Deighton Abrams – Artist Profile

Deighton is a ceramic artist and educator, currently teaching courses as the Artist-in-Residence at The Ceramics Program at Harvard University. He has also taught ceramics at Lesley University, Clemson University, Winthrop University, and Greenville Technical College.

Deighton grew up in Alaska, and has fused that experience with sculpture. Deighton’s work explores connections between humans, the creative process, and the physical landscape — with a particular focus on environmental stress and climate change.

JW: You do both sculptural work and functional work. Any preference? What does one offer that the other does not?

DA: For me, it’s hard to choose between which of the two are my preference since they offer different creative outlets and processes for me. I tend to call myself a sculptor and never a potter since I’ve never worked exclusively making functional work. Sculpting allows me pretty wide berths in terms of creative freedom as I’m not tied into any sort of explicit craft dogma (typically no one is consuming food from my sculptures) so I can make the call most times on what is acceptable in terms of things like glaze “flaws” and fissures in the clay.

Functional work, however, keeps my craft edge sharp as I try to make work that fits into more traditionally acceptable ceramic standards. A cup that doesn’t hold water is more clearly a failure than a sculpture with a similar crack. Much of my maintaining balance between wheel throwing  and handbuilding (whether it’s functional or sculptural) comes from my teaching practice and ensuring my students can learn any number of skills from my lessons and not feel underserved.

JW: You started as a printmaker.  What prompted your transition to ceramics?

DA: I started my full time undergraduate studies after almost a decade of working in retail and foodservice and I’d persistently called myself an artist in spite of not making much work. I’d always illustrated and drawn things from life but my undergrad program introduced me to the process heavy medium of printmaking. I really enjoyed carving blocks and working in a fairly old, traditional medium that had a heavy reliance on craft. My program required that I take ceramics as a foundations course and I saved it for the very end of my program as I really didn’t want to do anything with 3D work. I’d never touched clay in my life (other than playdough as a child) and had no interest. The first project was a simple pinch pot and I struggled with it so much that my wife actually finished it for me. The next project was a coil pot and something clicked with me and that process. My instructors John Jensen and Mac McCusker were very supportive and I ended up becoming a studio tech the following semester. Something about the vibrant, open community of clay really attracted me and I felt able to translate my drawing skills directly into sculpting from life. Haven’t been without clay ever since.

JW: It looks like your recent (2020) sculptural work is of fairly small scale, while some earlier pieces you did were larger. Is there a reason for that change of scale?

DA: My wife and I moved to the Boston area in late 2019 for her work and I started working at the Ceramics Program for the Office of the Arts at Harvard University as a work study intern and academic assistant to the director Kathy King. I didn’t have a dedicated space for my own work other than small shelves and my apartment was incredibly small with little storage.

This forced me in some ways to work on a very small scale but I’d also been a bit exhausted physically and mentally from making and moving large works. Aside from these practical concerns, I was beginning to think about how to make impactful work that didn’t rely on massive scale to operate and I’d also become hyper aware of my material consumption and this was a minor way to mitigate that. My space during the pandemic was also very limited and I didn’t have access to kilns or firing for the first time. It was incredibly difficult to find motivation to continue working on my own work and I’d transitioned to teaching ceramics fully remotely and the challenges of online learning consumed much of my time. For a few months, I’d actually begun making tiny daily sculptures inspired by Japanese netsuke at the suggestion of my wife. 

JW: You’re very focused on environmental changes – but certainly the pandemic has had large-scale impact on societies around the world. Has COVID wiggled its way into your work in any way? 

DA: I’m still dedicated to my research on climate change and material ethics through my art but the relative isolation of the pandemic in our new urban home gave me time to think about some of the root causes of disaster and human nature. I’ve started to think more intensely about living in different regions, whether urban or rural, coastal or inland, and so on change our levels of consumption.

I haven’t gone on to making things like caricatures of viruses, toilet paper, and kn95 masks, but the pandemic has certainly changed my view of the planet and the people in it. If anything, my concerns are even more outward facing with my work and I now have an even greater interest in how social and mental health affect our views on climate change and its perception within political theater.

JW: What specific steps have you taken as a ceramic sculptor and maker to mitigate your environmental impact?

DA: Most steps I take to mitigate my impact as an artist are through offsetting my consumption in other areas of my life. I drive as little as possible and walk or take public transit, something easy to do in my new urban home. I also try to limit the amount of meat I consume as there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that factory farm processes have a severe impact on the environment. Within my work itself, I constantly try to reconfigure older work or pieces that didn’t feel ready to exhibit when I made them and combine them in new ways that feel fresh. I tend not to cull too much of my sculptural work and hold onto them until I find a use for them. Most of the time my demo pieces from workshops or teaching serve as experiments for combining forms, such is the case with my piece Nilohuki/Molohuki which combined a demo coil pot and two sculptures that didn’t make it into my final thesis show.

JW: Are you satisfied with what you can do as a ceramic artist to alleviate your concerns about ecological catastrophes?

DA: Overall, it’s hard not to be a bit cynical about my impact as a ceramic artist. Much of what I discuss surrounding my work feels hypocritical as I convert raw earth that has taken millions of years to develop and then convert it into permanent ceramic which will then take perhaps the same amount of time to decompose. Compound that with the knowledge of the sometimes vast distances these materials travel and the often irresponsible mining practices that procure them as well as using fossil fuels to finish them off, the negative aspects of consumption seem very dire. I understand, however, that you can trace much of these same processes to any part of our daily life and the scale of my ceramic consumption often pales in comparison. I think much of my thoughts surrounding consumption stem from the closeness and abstract kinship I feel to clay and all of its stages. These thoughts often freeze me up in the studio but I also think about how much more mindful I’ve become with my work and that drives me forward to continue making, even if the pace is sometimes painfully slow. I’ve never wanted my work to be about making people feel awful about consuming anything, least of all clay, but an awareness of the materials we use and the means we take to acquire them I believe can make us more mindful and perhaps more imaginative when it comes to the future and how we move forward.

