Clay Culture: Plasters, Paints and Preservation
Clay Culture is a book that is difficult to fit into one category. The first chapter is a condensed history of New Mexico followed by an examination of the old houses and how they were built. Modern times have given us much yet have tended to rob us of self-reliance. That lack is addressed through a close look at the old traditions of earthen architecture and maintenance in a place where people are still actively engaged in the practice. The photographs, many from museum archives, offer a glimpse into this historic lifestyle.
Chapter two offers readers clear instructions about how to restore earthen structures in a way that will preserve their integrity inside and out. Too often, modern workers use wire, cement, or gypsum to repair damage and end up causing more problems than they solve. I share in detail not only my own extensive experience of making damaged walls look new again, but many photos taken in the 1950’s by my mother, Mildred Tolbert, of women applying mud plaster in traditional ways.
In “Learning by Doing” I offer readers a glimpse into my own life and personal experiences of building houses and creating art objects with the sweet simple earth under our feet. As an art major who did not want a day job, I have done the unthinkable (in fine art circles) of melding art with practicality, as less industrialized cultures have always done. I believe art is part of life and need not be kept separate; in fact I like to be surrounded by it.
Walls, floors and fireplaces made of earth, sand and straw are discussed in enough detail for the reader to mimic what’s been done before or make her own variations with a greater understanding of basic concepts and a realization of what it takes to complete a particular project.
Chapter 6, “Elemental Awareness” provides the reader with just that, a scientific understanding of the ingredients that go into earthen architecture, particularly those used to create clay based plasters and paints. When this information is well understood, it’s much easier to create recipes from locally harvested ingredients and get them to perform well in a given situation. The section on color and light condenses information gleaned from studying color most of my life, plus 19 books on the subject.
Next are all the details of formulating, mixing and applying coats of earthen plasters to a variety of wall surfaces, adjusting the formula to meet the need, and teaching the reader to complete projects with the least effort possible. In recent years, pre-mixed plasters have entered the marketplace at high prices, but there is no reason you cannot gather or purchase the ingredients separately and mix your own finish plasters with guidance from Clay Culture, which includes numerous recipes from several experienced practitioners.
Learn how similar finish plasters are to alis (clay paint) and how the ingredients can be mixed to suit the project at hand. If you can make plasters, you can make paints, and even casein washes to float layers of color onto clay surfaces with little effort or materials, leaving a tough, dust-free finish. Enjoy the physical benefits and beauty of clay surfaces on conventional walls as well as those constructed of earth and straw. Embrace self-reliance and learn to do what traditional New Mexican women have always done for themselves. If wall surfaces are irrelevant, Clay Culture is still of interest to those who wish to expand and reduce the expense of their art materials, or for those who are chemically sensitive and are looking for natural ways to make paints.
The book ends with a short piece about social justice issues, a subject of particular importance in our changing times. The more we can do for ourselves, the less we need to depend on the powers that try to control us: corporations whose interests have nothing to do with justice, but only the bottom line. The time has come to stand together and make the lives we want to have for ourselves. This book will help to show the way.