The recent exhibition, “Prospectors: Alex Thullen & Matt Fiske” opened in December 2017 at the Companion Gallery in Humboldt, Tennessee. This show represented the culmination of a major shift in Thullen’s work over the last year.
Traditionally, his work has been heavily glazed. His wheel-thrown forms have deliberately been very quiet and minimal, so as not to fight with the glazes. “I drove my professor crazy [in college] because I was always so busy with glaze tests and experiments that I never made any work,” Thullen quips.
This fascination with glazes has continued throughout his career, as he has spent many years developing and perfecting glazes. In fact, Thullen is currently the Glaze Development Specialist at Detroit’s Pewabic Pottery, a studio famous for architectural tile, which has been installed in public spaces, churches, and homes among other places. The studio has influenced his shifting interests in the architectural application of ceramics. “It’s something that I have never been hugely into, but it’s become a fascination.”
His pottery up until recently has been defined by the glaze. His earlier work, the Iron Glazed and the Black ‘n Blue collections were distinguished more by a change in his color palette than by anything else. “It was just a different way of looking at glaze,” he adds.
Eventually, Thullen got to a point where he felt everything he was creating was regurgitating something he had already done—an experience not uncommon to many artists. “There were always things that carried over from one to another. As far as [making] the change from the Iron Glazed series, to Black ‘n Blue series, to my current work, at some point I just realize that I’m done with something and it’s time to move on.”
Pattern, Geometry, and Architectural Detailing
While on his honeymoon in Spain, Thullen found inspiration for a new direction for his pottery: Moorish Tile. Having always loved Islamic art and architecture, his creativity ignited when he was surrounded by it. “Because of the Mediterranean climate—without the freeze-and-thaw issues we have in Detroit, everything, everywhere is covered in tile.” His greatest inspiration came in Granada at the palace and fortress complex of Alhambra. “It was extraordinary and really got me looking very intensely at this idea that had been growing in my mind for the past few years about looking at pattern and geometry in architectural detailing and embellishments.”
After returning home, he undertook a new focus with his pots. He began experimenting with his work in a tangible way, to see how he could include architectural properties. He asked himself: “could I physically manifest these images and ideas that I’ve had in my head and make them into an actual tangible thing?” That became his inspiration, leading to a big shift in form with his current work, expressed most dramatically by the intricate carvings displayed on the surfaces.
6, 7 Small serving bowl with carved foot, 7 in. (18 cm) in diameter, porcelain, blue celadon and satin black glazes, fired to cone 10 in reduction, 2017.
The second major influence on his current work and the focus of the December exhibition with Fiske is the idea of urban prospecting, i.e. searching for materials in our environment to create glazes. As he explains it: “to look at the landscape around you and see what’s there—that’s the origin of glazes. Glazes were created through serendipitous processes of firing, such as wood-fired pots developing a glazed surface through the natural process of ash landing on it and melting.” People started to wonder what else could be applied to the surface of things. What else could we try?
Thullen looked around his own environment and asked himself: “What’s here? What can I pull from? What can I use?” He became fascinated with the idea of incorporating into his glazes more unorthodox materials by looking at his own landscape for inspiration. This opened a Pandora’s box.
What did this mean to him? “I don’t live in Montana or Colorado or a place where we have rich geology that is local or accessible.” His landscape is Detroit, an urban environment where there is a lot of crumbling architecture. “Detroit is a city with a lot of abandoned buildings, which for a potter interested in making glazes, provides rich opportunities to find interesting, distinctive, and unconventional materials.”
In particular, Thullen did much of his prospecting on Belle Isle, a park in the middle of the Detroit River. On the beach, he found debris of all types that had just washed up out of the river. “All of this architectural and industrial detritus (essentially garbage), such as beach glass, little chunks of brick and concrete was scattered along the shore.” These objects contained the basic building blocks of all the things that are used in making glazes already.
A material that has proved the most interesting to him and that he’s been able to successfully use in glazes is old red brick. “It’s a thing I’ve always loved. I’ve always been fascinated by it, but I’ve always struggled to find a way to work it successfully into my pots.”
In a strange bit of synchronicity, the use of these building materials ties back to his fascination with the architectural use of ceramics, but in a very unorthodox way. Thullen had a sort of light-bulb moment in his thinking about ways to blend his fascination with architecture and prospecting that suited the pots he was making. “That sort of tie-in toward the architecture that it’s coming from and the fact that a lot of these are remnants of architectural ceramics in one way or another, it made it the perfect fit for me.”
Thullen admits that prospecting isn’t a movement that’s unique to him; in fact potters with a more traditional approach tend to follow a similar practice. “There are people doing some really incredible things with it, including Matt Fiske who I co-exhibited my work with in December.” Thullen, however, took a much different approach than Fiske. “Matt’s work focused on geology and landscape and mine focused on urban prospecting as the source material. I love the idea and wanted to . . . take it in another direction to do something that not many people had done before.”
Blending Surface with Architectural Form
While this shift over the last year has led to very different work, Thullen’s pottery forms are similar but, he explains, “The focus is less on glaze than it is on the actual physical surface.” Yet, the connection to his earlier work lies in it being defined more by the glazing and carving techniques than with the throwing process. “A lot of the color palette has stayed the same. I’m still using a lot of the celadon and black glazes; I’m just not doing that more drippy cobalt decoration anymore.” He has moved away from the very traditional pottery forms that he first learned and into forms that are more architecturally referenced. Partly, this is because he’s very attracted to those lines and angles. He adds, “It also balances with the kinds of things I’m trying to talk about—the references that I’m making with the materials that I’m utilizing, so it’s all part of that package.”
the author MK Bateman is a writer and aspiring potter based in Warren, Vermont. After more than ten years in the entertainment industry, he shifted gears to complete an MFA in creative writing at the University of San Francisco. He has written and blogged about an assortment of subjects, including travel, food, film, health, lifestyle, and web content. To learn more, visit www.mkbateman.com.