JW: On your functional work, I’m picking up several surface decoration themes (skulls/skeletons, eye symbols, & landscape elements). Can you tell me more about the origin and repeated use of those elements? 

DA: In many ways, the illustrations of my functional work are continuations and extensions of my printmaking work. There’s something special about drawing on clay, especially porcelain, that drives me to think about how I divide and fill the space. Skeletons are usually my way of striking a sense of memento mori, a reminder of death, but I try not to make them overly morbid and try to make them slightly humorous when I can. Eyes and clouds have been my default patterns and void fillers, there’s something about both motifs that enable me to work quickly and imbue a sense of the ethereal with them, something I haven’t really pinned down conceptually.

My landscapes are almost always fully imagined and drawn directly on my surfaces with little to no planning. My father grew up in Jackson Hole, WY, and my mother grew up right outside the west gate of Yellowstone in Gardiner, MT; in combination with my experiences growing up in Alaska, I’ve always had a deep connection to vast, open landscapes. I also love the atmospheric paintings of Chinese artists like Fan Kuan, the Romantic Era paintings of European and American artists like Caspar David Friedrich and Thomas Cole, as well as Japanese manga artists like Katsuhiro Otomo. These influences among many others drive me to make functional work that is labour intensive, atmospheric, and accessible.

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

DA: My sculptural work is driven by my need to express myself and viewpoints in deeply conceptual ways. Every part of them has some degree of meaning, especially the materials I choose to support them like salvaged, untreated wood and polystyrene insulation foam, the latter began as a pun with my thesis work titled Winter Kept Us Warm, a nod to a line in T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Wasteland”, and the view I was trying to express that we often “insulate” ourselves from knowledge that conflicts with our conceptions of reality.

Even though I attempt to imbue every single component of my sculpture with meaning and/or symbolism, I think they are mostly meant as emotional conduits for the viewers. Generally I hope there’s enough ambiguity within them for people to interact with them on their own terms without needing all of the baggage of meaning I construct for them.  

JW: Where to from here? Any major projects or plans on the horizon?

DA: My focus since graduate school has largely been on teaching both on the community and academic level. Teaching is one of my greatest joys in life and I love developing students’ desire to create thoughtfully, both for themselves and the world around them. I’m currently teaching courses as the Artist in Residence for Harvard Ceramics as well as ceramics courses at Lesley University. I’m looking forward to developing new sculpture classes for both as well as completing a new body of sculptural and functional work. I’m working towards a new shop update for my functional work on my website and making sculpture for my solo show here at Harvard sometime in 2022.

John Newdigate – Artist Profile

John Newdigate is a South African artist who produces magnificent pots, churning with the vegetative forms and animals that surround him in his mountainside home. Vibrant colors distinguish his ceramic pieces. Large scale forms are also characteristic of John’s work, although he creates vessels in various sizes.

John has been a professional potter since 1991. More of his work can be seen on his gallery’s website or his own Instagram account.

JW: Will you tell me something about your collaboration with Ian Garrett? (I think he throws the pots and then you take over with painting and glazing).

JN: Ian Garrett and I have shared our lives for over twenty years. We were both professional ceramists when we met, but our approaches could not have been more different. Where Ian has a MAFA degree, I have informal training. Ian works in low fired, burnished earthenware and I work in underglaze painted porcelain. Ian makes few pieces that he puts a lot of time into, whereas I saw myself as a studio potter, making multiple versions of functional wares. For many years we kept our professional lives separate as we both had clear directions for our own creative journies. However, over time we did start to influence each other.  I learnt from Ian’s more disciplined approach, to take my work seriously and to devote more time to making fewer pieces.

I am a competent hand builder in my own right, and for many years made my own vessels, but Ian is widely acknowledged as a master hand-builder, creating vessels that are as symmetrical as if thrown on a wheel but his forms have the warmth and generosity of hand-built forms. Ian actively maintains his solo career, so is happy to play a secondary, supportive role in our collaboration, choosing not to do more than the making of blanc vessels for me to paint. As my painting can be exuberant, I appreciate that his forms do not compete for attention, rather adding a quiet sophistication that compliments the end result hugely. The aim for a successful collaboration should be for the the sum to be greater than the parts, I feel that we have achieved this.

JW: One thing wasn’t evident until I looked at your Instagram account: the scale of your work. These pieces are huge!

JN: The work varies in size, from 15cm – 110cm tall, with most being around 30-50 cm in height, so they’re not all huge! 

JW: How do you achieve such intensity of color in your work? (I believe you use underglaze topped with a clear glaze. It’s really remarkable.)

JN: When underglaze pigments first became widely accessible they were immediately taken up by amateurs painting pre-made slip-cast bisque ware which resulted in the medium not being taken seriously by the established ceramics world. After years of working in carved porcelain, glazed in reduction fired celadon, I started yearning for colour and started experimenting to find a technique to express my ideas more fully. After each failed attempt I would retreat back to the safety of the carved celadon. But there was just enough of an inkling of a new and exciting possibility that made me persevere. Eventually I realised that mixing colours by overlaying thin layers and reserving areas with wax-resist I could create images that combined control with freshness and spontaneity, allowing me to share the images that had previously lived in my imagination only.

