Functional Ceramics in Magna Grecia

My wife and I have been traveling in Sicily and Puglia for a month. In Palermo’s Archaeology Museum we found an interesting exhibit of rooftop ceramics from ancient temples. These ceramic pieces worked to funnel water off the temple roofs – not an insignificant consideration since standing water on these large temple roofs would be incredibly heavy. The ancient Sicilian people who made these ceramic elements for their stone structures also decorated them with ornate designs.

These ceramic elements are large. Very large. The pieces displayed are just fragments, but even the fragments are sometimes immense, especially when some of the mortar remains attached.

Today, we tend to think of Ancient Greek temples as undecorated stone structures. In fact, these temples (as well as Greek statues sometimes placed on the temples) were typically highly decorated with colorful paint, obscuring the underlying stone.

I thought ancient craftsman painted directly on the the stone buildings and was interested to see how some — actually much — of that decoration must have been added to ceramics which were then adhered to the stone temples with mortar.

The museum displays these pieces well. You can see both the scale of these ceramic elements as well as close up details. Unfortunately, my photographs don’t do the display justice.

After seeing this display on ceramic elements used on ancient temples in Sicily, I noticed ceramic piping (absent decorative motifs) used for drainage on many Christian churches and public buildings throughout Sicily.

In some instances it looks like ceramic drainage pipes were covered with mortar to integrate them more with the exterior surface of the church while still gaining the advantages of routing large amounts of water from rooftops into busy streets. The images below are from a monastery building in Erice:

All of these examples remind me that ceramics throughout history have served both mundane, functional purposes like drainage and sewer pipes as well as refined, aesthetic purposes like temple decoration.

Mike Byrne – Artist Profile

I was immediately attracted to the simplicity of both form and palette in Mike Byrne’s distinctive ceramics. After some correspondence, I’m now also appreciative of his thorough focus on a particular object (the sculptural jug), and his dedication to exploring the versions and possibilities of this core idea. Nuance, balance, levity, control, abstraction – I could go on with what I see in Mike’s work. I’ll let Mike elaborate on his vision and approach.

JTW: You mention that your work has evolved from “making large jug forms using a loose interpretation of the elements”. Can you tell me more about that evolution?

MB: For many years I worked as a designer and later in my teaching years I taught design in the Ceramics Dept of the Limerick School of Art and Design. When discussingbasics with students I often used the jug as a starting point, I like it as a domestic object that does everything, one can play an amusing game imagining the very first time the jug was even considered, ‘guys, maybe we should make a thing bigger then our drinking things so only one of us needs to go to the river to get the water’…….and so on, the brief expanding with each new discovery.

When I started making one off pieces I had had enough of function and design in the formal sense and all that goes with, it but I couldn’t shake my deep-rooted connection to the domestic and the vessel. The answer for me, was the jug form. The Sculptural Jug.

Here was an opportunity to make an object that was clearly identifiable as a jug yet clearly non-functional, clearly not a jug. The jug has three elements, the body, handle, and the pouring lip. I have enjoyed reimagining these three elements, sometimes using found objects, sometimes pieces made in a different way to the others, attached using glue or slip or wire. These pieces are also large, between 45 and 50 cms, far too big to use, fired low so still porous, dry slips and glazes. They hovered in the grey area between being obviously a jug and not being a jug at all.

JTW: What attracted you to that particular jug form, and what prompted you to focus on that one form for such an extended period?

MB: Well, I have focused on the jug form for the past eight years or so. Before that, since the late nineties I concentrated on printmaking. Long before that when I started making one off pieces, I dabbled in a lot of processes and styles and was never one to focus over an extended period. I did stick with ideas and processes until I personally had wrung them dry and was tiring of them, for example I worked solidly for over three years handmaking forms which I then Raku fired, at the time I loved the process but came to see it as a bit of a trick western potters did without understanding all the Japanese philosophy etc. In fact, I hate meetings at Ceramicists events where all the talk is of firing temps and glaze recipes and all the process stuff, the ‘hows’ are far less important than the ‘whys’. Unfortunately, my switch from slides to digital didn’t go as well as I hoped and seem to have lost a lot of my early pictures.

JTW: You mention that you previously used sketchbooks as an integral part of your creative process, although now you’re “reacting more in the clay stage”. Does that mean you no longer sketch prior to working with clay? And how has this change in your creative process impacted your work?

MB: As a designer one’s sketchbook is a vital piece of kit, the very idea of not making a drawing however rudimentary of a piece before starting a 3D version would be unheard of and I always insisted on it with my students. I wrote about reacting more in the clay stage when I was trying to ween myself away from or at least include other forms in my repertoire.

JTW: Can you describe your creative process more generally?

MB: My process is very simple, I roll out a large sheet of clay, about 50x70cm (on my old etching press, silver cloud) and stand it up and make it into an oval cylinder. I then work from the inside and try to breath a bit of life into the form, I like it to look like it has been slightly inflated. I now have my body, if its going to be a ‘jug ‘I will more or less know from my drawing the next move, there may be a number of tweeks and slight changes for any number of reasons, but in essence, it’s of the drawing. But if I’m not sure of the plan I might just go with the form, all of the parts and their relationship to each other, height, the oval, the width the amount of inflation in the form, will suggest the next few actions. This can be very exciting especially if these actions are unusual and I may not have used them in that way before, problem solving at every level. I find working like this very fruitful, each piece leads me to the next and keeps my interest peeked, not knowing what will emerge can be addictive.

In my late teens I was introduced to clay as a way into Sculpture, which was the direction I saw myself going. At an evening class while still in my final year in school, I was put on a wheel and found the process enjoyable and learnable, each week I got a bit better, and slowly and without much fuss I became a ceramicist rather then a sculptor. Now, I see my pieces as abstract sculptures. I use the vessel form in one way or another as my guiding light. I have tried in the privacy of my studio to make other kinds of sculpture but with no success. I have enjoyed all aspects of vessel making, plaster model and mould making, slip casting, even throwing pots for living, when not long out of Art school, I was traveling in Germany and spotting a small pottery in Frankfurt of all places I went in with no German and asked for a job, the owner eyed me up, took off his apron and put it on me and pointed to the wheel and a pile of prepared balls of clay, I spent a very happy six months there, it was in a very social part of town so there was lots of beer and apple wine, we made pitchers and mugs for all the surrounding pubs. Now I hand build using slabs, so that to an extent guides my actions. I could never coil build, I would die of boredom, it would take so long to get to any sort of scale. I work quickly, making all the elements as I go, I change pieces all the time cutting things up or out, changing shapes, adding and subtracting elements.

