a result of her accomplishments in mathematics, she received Papal recognition and an appointment to the faculty at the University of Bologna.  (It isn't clear that she accepted the appointment.) Far right:  After the death of her father mid-century, she dedicated herself to working to relieve the suffering of the poor, and ultimately took her vows as a nun.  She died in 1799.

Close-Up, Right Side

METHOD: The porcelain is about 1/16" thick.  The original surface treatment includes some impressing, including linen from my family; some images are silk screened.  The buttons are cast.  The final surface treatment is barrel firing, a post-firing reduction technique.  It is impossible to predict the specific outcome of these firings, although the use of certain chemicals and organics and placement in the barrel can influence outcomes somewhat.  In this instance, all the pieces were placed together between two grates at the bottom of the barrel, so they had very similar exposure to the fire.  The harmony of the patina with the content of the elements is in this instance especially rewarding.

Barrel-Firing the Porcelain Elements

The pieces are mounted to 1" board that has multiple layers of tinted and burnished plaster applied to the surface, derived from the technique for producing Venetian plaster.          

Living Grid

Posted May 4th, 2011 by Nancy and filed in Living Grid Project
The Living Grid is a ceramic and encaustic collage of high density life.  It is a torso of a building.  It is a series of quiet, unsentimental vignettes capturing a moment in time.  It is a commentary on our relationships to one another, and on what is revealed.  It is a beautiful mosaic, and an opportunity for voyeurism (with modest reward). The windowpanes are stained porcelain.  The curtains are glazed porcelain.  The third, rear element is photographs on silk, placed on poster board with encaustic.  The frame is patinated aluminum made by Christopher Gay in consultation with Karyn Rovner. Living Grid was a labor-intensive project.  I was fortunate to have a powerful inspiration that was so specific.  I had the means to do what it took to make the piece, and I had the time.  Undertaking and completing this project was an exercise in drinking thirstily.  Making and finishing Living Grid was an imperative.

Living Grid, Side View 87.5"W x 39.6"H x 4.5"D

This project began in earnest in May of 2008 when I began the planning process.  By December 2008 I knew how the elements would relate to one another and how they would be installed.  My sister Rondi Vasquez joined me as studio assistant and we began fabrication and extensive testing of finishes.  In June of 2009, Lisa Ellena joined our team as studio helper.  Rondi and Lisa are both outstanding craftsmen, adding wonderful insights and useful suggestions that enhanced the piece.


Each curtain or set of porcelain curtains has its own character, defined by the clay used, the unique glaze and of course the technique for shaping the thin porcelain.  The clay is most beautiful when unspoiled by human handling.  It can be guided as it is being placed on a surface; the free form effect is from letting the clay do what it wants.  Of course, the pleated curtains had to submit to structured technique.  In the studio, the former became known as the coutourier curtains.  The latter were the JC Penney curtains.  As the installation progressed over the months, there were fewer and fewer curtains from JC Penney. Porcelain Curtain with Laundry The curtain glazes are from Laguna's Moroccan Sand whites, doctored with an EPK/dolomite mix and colored with oxides or mason stains.  Everything was fired to cone 5.


The first layer to balance was the curtain layer including elements of full, partial and paired curtains and blank, curtainless units.  I had percentages of each needed for each section and the total composition.  The same was true when curtain color was introduced.  The photographs have subtle variations in palette that had to be considered, too.

Rondi Studying the Layout of Unglazed Elements


Living Grid 2 Detail The original Living Grid series includes photos of domestic scenes printed onto silk and encased in wax.  The smaller Living Grid series (in the Baltic birch frames) plays with point of view:  Several of the pieces look out into the California landscapes and sky; some have no silk image, allowing the windowpanes in the piece to frame a real view. The most difficult part of attaching the image was the modest unevenness of the porcelain backs.  The original concept was to create a translucent work which would require all porcelain.  We realized that the triptych need not have porcelain backs because the frame would be wall-mounted.  While Living Grid 1 has porcelain backs (with a frame with a removable back), the triptych has heavy posterboard backing which made attaching the silk a dream.

Living Grid Close-Up

Balancing the palette was a major element in the project.  The colors needed to be predominantly neutral with just the right punctuation in brightness.  The patina had to be matte, or the curtains would look like shower curtains.  We added kiln wash to some of the recipes, but mostly relied on 15% EPK/Dolomite.  Thank you Richard Burkett!

Testing Blues

The porcelain windowpanes take 30 minutes to make, and an additional 10 minutes to stain after bisquing; another 10 minutes after firing is required to attach the wire-glue-silk for suspending.