JW: Will you tell me a bit about your background? Were you always interested in ceramics? If not, what attracted you to ceramics?

JN: I grew up in a coastal village/suburb called Kalk Bay on the outskirts of Cape Town, in one of the very few places in South Africa at the time that was not (fully) racially segregated. The close-knit community consisted of people from a wide variety of socio-economic, ethnic and cultural backgrounds, which was highly unusual for South Africa at the time. Many of our family friends were artists and I was especially lucky to get informal training in childhood from two women, Peggy North for painting and drawing, and Barbara Bruce for ceramics. When I completed schooling and started studying Art at a tertiary level I didn’t thrive and left after six months. I was conscripted into the South African Military for two years, against my will and principles.  On completion I worked in the Art department of a screen printing factory for a year. The following year I visited Europe on a working holiday. My return to South Africa coincided with the Rainbow Nation of a post-Apartheid South Africa, creating a current of great optimism and goodwill. In this spirit I started making objects out of various materials, but ceramics was always my favourite.

JW: I see a lot of vegetative themes in your work, plus of course fauna. Can you tell me about the sources you tap into for your painting?

JN: I like my art to be autobiographical, and honest. For me this means depicting the physical world in my immediate surroundings, melding it with my thoughts and observations of the wider world. I don’t aim to judge, influence, praise or blame, rather to depict concepts visually that I find difficult to articulate with words (as I’m struggling to do right now!), as a means to understand them better myself. While Nature is profoundly beautiful, I do not see it as cute and fluffy.

From the level of unicellular organisms to large mammals its a case of eat or be eaten. We humans have done a half-convincing job of concealing our animal instincts, whereas the natural world is straight forward which is why I do not sentimentalise it.

JW: I also detect an “industrial” theme in some pieces. Where does this come from? How DO you decide on a theme? Is this driven by your inspiration at the moment or are you preparing work to satisfy demand for your products?

JN: I know for example that a smartphone does work, but like most people I have no idea *how* it works, let alone anything about the processes that created it. How does one go from raw materials mined from from the earth to the iPhone in your hand? How can technology play such a huge role in my life without me knowing much about it? 

In these pieces I am depicting my basic understanding of how these structures and processes work, and that I appreciate how much I do not know about them. To be honest I don’t know where my ideas come from, but often they come to me when I’m in a state halfway between being awake and asleep. 

JW: Will you tell me more about your creative process? I found this on your Instagram account but honestly I don’t understand all the references

JN: While painting foliage on a vessel one day, I looked up and noticed that the scenery outside my studio windows was filled with the same subject matter. It occurred to me that it would be good to record the moment and what my studio looks like. The main reason that I like to paint on vessels is that all the imagery cannot be seen from one viewpoint. Time is required to reveal the images as the viewer moves around the vessel. This creates a static animation, or single frame animation. 

On one side of this vessel I have the unpainted pots as given to me by Ian Garrett, in various stages of drying. Outside, viewed through the windows, is the natural world that inspires me and which I then paint onto the pots. Further along there are pots in varying degrees of completion. In-between I’ve depicted some of the equipment and materials that I use.

JW: I’ve got to ask: what is the story about “(The Attempted) Suppression of the Kikuyu Uprising”?  (It seems like one of just a few “social commentary” pieces I’ve seen. I’m personally interested in this because of all the turmoil we’re experiencing in my country (USA).)

JN: There is a species of grass called kikuyu, named after the Kikuyu people, as it grows naturally in the region of east Africa where they live. The grass is also tough and resilient, like the Kikuyu people, and to get it to conform into a lawn requires constant attention. In the past, colonial authorities imposed their will on the locals using brutal methods, but it did not have a lasting effect, the people recovered and continued their resistance, eventually defeating them. I see Kikuyu grass as a metaphor for the human spirit that never gives up the struggle against tyranny, and the futility of imposing rules over unwilling subjects.

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

JN: Ideally, I’d like people to view my work without presumption, maybe the less they know about me the more likely that would be! 

I would like people to know that I put a lot of thought and time into each piece, and that I leave space for the viewer to have their own interpretation of what the work is about, so that there is a three way conversation between the maker, the vessel and the viewer. 

In closing, here’s a short video about John’s work in his own words.

African Ceramics at Die Neue Sammlung – The Design Museum

Courtesy Die Neue Sammlung – The Design Museum, Photo: Hannes Rohrer.

In July 2017, Franz, Duke of Bavaria donated his collection of African ceramics to the Die Neue Sammlung – The Design Museum, based in Munich, Germany. Franz, Duke of Bavaria had been accumulating his collection since the 1970s. In September 2019 the museum held an exhibit of over 250 works from the collection, which ran from Sept 2019 – April 2020, and included information on the forms and function of each ceramic piece, plus the context of their creation.

Unfortunately, we all missed that.

Die Neue Sammlung – The Design Museum, did, however, give me permission to share photos of some pieces that were included in the exhibition. I’ve supplemented these images with tidbits about the artists and ceramic traditions that I’ve been able to find online. (I don’t have access to the museum’s information on each piece. I also have no background in African ceramics or African cultures.)

These ceramic pieces stand on their own, with or without exhibition information. They possess raw vitality and energy. It would be fantastic to view the objects first-hand, to experience the physical properties so central to that vitality. I thank Die Neue Sammlung – The Design Museum for allowing me to share photographs.