About four years ago my son came home and set up a knife making business in my print studio. Thankfully its going very well and I give him a few hours every day, and a few hours for my own work. This arrangement I find good because each time I pass a piece waiting attention I can reappraise it over time and decisions can be made with a bit more consideration. This I think has brought something to the process.

JTW: You have a very restrained and somewhat muted color palette. Has that always been the case? Did you experiment with different finishes and more intense color?

MB: Yes I did have a muted palette, on those early big jugs I only used a coloured engobe. Engobe because I could use it straight on to bisque, slip would just fall off and the pieces are too big to pick up dry and fill with slip to colour the insides. I would apply a layer and then fire it and sand it smooth and repeat until I got the required result. The engobe was close to transparent so the build up of layers gave some very nice and unexpected results, in fact it was always a surprise, I’m not a great record keeper, so I like the hit and miss quality of the process. I did feel a while ago it was time for a change, so now my colours are much more vibrant, I heard someone call then ‘candy’ the other day so maybe it’s time for a rethink. I am now using a dry glaze which gives the colours a real lift and I sponge the glaze on rather than paint as before. I also apply at least two layers at a time and let them get together in the fire, this can also throw up some nice surprises.

JTW: My sense is that your ceramic work is quite large. How important has scale been in your work, and have you played with scale during your career?

MB: For me scale is important, most of my pieces are between 40 and 50 cm high. I have made smaller pieces but find them just as difficult as the larger pieces to make and they end up looking like reduced versions and subsequently unsatisfactory. This does make selling pieces difficult, finding a place for these pieces in your average home is not easy. An outgoing head of the Chamber of Commerce was given a piece as a retirement gift and was delighted until she got it home and quietly rang me a week later wondering if she could swap it for a print. I do like making pieces that have a bit of heft to them, the scale can make quite simple elements more imposing

JTW: You worked as a printmaker for a period of time. Do you think that experience influenced your ceramic work in any way?

MB: I don’t think so, other than make me think I have something to bring to the ceramic table whereas after quite a time of making prints, other then enjoying the process, I don’t think I brought much to the print table. I did try to marry both for a short period of time but found it unhelpful and moved on.

You can find more of Mike’s work on his website.

Ceramics at Casa Coseni, Taormina

Robert Hawthorn Kitson was a wealthy British aristocrat who relocated to the small town of Taormina, Sicily, in the early 1900s to find refuge from persecution for his homosexuality. Kitson lived for many years at Casa Coseni, surrounding himself with prominent artists and writers of the time who would visit and sometimes stay for extended periods at Casa Coseni. Ernest Hemingway wrote his first short story at Casa Coseni; Roald Dahl wrote Charlie and the Chocolate Factory here. Greta Garbo lived on the property for over a year. Other celebrities visiting Kitson at Casa Coseni included authors Oscar Wilde, Tennessee Williams and Ezra Pound and artists Salvador Dali and Pablo Picasso.

Kitson had accumulated a significant art collection at Casa Coseni when the Nazis arrived in Taormina during World War II. The German quartermaster confiscated Casa Coseni to billet 4 German generals. Kitson, an Englishman as well as a well-known homosexual, fled to England, leaving behind his art and possessions, including many unique ceramic pieces.

On the night before the Germans took possession of Casa Coseni, Kitson’s neighbors and farmers he had employed came into the house and emptied it of all possessions. The Sicilian friends kept these expensive paintings, ceramic pieces, books and other items hidden from the Germans throughout the occupation, and when Kitson returned to Casa Coseni in 1946, they returned all the collection to him, unharmed.

The ceramic pieces that now decorate Casa Coseni are from various styles and eras, reflecting the eclectic taste of Robert Kitson. They form a delightful accompaniment to paintings, books and decorative arts sprinkled around the property. there isn’t a single ceramic item I would point out – more the blend of decorative items that make the living spaces so compelling.

Casa Coseni is now a museum and B&B. The gardens are amazing, and the views overlooking the Mediterranean are breathtaking. More information can be found on the Casa Coseni website. And don’t miss the “secret room” with Arts and Crafts frescos by Sir Frank Brangwyn. Images of the frescos are captured in this video.

Maria Diletta Rondoni – Artist Profile

Maria Diletta Rondoni is an Italian artist based in Umbria. She originally studied painting and has since worked with a wide variety of materials including glass, stained glass, jewelry, metal and ceramics. I certainly see references to jewelry-making in Diletta’s intricate, delicate ceramic forms. I also detect strong connections to nature and organic forms in her work. I asked Diletta to tell me a little more about her creative inspiration and process.

JTW: Will you describe your creative process? Do you carefully plan out each piece, perhaps with a sketch, and then replicate the plan? Or do you work more spontaneously?

MDR: I usually start by making sketches, starting with one or more shapes in nature that strike my attention and trying to define and synthesize the lines to create an initial design of the basic shape of the vase. I then go on to analyze the details, the color palette and the gradations I would like to obtain by also doing some tests, using the color of the clay as the basic shade from which to create the colors that will go to make up the work, always considering their relationships as a determining part of the whole. I like to start with a more or less defined idea but I also welcome the variations that may occur in the process of realization that leave unexpected creative possibilities open.

JTW: You say that you prefer the “Colombino construction.” What is that?

MDR: It is a very basic way of working with clay, overlapping several coils of clay and giving them the right angle to achieve the desired shape. I like this slow process, in a way even primordial, but it allows me to flow in the working process.

JTW: You originally studied painting at the Academia, but have also explored other materials such as glass, metal and ceramics. What about ceramics most interests you? Do you still create in other media?