Arne Aase's porcelain tiles suspended with PVC tubing and yarn [] was a source of inspiration for construction.  Living Grid had three layers of porcelain elements so it made sense to suspend the elements from an upper slat.  The windowpanes should be as close together as possible while choosing a slat that wouldn't bow under the weight of the porcelain elements, or under its own weight across the span. It was at about this time that my sister Rondi was becoming a part of the project.  The architect Karyn Rovner and metal artist Christopher Gay  consulted with us on frame construction and attachment.  On Karyn's advice, we used jeweler's wire and crimping beads, threading the wire through drilled holes in the slats and crimping them from above.  The frame Christopher made for us as the final mockup had 15 units and was made out of steel, with a span of about 30".   We created special cradles to hold the slats while we threaded the wire through.  Threading the elements into the slates is one of the more exacting tasks.IMG_2826 While the larger Living Grid pieces (1,2,3,4) are framed in steel and aluminum, wood was used for the smaller (5-10 unit) frames.  Tony Rotter is a wonderful woodworker who created custom plywood for us in Baltic birch.  The slats slip neatly into the back of the frame and the piece can be freestanding or wall-hung.  The smaller pieces are especially effective when backlit by daylight.
Gingko grid

Backlit porcelain



The Living Grid project began when I saw a compelling photograph by Yann Arthus-Bertrand.  It was featured in an exhibition of his photographs that was outdoors on the grounds of the British Museum.  Taken on a bright Sao Paulo day, the photograph is of a Cortiço, a tenement, in a favela, a slum.  The section of the facade forms grids within grids, apartments with windowpanes, many without glass.  The curtains added another layer of complexity to the facade, with shapes and colors as unique as fingerprints.  Laundry was strung across many of the windows.  Because of the brightness of the exterior, the interiors were practically black, revealing dim geometric forms and the occasional figure.  The photograph’s direct view into these units invites scrutiny but the darkness thwarts the voyeur.  I learned by chance that this shabby, recklessly constructed building is a knock-off of the rear facade of a building in Sao Paulo by the noted architect Oscar Niemeier (who designed the capitol buildings in Brasilia.)  The Niemeier building is one of the largest dwellings in the world, called the Copan building.  It is now run-down, but it is by far more middle class, and ultimately served as a valuable reference for The Living Grid. This is a photo of the photo, how it appeared to me.  The most faithful representation of the image can be seen at Yann Arthus-Bertrand’s website: While it would have been technically fun to try to achieve verisimilitude in recreating the favela of the above slum, I realized I could not defend that decision.  Loving the texture of the facade was not reason enough to depict the lives of people about whom I knew so little.  For the level of effort involved, I had to find my own truth, to depict things honestly, arising from my own life.  


Posted April 26th, 2011 by Nancy and filed in Porcelain Art Gallery 2010-11

Ceramic art often revolves around renderings of teapots, from simple to complex, as:  an homage to the Asian legacy in ceramic mastery; an object offering challenges for skill development; an opportunity to make something both creative and useful; a framework for interpretive work.  I don't do teapots.  I do the dress instead.  At the recent American Museum of Ceramic Art show, Stefanie Gruenberg provided a retrospective of her work, which is almost exclusively horses, which have been her passion for several decades.  I was so pleased to see that she found a lifetime of creativity in a single form.  Dresses aren't always the centerpiece of what I'm doing, but I have an abiding interest in making them.

The form of the dress is unmistakably iconic for a vast range of female experiences, even for women who don't wear dresses.  I reference the body when I make a dress.  The shape of dresses has technical challenges for form and surface treatment that still seem limitless, even after all the years I have spent making dresses.  Dresses can be made with a range of size and complexity, which means a range of price points.  I can make small, easily rendered dresses for craft fairs, and continue to challenge myself to make larger, more intricate dresses for living room walls, conference rooms and building lobbies!

Porcelain Doll Dresses

These ceramic dresses are made from castings of the doll dresses my mother played with in the 1920s, or they carry the imprint of embroidery from those dresses.  Many are dresses that my grandmother made herself, and her stitching is visible in the porcelain.  So is the lace.  The dresses are relics of my family history as a sister, daughter and granddaughter.  I'm delighted that I can share this side of life with others.  I'm proud to say that my brother-in-law is a fan!

I'm not understating things when I say that clothing was extremely important when I was growing up.   Suffice it to say it was too important.  What I love about working with dresses now is that they become the canvas where I can comment on the substance behind the dress, provide evidence of life.  I can also provide sweet decor when I'm not plumbing the depths.  All good.

The pictures of my mother in her childhood show that she was very well-dressed.  Later on, she made her own good choices.  Her dresses were a source of joy and pride for her, even a refuge.  I finally understand that this was what she had to give her six girls.  It was the terrain where she was most confident.  Yes, she conflated surface with substance, suffering for it mightily.  But she also conveyed a passion for design and execution that I treasure.  The neat stitching at the waistband on this ceramic dress, the puckered fabric at the neck, the depth of the hem, the simplicity of the surface, the tracings of the gathered fabric all delight me.  This dress is beautifully proportioned, and it transmits information about a girl's childhood that is widely shared and treasured.  Much can be imputed onto this simple garment.  