Voania of Muba (? – ca. 1928), Figurative vessel, Woyo culture, Muba, Democratic Republic Kongo, end of 19th century until ca. 1928. Courtesy Die Neue Sammlung – The Design Museum, Photo: Hannes Rohrer.

The figurative vessel above was created by the self-taught Voania of Muba, a Woyo chief who worked in the early 1900s. Voania created ceramics for a European clientele. He is fairly unique because the Woyo people do not have a strong pottery tradition. I found multiple images of Voania of Muba’s work online, and individual examples of this artist’s work at the Semanek-Munster museum, the Smithsonian Museum and the British Museum.

Bottle, Tutsi Culture, Rwanda, Burundi, Late 19th – mid 20th c., Black terracotta, white pigment, H 42 D 30.5, Inv.# 1868/2019, Die Neue Sammlung – The Design Museum, Munich, permanent loan from Franz, Duke of Bavaria (Inv.# FVB0551) Courtesy Die Neue Sammlung – The Design Museum, Photo: Hannes Rohrer.

Pots such as this example, above, were used to carry water in rural communities. Made of local clay, the patterns are rich and bold.

Tutsi people are believed to have arrived into what is now Rwanda in the 1400s, setting up a feudal system with a king. Local Hutu farmers ultimately came to lease their farmland from the Tutsi immigrants, and racial tensions sharpened after European colonists arrived. Ultimately, the situation erupted into extreme violence in the 1990s with the Rwandan genocide, where apx. 1 million Tutsi people were massacred with local tools and machetes. See background information here.

Magdalene Odundo (born 1950), Asymmetrical Series, Kenya/Great Britain, 2017. Courtesy Die Neue Sammlung – The Design Museum, Photo: Hannes Rohrer.

Dame Magdalene Odundo was born in Kenya and now works as a studio potter in Surrey, England. She is best known for her hand built, asymmetrical pieces that are highly burnished, covered with slip, and then reburnished.

I found this video interview with Ms. Odundo, who describes her training and background, plus some insight into process and motivations.

Ritual Vessel for Shango Yoruba Culture, Oyo, Nigeria, Late 19th – mid 20th c., Brown terracotta, H 43 D 40.6, Inv.# 1581/2019, Die Neue Sammlung – The Design Museum, Munich, permanent loan from Franz, Duke of Bavaria (Inv.# FVB0295). Courtesy Die Neue Sammlung – The Design Museum, Photo: Hannes Rohrer.

I found an article about Shango cult practices online. It notes that, “In Nigeria, Shango, god of thunder, is the only deity worshipped in the Shango cult… Clay pots and jars containing water are ubiquitous in the Shango centers of Trinidad as they are in cult houses in southern Nigeria (Talbot 1926: 11: 20). On entering a Shango center in Trinidad during a nonceremonial period, a
prominent devotee goes to each of the exterior shrines and pours a small quantity of water from the jar found on the “stool.” Water is poured from clay pots at various times during a ceremony.” (See The Shango Cult in Nigeria and Trinidad.)

Courtesy Die Neue Sammlung – The Design Museum, Photo: Hannes Rohrer.
Courtesy Die Neue Sammlung – The Design Museum, Photo: Hannes Rohrer.

People of the Mangbetu tribes are known for their elongated heads. Newborn babies have their heads wrapped with cloth to shape it into an elongated shape.

Patterns carved into Mangbetu pots are typically thin, shallow lines that wind around the pot surface.

Additional examples can be found by searching for “Mangbetu” on the Met’s website.

Spirit Vessel, Mafa or Matakam Culture, Cameroon, Nigeria, Late 19th – mid 20th c.
Gray terracotta, white stones, H 47 D 40, Inv.# 1591/2019, 2019 Die Neue Sammlung – The Design Museum, Munich, permanent loan from Franz, Duke of Bavaria (Inv.# FVB0311). Courtesy Die Neue Sammlung – The Design Museum, Photo: Hannes Rohrer.

I could find very little about the Matakam culture online. Nevertheless, I like this “Spirit Vessel”, above. A lot.

Initiation Mask, Makonde Culture, Mozambique, 1950 – 1980, Dark brown terracotta, H 27 B/W 22 T/D 18, Inv.# 1877/2019, 2019 Die Neue Sammlung – The Design Museum, permanent loan from Franz, Duke of Bavaria (Inv.# FVB0581). Courtesy Die Neue Sammlung – The Design Museum, Photo: Hannes Rohrer.

I found an interesting article entitled “Rituals, Beliefs and Sculptures in Makonde Culture” saying: “Two types of masks can be used during Mapiko ritual dances: a “máscara facial”, covering the face, or a “máscara capacete”, covering the whole head. Both masks are made from wood and their shape is usually heightened and bizarre, with hair and bright colour decorations.”

Of course, the initiation mask displayed above is terracotta clay, not wood.

Medicinal Figure of a Warthog or Hippopotamus, Zigua Culture, Tanga or Kilimanjaro region, Tanzania, Late 19th – mid 20th c., Brown terracotta, H 13 D 30, Inv.# 1929/2019, 2019 Die Neue Sammlung – The Design Museum, Munich, permanent loan from Franz, Duke of Bavaria (Inv.# FVB0634). Courtesy Die Neue Sammlung – The Design Museum, Photo: Hannes Rohrer.
Jug with Handle and Spout, Igbo Culture, Nigeria, c. 1950, Dark gray terracotta, red, white and blue paint, H 35 D 29, Inv.# 1706/2019, 2019 Die Neue Sammlung – The Design Museum, Munich, permanent loan from Franz, Duke of Bavaria (Inv.# FVB1215). Courtesy Die Neue Sammlung – The Design Museum, Photo: Hannes Rohrer.

