Art of the fire: the transformative nature of clay

Photo: Watershed Center for the Ceramic Arts

By Jessica Skwire Routhier

CERAMICS BELONGS TO the “arts of the fire,” so called because, along with glass and metalsmithing, it requires heat and flame to turn raw materials into lasting and functional works of art. Transformation is key to understanding the ceramic arts—both in terms of how time-honored techniques can transform humble clay and how a beautifully handmade clay object can have its own transformative power.

Photo: Shanna Wheelock

For generations now, Maine has been a center for ceramics. With the founding of Haystack Mountain School of Crafts on Deer Isle in 1960, followed by the evolution of Watershed Center for the Ceramic Arts in Newcastle through the 1970s and early 1980s, and the maturation of the Portland School of Art (now the Maine College of Art, or MECA) around the same time, Maine became a destination for ceramic artists from across the country and beyond. People working with clay seized the opportunity to learn and create with others in an idyllic coastal setting with a pipeline to East Coast cultural and commercial centers.

What this meant in practical terms is that Maine quickly became not only a place to learn the practice of the ceramic arts, but also a place where those arts continue to be appreciated and collected by locals and tourists alike. The early 1970s saw the establishment of a cluster of midcoast potteries that still thrive today: Edgecomb Potters, based in Edgecomb and with a bustling location in Portland as well; Georgetown Pottery in Georgetown, Woolwich, and Freeport; and Sheepscot River Pottery in Damariscotta and Edgecomb. These trailblazers lay the groundwork for the founding of many other potteries, large and small, up and down the coast and inland, each with their own loyal followings. The state is also filled with individual artisans whose practices vary from isolated studios to large collaboratives, from roadside stores and farmers’ markets to vast commercial enterprises and thriving online shops.

Maine’s unique blend of community, tranquility, and natural assets help support these creative efforts in the ceramic arts. The glorious, all-too-brief summer months, for many, provide precious days and weeks to live communally with others who work in clay, sharing ideas, studio space, and equipment. For others, summer is when they are out of the studio and in the wider world, interacting with the people who buy, collect, and use their pottery, often while supporting their local community through special events.

Photo: Ariela Nomi Kuh

“During our two months of tourism I’m wherever I need to be,” says Shanna Wheelock, who creates functional stoneware inspired by the austerely beautiful landscape outside her studio window in Lubec. Wheelock, who was this year’s recipient of the Maine Arts Commission’s Belvedere Handcraft Award, reserved for residents of Hancock and Washington county, talks movingly about how dedicated she is to her community. “I often describe this as one big soul family, with an eclectic mix of artistic visionaries and people who work the land.”

Ceramics, of course, have an intimate connection to the land. Whether porcelain or stoneware, salt-glazed or raku-fired, ultimately it all comes from clay, harvested from the earth. Processed clay is formed by hand, on a potter’s wheel, or with other tools; decorated in many different ways; and then baked in a kiln to harden the clay and seal the glazes, resulting in an end product that is a water-tight, fully functional and permanent work of art.

Photo: Alyssa Robb (portrait of Ariela Nomi Kuh)

But there are paradoxes when it comes to ceramics and issues of sustainability and “green” living. “There’s no doubt that ceramics is resource-heavy,” notes Portland-based ceramic artist Ayumi Horie, who makes functional porcelain hand-etched with endearingly cartoonish birds, bats, and other creatures.

While clay is a natural resource, few artists are able to source it locally, and they rely on clay that is harvested elsewhere and shipped long distances. Electric or wood-fired kilns, which reach temperatures of up to 2,400 degrees Fahrenheit, consume vast amounts of energy. Glazes can be toxic before they’re fired, which complicates issues of disposal, and the practice of ceramics itself, which is fraught with trial and error, tends to produce a lot of waste.

And yet, the very nature of pottery evokes sustainability. The creation of something real out of the dust at our feet, something that is meant to be shared and used, something that more often than not is meant to hold and keep and protect other things, gets at the very principle of preservation.

“It’s about keeping things for a long time and reusing them, as opposed to buying things that are cheap and disposable,” notes ceramicist Ariela Nomi Kuh, who produces textured, Asian-inspired, glazed dinnerware for high-end restaurants in Maine and New York at her Lincolnville studio. “That’s one aspect of pottery that feels good to me on a number of levels.”

The same general sentiment is echoed by others as well. “A few beautiful objects in a well-curated home is what I’m aiming for,” says Horie, “because throw-away culture is neither sustainable nor responsible, environmentally.”

Photo: Ayumie Horie

Through responsible studio practices, artists and ceramics centers do much to reconcile these opposing truths about ceramics. At Haystack, says director Paul Sacaridiz, “We’re very committed to sourcing our clay from a distributor fairly regionally, which helps to keep the carbon footprint down. . . . [and] we’re thoughtful about the ways that we consume and dispose of waste materials and the impact that has on the water system.”

Mark Johnson, chair of the ceramics department at MECA, describes similar practices and says that learning about the safety of materials for food-serving objects is a foundational part of his students’ learning. MECA also recycles all the clay that it does not use. “If something happens to a piece and we don’t like it or it breaks before it’s fired, we reconstitute the clay and reuse it,” Johnson says. “That’s been part of our curriculum from day one.”

Associate Professor Marian Baker notes that glazes are similarly reusable. “I decant the bucket of glaze wash water and collect the leftover glazes to make a ‘scrap’ glaze.” There is also something of a market for scrap clay, fired or not— Baker notes that the aptly-named sculptor Jonathan Mess, based in the midcoast, has often been the grateful recipient of scraps from her classes.

