Science and Art
One of the characteristics that makes me unique amongst ceramic artists is my training, education and profession in chemistry. Throughout my life I have explored the intersection between the artistic and scientific creativity. Whether it was taking AP sciences classes alongside honors ceramics in high school, managing the schedules of both my chemistry labs at Brown and ceramic labs at RISD in the same semester, or teaching chemistry during the school year and pottery during the summer at The Harker School, art and science collide over and over again in all aspects of my life.
Having a deeper understanding of the processes, materials and chemistry behind ceramics and ceramics art is at the core of why I have developed such an intimate relationship with ceramics. I took my first clay class as a freshman in high school in 1994 and have never stopped exploring the depths and possibilities of this unique artistic and sculptural medium.
In junior year at Brown University, I took a course in ceramic material science at Rhode Island School of Design that was the beginning a new relationship with clay, glaze and glass. In combination with my studies in the Brown University Chemistry department, I was able to use non-traditional chemical in my glazes and clay for my studies in the RISD ceramics department. I eventually developed the nickname “Crazy Chemist” as I would often surprise the RISD students and professors with my results from using the chemicals and ideas I developed using my Brown University chemistry connections.
I soon developed a small reputation due to the results of my experimentation including accidentally producing chlorine gas and in a separate event burning off part of my pants with hydrochloric acid. Through the years I have matured in my experiments and though I enjoy telling the stories of my mistakes, safety has becoming an important part of my professional life, both as chemistry teacher and as an artist.
My recent interests have been exploring the glass chemistry of glazes by using unique materials. Specifically my interest is in the rare earth lanthanides and their cousins the actinides.
The lanthanides I use in my work include the oxides of Praseodymium, Neodymium, Holmium and Erbium. All these oxides are very stable and non-toxic. I am exploring these elements specifically because of their history of use in the glass of the early 1900s along with their recent use as colorants in ceramic glazes. Neodymium and Holmium specifically exhibit a physical property called metameric color where the color of the material appears to change when illumined by different types of light sources.
The actinide I use in my work is Uranium, element 92. Specifically, I use depleted uranium which has had the more radioactive isotope, Uranium-235, removed leaving behind mostly Uranium-238, the less radioactive isotope. Uranium-235 is used as fuel in nuclear power plants and could be used to make a nuclear weapon. However, the material I use cannot be used for these purposes and is notably less radioactive. In fact, depleted uranium is used for a variety of purposes including ballasts for airplanes, ballasts for large ships and military ammunition.
I take the safety of my body, my art and my collectors very seriously and did extensive research before acquiring and using uranium as a material in my glazes. This included contacting and communicating with the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission about safety and regulations related to the sale of my ceramic art. Due to the chemical composition of my ceramic art, my artwork classifies as “glassware” and can have more than the typical 0.5% Uranium by weight composition. However, I take appropriate measures to ensure that the uranium is safely sealed in the borosilicate glass matrix of the glazing medium. In fact, scientists are using glass materials related to the same ones I use in my glazes for storing nuclear waste due to how safely it stores radioactive elements.
Uranium has a long history of use in glass and ceramic art. Uranium glass is often referred to as Depression glass or Vaseline glass due to it having a yellow-green color. The glass is unusual in that it fluoresces a vibrant neon green under a UV black light.
Perhaps the best known example of uranium use in ceramics are the fiesta ware collections from the 1930s all the way through 1965. In the 1930s the Homer Laughlin Company produced brilliant red fiesta ware using un-depleted uranium oxide as a colorant for the glaze. What makes this so interesting is that these plates were intended to be used for dinnerware. People were literally eating off of radioactive plates. Some of these plates can still be found on ebay to this very day though they are rare. More likely you can find the fiesta ware made using depleted uranium when it was reintroduced as a glaze colorant in 1959 after the Atomic Energy Commission relaxed restrictions on the use of depleted uranium materials. The range of colors of these uranium glazes include red, yellow, orange and even ivory. In 1972 the Homer Laughlin Company stopped using uranium in their fiesta ware which they continue to sell today.
Since then there has been numerous studies about the leaching of uranium from fiesta ware containing this material. The generalized theme of the conclusions of these studies were that acids from common foods can accelerated the leaching of uranium from the glaze of fiesta ware. In general, materials containing uranium should not be used with food.
Depleted uranium is radioactive, but not significantly in comparison to normal uranium or other nuclear materials. Depleted uranium is mainly an alpha particle emitter. Alpha particles are fast moving, positively charged and relatively heavy compared to other radioactivity. Due to their larger mass, alpha particles can be stopped with as little as a piece of paper. When exposed to depleted uranium the alpha particles are stopped by your skin and cause little to no damage. However, the raw material needs to handle with care as ingesting depleted uranium can be harmful. Specifically, one wants to avoid skin exposure to the raw material, but especially inhalation where it could cause localized damage to sensitive lung tissue. Biochemically, uranium is a nephrotoxic which means it damages the kidneys which is independent of and potentially worse than its danger as a radioactive material.
One of the important things to remember is that the uranium I use in my artwork is safely trapped in a matrix of glass materials. Most glaze recipes include borates and silicates, glass materials that for their ability to safely trap radioactive elements found in nuclear waste. More recently various types of lead oxide. Though lead poses additional safety concerns, since my work is not intended for food use there is no risk of lead contamination once the glaze materials have fused in the heat of the kiln. In fact, lead provides additional safety when used with uranium due to its lower melting point compared to other glaze materials, ensuring complete fusion of the glaze materials and trapping of the uranium in the glass matrix the glaze creates. This makes the surface of my work containing uranium both safe to touch and significantly less radioactive than the raw uranium material. The glass matrix of the glass both traps the uranium and shield the radioactivity with the combined results of significantly increasing safety. I wouldn’t advise using my uranium artwork as a pillow, but it’s perfectly safe to display at home*.
*Footnote: a majority of my work does not contain uranium or lead. Collectors who purchase art containing these special materials will be advised about appropriate and special care.