MDR: I still like to paint. Colors are very important to me. I love the contact with clay, its malleability and its power of transformation. It has something to do with oil painting because of its pliability and waiting time, but I prefer it because I can work in three dimensions and extend the work into space. Natural light also plays a fundamental role and interacts with the work. Ceramics is also an endless field of research in many aspects and therefore a continuous source of inspiration as it is itself closely linked to the metamorphosis processes of nature such as the geological ones.

JTW: Your pieces look very labor intensive. How long does it typically take you to make one of your ceramic vessels?

MDR: It depends on the work and the size, but it usually takes me one to two weeks to shape a small piece. Then there is the glazing and the firing time. However, it is difficult to define standard times because each work is born and grows differently. What is certain is that the processing times are slow and long.

JTW: Your work reminds me very much of sea life. Where do you search for inspiration for your pieces?

MDR: I think one of my first sources of inspiration are the dried flower arrangements my mother used to decorate the house with. She has always loved to create large compositions of flowers and plants. She raised me and my siblings by sensitizing us to the beauty of natural forms. This is how I learnt to observe nature as a deep source of life where everything is connected. I like that people can recognise a flower, a sea urchin, an animal or a human body part in one of my works.

JTW: Can you tell me something about your residency in Denmark? It sounds like you’ve worked quite a bit in Denmark.

MDR: Last year I was in residence for the first time at Guldagergaard International Ceramic Center in Skaelskor. This has been an incredible experience for me, full of emotion and inspiration. I focused on myself and in my work as never before experimenting different clays and firing techniques.The heart of the residency has been sharing with the other artists life and the art, looking at myself and my work through their eyes, exchanging ideas and research.

This year the art director of the Centre invited me to work there to prepare a body of works for the summer exhibitions that took place this July and August. I worked on my installation “Herbarium Amoris” in Guldagergaard Park among other amazing artists like Janina Myronova, Marianne Houtari, Elina Titane and Bozena Sachaczuk

This has been a very beautiful and important experience to me.

JTW: What would you like people to know about you and your work?

MDR: That in each of my works there is a bit of my life.

More of Diletta’s work may be seen on her website.

Gareth Mason – Artist Profile

Gareth Mason is an English ceramicist who pushes boundaries in both form as well as surface treatment. I’ve found his work inspiring and challenging. Inspiring in that he pushes the viewer to consider his or her own concepts of what the act of making ceramics is really all about; challenging in that his manipulations and the thought process behind those manipulations of both form and surface aren’t immediately evident. You have to dig in a bit, spend some time. I encourage you to take some time with Gareth’s work now – I think it’s worth the effort.

Photo: Gareth Mason

I will admit that I struggled to find images to accompany this article. The modifications to form and surface that Gareth does to his work happen across all areas of a three-dimensional form. I’ve included several images of individual pieces, taken from different angles, to give you a better idea.

Photo: Gareth Mason
Photo: Gareth Mason
Photo: Gareth Mason
Photo: Gareth Mason
Photo: Gareth Mason

JTW: You say most of your work is “ridiculously involved” with wheel turning just a starting point of the process. Can you describe your creative process in more detail? Do you start with a sketch or specific idea in mind, or is your work more intuitive and spontaneous from the beginning?

GM: I have done a great deal of drawing over the years, sat squinting and frowning in front of objects and beings, whether life drawing or sculptures (I spent a good few days in the recent Rodin exhibition at Tate Modern, London) and I still draw from time to time, usually on museum visits (I’ll take a sketch book: I describe myself only partly tongue-in-cheek as a ‘shape thief’). So I’ve acquired great mental store of imagery and forms and surfaces, which I subconsciously draw from because it is part of me. However drawing is not a direct part of my working process, other than the odd marks and glyphs I will apply to ceramic surfaces from time to time. It is certainly not a ‘design’ tool in any formal sense. I do not ‘draw’ what I am going to make. It doesn’t work like that for me, rather, making is an unfolding and intuitive process, deeply tactile, ‘felt’ rather than thought through or predetermined in any recognisable intellectual way. I place great value on unfolding experience and my small sense of the unknown. I guess it is just my love of wonder: I am a bit addicted to the mini explosions of awe that Ceramic Experience affords me.

[Although this video demonstrating Gareth’s process is a bit long, it merits watching (particularly from 18:00 to the end) to get a sense of the way he manipulates the surface of his vessels]:

The vessel—the pot—remains important to me for all sorts of reasons (which I can go into but it that would be a long digression), so for the most part the things I make retain a strong echo of ‘pot-hood’. As part of the above drawing (shape thief) process I must have sketched many many hundreds of pots in museums over the years, and pieces of glass (I have a fondness for ancient glass). The aspect of familiarity is part of this I think, on the part of the beholder I mean: that someone encountering what I do will at some level recognise it, from the mental image of what a pot is, or should be, which many people carry around subconsciously: even if they know nothing about ceramics and ceramic history, there’s still a cultural store based on archetypes people have encountered if only in the most superficial way. And part of my treatment of the vessel tweaks at this often-dim sense of recognition: the ‘tough love’ I put my things through must be about challenging that familiarity, or, better, imposing upon it another layer of experience that the observer must contend with (I was tempted to use the loaded word ‘meaning’ but backed away from it). Yes, experience: that’s where the ‘unfolding’ part comes in. If the experience is not unfolding for me, then how can I hope for it to be so for others? It is in this experiential osmosis and ambiguity that potential magic lies, rather than in products that are sown up in advance and put on a plate. I have a horror of formula.

‘Unfolding’ for me includes staring down what potters of a more orthodox bent would rightly regard as disaster, and doing so again and again. By that I mean confronting the little ceramics arena’s multifarious ‘thou-shalt-nots’ and essentially pissing all over them. That is by no means as disrespectful an act as it seems, though I have great respect for creative disrespect. Rather, it is the necessity to follow-through on deep felt and hard won conviction. Nor is it a light-hearted task, though it has its moments of levity. Ceramic orthodoxy represents powerful hard-wiring and it takes some effort of will to resist it. I do so in search of that which I do not know. Working from that place is precarious and always unpredictable. Don’t get me wrong, there’s an awful lot of knowing in what I do, a lot of hard wiring still intact. I am just far better at flexing the icy grip of control nowadays, and allowing serendipity to intervene to a greater or lesser degree. It’s a push-me-pull-you, a relationship, which allows me to explore what skill can achieve, rather than linearly enacting its pre-learned and unwavering precepts.

