Clay Culture: 52 Years in Clay

“Our clay work has evolved over the years with several dramatic changes occurring at spontaneous intervals. We are often as surprised as our longtime patrons, but we respect that intuitive spark and go wherever the process dictates.”—Julie Larson

The recent retrospective “Julie & Tyrone Larson: 52 Years in Clay” at the Piedmont Craftsmen Gallery in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, revealed an impressive range in style and technique. The carefully crafted, functional stoneware of their first 25 years and the crisply detailed cast porcelain, the colorful, intricately decorated bowls, platters, and pictorial wall tiles that followed—varied as they are—all show a consistent devotion to precision in form and controlled perfection in glaze and decoration. Over the years, the Larsons’ sales have been adequate to afford them the luxury of changing direction in pursuit of their own artistic or technical interests independent of trends or market demands.

1 Tomato, garlic, and mushroom platter, 19 in. (48 cm) in diameter, fired to cone 6 in oxidation, 2010.

2 Tyrone and Julie Larson with decoration in progress on a pasta bowl, 18 in. (46 cm) in diameter, 2005.

In 1966, the Larsons opened their first studio and showroom in Royal Oak, Michigan. Like their five subsequent studios—whether spacious or compact—it was clean and efficiently organized. Their early work was cone-10, reduction-fired stoneware, which included thrown bowls, mugs, goblets, plates, platters, covered jars, casseroles, slab-built boxes, canisters, and trays. Decoration was minimal, often simple banding with oxides or metallic lusters, but they did indulge in some Baroque extravagance in large thrown and slab-built showpieces with applied coil decoration enhanced with gold or platinum luster.

A visit to the Penland School of Crafts in North Carolina in 1971 would change the course of the Larsons’ career. They were attracted by the aura of the mountains, the school itself, and the community of craftsmen around it. The picturesque but decrepit old mill that they bought on impulse never became the home and studio they had envisioned; however, they were part of the Penland community for more than 20 years before moving to Asheville, North Carolina, in 1993.

3 Devil’s Millhopper State Geological Site, Florida, 17 in. (43 cm) in length, terra-cotta tile, fired to cone 03 in oxidation.

4 Pyramid jar, 8 in. (20 cm) in height, slip-cast porcelain, airbrushed underglaze slips with clear overglaze, fired to cone 6 in oxidation, 1995.

Colorful and Intricate

In 1985, the Larsons were commissioned to design dinnerware and baking dishes for ram-pressed, slip-cast, and jiggered production. They worked for several months on prototypes and detailed mechanical drawings, but the designs never went into production. The process did ignite an interest in alternate forming methods, which, along with the desire for a more colorful palette, led to a series of sleek, crisp-edged, Art-Deco influenced forms, slip cast in cone-6, oxidation-fired porcelain. The most complex of these is a sculptural, double-walled bowl, the underside an inverted octagonal ziggurat, the topside an octagonal rim framing a hemispherical bowl. Decoration was trailed and airbrushed with colored slips in multiple layers on the convex mold surface. This had to be done quickly so that decoration would not dry before the mold was assembled and poured. A true tour-de-force, they were tricky to decorate and cast; only twelve were ever made.

5 Platter with Tomato Vine, 26 in. (66 cm) in diameter, painted glaze on the same formula base glaze, fired to cone 6 in oxidation, 2005.

The slip-cast work included more modest, but still intricate, showpieces as well as fanciful functional ware, but production was short lived as Julie’s new botanical decoration, inspired by Italian majolica, seemed to require the clean, simple surfaces of Tyrone’s thrown bowls, plates, and platters. She paints directly on bisqueware with a heavy application of glazes, which contain a variety of colorants and are mixed in quart-size batches. There is some brushwork, but most application is done with plastic slip-trailing squeeze bottles with fine metal tips. On the fired pieces, vibrantly colorful, intricately detailed flowers, fruits, and vegetables seem to leap from a rich black background.

From these very painterly pots, it was a short step to pictorial tiles made using the same techniques with a more restrained palette. Devil’s Millhopper depicts a section of the wall of a giant sinkhole in Florida. From a distance the tile seems almost abstract, but closer inspection reveals a delicate rendering of a teeming variety of plant life.

6 Dream Porthole, 18 in. (46 cm) in diameter, slip-cast bowl with slip-trailed, airbrushed decoration, 1993.

Changing Production and Sales

In 2002, the Larsons rented a showroom in the elegant, newly restored 1927 Grove Arcade in downtown Asheville and a studio space in a former factory in the River Arts District. The Grove offered an upscale retail environment that attracted tourists as well as locals, and the small, pristine showroom was an ideal setting for their richly detailed and relatively expensive new work. Most of their sales for the next six years would be from the showroom instead of art fairs, which had previously been their mainstay. While Tyrone worked at the studio, Julie could do most of her decoration while tending the shop. The Larsons closed their showroom in 2008, but retained the riverfront studio.

Recently, they moved the studio to their new home in West Asheville. Throwing, glazing, and firing are confined to the rigorously organized garage, while designing and decorating occupy an immaculate mountain-view room. Most of their work is now sold through the Odyssey Co-op Gallery in Asheville. Their production has slowed in recent years, but they are still enthusiastically going “wherever the process dictates.”

7 Penland Hexagon, 12 in. (30 cm) in height, slab-constructed stoneware, wheel-thrown parts with added coils, fired to cone 10 in reduction, gold luster, 1975. Photo: Evon Streetman.

the author After graduating with an MA in art from the University of Iowa in 1965, Thomas Shafer worked as a professional potter for 30 years. He has written several articles for Ceramics Monthly and two books: Pottery Decoration and The Professional Potter.

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