Branan Mercer: The Quest for the Perfect Cup

Yellow on gray cup, white stoneware, underglaze, glaze, 2017.

Every ceramic artist has their own unique approach to making art. Some work solely by intuition and inspiration, while others have a clear idea in their mind’s eye. For Branan Mercer, of Birmingham, Alabama, it’s a search for perfection.

“My work has always stemmed from process,” Mercer states. “It’s my personality to say, ‘If I’m going to do this, I’m going to do it 100% until it comes out the best way possible.’ That’s what keeps me going.”

Everything about clay is attractive to Mercer, especially the characteristics that frustrate people. “It’s the stuff we are all aware of,” he explains, “it’s putting the piece that you’ve spent so many hours on into the kiln and when it comes out, it looks like garbage and you’re completely unhappy with it.” He’s learned that there are two types of people; the one who looks at that disappointment and says, “I had a vision in my head that didn’t come out and I have to go back and figure it out.” Then, there’s the other type who sees the finished piece and says, “I spent all that time and now I have nothing to show for it; I don’t want to do this anymore.”

Branan Mercer is clearly the former.

Developing a Body of Work

Mercer would describe himself as a functional ceramic artist. “When I started out, I was trying to develop a body of work and get my name out there, but I couldn’t land on anything.” He was trying many different styles, some handbuilding, some wheel throwing, and a whole lot of experimentation. He was receiving positive responses, but it didn’t feel authentic.

At that point, Mercer decided to start over at square one. He eliminated as much as he could—in terms of ornamentation—to discover how the clay responded when making specific objects. He asked himself, “How do I make the clay finish the way I want it to? What else can I experiment with?”

1 Sanded porcelain pitcher, mid-range porcelain, unglazed and sanded, 2014.

2 Sanded porcelain bottle, mid-range porcelain, unglazed and sanded, 2014.

“I got rid of a lot of forms and unnecessary parts to my work, cut the glaze out and started using porcelain. Everything built from there.” When he began this approach, he felt completely lost, so he decided to concentrate on technique. “I made an effort to forget what I wanted things to look like and what style I was attempting—my voice as an artist—and started working on becoming more proficient at making pots.” His first new pieces were very minimal, without glaze or color, just sanded porcelain.

As he continued this approach and recognized how much he enjoyed it, he started to explore other artists who had a similar aesthetic. “Lucy Rie’s forms were a big inspiration for me, because they are really simple and elegant. Obviously her surface is very different from what I do, but strictly looking at the forms, I was led into the Mid-Century Modern resurgence.”

Mercer believes that this process-driven approach really comes down to wanting to be a better artist technically. “I was feeling so frustrated with trying to find my voice that I said forget about that. I’m not going to worry about it. I’m going to concern myself with becoming a better craftsman.”

Focusing on the Form

Mercer developed one particular cup form that he really enjoyed making and decided to focus solely on perfecting it. This shape is still central to his work. “It’s interesting to me because looking at it—and I get this comment all the time—it just doesn’t look like a really functional piece. Everyone assumes that it will be too tippy or uncomfortable to hold.”

For Mercer, it’s actually an extremely functional design for several reasons. For one, the amount of lift it gets coming off of a table makes it easy to grab. The tall foot on the bottom gives the user a confidence that it won’t slip out of their hands when using it. Also, it’s appealing to him particularly because of the way it fits into people’s hands. “It seems to work both when it’s at rest on the table and when it is in use,” Mercer points out. “As a functional ceramic artist, I think that’s something I’m always looking to achieve.”

Recently, he was looking through his Instagram photos and found the first time this cup shape started to show itself in his work. “Honestly, I don’t remember the inspiration for that first form, but I know that from there I pursued perfecting that shape until I had created this current design.” Over about three or four years, his methodical refinement of this initial idea slowly evolved into this form, though he never planned for it to become a prominent aspect of his body of work.

3 Black on red cup, white stoneware, underglaze, glaze, 2017.

4 Yellow on gray cup, white stoneware, underglaze, glaze, 2017.

This direction for Mercer’s body of work—using mostly unglazed porcelain—continued for about three years, but eventually ideas of what was next began to creep into his process. He started thinking about what he could employ from other techniques he’d used. This exploration would eventually lead him to his present-day work, which incorporates more elements of design and art. Mercer’s aesthetic is best described as a combination of Minimalism, Pop, and Mid-Century Modern, as he explains, “I don’t like clutter or excess.”

With a form perfected, Mercer recognized that it was time to introduce surface ornamentation and wanted to create a dramatic contrast. With such a minimalist shape, he naturally gravitated to something more organic. “The contrast” he explains, “is that this rigid, structural cup that has a lot of lift [is paired with] glaze that gives the appearance of melting, pulling it back down.” The result was the dripping effect in his current pottery.

