Thomas Schmidt – Artist Profile

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Discarded plates, Jingdezhen, China, 2010.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Face Jugs from the 1800s

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Immaterial: Clay (Podcast)

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

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

Chris Alveshere – Artist Profile

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

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

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

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

Chris Alveshere, pre-2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Curtis Benzle – Artist Profile

Curtis Benzle has focused on the interplay between porcelain and light for most of his adult life. His porcelain pieces, carefully constructed in a methodical way, reveal themselves when light is shown through the thin, translucent material. Read about Curtis’ creative process and inspiration in his answers to questions I posed.

JW: How has your work developed through time. Would you mind sketching out how you started, and the general trajectory of your creative life?

CB: I received a BFA from Ohio State Univ with a major in ceramics.  I attended the School for the American Craftsman / RIT MFA Glass program and later transferred to the University of Northern Illinois in Ceramics. I’ve been working professionally in the field of Clay for my entire adult life.

JW: Your process looks very labor intensive. It also looks like it’s taken you a long time to develop that process. Did you have a vision of what you wanted to create, or were you mainly just exploring and ended up where you are?

CB: I have always been driven by an aesthetic vision and it is by no coincidence that the work I create now is a direct representation of that vision. While my vision has deepened in complexity over the years, it has remained remarkably consistent.   I have developed many materials and techniques to achieve this vision. Specifically, I developed a clay body that is comprised primarily of glass components and is consequently, highly translucent. 

“This is a very early piece(1975) where I am focused solely on translucency in porcelain. When I began working in porcelain there was very little published about translucency, so I spent about two years developing the clay body by itself. The clay I now use I developed forty years ago and called “Benzle #89”. I developed it to be highly translucent and take color well. Unstained, it is very white and highly translucent when fired to cone six 2300 F in an electric kiln. It takes stain beautifully and requires small percentages to achieve vibrant colors. It is non-plastic but works well for my style of nerikomi.”

I also pioneered the use of several techniques utilizing colored clay, including what is now widely called “nerikomi”. 

“An early example(1979) of the nericomi technique. A funny thing about nericomi is that I thought I invented this ceramic process! I had been in a graduate program at the School for the American Craftsmen, majoring in Glass and focused on “Millefiori”, but eventually missed the tactile sensibility of clay. My thought upon returning to my ceramic origins, in a different degree program at Northern Illinois University, was to bring the millefiori aspect of glass into clay. I translated the imaging and patterning qualities of the “millefiori” glass technique into stained, porcelain clay. It was a perfect match for me—color and pattern in a tactile material. It was only later, after I delved deeper into the history of ceramics, that I discovered that this magical material and technique had satisfied artists for centuries.”

As an aside, when I began developing this technique, I called it “millefiori” as it grew out of my use of that technique in glass.

Because my interest in “nerikomi” technique predated my awareness of the Japanese technique, I was influenced primarily by non-Japanese people and processes. Glass artist Richard Marquis was an obvious, early influence. Richard’s work was highly focused on the millefiori process, and he is to this day considered a master of the technique. When I began adapting the millefiori process to clay my technique was quite similar to that in glass, whereby colored rods(or rolls) are bound together to create a single graphic image.
Another important, early influence from outside of the clay world, was the work and writing of fiber artist, Ed Rossbach. Mr. Rossbach’s work was built on the concept of an object’s surface pattern and appearance being determined by the construction process, as seen when a basket’s woven surface pattern is directly influenced by the construction process. This concept meshed easily with the way the surface of a nerikomi piece is determined by the placement of nerikomi slices during construction.

JW: Can you tell me about your creative process? Do you tend to work out in advance what you want to make (perhaps sketching or prototyping in some way)? Or is your creative process more spontaneous and intuitive? 

CB: I almost always start with a sketch of the piece that I intend to create. These are sketches and not completed drawings as final refinements are worked out in the clay.  The sketches are primarily there to help me organize the visual imagery and work out which technique would be most efficient and effective in completing the envisioned piece.