See this Wikipedia page on Igbo art, including their ceramic traditions. Beautiful object.

Beer Vessel (ukhamba), Azolina MaMncube Ngema, (1936 – 2015 or 2016, South Africa, Zulu Culture, South Africa, Mid 20th c – 2015/16, Black terracotta, burnished, H 32.7 D 38.1, Inv.# 702/2017, Die Neue Sammlung – The Design Museum, Munich, donated by Franz, Duke of Bavaria (Inv.# FVB0529). Courtesy Die Neue Sammlung – The Design Museum, Photo: Hannes Rohrer.

I can’t vouch for the accuracy of observations recorded, but in this article entitled “Indigenous Knowledge Systems (IKS) & Zulu Ceramic Arts: Azolina MaMncube Ngema, One Worman’s Story” the author recounts information about Azolina MaMncube Ngema, whose work is shown above. The author spent several weeks with Ms. MaMncube, observing and discussing her ceramic work. Ms. MaMncube often created pots in the “izinkamba” style, including raised “amasumpa” decorations, blackened with “natural” materials including shoe polish. This style of pottery was traditionally associated with Zulu royalty, but Ms. MaMncube may have worked in this way specifically to appeal to to high-paying patrons – specifically, white scholars and collectors. It is an interesting read.

Another example of Ms. MaMncube’s amasumpa-decorated pots is at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Ritual Vessel in the Shape of a Human Head, Tiv Culture (probably), Nigeria Late 19th – mid 20th c. Brown terracotta, wood, feathers, sacrificial patina, H 15 B/W 17 T/D 10 Inv.# 1584/2019. Courtesy Die Neue Sammlung – The Design Museum, Photo: Hannes Rohrer.

I return to my initial statement about these ceramic pieces – they contain raw vitality and energy. Here is an academic paper on ceramics produced by Tiv women. I prefer to just enjoy the piece on its own.

Finally, here is a .pdf listing all the exhibited works, prepared by Die Neue Sammlung – The Design Museum. The listing is complete, but the images are small.

Ollas: Ceramics Used in Agriculture

Ceramic ollas (pronounced oh-yahs) have been used for thousands of years as an efficient irrigation system in arid lands agriculture. They are making somewhat of a comeback in small-scale gardens because they are easy to make as DIY projects and they’re effective. In honor of Earth Day 2021, I thought I’d provide some information on this water-saving technique.

One source I found stated:

Chinese texts that are well over 2,000 years old mention clay pot irrigation. The Romans used ollas. Olla irrigation can be found in the Middle East, India, and Central and South America.

I found some information about ollas being introduced to the American Southwest cultures by Spanish conquistadors. There’s not a lot of information on ollas around the world, but I didn’t search extensively. But it makes intuitive sense that these things were used in agriculture at different times and in different places.

Below are a few instructional videos about ollas, including how ollas work, how to use ollas as small-scale irrigation systems (i.e., garden plots), and instructions on several ways to make ollas out of wet clay (on the wheel, coil building, and slip casting techniques) and how to construct ollas out of commercially available clay garden pots.

Lorna Meaden – Artist Profile

Lorna is a Colorado-based artist who produces soda fired porcelain ware. Her work is intimate, nuanced and subtle. Work to be held in one’s hand and slowly spun around to fully appreciate the gradation of color, the detailed markings, the exquisite texture of object.

Lorna’s stated goal is to integrate the form and surface of her pots, starting with 3D forms that divide space, then drawing on the surface of those 3D forms, and finishing by adding color. “I am drawn to work that is rich in ornamentation, with lavish use of materials – both scarce in a culture of mass production,” she notes on her website.

JW: You work primarily with soda fired porcelain. What attracted you to porcelain and that firing process?

LM: I first started using porcelain, and did my first soda firing in a workshop that Peter Beasecker taught at Anderson Ranch Arts Center in the late 90’s. I was attracted to porcelain for its ease in altering wheel thrown work, and the brightness of the glazes on the clay body. I use soda firing for the directional nature of the firing process. In other words, one side of the pot looks different than the other. The drawing on the surface of my work is often symmetrical, graphic, and very controlled. The soda process is a point of contrast to the predictability of the other processes in my work.

JW: What attracted you to ceramics in the first place?

LM: I started making pots in High School. It’s a little hard to remember what exactly drew me in initially, but I can say that it was the wheel. I think it was just really different than anything else I had done and I was pretty good at it. I loved it right away.

JW: I believe you’ve travelled a lot. Do your travel experiences influence your creative work?

LM: Yes, I like to travel and I am fortunate to have taken quite a few trips. I don’t know how much travel affects my work directly, but I’m sure it has a way of sneaking in some influences into what I am making. I particularly think that is true about my trip to Italy a few years ago. I loved looking at the architecture and the rich colors there.

JW: How has your work changed over the years? 

LM: My work has changed very slowly over the years. I’ve been a potter for 33 years now. Initially, my work was very simple – round and dipped in one glaze. Graduate school changed my work, making it more ornamental and decorative. My punch bowls would be the best example of that.