JTW: Early in your career you made terracotta gardenware. How important was that experience for you? What did you learn from it?

GM: I mention skill, above. Much as a great deal of contemporary art sidelines it, I am ‘out and proud’ as to the enduring importance of skill; it is up front and centre for me, the foundation of all I do. I worked for three years at A. Harris and Sons Pottery Works, Wrecclesham, Farnham from 1992 to 1995. The place is no longer a terracotta gardenware pottery though the original buildings are still there. It was founded by a brilliant Victorian pottery entrepreneur called Absalom Harris (what a name!) in 1873 and closed its doors finally in 1998 I think, so I was there during its declining final years. Terracotta garden ware is no joke to make. I thought I could throw when I left art school a few years earlier. How wrong I was. I went there to work for the sole reason of acquiring that skill to the point that I would never have to think consciously about it again. I managed it just about, and it was a chequered time, which definitely had its low points, but on balance it was three years well spent and I felt lucky (perhaps that’s me applying the word ‘lucky’ with the luxury of hindsight) to be able to develop my skill on someone else’s time. Nobody taught me—I had to sink or swim and wasn’t paid properly (I use the word advisedly) until I could do it. The conditions were somewhat…Dickensian shall we say.

Throwing (on the potter’s wheel) remains an important part of what I do but it is not always completely ‘visible’ in the final work. Still, its ‘voice’ has certain echoes and resonances, which can call though layers of surface and influence the final ‘feel’ of a piece. For example, ‘throwing rings’ can be more or less visible, or rendered extremely visible, their concentric ‘spiral’ intimating growth, rhythm, organic flow and certainly the imperfect human hand. Different components made on the wheel can be constructed, sculpted, manipulated in unexpected ways. The wheel is a tool like any other, not really a special case, worthy of respect and creative disrespect. Throwing is a part of my maker’s DNA and though it is just one making process I use amongst others, and it by no means sums up my pottery identity, I am deeply fond of it and I will always let its feeling show.

JTW: You describe the importance of touch and tactility in your work. You feel certain elements within the clay as you work, and these tactile sensations seem tied to your creative approach. Did you always work this way, or has this evolved? How did touch and tactile sensation become so important to your process?

GM: Yup. I already mentioned the word ‘tactile’. A theorist would no doubt intone about ‘the haptic’ at this point. I am a champion of embodied intelligence and it is a great shame and loss that it has been so neglected in formal education since time immemorial. Not that I believe that ‘brain’ and ‘body’ are different organs, far from it: the mind and the senses are ineluctably bound. My argument is that, without body, what is brain? Just, hypothetically, suppose it were possible to separate them, what would brain be? A useless jelly in the dark. To relegate sensation to some deniable, fringe aspect of intelligence seems to me a great injustice, when the senses are the foundation of all we are.

Photo: Gareth Mason

Clay, as the ultimate malleable material, calls naturally to sensation and to touch especially. Touch is a little bit taboo, at least in many up-tight industrialised societies. It delights me that a given work of art will physically influence a person who beholds it through sheer force of its corporeal presence. I have seen people ‘double-take’ my things then surreptitiously fondle a surface. We are embodied and our bodies read other bodies, other beings, other entities at a level that underpins and precedes all intellectual processing. Some art screams at you in this way, body to body. No prizes for guessing the part of the tactile/emotional-to-intellectual spectrum that I want my things to occupy. Intellectual reflection is crucial but the solar plexus is my preferred point of initial impact.

JTW: I sense a strong tension in your work between creating some formal, architectural foundation and then breaking that architecture down in some way by cutting, tearing, stretching, etc. It then looks like you’re layering on top of that an assortment of surface “ornament” or treatment. You mentioned in your video that “I leave a trail of evidence behind me that any viewer can later read – almost like a geologist looking at a cliff.” Is that mental reconstruction by the viewer what you’re primarily driving at as an artist?

GM: To say a thing is ‘open to interpretation’ is pretty much a cliché. I never want this to get in the way of the extent to which I place value upon my fellow beings’ interpretive powers. I credit the people who encounter my work with the same sensory apparatus I have myself and dislike work that relies too much upon ‘interpretive text’. I am fond of words but I will never instruct anyone on what to think about what I do or intervene in their experience with obfuscating art-speak. I do comment and write in relation to my work from time to time (because, let’s face it, if I don’t who will?) but overt narrative exposition is creatively stultifying and frankly great art should make demands on the viewer, cause their perspectives to shift a little, undermine preconceptions perhaps, and at its best it should rock people back on their heels and leave them wide-eyed in a new reality. Now, how dare something as mild mannered as pottery aspire to such seismic aesthetic territory? My chosen field carries with it a whole set of associations in the popular imagination that are rooted, quite understandably, in a certain homely parochiality that stems from the medium’s primarily domestic incarnations. Consequently, people have no experience of those experiential aspects of ceramic experience that I live with; the ones that are loaded with igneous intensity; utterly transformative moments that fire transmutes into physical form. Metamorphosis is wholly ceramic. What better medium to seek to stir the spirit?

Photo: Gareth Mason
Photo: Gareth Mason
Photo: Gareth Mason

Hence the ‘tension’ you pick up on, and yes, there is tension. Sometimes it is very stark. This stems from my attraction to material-in-extremis, which of course is a stand-in for experience-in-extremis, because we are anthropomorphic beings and psychically project our own being and experience into the material world around us, all the time. This requires no specialist interpretive powers, no authoritative curatorial expertise. Just personal being: the cumulative ‘knowing’ of an embodied lifetime. Let me offer an example, because this is arcane stuff and can come over like riddles: we become ‘sharp’ when we witness a thorn, we become ‘liquid’ in the presence of a waterfall. I ask no more or less than this innate universal skill because this is what I am when I make; this is what I bring to my work. Material has a ‘voice’. I let it speak.

JTW: You’ve included gravel, wire and scavenged waste in your surface materials. Are you continuously experimenting with materials in small studies or test pieces?

