Talavera Poblana Presentation

On November 17, 2022, at 6:00 PM (ET), multimedia artist Cecile Chong will discuss her stop-motion animation video entitled “Conversations in Blue-and-White.” Ms. Chong’s video documents the origin and production of Talavera Poblana, or tin-glazed pottery produced in and around Puebla, Mexico. Ms. Chong will discuss how some elements of this pottery style that first arose in China were disseminated through trade and commerce through the Middle East, Europe and on to Mexico. (An example of Blue-and-White Talavera Poblana pottery is shown below.)

The presentation is offered through The Hispanic Museum and Library and is part of their Virtual Seminars with Artists series. A link to the presentation is here.

Monika Patuszynska – Artist Profile

Monika Patuszynska is an absolutely fascinating Polish artist whose work involves a playfulness and exploration of both plaster moulds and porcelain clay. I was first attracted to some of her early work (2008-2009 “Nonformy” series) where she modified slipcast porcelain clay itself by injecting gas into it as it solidified within a plaster mould.

I love the way Monika brought out interesting qualities of porcelain in this series. She’s been exploring properties of porcelain since the mid-1990s.

When I reached out to Monika to ask about her work, she explained that much as she explores and modifies porcelain clay, she also explores and modifies the plaster moulds that she uses to slipcast porcelain. Monika builds, breaks apart and recombines plaster moulds before ever starting to work with porcelain. Mould-making is central to Monika’s creative output – the essential starting point of her art.

JTW: You focus on exploring clay as a material. What attracted you to clay in the first place? What qualities do you find most interesting?

MP: Ceramics itself moved into my life nearly 30 years ago and for a long time it has been consistently and irreversibly taking up more and more space in it. I have never really felt the necessity to use any other medium since. Ceramics, especially porcelain, offers everything that I need; it is both abstract and able to convey representational ideas; it has been accompanying communities for ages, but managed to maintain its independence; it serves all the purposes that suit me best- it is tactile, intimate and constantly challenging.

JTW: Can you describe your process a bit more? Does that process change with the different series that you work on?

MP: That’s rather the series that changes as an effect of change of the process.

My favourite part of the process has always been trying. It always starts as a thought of trying to find out what would happen if… The next step is doing it.

Luckily I am not in the mass-production situation so I use to the maximum all the advantages that the studio ceramics offers. I have been casting without the mould; I have created moulds without having a model made first; I have been working on solid blocks of plaster and found plaster moulds that I modify by sawing, smashing and breaking them into pieces, reassembled them and cast the void inside, sometimes adding bits and pieces cast from other moulds and manipulating the cast itself. For me, the plaster mould is not an end product; it is just the beginning of the creative process. The process of breaking up and piecing the broken pieces back together allows defining the object again, deprives it of its earlier designed character and gives it a new, different meaning.

In a way, I’m doing things the other way round now: I leave the casting marks on the casts, I am not afraid of cracks or deformations and I am not afraid of the lack of repetition. I break the plaster mould and cut it into pieces that are stapled, taped and cast as a completely new mould.

I like finding out where the lead I’m working on can take me.

JTW: How has your work evolved over time?

MP: I went through all the stages – for years I have been casting in a way that it should be done- repeating the gestures of thousands who were casting before me. However, the limits of “proper” casting always seemed too narrow for me.

There came a moment when gaining more and more control over the material was no longer enough for me. I felt tired of realising the eternal human desire to conquer Nature, which never really felt like mine.

I tend not to believe in anything that I do not experience myself- especially the superstitions concerning the use of materials. There was a time when the list of “don’ts” became my guide through ceramics- the list of “must dos”.

JTW: Have you worked with other materials besides clay? 

MP: Since I make my moulds straight in the plaster blocks or break different found mouIds, sometimes I am not really able to define which is my leading material: clay or plaster; which one is the medium I shape and which one is the the “second”, auxiliary one. Do I make the positives in plaster to cast them into porcelain negatives? Or is it the other way round?

I had a few adventures with glass being blown into my plaster moulds but, as the process always needs another person: a blower (so it needs to be translated into words), it is not as personal, intimate, and natural as casting for me.

JTW: What are your sources of inspiration?

MP: My main inspiration is my own work and the nature of the materials that I work with. By choosing casting as the primary production method I have situated myself within the ages of the porcelain industry and defining myself towards the past and the present also plays a huge role. I am inspired by the process, most of all by its errors and accidents. I constantly seek out the difficulties posed by working in porcelain. The objects themselves are not the main focus; they are a side effect of my explorations.

I do not believe that a plaster mould as it exists in a factory, smooth and fine, is a true plaster. I do not believe that true porcelain is smooth, submissive and docile, even though it is often presented as such. You can deprive your cat its claws, but will it still be a true cat? That’s why my plaster is rough and my porcelain can injure, but this is what it is like when you let the materials speak for their own and don’t try to force it into a rigid, technological framework.

I am inspired by mistakes and what is usually considered as a defect. I like to play with the nature of accidents and work with them. In our culture an accident is considered an error. However the tamed accident is not an accident any more, is it? The tamed accident becomes a technique. Direct contact with the medium is essential as it is all about balancing between maintain in an attempt to capture the true nature of the material.