Winter and Spring, 2011

Here is the dress as canvas.  This dress was a petticoat my mother wore in about 1928.  You can see the stitching at the hemline.  The piece alludes to the female form, and the surface decoration cannot be divorced from that association.  This dress was made just after the Japanese tsunami wrought its devastation on northeastern Japan and became a means for me to express the anguish and sympathy I feel.


My sister Kathy and her husband Charlie have a number of my dresses and they have done them the honor of placing them in custom-built shadow boxes.  They look great!  All dressed up .....

Victorious! Barrel-Fired Porcelain Dresses

Posted April 7th, 2011 by Nancy and filed in Porcelain Art Gallery 2010-11
These dresses have clear body language:  They are triumphant!  When I made them I didn't realize how much the finish could contribute to the expression.  I was delighted with the results of the barrel-firing that left these unique and dramatic imprints -- quite suitable to the design of the piece.

This piece got into the San Diego County Fair.

This porcelain piece was wrapped in plant material, sprinkled with salts and oxides and fired in a barrel.

Dimensions: 13 1/2"W x 17"H x 1"D

Height assumes a 1" opening between top and bottom piece.


Victorious IV

This porcelain piece was wrapped in plant material, sprinkled with salts and oxides and fired in a barrel.

Dimensions: 13 1/2"W x 17"H x 1"D Height assumes a 1" opening between top and bottom piece.

Riff on a Petticoat – Porcelain Wall Dresses

Posted April 7th, 2011 by Nancy and filed in Porcelain Art Gallery 2010-11

These porcelain wall dresses are made from a casting of a petticoat my mother wore as a toddler in the 1920s.

This dress is beautiful and delicate, with the glaze breaking on the ridge of the winding lines.  The piece hangs on the wall from well-attached wire affixed to the back.  Materials are porcelain and glaze.

Dimensions: 11"W x 15"H X 3"D

Rustic Porcelain Dresses

Posted April 7th, 2011 by Nancy and filed in Porcelain Art Gallery 2010-11

  I call these dresses rustic because the texture and palette I use are evocative of distant and perhaps simpler times without being overly sentimental.

Recipe Dress


Recipe Dress has an image of our family's recipe for Red Velvet Cake.  It is in my mother's handwriting and you get the flavor of a recipe, not something you can actually follow!

DIMENSIONS  10"H x 5 1/2"W x 1"D

Burlap Mosaic Porcelain Dress


This graceful dress has a burlap texture and exquisite draping in the skirt.  The bodice has a subtle mosaic pattern.

Dimensions: 11"H x 5 3/4"W X 2 3/4"D



This skirt in this piece has a palette and textures reminiscent of crops or bolts of sturdy fabric, made for hard work.  The building is one from my family history.  I know the land well, but the building has changed and I no  longer know which one it is.  The sky isn't quite as big as it once was.

The piece hangs from the back with a well-affixed wire.

Dimensions: 7"W x 12.5"H x 2"D


The blouse surface of this dress is covered silkscreened verbs that capture the activities of the work world I inhabited for many years. The skirt carries a small ceramic photo at the waistline, an image of a cabin from my childhood. The skirt has its own active qualities: sculptural movement with a surface covered in ribbed patterning and finished in mason stains and encaustic, a waxing technique.

The piece is hung from wire affixed to the back of the piece.

Dimensions:  9"W x 16 1/2"H x 2"D


Windowpane Series – Wide Open

Posted April 7th, 2011 by Nancy and filed in Windowpane Series

Wide Open


31"W x 15.5"H x 2.5"D

Wide Open close-up

Dress on a Wire

Posted May 5th, 2010 by Nancy and filed in Older Work
I love the possibilities of integrating wire into the dress.  The wire will oxidize during the firing, developing a wonderful patina evoking age, rust, wear. Hanging Wire

Dress: Porcelain, Wire, Wax (SOLD)

Porcelain Dress on Wire II

Porcelain Dress on Wire II (SOLD)

  Porcelain and Wire, Free-Standing. The free-standing wire piece was inspired by Alberto Giacometti whose work I love love love.  And, I love the pink boots.

Alberto I Love You So Much (SOLD)

Older Work

Posted January 18th, 2010 by Nancy and filed in Older Work
This is a piece I created upon the invasion of Iraq by the United States.  The china is from the set we used in my childhood, set on a porcelain sheet and covered with porcelain latticework strips. Click on the title "Older Work" above  to see more. I made this raku piece after I happened upon the Peter Volkous "Stacks" in the Oakland Museum.  The room full of clay reached me viscerally; the collective pieces surprised me with their power.  I couldn't be as muscular as Volkous but I could find the place where the clay and I were partners.  I rented a studio on Harrison Street in San Francisco and began hand building, letting the clay find its voice, touching it as little as possible