Wali Hawes 1952 - 2014
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Building a Paperclay Dragon

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Below: Nakano from the Yamanaka Clay Co. tests the paperclay with a blow torch.

testing the paperclay


Wali Hawes builds paperclay dragons as part of his life as a potter in Japan

body of the dragon being constructed

Above: The body of the dragon being constructed using the coil method.

Since my days as a student potter, I have always been fascinated with kilns, especially wood fired and gas kilns. In I986 an incident took place which sparked off what became Fired Earth Constructions and, in particular, Fire Trees, Dragons and Fire Flowers. I spent some time in Navapalos, in the province of Soria, Spain, learning about adobes and rammed earth. I built a bottle kiln on site out of adobes to fire some pottery, reaching I000'C in about eight hours. I noticed that the kiln had fired itself (at least on the inside) thus converting itself into a ceramic object. I later presented these 'kilns as objects' at an art show in Barcelona and later at several festivals and workshops in Spain and England.

The dragon 'Yoko' at the height of the fire

The dragon 'Yoko' at the height of the fire


In I99I I moved to Japan, working as a potter and once demonstrating my fired earth constructions to the Japanese public. I live in Tokoname, a small town with a I000 year tradition in ceramics, situated in central Japan, a gem among the pottery centres of Japan. Early in I996 I heard. about a local festival in the neighbouring town of Ono which featured the dragon as a symbol of festivities. I had, by that time, met Kyoko Inoue, one of the persons involved in the Festival Committee, and I proposed to her the idea of constructing a dragon for the festival. Finding it difficult to have my work accepted for major art shows and festivals, I saw the Ono Dragon Festival as a chance of proving my capabilities in this field. More than a year later my proposal was allowed to enter the arena of open public discussion and with a sponsor, extensive documentation and a video of past events, they agreed to my proposal. At last, I felt, I could do some of this work in Japan.

The building and firing was the least of my worries... until I began to try and track down the material necessary for my work. Normally I use adobes which are unfired sun dried clay blocks made from a mixture of roughly sieved unrefined local clays with a clay content as low as 40 per cent and mixed with chopped straw.

In England I had changed to unfired bricks as a substitute but, in Japan, finding the type of bricks needed for the work was difficult, and what was available was expensive. My budget didn't allow it.

It was then that I read the article 'More on Paperclay' by Graham Hay published in CeramicsTECHNICAL No 3. I was assured by the Ono Festival Committee that there was no shortage of suppliers of paper pulp. After numerous phone calls, discovering the close network between paper manufacturers, it was arranged that I contact Daishowa Seiishi Paper Company which turned out to be in nearby Fuji and would we kindly come and collect what we needed.

In the meantime I had been doing tests in my workshop with newspaper, cardboard and compressed pulp but these proved fairly unsatisfactory due to the length of time needed to convert the material into pulp. The compressed pulp came in sheets and needed to be broken down. Eventually I made a soup like mixture which gave me something to go on. Armed with this information and a van stuffed full of bags of paper pulp, I drove to the clay company to prepare the paperclay.

Applying the finishing touches to the paperclay dragon

Applying the finishing touches to the paperclay dragon


Convincing the boss at the clay company was another story but he was sufficiently intrigued by the whole thing to want to try it out. We found that breaking down the pulp into a soup like consistency and then adding the dry clay was going to be time consuming and we didn't have the facilities to dry out the paperclay mixture to the consistency ready to use. So, the paper pulp in the form it was in (lumpy and which could be picked up in handfuls) was mixed with slightly moistened clay. If squeezed in the hand it would form a ball but could be easily broken up. The mix proportion was four parts paper pulp, six parts clay and one part grog. The mixture was blended by hand and then pugged. We prepared one ton of paperclay this way. The paperclay when ready to use had a water content of 38 per cent.

A small model of the dragon was made and fired with a blow torch by Nakano, the head of the clay company. He applied an oxy acetelyne torch directly to the construction and took it to I300'C in about 30 seconds. To my relief nothing untoward happened.

Finding a name for the dragon wasn't difficult. With the town's name of Ono, no other name fitted quite so well as 'Yoko'

A week before the festival, we started work, building a supporting framework out of split bamboo and applying the paperclay directly on the support. We discovered that while the bamboo structure worked for the tail of the dragon, it was totally inadequate for the body and we abandoned the idea during construction inclining towards the more simple and direct coiling approach. A strong typhoon and heavy torrential rain didn't help and because we had a deadline to meet in order to be able to finish in time, a fire was lit inside the body to dry out and strengthen it at the same time. In three days we had Yoko finished and ready for firing although the clay was far from dry; that would have required two more weeks at the least.

Atsuko Ito adds some further decoration to the ton weight dragon made of paperclay

Atsuko Ito adds some further decoration to the ton weight dragon made of paperclay


We started firing around six in the morning and by about six in the evening Yoko was behaving like a dragon coughing up, belching out, spewing forth and bellowing smoke, sparks and tongues of flame. Waste wood was used for the firing but any wood with a high resin content is suitable because what is wanted is flame rather than heat.

As the Yoko dragon was for demonstration and effect we only fired her on the inside. On the whole, given the adverse working environment and lack of time, the paperclay stood up well. We pushed it to the limits Cracking was a problem but I feel this can be solved by introducing internal supports for additional strength and drying out the piece more thoroughly before firing.

This style of performance clay unites several aspects inherent in the ceramic process clay, forming and fire. Fire becomes part of the whole and is not only a tool to convert clay into ceramics. The kiln, too, becomes a ceramic object a piece of sculpture totally true to the elements of what it is composed.

I am now working on a larger scale, free from the restrictions of kiln size as well as dealing with a new concept - ceramics in the realm of the ephemeral.

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