In Creative Hands

How artists shape the ancient medium of clay into works of stunning variety

cup by Christa Assad, San Francisco, CA
cup by Christa Assad, San Francisco, CA

I find something deeply satisfying about drinking my coffee out of a cup made locally by a hand I have shaken. The necessary daily use of dishes gives us all the more reason to surround ourselves with objects we actually enjoy, and Art of the Pot gives us a unique opportunity to get more familiar with what local potter Lisa Orr calls "art you put in your mouth."

Last year Orr and four of her colleagues in the world of pottery and ceramic sculpture opened their studios to the public for a two-day celebration of their art form. In addition to showing their own dinnerware, vases, planters, and functional ceramics, they invited 11 nationally known potters to exhibit their work side by side with them. The first Art of the Pot, as the weekend was called, succeeded in showing how the ancient and rather plain medium of clay can yield fascinating variations when it's in creative hands.

This Mother's Day weekend, those five artists – Rebecca Roberts, Claudia Reese, Marian Haigh, Ryan McKerley, and Lisa Orr – are back with Art of the Pot 2005. The five founding members are proud to host in-state and national potters, and this year they've invited: Christa Assad, Dee Buck, Leanne McClurg, Jenny Lind, Allan Walter, Jason Hess, Peter Beasecker, Michael Corney, Liz Lurie, Billy Ray Mangham, and Susan Filley. As this is an artist-managed endeavor, the studios will be cozy with lots of character. What follows is an introduction to their work through a look at the different materials and processes these artists use.

pot by Ryan McKerley, Austin
pot by Ryan McKerley, Austin

One of the classic types of clay is porcelain, which is ground very fine and smooth. It's white, so every mark on it shows up crisply. It's also strong and is frequently spun fairly thin to give pieces a delicate look. Several Art of the Pot artists use porcelain, including Ryan McKerley, Peter Beasecker, and Marian Haigh. All three employ a limited color palette and in parts of the work allow the white porcelain to show through the glaze. Just as painters use transparent layers to achieve color, potters pay careful attention to any raised edge on their pieces. A certain thin lip on a cup will be a thin light version of the glaze color. The white shows through the glaze that pools at the bottom during firing. This thin lip is used to get the maximum tonal range out of one glaze color. The desired effect is a gradient fade almost like airbrushed art. The white of the porcelain is used efficiently as coloring and form. Stoneware is a similar material, with a bit more texture and speckled in the color.

Peter Beasecker is a badass, a real master of the potter's wheel. His forms are thin and strong. The lines are immaculately purposeful. His finished texture is more like a cold-waxed matte than a high-glossy mirror. Repeated forms of cups line up like perfect little soldiers. Their sides wobble upward in a natural line that is smooth but not mechanical.

Another potter who uses stoneware and porcelain to sweet effect is Ryan McKerley. McKerley is adroit at spinning consistently formed pieces day after day. His glazes are earth tones and sedated greens and blacks, similar to Beasecker's in their subtlety. He employs a fairly complicated glazing process. When the vessel is completely dry, he applies wax with a brush. It dries quickly, then he uses a wet sponge to scrub the exposed surfaces. In a reductive process akin to bas-relief or batik, just enough clay is removed so a resist edge is created. These physical edges are key to the delicate effects of the glaze coloring. When he chooses to soda-fire, McKerley will heat the kiln to Cone 10, approximately 2,400 degrees. This is hot enough to vaporize sodium from rock salt or baking soda. Baking soda is dissolved in water, then sprayed into the kiln, where the sodium in the vapor combines with the silica in the clay body or glaze to create a sodium-silicate glaze. Why the extra step? The glazes are affected in a different way each firing, allowing for surprises and happy accidents. McKerley's designs also function efficiently. They are light but durable. They sway up into your hand, and your fingers grip on the resist pattern. They're smooth but not slippery.

pottery by Rebecca Roberts, Austin
pottery by Rebecca Roberts, Austin

Marian Haigh also uses porcelain and stoneware. This pale, delicately ground clay is an elegant and refined material in itself, but she makes it still more elegant by using it as a ground for subtle coloring and drawings of birds, whose necks echo the long lines of the form. She cleverly uses the bird imagery in the form and as a decorative surface treatment. In a series of pitchers or vases, the spouts are darkly tinted into beaks of ducks, and foreground birds peek up around the base. Her forms are completely hand-built. Her primary tool: a regular ol' rolling pin. The edges of her vases are straightforward and clean. The electric kiln firing she uses is capable of bright Day-Glo hues, but she chooses understated earth tones. These pieces are soothing and woodsy.

No matter what type of clay is used, many artists will keep a supply of press molds around. Once the basic structure of the piece is established, dollops of clay are pressed into clay or plaster molds. Haigh has molds of architectural details from gravestones – little flowers or lambs, for example. Other works by Haigh display a light touch and delicate sensibility. She has a nice sense of romantic tenderness. In her artist's statement she wrote, "I watch the rhythms and patterns of the natural world. Smooth river rocks, eroded mud banks, spiraling leaves falling to the ground, and birds that look up."