Mercer admits there are positive and negative sides to his process-driven approach. “When I finally decided to focus on this one cup, I found that I had an opportunity for every batch of cups to get a little bit better,” he observes. “For me, seeing these little tweaks and improvements was very satisfying.” While he never intended to make this cup for as long as he has, he has decided to keep doing it until he has perfected it. “I’m still enjoying working on this shape, so for me it doesn’t feel restrictive at all,” he says. “It turned out to be freeing: working on this cup allows me to focus on one thing.”

Of course the downfall of this process-driven approach could be the question of whether he is growing as an artist or not. “I haven’t really changed much in the last three or four years. There are additional responsibilities and time commitments as I also have a full-time job and family. There are a lot of forms I used to make as a functional artist, like pitchers and teapots, and I recognize that the skills needed for those pieces may be falling by the wayside.”  His growth as an artist now stretches out over a much longer period than it would for other artists who are working full time in their studios. “Truth be told, each cup is a unique piece to me . . . I still learn something new every time I fire one.”

5 Black on black cup, white stoneware, underglaze, glaze, 2017.

Surface Effects

While Mercer may make the glaze drips on his cups look effortless, it takes a lot of repetition and a little bit of conviction to achieve the effect. “Drips are very difficult to get right, but my process is to perfect one part and then move on to perfecting the next.” He takes lots of notes and does a lot of experimenting and testing, explaining that the drips result from a balance of glaze viscosity, application thickness and layering, along with firing techniques.

The secret to his drips is knowing when enough is enough with the glaze. “I learned to layer [the glaze] really thick and if I could find that elusive sweet spot, it would drip just enough.” He prefaces this by admitting that he doesn’t always get consistent drips. “I do get a lot of failures out of the kiln that never make it out to the world. It’s simply the nature of the beast with glazing.”

Mercer found his glazes in the book, Mastering Cone 6 Glazes by John Hesselberth and Ron Roy, and the yellow glaze in particular is pulled straight from that book. “It is a really great, consistent glaze. In the studio where I was teaching, this was one of the glazes we used all the time.”

The bottom of the cup, the matte finish, is Amaco Velvet underglaze. Mercer says, “I’ll mix some here or there, but most of them are underglaze colors you can get right off the shelf.”

As for the color combinations, Mercer confesses that color is not really his forte. When he was coming up with this concept, his wife was key to helping him figure that out. “My wife is a graphic designer and she is amazing with color. The combinations that she does are something I would never think of.” The conversations with his wife about color helped him decide to use really vibrant hues to make a statement and to heighten contrast.

“Color was something I knew I needed to introduce into my work, so if I was going to do it, why not really do it,” he explains. His tendency would generally be to keep the palette neutral and play it safe, but “if you’re experimenting, it’s not worth it to play it safe,” as he says, “You’ve got to put yourself out there. Honestly, I try to pick colors that either contrast or compliment each other.” The interpretation of these combinations is left up to each viewer’s own experience and associations with color.

6 Yellow on pink cup, white stoneware, underglaze, glaze, 2017.

Finding a Balance

Mercer realizes there is a constant push and pull between being a potter who is focused on utility versus a potter who is focused on other conceptual concerns. “It’s a struggle, working on the balance of that. I tend to go where the work takes me, so I’m not doing a lot of planning out.” He describes his process as allowing the current work to inform the direction that future work will take. “That’s how I got to this point. I feel like this body of work may be wrapping up. Even though people are responding to it and my name is out there, I still feel that pull to move away from that work—not to start from square one, but go in a different direction.”

Mercer accepts that making pottery can be a financial struggle. “The need to bring in income has affected every step of my process. Thankfully for me, I have a full-time job as a project manager for ExpoDisplays, a company that creates trade show exhibitions, so I don’t really have to rely on my cups to provide the main income for my family. There are a lot of decisions to make when it comes to earning a living and a lot that get made for you, simply because of the economic and societal realities.” At a certain point, Mercer thought about going back to graduate school, but with a wife and a son, he needed to make decisions with them in mind.

What Mercer has no doubt about is that creating his work, exploring new directions with his pottery, and remaining a part of the ceramics community are things that he will never give up.

Branan Mercer studied ceramics at Auburn University in Alabama. After graduating, he worked as a resident artist at the Craftsman House Gallery in St. Petersburg, Florida, before returning to Alabama. His tenure at the Kiln Studio and Gallery in Fairhope, Alabama, was the most influential time in his career. While at the Kiln Studio, Mercer developed both his sanded porcelain work and his current work. To learn more, visit www.brananmercerceramics.com.

the author MK Bateman is a writer and 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.

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