I started spending a lot more time on each piece. In the 15 years since then, I’ve returned to making work that is a little simpler, meant for everyday use. Part of the return to utility was due to the need to make a living. Nowadays I find myself wanting to revisit ideas from the past. I’m currently working toward a solo show in June at Studio & Gallery titled “Tools of Habitation” that will include both some elaborate and decorative work.

JW: You bought into Studio & in early 2020. Apart from changes brought on by Covid, how has that gallery ownership affected you?  Have you had more or less time to work on your pottery?

LM: Buying into Studio & Gallery has been great for me. There are 5 of use who own the gallery cooperatively so I only work 1-2 days a week, leaving plenty of time in my studio. I taught adjunct for years, so this has kind of replaced the time I used to spend doing that.

I’m enjoying the connection to other artists and the Durango community that has come from being more involved at the gallery. I expect that will continue to increase as we slowly climb out of this pandemic.

JW: When you first set up your pottery business, your goal was to sell 50% of your work via galleries and the other 50% directly (direct studio sales and sales via your website). Have things worked out that way? 

LM: On the topic of selling through galleries, or online, it is continually changing. I still sell through galleries, but I have been moving toward selling more of my own work both online and at Studio &. I just simply have to, in order to make a decent living. I have leaned into online sales during this past year with the pandemic and it has gone quite well. My large Instagram following is a good audience for online sales. I think the new normal after this pandemic is going to give way to a renewed celebration of the brick and mortar. After all, pots are meant to be held…

JW: It looks like you’re doing a fair number of online workshops. As an instructor, do you have any suggestions or recommendations for students to get the most out of online instruction?

LM: I have also been doing a lot of online workshops in this past year. It has gone great. It, of course, has it’s pros and cons. As far as getting the most out of it, I would say, like any workshop, the most important thing you take with you is your ideas. I’ve really enjoyed doing the research for the Powerpoint presentations that I include with my Zoom workshops. I’ve been inspired by both the historical and contemporary work that I’ve found. I hope my workshop participants feel inspired as well!

Museo Larco: Moche Pottery

The Museo Larco in Lima, Peru, has an extensive collection of Moche pottery. Moche pottery, made in what is now Peru from about 150-800 AD, is fantastically creative and well worth exploring.

Museo Larco – Lima, Peru

Moche potters used molds extensively to create vessels in the shapes of animals, vegetables & plant forms, faces, and humans engaged in a variety of activities, perhaps most famously, sexual activity.

Due to the pandemic, Museo Larco is closed. The museum does, however, have two virtual exhibitions covering portions of their collection: selected items from the permanent collection, and a tour of the “erotic room“. In both virtual exhibits, you move through internal museum spaces by clicking on circles, and from that circle you can rotate your view 360 degrees as well as zoom in to some extent.

To be candid, the image quality is not great, and you can only zoom in so far. But the virtual exhibitions give you a sense of the museum itself and the broad range of Moche ceramics.

Museo Larco has digitized its entire collection and it is available online to the public. There is a search page, but unfortunately I found several key words (in English and Spanish) didn’t work well. I ended up just using “Moche.” Since there are so many items in the collection, scrolling through, page after page, isn’t very efficient. When you get to a particular object, the images are again adequate but not amazing. Still, I commend the museum for putting its entire collection online.

Easier to use, although undoubtedly less comprehensive, are resources offered through the Google Arts and Culture website. That site offers two “stories” and several “collections.” One story is “Death in Ancient Peru” and provides some larger context on the theme will examples of ceramics and textiles from the Museo Larco collection.

The Google Arts and Culture collections feature more examples of the museum collection, plus detailed information on each piece – essentially catalog information with text descriptions (in Spanish and English), dimensions, provenance, etc. The site also allows the viewer to zoom into the image which is very nice.

Jami Porter Lara – Artist Profile

Jami Porter Lara’s work is inspired by plastic water bottles used by immigrants who walk across the Southwestern US border into the United States from Mexico.

Her work is stark, simple, focused and elegant.

To me it speaks of the land from whence it springs, and of the people who inhabit that land (even temporarily).

Jami first touched art by taking a drawing class in her mid-20s. At age 40, Jami returned to school to earn a BFA at the University of New Mexico, first concentrating in painting and drawing. She took a course that ultimately changed her artistic trajectory. She explained this transformative experience as follows:

In 2011, I traveled with a small group of artists to a remote stretch of the U.S.-Mexico border with a program called Land Arts of the American West. Our group spent a week camped in the high desert grasslands of Coronado National Forest, and I spent days roaming the rolling hills of its southern extent, where the international border is marked by a low vehicle barrier.

On my walks I found many indications of human passage through the region, but the most common things I found were two-liter plastic bottles that had been used to carry water. In the same places I found bottles it is also possible to find potsherds left by the Mogollon culture thousands of years before.

Soon after, our group crossed the international border and traveled to Mata Ortiz, the northern Mexican village renowned for its ceramics. We spent a week with Hector and Graciela Gallegos who taught us how to make low-fire ceramic vessels in the same ways they have been in that region for tens and hundreds and thousands of years. We learned to forage and prepare clay, build with coils, burnish with a stone and reduction fire in a pit.

Upon my return to New Mexico, I kept thinking about how the plastic bottle and the ancient potsherd are essentially the same thing. Both were precious objects — vessels, capable of sustaining human life. I also began to think about them as evidence of a continuous flow — of people, culture, plants, animals, and objects — that continues in spite of attempts to sever it.

I wanted to connect the plastic bottle to a long lineage of vessels that have been used to carry water through deserts, and in so doing, to reveal my connection to the long lineage of humans who have—driven by necessity or desire—traveled these lands before or despite national boundaries.