GM: Ah, see the close of the above paragraph. It has to be said at the outset that I know intimately how the bulk of my materials behave and can exercise a high degree of control over them. That is just the outcome of long practice. But yes, the ‘voice’ of some materials under fire is more extreme than others, and these have a special ‘pull’ on my ceramic sensibilities. Hence my search outside of the material vocabulary of ceramic orthodoxy for unfamiliar voices, cadences that will surprise and perplex (and sometimes horrify) me. I am a scavenger and a mudlark, for sure. And on a prosaic note, yes I do ‘test’ materials from time to time but mostly I work on the piece at hand, directly, without pre-testing, with unknown material. This is me ‘putting my money where my mouth is’, aesthetically speaking. I have to be willing to follow through on my convictions and risk all if I have any hope of capturing and communicating those aspects of ceramic experience that so entrance me. I very often suffer the consequences. This is part confidence and part foolhardiness, but it is part and parcel of the ‘search’. Put it this way, my kiln shelves are a mess.

JTW: What do you have in mind for your website update? How important is your website in communicating to your audience? What other forms of communication do you use?

GM: My website is a mothballed snapshot of my work as it appeared some years ago. It badly needs up-dating and somehow I can never muster the will to do it, nor would I farm the task out to anyone else, so the issue goes on as an unresolved aspect of my digital life. But when I do it, the site will be much simplified and the work featured will be more recent. I am far from a ‘slick operation’ in all matters digital. Alas, I am an analogue being. Luckily I have good professional representation in the form of Jason Jacques Gallery, who photograph my things and always have some to view on their website. Also, a good number of images of my work from various sources will have propagated the web by now, for anyone who wants to search for images of my things (some people I am told have even assembled Pinterest pages). And there are some articles out there too. I am also a faltering user of Instagram. My engagement on that platform is not systematic. I will sometimes go months posting nothing but I have been posting regularly in recent weeks to support my current exhibition with Jason Jacques. Contrary to its primarily visual nature, I write on Instagram too; I use it as a method to encapsulate a thought, a discipline of sorts, so I am doomed really, because it is many things but Instagram is not really a place that encourages reading. I have no other dalliance with ‘social media’, which is a phenomenon that troubles me at many levels and I am still a long way from embracing it. I resist the lure of the touch screen in the main. Though I will promote this good blog post of yours on Instagram when you are ready to ‘publish’, in the spirit of communication.

Communication by the way is very important to me. Otherwise why would I bother doing anything at all? It is the basis of my life. Its primary medium for me is the goodly mud itself, in its fired incarnation, as composed by me, as it exists in the world, pushing whatever buttons it pushes in the beings who behold it, in a manner of serendipity gloriously beyond my control. That ‘manner’ is distinctly non-verbal and I love that in spite of my deep love of and respect for the symbolic power of these glyphs I am composing on the screen before me.

I have written in the past sporadically for periodicals and the like, and will continue to do so. There is a story to be told, which most writing in the art world completely overlooks, and I have scratched its surface a bit in my responses to your questions. I also talk in public from time to time, demonstrate, lecture, and teach throwing (very infrequently). When I have a group of people in front of me I am always mindful of their experience and try to deliver something real. There’s a natural drama that accompanies disclosure, and this underpins the sense of occasion that can lead to truly memorable moments. Those are always worth gunning for. As in art, so in life.

JTW: Are you involved with any artistic community? Is that connection with other artists important to your creative process?

GM: I am a lone wolf: thousands and thousands of solo hours over the years. It is desirable in my line of work to enjoy one’s own company. Having said that, and following on from my thoughts on ‘communication’ above, there are periods from time to time when I am public-facing. I am referring to the occasional residencies I undertake, in host organisations and I talk and demonstrate from time to time. Part of the quid-pro-quo of a good residency i s that it should work well for both the artist concerned and the host organisation. For the host that usually means employing the artist as a net enhancement of its offering, either to teach or talk or interact with the public, and for the artist it involves practising under the host’s aegis for a while, utilising their materials and facilities to create a body of work and perhaps exhibiting at the end. I was resident artist at Syracuse University in 2019, where I was essentially working in public, in the studios where students had full and open access to me. Lots of occasion for impromptu response and conversation, positive interaction, and some more formal talks along the way, one at the renowned Everson Museum in the city, and an exhibition there a few months later. These intense experiences have their stresses: new place, new people, new materials, unknown equipment, little or no ‘wiggle room’, compressed time scale—all pressures that cannot be anticipated fully or planned for yet need to be accepted and worked with, adapted to. However, serendipity is a wonderful thing, and there are invariably deeply rewarding human moments of genuine communication that seem to be enhanced when an ‘exotic’ foreigner enters an otherwise ordered and familiar environment with their own bit of cultural alchemy. An institution that finds space and time in its ethos to incorporate such open-ended creative endeavour, complete with all the risks, is to be applauded in these days of increasingly prescribed institutional experience.

Photo: Gareth Mason
Photo: Gareth Mason
Photo: Gareth Mason

When the spotlight is on me (for two solid months of 12-hour-plus days in the case of Syracuse University) I do keenly feel a kind of ambassadorial responsibility, and in that sense, ‘community’ comes home to me in some important respects not evident in the confines of my own workshop. It is about being exposed to people who like me seek enhanced experience each in their way, whether through formal education in the arts or by attending a gallery or exhibition, or taking courage to sign up for a one-off class, mustering the confidence to speak out in a question and answer session, or just indulging the curiosity to approach this stranger who’s suddenly appeared working in their studio…whatever the ‘moment’, I look it in the eye and try to treat it right. Because you never know. I never know who I am speaking to, who I might affect and what impact the encounter might have, and most importantly, what I might learn. The residencies I have undertaken over the years have in fact been one of the joys of my practice, for all my ‘lone wolf’ tendencies. And they are occasions where, perhaps against the odds and in spite of the pressure, I have ‘pushed’ in a way I never would have otherwise, and consequently made some of my most gratifying work.

CoorsTek – Engineered Ceramics

CoorsTek is a Colorado company established in 1910 by an Austrian immigrant John Herald, with financial backing by Adolf Coors, founder of Coors brewery. Originally, the Herald China and Pottery Company produced ceramic artware using clay mined near the Coors brewery in Golden, Colorado. At the request of the local Colorado School of Mines, the company developed and added a line of ceramic labware (porcelain mortars and pestles, crucibles, cups and dishes) for use in Chemistry labs.