The word “intuitive” is intriguing to me in light of the fact that I indicated above that my aesthetic perspective has been the driving force for my working porcelain from the beginning.  My BFA studies in Clay, followed by MA studies in Glass, were, in hindsight, attempts to give life to a vision that predated study.  I believe we could say that the origin of my work was intuitive and subsequently I have been engaged in a rational exploration of the best way to create and complete that vision.

JW: Will you tell me more about inspirational experiences you have had, such as your residency in Seto, Japan? Looking back, how important are such inspirational experiences in developing one’s art? And given your experience, how would you recommend someone approach finding those experiences?

CB: My Seto residency was an exceptional and productive experience.  I was known to the Seto Center staff through several exhibitions throughout Japan prior to the residency.  They invited me to the Seto Center for Ceramics and Glass to create three pieces for their permanent collection and demonstrate my techniques to area artists and the general public.  

Because I developed a porcelain clay which is highly translucent, my colors change, blend and oppose based on the visual response of each piece to its luminous environment. This piece, which was made at the Seto Center for Ceramics and Glass in Seto, Japan, shows the introduction of additional techniques; specifically mishima and slip painting. From the tactile magic of malleable clay to the visual temptation of luminous, translucent porcelain; ceramic materials and patterned Nerikomi excite my senses.

I had long found Japanese culture incredibly inspirational, but the same can be said for my response to travels throughout Central and South America, Europe and Africa. As a visual artist, I am by nature tuned into the world around me. I know this answer seems intentionally vague, but it is true.

The single greatest source of inspiration for me has been my experience as a parent.   Parenthood embodies for me all the energy, insight, expectation, aspiration and dreams that any piece of art could.

In terms of finding inspirational experiences, I would reiterate that they are omnipresent for anyone who chooses to pay close attention to the myriad aesthetic details and beauty around us.  A great, recent example of this could be my current activity creating an apiary. This began as a very tangential interest as I was searching for a dependable source of propolis and, discovering no dependable source, decided to create my own. The process of building and managing beehives has been thoroughly inspirational although I doubt seriously that it will show up specifically in my work with porcelain.

JW: Your website bio mentions that you’ve made jewelry. Has that experience influenced your ceramics?

CB: Only in a very roundabout way. I had a jewelry company for about 20 years and that came about because of my desire/need to generate income to support my family. As I assessed potential, personal resources, it occurred to me that I could create jewelry with the same porcelain I developed for my vessels. I built a jewelry line that sold in over five hundred retail outlets throughout the world.  

Having a viable income source was a very positive influence on my sculptural work in that it allowed me the creative freedom to continue pursuing sculptural work that was not commercially oriented.

JW: Your website bio also mentions a line of lighting and accessories, which seems like a logical extension to the translucent qualities of your porcelain pieces. Do you still work with lighting?

CB: I do still work in lighting and find it incredibly intriguing. For many years my studio production company, Benzle Porcelain, produced and sold a night light line that was commercially successful. I stopped making the nightlights when I moved to Alabama and consciously decided to curtail my production studio in order to focus all my energies on the sculptural vessels architectural scale lighting.

JW: I’m going to assume that your work is very time-consuming. How do you motivate yourself?

CB: I have never really thought about self-motivation as it is so incredibly motivating to be involved in the very act of creation. My biggest concern is how to find time in a busy life to accomplish everything.

JW: Do you have or seek out an artistic community to support you, given the type of work that you do? How important is that to your creative life?

CB: When I moved to Alabama, I knew no one other than my wife, who was born and raised here.   For twenty-five years prior to my relocation, I had been developing and teaching a program called All Artists Making A Living (AAMAL), so I simply implemented that program.

I began by teaching a class at the local Huntsville Art Museum. That put me in touch with people who were interested in Clay. After couple years of teaching at the Museum and my studio, I was asked by the Alabama State Council on the Arts to Chair the Alabama Clay Conference in Huntsville. I did that and I am pleased to say that we built the Clay Conference from an annual attendance of around 200 to over 500. Following that experience, the Alabama State Council on the Arts director asked me to become the president of the AL Craft Council. I agreed to do this, provided we could change the name to the Alabama Visual Arts Network(ALVAN). After seven years as President we had built the organization from one clay event per year, to seven multi-discipline events and increased our funding from $3,000 to over $60,000.  I retired from the Alabama Visual Arts Network presidency two years ago in order to refocus my full attention of my studio work.

