I would characterize Michael Kline as a scholar of ceramics, not in the academic sense but in the sense of finding wisdom and deep satisfaction through the action of living a creative life as a potter. As you will see in our discussion below, he did not come to pottery easily. He struggled with what to do in life. But he ultimately did discover pottery, and made the leap to pursue life as an artist. This interview is primarily about how he found his path, and thoughts and concerns about staying on that path.
JW: I’m looking at your website and it looks like you basically have no pieces for sale. And when I look in your “archive” section everything is marked “sold.” That’s great – congratulations! My question is: Are you mainly selling your work through the shows that you do, online, or some combination of the two?
MK: In the last year, I had a couple of gallery shows – a consignment situation where the gallery handled the promotion, sales and shipping. In the rest of 2020 I sold online only because of COVID. It turned out to be one of my best years ever. In a normal year I tend to do a combination of direct sales from my studio to visitors or students at the Penland School of Crafts which is nearby. Also, I would sell online, at least 4-5 times in a year, and sometimes as many as monthly online sales. The other outlets I have for selling my work are occasional individual or group shows, online or in galleries, and 2-3 shows per year where I’m in person in a booth. All the shows I do are pottery specific, meaning they are not craft fairs or art fairs. In North Carolina there are several of these types of shows. One show I produce with several other local potters. The other show is a juried show in Charlotte, N.C., the Potter’s Invitational. I also do one national show in Washington, D.C., curated by Dan Finnegan, at the Hill Center, called “Pottery on the Hill,” a small show of about 16 artists displaying their work.
JW: How would someone know when you have new work for sale?
MK: I have an email list that I send out regularly whenever I have a sale or a show. The other way is to follow me on social media. I usually broadcast any sales or anything I’m doing on Instagram and Facebook. I would say my mailing list is where my blue-chip, gold-level customers find out about my activities.
JW: Has the COVID pandemic affected you at all (from a business perspective and/or a creative perspective)?
MK: That’s a really interesting question that I’ve thought about a lot because I usually have a diversified kind of experience in my business, whether its teaching, making pots, taking visitors through my studio, or doing shows. All these activities inform what I do when I go back to the studio and work. I get inspiration from other artists that I meet or see, maybe some pots or artwork that I’ve purchased myself. When I’ve travelled I’ve traded with other artists and those pieces may influence what I do.
During the pandemic I was here by myself most of the time. I found the psychic space caused by the pandemic affected my work. I moved, maybe not consciously, toward working on pretty safe pieces, nothing too challenging. Financially I wasn’t sure where we were going. I kinda’ “played the hits” most of the year which was interesting. I enjoy my work and what I’m doing, and I have a fair amount of variety within my work activity in the studio. I felt that if I could have done something differently, I would have taken some time off to work on something new and different. But with 2 children in high school and college I didn’t want to take a lot of risk so I played it safe.
I guess I didn’t realize how much going out into the world influenced my work. I like the rhythm of working and that’s something that changed. I didn’t really go anywhere during the lockdown. I was able to work and I felt a little bit of guilt, perhaps, or I felt lucky that I was able to work. Whenever I had a sale I felt grateful to have my customer base that I’ve been building for a long time. A lot of people my age – I’m 60 now – don’t have that base to work from. I spent a lot of time on the phone with friends from my generation who didn’t have a web or online presence. I helped them onboard to the online selling experience. That was very gratifying as well.
JW: You became a full-time studio potter after attending a workshop at the Penland School of Crafts in 1989. What was so motivating about that workshop?
MK: That was a very long time ago but I remember it vividly. It was a workshop by Michael Simon who was a student of Warren MacKenzie. I met Michael Simon as a student at a workshop at the University of Tennessee. My teacher, Ted Saupe, had a lot of Michael’s pots and I was a devotee even at that early stage of my career. In 1989, after school, I was living in New York City, waiting tables, and working on a lot of artwork in my apartment. I was itching to get back into ceramics. I saw that Michael Simon was teaching at Penland, so I came for a 4 week workshop. That was pivotal for me. Michael made it clear that I could become a full-time artist if I was willing to live frugally. Michael made it clear that you don’t need to be a professor or an academic to make it as a potter. That was very revealing to me; I felt it was possible to quit my job and become a potter.
JW: I’ve read about your process in your “About” page and it doesn’t seem to match up to what I see in your pieces. (Many of your pieces seem more layered.) Could you please describe your current process – and how you came to work this way?