Sometimes hand builders use slabs to generate structures, and at other times coils. Rebecca Roberts does both. She builds up porcelaneous stoneware vessels, then electric kiln fires them. She likes the clay to look like clay, not disguised with bright colors. Her early building process when the clay was really wet is still visible in the final piece. The texture is organic, reminiscent of fabric or folded paper. Drawing on her background in printmaking, Roberts embosses the surface of the clay with textures, stamps, and hatching. Internally glazed to be functional, much of the decorative exterior surface is left naturally brown. The lack of disguise used by Roberts gives her work a classic resonance. It's pregroovy, because the clay is fired with a smooth glaze inside, but the shell is left rough. Its barky character is a facade; it seems a tough face put up against a hard natural force. The 100% natural clay here is completely manipulated to be utterly easy to clean inside, yet mimicking a paper that is hatched or etched or fauxed into granite.

When it comes to displaying ceramics in the home, if you like it, build a shelf around it. Let's say you paint a mint or light blue square on your boring wall and add two shelves. You've achieved a clean grid – then plunk! You set down the ceramic vessel made by Rebecca Roberts. It looks like a chocolate mud leaf or a paper sailboat. The rich dark foreground character emerges, monolithic in its new home. The vessel is slightly curved, but next to the right angles it looks even more so.

pottery by Jason Hess, William, AZ
pottery by Jason Hess, William, AZ

White earthenware is a common choice for materials. Claudia Reese electric fires her clay with colored engobes and black and clear glaze. Engobe is a colored slip, in her case darker than the white earthenware. She mixes smooth and carved surfaces and hand builds. She uses machines for rolling slabs, which are then laid on plaster hump molds. She also has a hydraulic ram to smash lumps of clay into plaster molds. These are known as ram-pressed vessels. This is a handy way to create plates and trays, instead of on the wheel. While the white earthenware is the core ingredient here, the colored slip is added to change the outer appearance. Reese is well-versed in slip-cast vessels and objects. She will also use deflocculated slip (liquid clay) and pour it into plaster molds to create vases, teapots, and cups. One of the techniques she favors is sgraffito – carving through a colored engobe on the surface of the vessel to reveal the clay white body color below. She makes dramatic patterns within the clay itself. Reese layers colored engobes to create the illusion of depth on her functional wares.

One person who expresses herself in an original way is Lisa Orr, whose pieces remind me of fancy cake decorating. They are baroque fantasies. White earthenware is covered with a red terrasigilata, then electric fired to 2,000 degrees. She mixes and matches technical processes. She will throw slabs inside a bowl mold, like a jig on the pottery wheel. She also presses slabs into carved molds. This keeps the form fresh. Her molds do not speed up the production process. They slow it down. She says the press mold aesthetic is derived from metalworking, which was more expensive and therefore desirable, so ceramic artists began to mimic the more stately material. She is influenced by the celebratory nature of French 18th-century porcelain, particularly the extravagant serving trays made by Bernard Palissy, and colorful Mexican ceramics.

Orr lets each aspect of her process remain evident in the final finish of these heavily colored pieces. The design of these is all about the eye candy rather than hyperefficient functional design. The dishes come in a consistent color scheme of orange-brown, golden yellow, turquoise, and whites, which helps make them accessible for everyday use; since no two pieces are alike, replacements are easily integrated. She adds sprigging – little wormy squiggles – to the outside of a loosely pressed mold and simple stamps extra twists and twirls around the petite handles. When added to your china cabinet, her works add a nice Alice-in-Wonderland-when-she's-10-feet-tall aspect, spicing things up pleasantly.

A pleasant man, Billy Ray Mangham lives in the boondocks outside Austin. If he got the memo that said "pottery should be functional," he didn't let it influence his work too much. His humorous work results from a very additive process: He starts with a vessel and just keeps adding animalist totem characters until it won't really function anymore. It looks cool and is sure to be a conversation piece. A prolific and colorful artist, Mangham is known for sharing his ample studio space, which is a magnet for talented area artists. He fires large outdoor electric kilns for his work, which is often really big and really bright. Political imagery mixes with cute animals, skulls, and guns – anything to make you look twice and scratch your head. But it is honest work, and Mangham seems to really enjoy exercising his freedom to free associate.

pottery by Marian Haigh, Austin
pottery by Marian Haigh, Austin

Art of the Pot is only in its second year, but the founders see it as a permanent fixture on Austin's arts calendar, with room for expansion. McKerley suggests in the future it could feature educational lectures and merchandise, "a franchise of the AOTP tour for other cities, a line of underwear, T-shirts, cozies, golf club bags, surfboards all with the AOTP logo, and an AOTP TV show – think Antiques Roadshow and The Real World mixed together."

He's joking. He clearly prefers the ancient art of handmade dishes to any mass-produced schlock.

As should you. No need to be bored with your dishes, to hate your china cabinet, when you could be drinking from and eating off art. end story

Art of the Pot 2005 takes place May 7 and 8, 10am-5pm, at various studios around Austin. For more information, visit

Art of the Pot Studio Locations

Ryan McKerley, 2710 E. Cesar Chavez, 477-4776

Lisa Orr, 1502 Alta Vista, 445-4124

Marian Haigh, 2600 Bridle Path. 477-6112

Rebecca Roberts, 205 Canyon Rim, 329-9113

Claudia Reese, 709 N. Tumbleweed Trail, 263-5018

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Art of The Pot, pottery, ceramic art, ceramic sculpture, Rebecca Roberts, Claudia Reese, Marian Haigh, Lisa Orr, Ryan McKerley, Christa Assad, Dee Buck, Leanne McClurg, Jenny Lind, Allan Walter, Jason Hess, Peter Beasecker, Michael Corney, Liz Lurie, Billy Ray Mangham, Susan Filley

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