JTW: Do you sell most of your work through art expos, galleries or on commission? Do you prefer one over the other?

MP: It all varies.

My process is partly unpredictable so it always causes some stress to try to achieve an effect defined before. Besides, firing the works that are exactly defined before I start working, bores me. It seems kind of senseless: firing something that I know exactly how it will look after… Doesn’t it? What is the point of making and firing if you know the final effect before you even start working?

So my absolute favourite is working on new pieces with no tension or time pressure at all.

Creating is an unstoppable must. The necessity of selling comes somehow as an inevitable side effect of making and rarely is a sole reason to create.

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

MP: That my pieces are much more than just decorative objects. Each of them has a story to tell, you just need to tune and quietly listen to them.

You can find more of Monika’s work on her website and Instagram.

Eglė Einikytė-Narkevičienė – Artist Profile

I put this article together while traveling in the deserts of Namibia in Southern Africa. Oddly, I found similarity between the anagama kiln fired work of Eglė, a Lithuanian artist, and the stark geology of Namibia. I have no reason to believe there is any direct connection. Eglė herself describes the origins and inspiration for her ceramic art as internally focused (“I explore the relationship between man’s inner and outer worlds”), and I clearly see such focus in the sculptural elements and intense colors in much of Eglė’s work. But there is definitely a correlation between Eglė’s anagama fired work and geologic features revealed in the deserts of this world. All of which illustrates that art may take on different dimensions based on context: where it is created and where it is viewed and appreciated.

JTW: What attracted you to ceramics? Did you explore other media and materials?

EE: Ceramics fascinate me with its versatility and wide inexhaustible technical features. I am pleased I can realise myself in this material. Ceramics taught me patience and consistency.

After graduation, I also tried to realise myself in other areas. I participated in various artistic projects that were not associated with ceramics. These were art symposia of outdoor wood sculptures and paper. Later I participated in painting residencies. And yet I went back to ceramics.

JTW: I think I see some very softened human forms in some pieces on your website. Did you study figure sculpture or work as a figurative sculptor?

EE: The fact that I am now moulding figurative sculptures was determined by a number of factors.

First, at the Academy of Fine Arts, I had an excellent lecturer – a sculptor who pushed me to choose a plastic art expression. The second factor that led to this is “historical”. I studied in a very difficult period from 1992 to 1998. Lithuania’s independence was just restored. The technical base of the Academy of Arts was quite poor. There was a lack of various materials for the production of ceramics. There was therefore no opportunity to work in the field of technology. The absence of a technical base encouraged students to work more in the ideological direction, encouraged them to think, look for concept and new forms. At that time, students of the Academy of Fine Arts created sculptures from non-traditional materials – rubbish, they sort of compensated for the lack of technical capabilities.

JTW: Can you tell me about your evolution as an artist? I think I see more figurative & geometric pieces in 2019, moving toward much more fluid, organic-type pieces in 2021.

EE: I am glad that new experiences and environments dictate new ideas and forms. It is very difficult for me to look back. In my work, I explore the relationship between man’s inner and outer worlds. I am interested in analysing people, capturing their different experiences. I wonder how the environment itself shapes a person, and what kind of experiences we gain.

In 2019, when I created a personal ‘Inside-Outside’, I thought a lot about the meaning of life. About inner distance and proximity. Interpersonal contact and alienation. About duality and separation, crucial to vices and virtues formulated by our personal character and experience. With ‘sculptures’ I sought to reveal man’s spiritual relationship, under the influence of the environment, the resulting egocentricity therefrom, the need for perpetuation, pride and the relentless desire to regain the internal structured order and peace.

For example, the inspiration for the exhibition ‘One Size’ created in 2019-2020 came from moulding small models from plasticine. I sort of compared a person to a piece of plasticine. Externally, they are only similar at the initial stage – until they lie in the box. All are smooth and neat, only the colour is different. It seemed to me that a person, like a plasticine, was very plastic, he could be easily deformed and damaged. He easily absorbs all the effects of the environment; reflects them. As Voltaire said: ‘The environment for man is all his fate.’ This raises the question: what would we be if planted in one or the other soil? Creation is a huge balance between idea, form, inner energy, environment and other things.

The work of 2020-2021 was influenced by the Pandemic situation, which dictated new forms and ideas. After the introduction of the quarantine, the world seemed to stop. That stop was a great opportunity to rethink and re-contemplate the surrounding things. This situation taught us to cherish what we have to, not to rush, to stop and to outlive every moment. New sculptures, I’d say, have taken on quite unexpected, unusual forms for my creation. In these works, we can see Baroque elements, which tell us about the crisis we experience and the instability and confusion of the situation. In these works, as much as possible in the ceramic material, I wanted to convey and capture every vibration, as if the image were deep underwater and the viewer could feel even the flowing current of water. This would be my response to the current situation: do not resist and accept the situation as it is. I have noticed myself that the shape of my sculptures changes greatly from the main aim and thought. If I start searching for a more complex form, the mind plunges into a second plan.