Commercial potteries do their part, too—Jeff Peters, founder of Georgetown Pottery, writes that they “recycle any scrap clay into casting slip,” liquid clay that can be used in molds.

Using local clay is another way that some artists and organizations adopt green practices, but it’s a difficult trick to pull off. Kuh has used local clays before, but “just as an experiment,” she says. “If I were to dig and process my own clay I wouldn’t be able to sustain my own business, because it takes so much time; it also requires equipment and space and a lot of setup.”

To use local clay in a way that makes sense, in terms of the investment of both time and money, proximity is everything. Rackliffe Pottery in Blue Hill, run by the same family for some 40 years, is fortunate to be located on family property with a natural clay pit. Their stoneware beanpots and chowder mugs, available in “Blue Hill Blue” and other proprietary glazes, are all made from that local clay.

Most famously, Watershed is a lodestar for artists from all over who want to work with local Maine clay. Not a traditional school like MECA or Haystack, Watershed invites artists for short-term summer or fall residencies, offering them room and board, the use of their kilns and other equipment, and access to the clay that is harvested right from their property. Originally used in Maine’s 19thcentury waterstruck brickmaking industry, Watershed’s clay is different from the finely processed commercial clay that most are used to. Rougher, redder, and, with natural material in it, it’s evident that “it’s coming directly from the ground,” according to ceramic artist and Watershed staffer Julia Walker. “Almost everybody is interested in using it just to try it out,” notes outreach and communications director Claire Brassil.

Watershed’s resources provide both the talent and the raw material for their annual “Salad Days” community event and fundraiser. “We have an artist every year who comes and stays for the entire season, and they make over 500 handmade plates for the event,” says Brassil. “We have between 25 and 30 different salads that the guests can choose from, so it’s like a big picnic lunch.”

The artist for this year’s Salad Days, taking place on the Watershed campus July 8, is Kurt Anderson, whose etched and silhouetted figural designs evoke Watershed’s 19th-century roots. The event is more than just a fundraiser for the organization; it’s also a boon for local restaurants, who supply many of the salads, and for local farmers. Watershed itself makes about half of the salads, says Brassil, and they get many of their supplies from Dandelion Springs/Straw Farm, which is just across the street.

Collaborative initiatives like these—centered on local agriculture and food production, economic development, and general community support—are part of the structure of Maine’s ceramics community. “Ceramic artists are naturally inclined to work collaboratively, because they often need to in the studio,” says Horie. “The power that pottery has to bring people together, whether it’s in the making process or over a meal, is a natural way to build relationships.”

MECA’s recent cup projects are fitting examples. For the school’s Community Cups project in 2010, Johnson says, “students made hundreds of cups and then went out into the community and handed them out with coffee that was donated.” For the Cup-A-Thon in 2015, ceramics majors made mugs that were decorated by and then redistributed to other students and staffers. The goal, Johnson says, was twofold: “It encouraged the use of handmade objects instead of disposable cups and was also a fundraiser” for ceramics students to attend a national conference.

Photo: Ayumi Horie

Horie has collaborated with Portland-based writer and storyteller Elise Pepple to create the Portland Brick Project. Together, they make bricks of locally-sourced Maine “blue clay,” impress into them snippets from oral histories collected from residents of the India Street neighborhood at the base of Portland’s Munjoy Hill, and then insert them into the neighborhood’s existing brick sidewalks.

One of Shanna Wheelock’s many community contributions is to produce the prizes—170 individual works of ceramic art—for the Bay of Fundy International Marathon. Held in Lubec and New Brunswick, the marathon brings thousands to the area each summer (June 25 in 2017). “Each year I design a new carved piece that is based on a local aquatic theme,” she says, often focusing on a resource, like herring, that is threatened due to overfishing or reduced habitat.

And Kuh, working within the restaurant community that has supported her work, recently created bowls for a fundraiser at Drifters Wife, in Portland, to support Cultivating Community, a Maine-based nonprofit that seeks to increase access to healthy, local foods. “I guess maybe I felt like I wanted to do something to give back,” she says. “[Ceramics] feels like a really direct medium in terms of thinking about food and nurture and comfort and sustainability.”

Kuh’s words touch on another running theme, which is that, much to their communities’ benefit, ceramics artists seem disproportionately engaged with issues of social justice and equality. “I’m trying to figure it out all the time,” says Sacaridiz of that phenomenon, observing that ceramic artists are “entirely engaged with this idea of social equity and justice and collaboration and democracy, and really setting up a democratic way of working.” He points to Horie, who teaches at Haystack, as a major influencer: “She has set up platforms and scaffolding for people to participate in these realms.”

Her project The Democratic Cup illustrates this point, with 30-some artists contributing designs for cups that are meant to start conversation about the issues of the day. The idea, Horie says, is to “promote conversation about civic engagement and to try to bridge political differences.”

In Lubec, Wheelock has also been a force for activism through art, founding Lubec Arts Alive with activist painter Natasha Mayers and bringing arts programs to underfunded local schools. Wheelock, who was recently featured in the 70th anniversary issue of American Craft magazine, also expresses her activism through her high-end sculptural work, in which she unambiguously condemns what she sees as destructive forces in American society.

“I have always said that if everyone had a little clay in their hands there would be no war,” Wheelock says. “It centers you, and any art is a path to self-discovery.” Here in Maine, there is every opportunity and enticement to get a little clay in your hands, whether it’s the raw red earth that comes right out of the ground or that perfectly finished piece from the pottery you never knew existed. The experience could be transformative. G&HM

This article was republished from the 2017 Spring/Summer issue of the Green & Healthy Maine Visitor’s Guide. Subscribe today!

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