Clay Culture: Love of the Weird

A profound early experience with ceramic sculpture and a later realization of the way ceramic art resonated with him helped writer Mike Middleton start and continue his wide-ranging ceramics collection. 

Mike Middleton remembers the first piece of art to ever scare him. It was “a Viola Frey statue from the Grandma series, at Dan and Caroline Anderson’s house. It terrified me as a child . . . took me 30 years to realize clay seems alive to me in a way other art forms don’t.”

He’s gotten over his fear, and while he doesn’t own any Frey pieces, he counts almost 300 ceramic artists among his growing collection, including the Andersons, who are family friends. Also represented are Jean-Nicolas Gérard, George McCauley, Eric Pardue, Don Reitz, Phil Rogers, Tatsuzō Shimaoka, Toshiko Takaezu, and, as his Instagram (@middletonceramics) followers know all too well, Ron Meyers.

1 Middleton arranged a series of Eric Pardue pieces around his television set to form what he describes as a loose biographical montage. Photo: Avery Brunkus.

Pottery for Everyday

“I spent a lot of time outdoors as a kid,” Middleton says, handling a Meyers frog yunomi. “My favorite time of day is early morning. You come across animals one at a time and really see them as individuals. That’s how I feel about Ron’s pottery. I use it every day. A lot of my pottery, actually.” A walk through his New York City–area apartment bears this out. A Bede Clark cup stuffed with matches sits next to an Alex Thomure salt-fired bowl holding loose change. A Minsoo Yuh teapot steams with an herbal blend ready to pour into a Michael Bridges mug. “A few things only hang on the wall, but most of my pottery gets used at least a few times a year. Otherwise, I sell it or give it away so I feel less guilty. Instagram has been great for that.”

He credits the social media platform for many things, including new friendships. “People I’ve never met—I can follow their work and talk pots. I’m a beginning collector and have a lot to learn, and it helps me find artists and styles I didn’t know about.” He takes a moment, and then laughs. “And to confuse people with the weird stuff in my collection.” 

2 A selection of large Ron Meyers works flanks pieces by a dozen other artists, including two prominent Clara Lanyi vases on stands, and photographs by Middleton.

3 Middleton discussing some of his favorite Ron Meyers pieces, including a large cat/fish vase he acquired from Myers on a post-Thanksgiving visit in Athens, Georgia.

A Love of the Weird

I know all about the weird stuff; it’s how we met. He reached out to me about a commission, and when it turned out he wanted a Harry Styles whiskey set, I had no idea what to make of the request, so he hopped on the phone to explain. “Years ago I was in a bar, and this song came on the radio. I know nothing about music, but I just said, ‘Hey, this is a nice song.’ Of course, with my luck, it turns out it’s a boy-band song. I got a lot of grief for that, but I said I thought the lead singer was legitimately talented. I literally said, ‘He’s going to be huge.’ So, a couple weeks later someone gives me a mass-produced Harry Styles mug as a joke, and I’m like, if I am going to have one, let it be at least handmade by a craftsperson. So I got one, and then someone gave me another, and then everything took on a life of its own.” 

The Harry Styles–themed collection now counts pieces from Larry Buller, Taylor Emery, Wes Harvey, Eric Pardue, Justin Rothshank, and many more (including yours truly—I took the commission). “I’ve had potters approach me with pieces they made specifically for the collection. It’s absurd. Needless to say, might as well keep it going now. And when my friends come over for poker, they have to drink from the Harry Styles whiskey set.” 

4 A collection of 16 Ron Meyers yunomis, accompanied by a Meyers vintage plate, lidded sculptural jar, and a Curtis Fontaine bottle. Of the cups, Middleton says, “I drink out of a different one every day.” All photos: Avery Brunkus.

When I called him to tell him about this article, we had a good laugh about the situation we were in. I, a potter, would be writing an article about him, a writer, for Ceramics Monthly. He’s a big fan of absurdist humor, and in our own way, we share a love of the weird. “I see weirdness as just another element of what’s great about ceramics: people and their individuality,” he says. “I love fingermarks. Thumb dents. Proof of the hands on the object. It’s one of the reasons I love Ron Meyers’ work so much. All the dents and pushes and carvings. I’m hardly the first to say this, but those marks will be there as long as the pot exists. We have pots from ancient civilizations that were made and used by everyday people. The people are gone but the pots remain. So when you combine something permanent with something ephemeral, like pop culture, I find that fascinating.”

Function and Potential

Asked if he has a favorite piece, Middleton looks around his collection without settling on anything. “I’m lousy at picking favorites. It changes day to day. I guess that’s why themes emerge, I’m bad at picking just one thing. I will say that there is a Nancy Green slab that gets used around the house a thousand different ways—I love it. That probably gets more use than anything except my cups and plates. I even used it to crush walnuts at Christmas last year.” 

5 Middleton says, “I finally started filling my plate wall during the pandemic. A lot of room left.” Artists include Ron Meyers, Bandana Pottery (Michael Hunt and Naomi Dalglish), Jean-Nicolas Gérard, Alex Thomure, and Emma J V Parker of Australia.

6 Three vintage Ron Meyers lidded jars, including an early raku piece from the 1967–1972 period.

Despite his collection of established artists, Middleton recently made the decision to begin focusing more on potters who are at earlier stages of their careers. “I love seeing the potential in what someone is doing now, and thinking about where their work might be in 20 years. And not just narrative pottery—some of the really cool stuff being done right now in wood firing, goopy glazes, etc. I’m a big fan of what Maxwell Mustardo has been doing,” Middleton says, trailing off to lift up an early Mustardo mug from his time at the Toshiko Takaezu studio in Quakertown, New Jersey. “The pandemic meant we could not go out to studios for more than a year, but that’s where you see the experimentation, the works in progress, and the new stuff being done by apprentices and graduate students in training. I can’t wait for us to all have that back again.”

But Middleton notes he will always have room for another Ron Meyers pot if he finds one he connects with. “It’s not like you take one walk in the woods and you don’t enjoy the next one. You just want to go back and do another walk, every day. Each one is different, and you love them all for it.”

7 Custom Harry Styles whiskey set by Curtis Houston.

8 The entrance to Middleton’s apartment features a 1930’s storage crate topped with large pieces by (left to right) Jerry Glenn, Ron Meyers, and Stephen Driver. All photos: Avery Brunkus.

Mike Middleton works in financial services and in the creative arts as a writer, photographer, and playwright. Most recently, he wrote A Game Lover’s Tour of New York City, a travel guide for people who enjoy board, video, and computer games. 

the author Curtis Houston is a professor of three-dimensional art at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College. A lifelong native of the South, his work draws from local influences and pop-culture kitsch to focus on narrative pottery. He resides in Spanish Fort, Alabama, with his wife and two daughters. Houston’s work can be found
at
www.wildwoodscreativeco.com.

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