JTW: Much of your work has intense color, while other pieces have very subtle, pastel-like color. Can you tell me how you are exploring color in your work?

EE: My creative work is changing a bit. In the past, I may have chosen more subtle colours than I am now. It seems to me that colour has a big impact on the viewer. Sometimes I use even 100 % pigment. Not only the colour, but also the coating itself is very important to me.

In my work I avoid shiny surfaces that often destroy the shape. I cover the sculptures by spraying, so the slipware is very evenly covered and give the surface a beautiful velvet impression. Matte surfaces further highlight the silhouette and texture of the figure. I think the choice of colours is also influenced by the environment and the current mood. I think after this very colourful period I will want subtle or maybe white colours again.

JTW: There is another section of your website called “Anagama Firing?”. Can you tell me more about that process? Did you make these pieces at one point in time, or is this something that you continue to do across many years?

EE: I am very fascinated by the burning of an anagama kiln. An anagama kiln was built in Lithuania, where sculptures could be burned out. It is currently disassembled. The burning of anagama kiln is associated with holidays and rest. Perhaps because it is necessary to devote enough time to burning and not to worry, not to think about ‘colour’. Nature itself controls the surface of the sculpture; I will only need to ‘inflame it’. Very interesting and unpredictable result.

This is the exact opposite of the burning technology that I do normally. I usually burn sculptures in an electric furnace. I can do a lot of tests and expect to replicate the desired result. In anagama kiln, I can’t influence or affect the result. Burning the anagama kiln is a teamwork that requires a lot of knowledge, energy and concentration. This is a burning that I can’t control. The burnings of anagama kiln sort of educate me: they develop patience, make me obey, trust my colleagues.

JTW: Can you tell me about the creative community in Lithuania? Are there many ceramic artists there? Is there a deep tradition of ceramics?

EE: Is there a deep ceramics tradition? Lithuanian professional ceramics have been in existence for 90 years. In my opinion, Lithuania does not have deep traditions. In Lithuania, ceramic specialties can be acquired at Vilnius Academy of Arts and Kaunas. We have the Lithuanian Artists Association, which has about 90 ceramists. It organises ceramic art biennials, various thematic exhibitions. In Lithuania, international ceramic symposiums are organised at AIC Panevėžys Gallery, Kaunas ‘Bona China’ bone porcelain symposiums, contribute significantly to the promotion of ceramics. I am very happy that I have the opportunity to contribute to the organisation of the main Lithuanian exhibition ‘Vilnius Ceramic Biennial’. This year, we prepare the 7th Biennial. Together with our active classmates, we organise and tutor international exhibitions of ceramics small forms ‘Cup’. This idea was born to somehow move the community of ceramists. We chose such a simple, perhaps insignificant object. After a while, colleagues from neighbouring countries were very keen to join us. The project is completely altruistic and does not receive any funding.

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

EE: I am glad and thankful to God that I have the opportunity to create. I am very grateful that the creative beginning that was in me was always nurtured with the help of my parents and relatives. In the end, I wish the viewer, and I would also like to wish myself insight, to be able to see the surroundings, to manage not to lose the true meaning and essence.

You can see more of Eglė’s work on her website.

Museo Castromediano – Lecce, Italy

My wife and I recently wandered into the Museo Castromediano in Lecce, Italy (also known as Museo Sigismondo Castromediano after the founder, an aristocratic collector who donated a large part of the collection). The museum is outstanding – not only its collection of local ceramics dating across millennia, but also in the way the museum displays those ceramics.

The interior layout is striking. The museum’s interior galleries are built around an arresting spiraling stairway, accentuating the display theme of layers upon layers of human civilization, starting with ceramic remnants of Paleolithic peoples and moving upwards through later periods.

This area of Puglia in southern Italy has been a crossroad of human migration and trade since Paleolithic times. The museum stresses that such exchange of material items reflects not just commercial activity, but also interchange of ideas, language, culture, myth and religion. The museum displays objects found in caves that are amongst the oldest sacred places in human history, occupied by Neanderthals and early Homo Sapiens, as well as objects reflecting later Neolithic and Greco and Roman civilizations.

I was impressed with a creative display of ceramic containers recovered underwater from a Roman-era shipwreck. In addition to displaying the ceramic vessels themselves, the museum recreated the underwater setting with photographs and ceramics placed in salt water aquariums.

There are a staggering number and variety of ceramic objects displayed, indicative of the large amount of ceramics produced in or shipped through southern Italy over many centuries. the museum does a good job of organizing this large quantity of objects into 5 clusters of objects linked to landscape, seascape, the living, the dead and the sacred.

This an altogether fascinating museum that will appeal to all audiences. The objects are varied, the span of history is impressive, and the display is outstanding. The museum is a perfect accompaniment to the city of Lecce, which itself is an architectural display of cultural accumulation and layering.

In Lecce you’ll find a Roman theatre and an amphitheater, ancient city walls, baroque churches and remnants of fascist-era buildings.

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.