photograph by Carson Zullinger
Mitch is a very talented artist and also a pioneer. He developed a unique technique of creating two dimensional art using clay called Clay Printing As the inventor and a clay aficionado, he has mastered the elements of this process while, at 74 years old, he continues to explore more and more of its potential.
When did you first start working in clay? Where was it? What type of art were you making prior to working with clay?
My artistic career started while I was a student at The University of the Arts in Philadelphia [previously called Philadelphia College of Art]. While I was a printmaking major. sometime in my Junior year, I wandered down to the basement where I witnessed magic. For the first time in my life I saw someone throwing on the potters’ wheel, and as they say "it was love at first sight". I knew then and there that this is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.
Can you describe the clay printing technique/process?
Printing with colored clay is a printing process that uses a slab of wet clay as the matrix, and china clay slip with organic pigments as the "ink". The slip is applied to the wet slab using a variety of techniques, i.e., slip trailing, stenciling, stamping, etc. to develop the design. A wooden rolling pin "the press" is rolled over a dampen paper that pulls a thin layer of colored clay from the matrix. Many mono prints can be pulled from the same slab without re-charging the slab.
How did you transition from classic 3D ceramics to 2D clay printing?
For me, and this has been true my whole artistic career, making clayprints and clay pots are the same. I never felt that I transitioned from 2D to 3D. All the techniques that I have developed over the last 45 years are the same for either. If push came to shove I will say that I am a potter making prints.
What was the evolution of your clay printing techniques over the years?
When I first started making clay prints in 1968, I was more structured in my thinking. First I thought that I needed an absorbent surface like paper to apply to the wet clay slab. For 12 years I experimented with paper [1968 to 1980] with some success. My images where also very structured and more conservative, less abstract. Around 1979 I found myself in a fabric store and noticed a roll of Pellon hanging from the ceiling. I inquired about it and was told that it was non- absorbent and figured it would not work for me. But I purchased a yard of it and went home and immediately stuck it in my print drawer and forgot about it. Probably about 6 months later I pulled it out and tried it. It worked, and worked much better then I imagined. What was going on here? This experience was a pivotal change in my direction to develop clay printing. While researching this change I discovered that Pellon, used for the clothing industry, has a slight static charge built into the fabric. This charge helps "pull" clay from the slab because clay also has a charge. One has a negative charge and one has a positive. All of this change slowly permeated my way of thinking more about the process than the product. This helped me get out of my comfort zone and try working "without a net". Many new ideas and changes occurred during this time, i.e., using pastels, transfers slips from paper, mark making using tools and textures.
You use special paper for printing. Can you describe the properties that make it important?
After I discovered the benefits of Pellon then I went to the internet to find out more about the static charge. This led me to the Non-Woven industry, which is not used for clothing, but for filtering,i.e., air conditioning, water, vacuum bags, coffee fitter, and in 1985 Swiffer. The materials that I have been using is called Reemay. It is primarily used for air conditioning and water filtering.
You teach this techniques in workshops all over the country and abroad. What is the response to your workshops?
For about 30 years I have been teaching ClayPrinting all over the world. I have taught approximately 300 workshops since 1983 and probably over 2000 students. In addition I have sold about 2000 of my DVD's: The Art of ClayPrinting with Mitch Lyons. On the internet, the search for Clay Monoprints, finds about 2 dozen sites that show past student's work. Although there are not many clayprinters out there, I always get positive results from students who take my workshop. Clayprinting is still new to the art community. The word is spreading but very slowly. I think the response is great, but would like it to be far greater.
As an artist, do you have an upcoming exhibition; are you in collections?
Currently I have an exhibition in The Old Jewish Art Center in Philadelphia which ends this November. Another exhibition is in Brad Smith's studio right after Thanksgiving, and for the first two weekends in December I will have my annual OPEN STUDIO, which will celebrate our 27th year.
My work can be found in many personal collections as well as some major museums. Brooklyn Museum of Art, Delaware Art Museum, Noyse Museum and also in university collections: University of Delaware, Bradley University, American University, and others.
What new techniques are you working with and what is your vision for clayprinting going forward?
Recently I have been experimenting with the computer to add digital images to my clay prints. I have also begun to print on various grades of sandpaper and play with the idea of using decals to the clay print. After over 40 years of printing with clay I am still very excited about the technique. I must say that I am blessed that I not only found a wonderful way of working but it also perfectly fits my personality. Not sure where this will take me but I am getting out of the way so it will.