And so the project began with two simple rules: I would 1) use the oldest local ways of working with clay to make vessels that 2) reference the plastic bottle, the most iconic and ubiquitous vessel of my time.

My methods are the same as I learned in Mata Ortiz. I harvest and prepare clay from a site near my home, build with coils, burnish with a stone, and reduction-fire in a pit.

The materials and technique and central to the concept of the work — the point is to make these contemporary sculptures in more or less the same way that ceramics have been made in the region for millennia. Therefore pit firing has been integral to the project from the beginning. There was quite a bit of trial and error involved in figuring out the timing, and then again lots more failure as the vessels got larger. It is a risky process, but for conceptual reasons I’ve never seen kiln firing as an alternative.

JW: You mentioned your current work as a “project” – which suggests a body of work through a set period of time.

JPL: This project constitutes my whole history with ceramics, with the exception of a semester of Ceramics 101 at UNM, which, you may be interested to know, left me vaguely positive but mostly agnostic on the medium. It wasn’t until the experiences described above that I dedicated myself to it, and despite an ongoing ceramics project of many years, I still don’t identify as a ceramist.

“I grapple with what it means to be an artist who makes things in a culture of too many things … I’m making things that imitate the things we have too many of…”

JW: How do you reconcile being an artist who makes more things in a culture of too many things? 

JPL: The blackware plastic bottle project was a way of placing myself dead center within the predicament of what it means to be a thing-maker in a world of too many things.

One of the ways of reckoning with it was the process itself. I foraged the clay. I foraged scrap lumber otherwise destined for landfills from construction sites. And a firing time of only about 1.5 hours meant that compared to the energy intensity of most ceramic production, my process used relatively few resources.

And finally, the low fired clay sculptures can practically melt back into the earth.

JW: What’s next?

JPL: In August I have a solo exhibition of brand new work titled “Terms and Conditions” opening at Gerald Peters Gallery in Santa Fe. It is a multidisciplinary project including textiles, sculptures, lithographs, neon, and porcelain.

More of Jami’s works can be seen on her website.

Los Angeles County Museum of Art

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) has an extensive collection of ceramics from around the world. I’m just beginning to explore its collection online. The museum seems to have an extensive collection of ancient ceramic vessels from Central and South American cultures.

Skull-Shaped Censer, Mexico, Mixtec-Puebla, 1400–1521, Slip-painted ceramic.

As a first pass, I used the museum’s collection search tool to explore some Islamic ceramics, several of which are embedded in this article.

Plate, Iran or Central Asia, 14th century, Fritware, underglaze-painted.
Goblet, Iran, 14th century, Fritware, pierced and underglaze-painted.

Note: when using the search tool, specific words can make a big difference, so play around a bit. I searched for “pottery; Peru” and got 2 results. Then I searched for “ceramic; Peru” and got 104 results. Generally, “ceramic” tends to yield more results than “pottery” from my quick testing (e.g., “ceramic; united states” gives you 483 results, “pottery; united states” gives you 135 results (filtered for results with images)).

Once you find a general area of interest, scroll through the images and then refine your search. For example, I tried a few general search terms (e.g., “ceramic; united states”) and then switched to use more precise searches (e.g., “dedham pottery”).

Bowl with epigraphic and vegetal decoration, Iran, Nishapur or Uzbekistan, Samarqand, 10th century, Earthenware with white slip covering and decoration in pigments under a transparent glaze.
Tile, Iraq, Baghdad, mid-13th century, Brick.

On a separate note, LACMA has teamed up with California State University to offer internship opportunities to students interested in items in the museum’s collection. In the Fall of 2020, two archaeology students completed internships and wrote articles about ceramic pieces in the LACMA collection.

Katherine Gendron, student at CSU-Dominguez Hills, completed a project entitled “Art of the Ancient Ones – A look at Hohokam Pottery at LACMA.” Katherine’s online exhibition dives into the history of Hohokam pottery and provides excellent visual examples of several ceramic vessels. Katherine also provides a search link into LACMA’s Hohokam pottery collection.

Fernanda Hernandez wrote an article on the Museum’s Unframed online magazine entitled “Examining Tlatilco Figurines” where she describes her internship experiences using photogrammetry technology in a museum setting.

Both students used 3D visualization techniques to highlight a piece of pottery. Katherine’s 3D model depicts a West Mexican ballcourt scene, produced in Nayarit, Mexico around 200 BCE – 500 CE.

Fernanda’s 3D model is of a “Dog Lady” figurine. Both students posted their 3D models on SketchFab, an online hosting platform I described in an earlier post.

I like that the LACMA is engaging students as interns to research, explore and “distribute” information and visualizations of ceramics in the museum’s collection. It’s especially heartening to see the LACMA do this during the Covid pandemic. Bravo!

Storage jar, Syria, 12th century, Fritware, glazed turquoise.

Maggie Curtis – Artist Profile

Maggie Curtis produces a variety of architectural ceramics, including custom-built ridge tiles, capitals, garden sculpture, embossed tiles and friezes.

Maggie started off as an art teacher with a side business as a studio potter. She was first exposed to architectural ceramics in 2000, when she needed to replace roof tiles on her own home. Her builder, knowing she did ceramics, suggested she make some of her own replacement tiles.