Ceramic labware products produced by the company and displayed in the new design wing at the Denver Art Museum first attracted my attention to CoorsTek.

CoorsTek labware on display in the Denver Art Museum

Although produced for use in chemical laboratories, the objects have very pleasing aesthetic qualities, which explains why they are displayed in the museum’s design wing.

CoorsTek labware on display in the Denver Art Museum

John Herald left the company in 1915 and the son of Adolf Coors, Adolf Coors Jr. took over management of Herald China and Pottery Company. Renamed the Coors Porcelain Company in the 1920s, the company continued to produce lab and dinner ware products, at times using employees from Coors Brewery during the Prohibition era when the brewery ceased operating. Under the Coors USA trade name, the company sold over 300 types of high-quality scientific and analytical labware around the world.

CoorsTek labware on display in the Denver Art Museum

The Coors Porcelain Company thrived during the 1930s and 1940s under management of multiple Coors family members, investing heavily in R&D to develop technical ceramic products for use in industry and ultimately discontinuing its dinner ware and cookware product lines during WWII.

In the mid 1950s, the company developed technologies to bond ceramics to metals. Building on their R&D work with ceramics & metals, the Coors Porcelain Company also created the first recyclable aluminum can. It also expanded ceramic applications for various industries, capitalizing on the strength and wear resistance of ceramic materials. In 1965 Coors Porcelain began producing ceramic substrates for use in IBM’s mainframe computers, and a year later Coors Porcelain engineers produced lightweight ceramic armor components used by the military.

Coors Porcelain Company expanded over the years to develop new applications for ceramics, including pollution control equipment, integrated circuit packaging, thin-film substrates, transparent ceramics, and even golf putters and drivers. The company changed its name from Coors Porcelain to CoorsTek in 2000, and continues to produce highly engineered ceramic products that leverage the strength, toughness, fatigue resistance and thermal attributes of clay. Here are a few products that I found on the CoorsTek website that suggests the wide range of ceramic products the company manufactures.

Honestly, I have no idea what 90% of these products are or do. The headline take-away, however, is that clay has been highly engineered to take advantage of its innate properties & characteristics. Whether we realize it or not, we’re using engineered ceramic products every day in telecommunications, automotive and aircraft industries, and computer components.

Thomas Schmidt – Artist Profile

Thomas Schmidt is a professor and artist, interested in 3D modeling and fabrication involving ceramics. I’ll let him describe his academic role and explain more about what’s happening in the academic world. He also took some time to explain the evolution of his artistic interests and his experiments with qualities and attributes of clay.

Modular Vase Series, cast porcelain, Individual pieces 12”h x 8”w x 6”d, 2018

JW: Will you please tell me a little about your role as Associate Professor of Interdisciplinary 3D Study and Digital Fabrication?

TS: Currently I teach as an Associate Professor and Coordinator of our new 3D Interdisciplinary Studies area at UNC Charlotte. In response to the increasing cross-pollination of disciplines in the contemporary art world, our entire art program has made major curricular changes to give students the ability to move more freely across media. As part of this effort we recently combined our Ceramics, Fibers, Sculpture and Digital Fabrication studios into one 3D area. Within this area I am teaching primarily 3D Modeling and Digital Fabrication, Ceramics and Installation art courses.

JW: Would you say this type of BFA program is representative of emerging training for ceramic artists, or is it fairly unique to UNC?

TS: There are a number of programs around the country which are integrating ceramics with mixed media and digital tools, but I think the way in which each program tackles this is quite different. I talk with a number of faculty at different programs, and we are all sharing our experiences to navigate this relatively uncharted territory. One of the main challenges is that ceramics is such a highly technical medium, so much so that a student could exhaust all their studio art classes in ceramics and still have more to learn. On top of that, ceramics is incredibly broad in terms of content and output, from utilitarian work to performance and everything in-between. For these reasons, we have made our degree quite flexible so that students can choose to load up on clay content, or to integrate other media and vice versa, depending on their long term goals. While I am constantly geeking out about bringing together digital tools with ceramics, interestingly many students take ceramics as an antidote to digital technology, and it can take some nudging to get them excited about combining the two disciplines. Of course, once they finally do they wish they had taken the plunge sooner!

JW: You say you’re interest is in “mining the zone between 2D and 3D space”. Will you tell me more about what that involves?

TS: While in grad school at Alfred University I was studying Ceramic Art but had the opportunity to work in the printmaking studio as well. Through a number of experiments I basically became obsessed with the materiality of paper, and the printed image.

Crumple, Inkjet print, 48 x 36 inches, 2008.

I wondered at what point does our perception shift from seeing a printed image to seeing ink on paper. This led me to scan sheets of crumpled paper at very high resolution and then reprint the images at a large scale. In doing so, one could see the individual fibers that comprised the sheet of paper. In other variations, an image was magnified so closely that the original subject was no longer distinguishable but the halftone dots that comprise the image were revealed.

I continued to challenge my own preconception of paper as a two-dimensional plane. I sanded through large sheets of printmaking paper and then hung the distressed result in the center of a space. The sheet had become perforated in places, allowing one to see through holes as if looking through a screen; the ability to walk around the sheet further emphasized its dimensionality. In the same vein, I tried to compress three-dimensional space by printing images of crumpled paper onto flat sheets of paper. With each iteration, I was systematically breaking down my own assumptions about objects in two and three dimensions, as well as breaking down the time-based experience of interacting with static objects within a space. For my MFA show I translated some of these ideas to clay with a modular tile piece cast from crumpled paper with a piece called Sampled Spaces.

Sampled Spaces series, cast porcelain, 58 x 174 x 3.5 inches, 2009.

JW: You are also interested in exploring the properties of various materials, including recycled ceramics and manufacturing materials. Will you describe what you’re doing in this area?

