The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco recently held an exhibition of the work of Michelle Erickson, a Virginia-based ceramic artist & scholar whose work “combines colonial-era American ceramic techniques with contemporary social, political and environmental themes.” (Note: the Museum acquired Michelle’s piece called “Transangel” from the show, adding to the important museums around the world that include her work in their collections. I’ve included images of this piece at the end of this article.)
I am really interested in artists such as Michelle who refer to or draw upon earlier periods of history in their ceramic work. In 2012, for example, Michelle was an Artist In Residence as a “ World Class Maker” at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. While there she created a Delft Puzzle Jug (amongst other works) which the V&A documented in a video that gives a great introduction to Michelle’s work. (The V&A also documented Michelle’s process to create an agate teapot.)
Michelle “mudlarked” along the Thames River, collecting 16th, 17th and 18th century ceramic artifacts and shells for life casting. She has created a number of “Bellarmine jugs” (which I discussed in an earlier post) which reflect both her interest in historic English ceramic techniques and her practice of combining those techniques with imagery and forms expressing contemporary themes (as shown below, Bellarmine jugs referencing a Starbucks Coffee logo):
The San Francisco exhibition website included a short film about Michelle’s work. It also provides more background on Michelle.
JTW: Did your interest in colonial era ceramics originate more from a historian’s perspective or from an artist’s perspective?
ME: Definitely an artist’s perspective. Even though I grew up in the ‘colonial triangle’ of Virginia, the first connection I made to historical ceramics was just after I graduated from the College of William and Mary when I was working as a TA in the university’s Ceramics Department. The head of the Ceramics Program, Marlene Jack, arranged for her classes to visit the predominantly English pottery and porcelain collections at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. At the time, the Foundation’s collections were housed in the basement of the Curatorial Department, stacked floor to ceiling on metal shelving. (This was before the Dewitt Wallace Museum was built and now showcases Colonial Williamsburg’s world class decorative arts collection.)
The extraordinary range of ceramic genres and techniques in the Foundation collections were mind blowing. I actually said out loud, “What in the hell is all this stuff?” At that time most studio ceramics studies were primarily concerned with the ceramics art movement heavily influenced, historically, by an eastern ceramic aesthetic, especially Japanese stoneware, with the exception of maybe a day on Josiah Wedgwood.
I never forgot that sight. It was an epiphany moment and a couple of years later I began a 30 year journey to more fully understand what I was looking at that day.
JTW: What role does replication play in developing artistic skills and/or artistic direction?
ME: I really don’t think it’s possible to ‘replicate’ these pieces since everything from the materials to the arcane techniques and environments of their making have been lost to time. What I have come to master is the art of recreation. That practice has become the unique technical and conceptual language of my contemporary art.
Holding myself to a standard that authentically captures and conveys the physical integrity of a specific historical ceramic piece matters to me a great deal because it’s through the process recreation that I connect with that physical object and bring authenticity to the context of its history in the present moment.
JTW: Will you tell me about your experience as artist in residence at the V&A Museum? How did that come about? What did you do there? What did you learn from the experience?
ME: In 2011 I was a presenting artist at the American Ceramic Circle conference in Milwaukee, WI, where I gave a demonstration lecture at the Milwaukee Art Museum. Reino Leiftkes, Curator of Ceramics and Glass at the V&A, also presented as the keynote speaker, debuting the newly reinstalled V&A ceramics galleries collections. After seeing my presentation, Reino asked if I would be interested in doing a residency at the V&A.
My 2012 residency was in the category of “World Class Maker” and during my tenure I created three short films that included a collaboration with Nike’s 2012 Track and Field Innovation at the Summer Olympics. (These are documented in a V&A blog post and in a blog post on my website.)
The experience was intense and invaluable. My time was shorter than most residencies since I could only be in London three months instead of the full six. Because of that time limitation I spent long hours in my residency studio which is in the ceramics galleries within the V&A Museum. The access the world class V&A collections was literally at my fingertips. I continue to draw on that experience every day in my practice.
JTW: You’ve merged a deep study of historic ceramic techniques and your personal creative pursuits and interests. Do you have any recommendations on how others might immerse themselves in historic ceramics and ceramic techniques?
ME: Firstly, I would highly recommend the annual publication “Ceramics in America” which has featured a number of articles on my rediscovery of lost ceramic arts. The journal also features numerous never before published archeological ceramic collections and research.
I was really able to engage with this history through looking into the vast resource of colonial American archeological ceramic collections. What was buried in the ground beneath my feet in the place where I grew up and how those ghosts and ancestors speak to who we are today. Looking at these fragments not only reveals the cross sections of material and technique unseen when looking at whole pieces displayed in Museums but also the context of global cultural dynamics they reveal by their juxtaposition.
Other resources include my videos.
I mentioned the piece entitled “Transangel,” recently acquired by the San Francisco Museums of Fine Art. Here are several images of that piece.
You can find more examples of Michelle’s work on her website.
Additionally, several pieces noted in this article are on display in “Recasting Colonialism: Michelle Erickson Ceramics,” an exhibition of Michelle’s work that recently opened at the Baltimore Museum of Art. (Another article about the exhibition is here.)
One thought on “Michelle Erickson – Artist Profile”
What a fascinating article and body of work. I was unaware of the opportunities at the V&A for residencies. It was very interesting to read about how that happened, and what Michelle got out of the experience. I enjoyed seeing her integration of history and contemporary social issues in these pieces.