MK: There are a few processes I use. One body of work is tableware – stoneware that is fired in an atmospheric gas kiln called a soda kiln. So it’s essentially a salt glaze process. Pots are painted with a brush, and various patterns are painted using wax resist, and the the pieces are dipped in slip. That slip is then glossed during the soda firing and the sodium vapor that’s introduced into the kiln at peak temperature forms a glaze on the pots. It’s a 15th century German technique or discovery that is used in various ways today.
The other body of work is an inlay techniques where pots are carved, stamped and inlaid with white porcelain slip brushed into the impressions. Usually it’s a stoneware clay or an iron-rich clay and the porcelain slip inlay is a lighter color. I overfill the inlay, then scrape it away to reveal the original carved or stamped pattern. I use a lot of different tools and stamps. I put a final glaze over these pots and fire them in either an electric kiln or in a soda kiln.
Sometimes I do a combination of brushwork and stamped inlay work on a single pot. Sometimes the pot is carved or stamped and then filled with glaze.
JW: When you do some floral design coupled with lines – how are you creating those lines? Are those stamps too? (e.g., Yunomi-00406)
MK: That pot is an inlaid piece, and those vertical lines are created with a serrated metal edge, creating those little channels. After that’s done, I stamped the piece with floral patterns.
After all that, I covered the entire piece with white porcelain slip and carefully scraped the excess slip away. Each step probably takes about 15 minutes, so it’s fairly time-consuming process.
JW: How has your work evolved over time? Big leaps and bounds, or a gradual evolution?
MK: My work has been a very gradual, slowly evolving process. Each of my firing cycles takes 4-6 weeks. Almost always I have ideas while I’m working (either making pots or decorating, or when I’m unloading the kiln), rather than by sitting down and brainstorming apart from working. Usually I make notes and keep track of experiments I try; I take pictures and notes in a journal for each piece in a firing. I try to build on the successes of each previous firing.
There was a time, about 5-6 years ago, when I was struck by a piece in the Smithsonian collection, a 15th century Korean bowl. I was with a curator and 15 other potters and we were looking at the collection, handling them and speculating on how they were made. This particular bowl had a very interesting Kinsugi (gold leaf) repair to the lip of the bowl; it was very unusual because it had a raised pattern in the repaired surface. That experience propelled me in a different direction which was very different but still related to floral patterns and surface design. I played with this idea, watching videos, and saw some Korean potters doing this technique. Over 6-8 months of trial and error experimentation, I developed this technique myself and began selling these pieces. So that was an example of a “leap and a bound” – but generally my evolution is pretty slow and gradual.
JW: I also see some workshops on your website. Do you do a lot of those? Do you have a preference for the type of workshop you do?
MK: Up until last year, most of the workshops are me demonstrating my techniques, trying to focus on sharing the sequence of how I do things. The students are usually either serious amateurs or professional potters, sometimes students, depending on the venue. I teach at a lot of different venues. The last workshop I did last year was a departure from my normal workshop. I did go through my techniques, but I also focused on how one finds joy in their work and how, by repetition, one develops their own style. It’s hard to do in 5 days, but I had a lot of exercises prepared, some not pottery-specific but like painting with ink on different objects, lots of mimicry, and other elements of teaching that I’m interested in during future workshops.
I’m teaching a few workshops in 2021, including a workshop in Italy at La Meridiana.
I like to do a few (4-5) workshops each year, but I don’t want to do it all the time. I like to travel and meet people willing to share what I do and my passion for what I do. I get a lot of energy from teaching. I get a lot of ideas from students. I’m a student of what my students do and I keep my eyes open for how students interpret my techniques. And there’s also good discussion in my workshops and I enjoy that. There’s a lot of value in interaction with other potters.
JW: What is the most satisfying thing you’ve gained from your years as a ceramic artist?
MK: I take satisfaction in knowing that I’ve found a path. When I was young, it was very bleak. I didn’t know what I would do. I went to college as an engineering student. My parents thought it would be good for their son to learn a profession. In 1979, there were limits to professional degrees: law, medicine, engineering, science. It was never business, that was never a consideration which I find interesting because I now think of myself as a business person as well as an artist, of course.
Anyway, I emerged from college and it was kind of bleak. I went into engineering when I didn’t want to. I didn’t really have the attitude for it. I had the aptitude for engineering and that’s why my parents promoted it. I found in engineering school I wasn’t very happy. After 3 years I flunked out and was on my own. I took a pottery class and immediately fell in love with the clay.
So I take a lot of satisfaction in finally finding that path. It’s very difficult as a young person to find meaning in life. I try to teach that in my workshops: how do you recognize joy or something you like to do. How do you recognize it and go above the noise of what you think you should do – and what your parents and friends think you should do – and make individual choices, selfish choices sometimes, to find that path.
More of Michael’s work may be seen on his website.