TS: After grad school I had the opportunity to assist Wayne Higby on the fabrication of a huge tile work that was later installed at the Miller Center for the Arts in Reading, PA. For this project Wayne had built a relationship with a ceramic tile factory in Foshan, China. He carefully studied the existing workflow and production at this massive site, and was given permission to interject his own experiments within a couple key parts of the factories existing workflow. This project left me completely inspired by the potential of an artistic intervention in a factory setting. That project with Wayne was a crash-course that just barely prepared me for the next four years, as I accepted a teaching position at the Alfred/CAFA (Central Academy of Fine Art) Ceramic Design for Industry Program in Beijing, where I lived for four years. As part of the program, we would often visit factories in Jingdezhen, China. During one of these visits we discovered a factory that had mountains of plates that had been discarded due to minor defects.

Discarded plates, Jingdezhen, China, 2010.

During this time, my friend and collaborator Jeffrey Miller and I became interested in using industrial waste and scraps to produce artwork. The most exciting of these experiments was when we poured molten recycled aluminum onto porcelain shards. The aluminum flowed and curled around the shards, then held the shards in place once the aluminum had cooled. Through lots of testing we developed this into a consistent tile surface that we still produce today, both as artwork but also interior and exterior tile surfaces. You can see more of this project here: www.recycledchina.org

Recycled China Triptych, recycled aluminum, factory discarded porcelain, 24 x 48 inches, 2013.

JW: Some of your earlier work looks focused on qualities and characteristics of clay material itself – perhaps as that material is subjected to physical forces (e.g., Pivot Rifts, Remnance, Release). Is there an evolution of your work that you see?

TS: Looking back I think that much of my earlier work was about pushing the boundaries of what clay could do, and this act of exploration just kept opening up new possibilities. Pieces such as Tension and Rest Series, Pivot Rifts, and Remnance were all generated from a single series of experiments in which I began slip casting porcelain into solid blocks. Whereas one would normally use slip casting to reproduce thin-shelled functional objects, in this experiment I simply cast a cube, and allowed the casting slip to settle and dry for weeks rather than draining the mold after approximately ten minutes, as one normally would. Each day that I returned to the studio, the porcelain slip had settled into the mold a little further, producing visible ridges as the water was gradually absorbed by the mold. In this way the clay became a document of atmospheric change, made evident by any deviation from the shape of a cube. The firing then became another variable, essentially fusing this “event” in time.

Tension and Rest series, cast porcelain, 12 x 12 x 12 inches, 2006.

Jumping off from the slip-casting experiments, I became interested in other forms of sampling or recording, including the use of photography and 3D scanning. The use of digital tools as well as my experience teaching in China gradually pushed my sculptural work closer to industrial design, with work such as Map Series and Network Series.

Map Series #7, cast porcelain, decals, 3D-printed connectors, threaded steel rod, 12 x 10 x 10 inches, 2016.

JW: Maybe even a bigger question: if you do see an evolution to your work up to this point — where do you think your enquires and investigations will take you in the future? Any upcoming projects?

TS: Overall, I have become very interested in the intersection of craft and digital fabrication. Recently I produced a piece titled “Future Flora.” This sculpture is an abstract assemblage, representing the role of craft in the post-digital age: Slip-cast porcelain modules produced on residency in Jingdezhen China, are derived from 3D printed models and assembled to create a tangled network of spheres. Attached to these modules, using 3D-printed connectors and zip-ties are historical pottery shards, industrial ceramics, 3D printed parts and various found objects, as artifacts within this cloud of material. As an homage to traditional floral surface decoration, the ceramic decals are produced from photographs of moss, lichen and other plant-life in the forests of Jingdezhen, China. With all items at some point passing through a digital process, this tangled collage is intended to represent a physical manifestation of virtual forms, and the complicated role of ceramics in the post-digital world.

Future Flora, cast porcelain, ceramic decals, pottery shards, 3D printed PLA and mixed media,
19 x 16 x 18 inches, 2019. Photography: Jwa Kyu Lee and Tae Eun Kim

I have a number of other projects in the works that I am excited to share in the near future. These include some large scale wall-based works, some experiments in 3D printing in clay, and functional objects using recycled 3D printer scrap. Once they are ready to share I’ll be posting some pics on Instagram @tomschmidtstudio as well as my website thomasschmidt.org!

Face Jugs from the 1800s

Stoneware “face jugs” were made by African slaves and freedmen in the area around the Edgefield District of South Carolina. Production seemed to have begun prior to the American civil war (1861-1864), perhaps back to the early 1800s. There are collections of these face jugs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York as well as in the National Museum of American History (part of the Smithsonian Museum) in Washington, D.C.

Face Vessel, Metropolitan Museum of Art, https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/773049

While there were probably many of these jugs made during the 1800s, the Met notes that only about 160 of them are known to have survived. The Met has 3, and the Smithsonian Museum has 15 or so. Each museum website has background information on the items in their collection. I’ve gleaned some notes for this article from the two institutions.

The Smithsonian Museum’s collection of face jugs are presented in an interesting online article entitled “American Face Vessels“. One example is shown below.

Face Vessel, Museum of America History, https://www.si.edu/object/face-vessel:nmah_573759

The Smithsonian website notes, “The origins of the southern face vessel tradition are largely un-documented. Some enslaved black potters in South Carolina certainly began making face vessels in the mid 1800s, possibly inspired by African burial rituals or as charms used in religious ceremonies.” The Met website notes that “…distinctive features of the jugs, notably the kaolin inserts for the eyes, relate in style and material to ritualistic objects of the Congo and Angola region of western Africa, whence many slaves in South Carolina descended.”

Face Vessel, Metropolitan Museum of Art, https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/761604
Face Vessels, Museum of American History, https://www.si.edu/object/face-vessel:nmah_573756

Immaterial: Clay (Podcast)

The Metropolitan Museum of Art has a new podcast called Immaterial. The Met explains the podcast this way: “Immaterial examines the materials of art and what they can reveal about history, humanity, and the world at large.”

The most recent podcast is entitled “Clay”. I’ve listened to the episodes on paper, concrete and now clay. I prefer the first two, honestly, but the podcast on clay is nevertheless interesting.

Chris Alveshere – Artist Profile

Chris Alveshere is an interesting ceramic artist in that his work is highly focused on color and color combinations, which I do not often find. I spoke with Chris about the progression of his work and how color has come to be so central to his creative vision.