 I have always been a strong believer in giving back to the community that supports me and with that in mind I was also the president of the Ohio Designer Craftsman and on the Board of the Craft Emergency Relief Fund(CERF) and the American Craft Council.

 Just short of the magic of being engaged in a creative activity, is the joy of being involved with and supporting other creative artists.

You can view more of Curtis Benzle’s work on his website.

Multimedia Test

Years ago I did some multimedia projects combining audio recordings and photography. I’m interested in getting back to this form, which I think can be very powerful. I’d like to profile some ceramic artists. This post is simply testing the upload of a .mov file format onto this blog. There’s a lot of technical mumbo-jumbo about file formats when you combine different media forms like video, photography, audio and text.

To be honest, the complexity drove me away from this for a decade. I’m hoping the tech world has simplified the process in the intervening years.

By way of background, in 2010 I was working with a photography nonprofit called Working With Artists. That organization arranged a photography session with survivors of breast cancer. I ended up photographing a number of survivors, and instead of just photography I also added some audio recordings of conversations I had with each woman. I combined the two formats into this multimedia slideshow.

Mimbres Pottery at WNMU

In September 2020 I wrote an article on the Mimbres pottery collection at Western New Mexico University. I wrote the article during Covid, so I was unable to visit the museum at the time. Today, that changed.

Although WNMU is a small university, their collection of Mimbres ceramics is outstanding. Simply outstanding. I’m told that more of the collection will be on display in the near future, which may warrant a return trip. (That’s saying something: I drove 675 miles (1,000 km) down here to see this collection and explore the Mimbres Valley where this culture thrived for 1,000 years and then faded or disbursed 800 years ago.)

There’s a lot of mystery about these people and their culture which, artistically speaking, peaked in what is referred to as the Mimbres Classic period around 1000 – 1150 AD). The Museum does a good job documenting the 900 year run-up (200 – 1100 AD) to this magnificent Classic period, and of course the Museum also contains extensive examples of Classic period pieces.

I’m not particularly interested in a stylistic analysis of Mimbres pottery (i.e., what distinguishes on Mimbres phase from another). I enjoy the pottery for its aesthetic qualities. Here’s what I observe when I look at Mimbres pottery.

I’m first impressed by a sense of “balanced contradiction”. Many pieces slap me with an intense sense of energy and chaos. Black decor on white slip communicates strong graphic tension and contrast. It’s about as vibrant and dynamic as you can achieve on a 2D surface — I’m reminded of the ZAP! and POW! of comic book graphics — and Mimbres artists mastered this form of graphic tension more than 1,000 years ago.

Yet what first appear to be randomly aligned graphic elements (swirls, rectangles, triangles, etc) upon reflection follow clear rules of organization: lines are painted around the rim of bowls or to set off a white central space, lines delineate 3- or 4-areas of the inner bowl surface, lines also interconnect and tie decorative elements together. All of these techniques provide an organizational structure for the graphic elements.

In short, Mimbres bowls are rarely “chaotic.” There is an underlying order to their graphic elements. A structure. A logic.

In addition, at times individual Mimbres bowls are interestingly calm and serene. Two patterned fish swim on a plain ground. An individual grasshopper sits in a field of white, carefully observed, meticulously represented. In this respect WNMU’s sometimes closely spaced display of Mimbres pots in the downstairs rooms works well. It’s probably not calculated, but I love the tangled mess of pottery in the downstairs cases. You see intricately decorated pots almost throbbing with kinetic energy alongside simple pots with isolated animal or humanoid figures. I’ve tried to capture this dichotomy in a quick video scrolling across pots in one showcase.

Individual pots with depictions of small animals that you see in the video lead me to my second observation. There’s a strong connection between Mimbres pottery and the environmental context of the Mimbres River basin.

Before I came here, I assumed the Mimbres people lived in an austere environment, largely desert as would be suggested by their location in southern New Mexico. In fact the Mimbres River valley is lush and verdant.