Some of Maggie’s work includes of ceramic “ridge tiles” – decorative sculptures that sit atop a tile bridging the two sloping angles of a building roof. Maggie sent me a video showing how she builds these ceramic pieces. In the video, Maggie creates a dragon sitting atop a rooftop ridge tile. Her process is confident and effortless – clearly the result of years of experience. First, Maggie forms a rooftop tile foundation by laying a thick clay slab across a wooden frame. Using coils of clay, she starts building the shape of a dragon perched upon the ridge tile.

Maggie builds expands and builds up the form using similar methods, roughing in the basic shape of the dragon.

Once the basic shapes are defined, Maggie then adds detail, starting with the face but working out to wings & feet.

When the sculpture is complete, Maggie carves it into sections, evens out the thickness of the clay walls, and then reassembles the sculpture before drying and firing.

Here are a few images from Maggie’s website of rooftop ridge tiles that she’s completed for clients. They are wonderful, imaginative and playful architectural details custom-built to the specifications of her customers. I absolutely love these things!

Maggie has also created different types of architectural ceramics. For example, she created a commemorative plaque for a the Appledore Rail Station in England.

These photographs illustrate Maggie’s creative process in building the Appledore Rail Station plaque. You’ll see that after designing and building the large piece, she cut it into smaller pieces for firing, reassembling those fired pieces on-site.

What’s not evident is the research she conducted for this plaque. Maggie told me that she worked closely with historians and railroad enthusiasts to research the specific locomotive details for the type of trains that ran on this particular rail line.

Maggie was also commissioned to produce several terracotta “Trade Maps” for a commemorative monument in the port of Bideford, England. She again conducted extensive research on the 16th and 17th century maritime trade centered in Bideford for the final Trade Map plaques.

Maggie sculpted stories of people, cargo and ships in the terracotta clay for this commission.

The port of Bideford was a major English shipbuilding and trading center during the American colonial period. Products transported in and out of Bideford include tobacco; salt cod; sugar; rum and timber in exchange for essential supplies such as woollen cloth, rope and tools; craftsmen; shipwrights; emigrants; convicts and indentured servants. Interestingly, local Bideford pottery was also a big export to the Americas. Six potteries were needed to supply domestic and decorated slipware, and examples of Bideford pottery have been excavated in Virginia, New England and Newfoundland.

Detail on the Trade Map plaques is impressive, again reflecting Maggie’s work with local historians. The Fellowship, for example, was Bideford-built in 1630, jointly owned by George Shurt and John Strange, who were sending ships to Newfoundland, and later established trading links with colonies in Virginia and New England. Cargo included earthenware pottery sent to the American colonies.

Maggie subsequently published a book that describes some of the ships and cargos memorialized in the Trade Map plaques. It’s fascinating, and adds interesting color to a somewhat sanitized view of colonial America taught to US students. Take Maggie’s description of the ship “Henrietta,” as an example:

Owned by Philip Greenslade, the “Henrietta” [is shown] shipping earthenware to Virginia, Maryland and Barbados. Also part of the outgoing cargoes were emigrants, indentured servants and convicts. Craftsmen were in great demand, not least ship builders. Bedfordian John Smith built at least two 200-ton ships in 1696 on the Chester river, Chesapeake Bay: the “Entrepot” and the “John.”

From 1708 to 1714, emigrants from wealthy families were attracted by the prospect of increasing their trade and acquiring land, and their servants were encouraged to join them by having their passage paid. The Transportation Act was intended to deter criminal activities by sentencing those convicted of even petty crimes to transportation to the colonies, where they would provide free labour to the colonists. Shipping merchants received 5 Pounds for each convict taken. Bideford was a favoured port where George Buck alone took 16 shiploads of convicts [to the American colonies] between 1726 and 1743.

Maggie posts additional information and resources related to the Trade Maps on her website.

Exploring the Everson Museum (Part 2: Virtual Events)

The Everson Museum of Art has an extensive ceramics collection. How can a member of the public best access that collection? An earlier post described the Everson’s blog and how users can leverage that blog to access parts of the collection.

This post covers three additional online resources offered by the Everson: Object Study Sessions, a newly-announced “Salt and Pepper” zoom series, and virtual exhibitions.

Object Study Sessions

Garth Johnson, the Everson’s Curator of Ceramics, recorded 23 “virtual study sessions” on ceramics. These recorded video discussions take a deep dive into a wide variety of topics such as:

  • The Floating Bridge: Postmodern and Contemporary Japanese Ceramics exhibit
  •  Adelaide Robineau’s early porcelain work
  • A conversation with Rebecca Sive. about her collection of American women’s ceramics and the role that women played in the studio ceramics movement
  • A conversation about “Kitsch” with artist Ryan Wilson Kelly
  • An interview with Janet Koplos, former editor of Art in America, about her book, “What Makes a Potter: Functional Pottery in America Today”

All recorded Object Study Sessions are listed on the web page shown below (click here or on the image below go directly to the Museum’s site for recorded study sessions).

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Salt And Pepper Art/Food Series

The Everson recently announced a partnership with Salt City Market to bring people Salt & Peppera new art/food series via zoom. The sessions will consist of Museum-sponsored conversations between artists in their studios and chefs in their Salt City Market kitchens about culture, history, and technique. Pre-registration is required for each event. The first three Salt and Pepper events are:

Virtual Exhibitions

The Everson has a number of virtual exhibitions hosted on their website. These feature more than the Everson ceramics collection, but there are these specific virtual tours of portions of the Everson ceramics collection (some on YouTube, others 3D visualizations)

  • Renegades and Reformers: American Art Pottery
  • From Funk to Punk: Left Coast Ceramics
  • Vanessa German: de.structive dis.tillation