Interestingly, Chris mentions multiple sources that influence his work apart from color. I love how Chris seems so open to various undercurrents and subconscious influences that hover just beyond reason and logic — he seems so attuned to vibrations that others may discard or ignore. I found his descriptions of inspiration and process very interesting.

JW: Your work has progressed from rather muted tones to a very bright, electric color palette. Have you consciously driven toward brighter, vibrant color?

CA: The shift in the color of my work came as a result of explorations during my time in graduate school.

Chris Alveshere, pre-2018

Before 2018, I did not really know what was possible in terms of materials. I knew what was possible with salt, soda, and wood fired surfaces, but did not have the skill set, knowledge, or facilities to go beyond what I had done in undergrad, which was primarily atmospheric fired pots. The material testing and time to work out firing types and temperatures for this new work was possible when I went to graduate school.

I received a lot of feedback regarding the atmospheric work I was making when I started my MFA program, and a lot of it was to the effect of “you are so much more interesting than your pots.”

I needed to find my voice in the work, and realized that I was making the work I knew because there was something comforting about it during the stress of grad school. There was a transitional body of work, maybe 3-4 months worth of pots, that I tried to tackle bright colors in wood and salt kilns, but was quickly deterred by the amount of stains I was burning out in those firings.

When I finally jumped ship on all things atmospheric, the work began to be more unique to me as a maker. The pots were fun to look at, to handle, and to assemble. There were endless color and form possibilities when I was no longer limiting myself to trimming everything from one piece of clay.

I realized I was not good at glazing, and needed to find an easier, more consistent process to keep the colors where I put them. The bright colors were not a primary goal of the work in the beginning, but now the punchiness and saturation of the colors is very important.

JW: How methodical & planned out is your creative process? Do you sketch things out in advance, or is your process more spontaneous and intuitive?

CA: For the most part I am under the impression that all colors can go together, some just have to work a little harder at it.

When choosing which colors of clay I need to have on hand for a specific run of pots, I do think about specific combinations of three or four colors that are known, or that I have seen elsewhere and may be relatable to the viewer or future user of the piece. These combinations might me as simple as primary colors or a series of monochromatic blues, but could also be colors reminiscent of plastic playground equipment or a new pair of Vans color block shoes.

If I am ever getting low on ideas, I will sketch a few dozen pots on my iPad, where it is quick and easy to try out new color, form, and proportion ideas.

JW: What attracted you to ceramics as a medium? Have you worked in other media? If so, what qualities about ceramics most interest you?

CA: I first got into ceramics after I found a pottery wheel in a storage room at my high school. Pottery was not part of any class, but I was able to set it up in a back room and teach myself during my off periods. I was hooked immediately. It was messy, challenging, frustrating, and somehow rewarding at the same time. I have done quite a bit of printmaking and papermaking as well, but always found myself coming back to clay. I am most intrigued by the diversity in materials we have in our field, and the access to the continuous growth and research opportunities this medium provides.

JW: You’ve mentioned that some color ideas come directly from commercial art or graphic design. How do you “farm” for ideas and inspiration?

CA: I absolutely was methodically combing through design books when I was starting this body of work. Books, blogs, magazines, anything I could get my hands on with color images. I found a lot of early inspiration from books about nostalgia, and images of mid-century modern furniture and design.

Now that I am a couple of years into making these pots full time, I rarely find myself seeking out inspiration. Most often I will see something while on a walk by the river, scroll past a cool image of a color-block backpack on social media, or see a wild logo or pattern on a beer can, and just run with that. My clay colors are never going to be a perfect match, but I get great satisfaction from working with these found colors combinations and capturing the feeling or energy of the object I am working from.

It is important that the color and form inspiration do not come from the same place. I want to keep the work fresh and relatable, but not directly reminiscent of a specific thing.

The form and swells of a jar might be inspired by an inflatable pool toy, but I don’t want the color to necessarily match that. I’m not making the plastic floaty duck that I was inspired by, so I might use a blue or purple clay rather than the yellow or pink of the physical object. This can work in both directions as well. I have a blue that is the color of 3M brand painters’ tape, but I will make a set of serving bowls with it long before I think about making a porcelain tape dispenser.

JW: It also sounds like you use quite a bit of technology to create your ceramics. What is your process?

CA: Let’s use a citrus juicer for the example. I will start with some internet and often thrift store research too see how industry has made parts and attachments for this form. I might purchase a couple that I am intrigued by and see what I like and dislike about them, and what works well and what makes a mess with a lemon.

I do some digital sketching in Procreate and rough out some reamer designs before creating them to be 3D printed in plastic. I like to use SketchUp or Tinkercad, as they are super user friendly and easy to learn. I make sure the dimensions are larger than I will need in order to account for clay shrinkage, and will actually test out the printed plastic versions before committing to making molds of them. If any of them work well, I will make a plaster mold of the object that I can use to press clay into. These press-molded parts are then attached to thrown bases to complete the assembling of the functional object.

JW: How important is a creative community for you? Do you have that now?

CA: I feel that being part of a creative community is integral to my practice. I am lucky to be in a city with a thriving arts culture and large ceramic artist population. Receiving feedback and bouncing ideas back and forth keeps the work evolving in my studio. I would also consider social media as a creative community as well. I get a lot of comments and questions from interested parties that I have no personal connection to, but it still keeps me on my toes and engaged in the conversation and potential that this way of making has.

As a community education instructor, I also get to make and maintain connections with a diverse population of my local community. I rely on these interactions, along with teaching private lessons and relationships with galleries, to keep connections to my community thriving.

JW: Where to from here? Are there other things that you’re exploring?

CA: I am nearing the completion of my residency at the Clay Studio of Missoula, and about three months away from moving out of my current studio. I am hoping to continue with my full-time studio practice, and am working on setting up a studio space with a friend in town. I have taught two mold making and casting classes in the past year, which got me hooked again on the process and possibilities of working in parts and multiples. I hope to continue exploring and growing my knowledge and skills of slip casting in my new studio. I am hoping to gain access to papermaking equipment in the months to come, and would love to explore some mixed media, and less utilitarian forms as well.

More of Chris’ work can be found on his website: www.chrisalveshere.com.