The grasslands rising out of the river basin are full of piñon pine and game. Antelope, rabbits, turkeys, frogs, insects and fish are depicted in Mimbres pottery because they exist in this southern New Mexican landscape. The Mimbres artists painted what they knew.

Coincidentally, I followed the Mimbres River south toward the current US-Mexican border. After starting in pine-covered mountains and winding 30-40 miles south, the Mimbres River dissolves into the desert sands. Like the Mimbres villages that once dotted the riverbanks, the river itself has disappeared into the earth. While vanishing leaving not much more than ceramics and crumbled architectural foundations is not unique to the Mimbres people, that is definitely what happened.

I suppose that’s my third reaction to viewing Mimbres pots in the WNMU collection: cultures come and go. Sometimes not much is left in their wake except for pieces of ceramic with a few scratches or paint marks on them. It gives me some comfort being a ceramicist.

I’ve enjoyed this visit to the WNMU Museum. I based myself in Silver City, New Mexico. It’s a funky throw-back to a different era. (My morning coffee place, Tranquilibuzz, looks like some undisclosed location on the overland route to Asia circa 1972.) If you come here, take 3-4 hours to drive over to the Mimbres River valley (20 miles) and explore a bit. There’s a riparian preserve along the Mimbres River that’s delightful. It drops you into context. Poke around a little. I wandered into the neighboring hills and discovered an old clay mine just a short distance from the river. This is a beautiful area.

The Pottery Maker (Silent Film)

Here’s a short (7 minute) silent film from 1926 documenting ceramic production. Its a short watch and kinda’ fun: the story-line, the silent movie with musical soundtrack, and the documentation of ceramic production that really hasn’t changed all that much in almost 100 years (apart from bricking up the kiln prior to firing).

That’s one fascinating thing about ceramics: making pottery has been remarkably consistent throughout time, back in the Pleistocene era when humans first started forming objects and vessels to use 20,000 years ago.

Tomorrow I head off to southern New Mexico to view several collections of native American ceramics, particularly collections of Mimbres pottery. I will post from the road.

Mold-Making Experiments

I recently completed a course in figure sculpture. Instead of the typical stoneware clay I use for ceramics, we used oil-based clay for the sculpture. After creating the sculpture in oil-based clay, one normally creates a mold and then either creates bronze or resin casts of the sculpture from the mold. I thought I would test mold-making out.

To simplify matters, I created another sculpture, this time of a head instead of the full human figure. (Creating a mold of the human figure is more complicated: open spaces between the arms and torso and also between the legs need to be filled in.) To sculpt the head, I again used an oil-based clay. I left some details around they eyes unfinished to the mold would come apart more easily.

When the head was ready, I created a silicon mold of the entire piece, mixing and then painting multiple layers of Smooth-On’s Rebound 25 formula directly onto the oil-based clay.

After that, I encased the silicone inner mold with a plaster mold to form a hard shell.

After the silicon and caster molds hardened, I stuffed the clay I typically use for ceramics into the mold. You’ll see that I set up the mold to open into 2 parts so I can access the interior and make 2 cast parts which I then need to fuse together.

Here’s a photo of the two cast parts fused together (before firing), including some details to the eyes that I added.

Photos of the finished, fired head are at the top of this article and below (different angles).

The process worked well enough, but honestly it was a lot of work creating that mold. And it was messy. I’m not sure how often I would want to cast additional copies of this head. I might be inclined to cast multiple sculptures of a figural work (such as the original sculpture we worked on in the class), and in that case creating a mold might make sense, although again creating a mold for this piece would be more complex. So I’m not certain how often I will use this technique, although it was interesting to test it out.

Google Arts: 3D Pottery Experiment

Here’s an interesting challenge for yourself. Take a minute to see how well you do at throwing and decorating a vessel online. It’s not as easy as it looks!

Here’s the link to try this out if clicking on the image above doesn’t work: https://artsandculture.google.com/experiment/3d-pottery/nwHg1D0riJ1ltA

It looks like Google is just building this out right now. I only see 1 pot to replicate (the other links don’t work yet – at least for me).