Divergent Aesthetics

I’ve always been drawn to strong, elegant forms. I’m a sucker for a long, tight, unbroken line, fullness to a curve, and well-balanced forms. I’m also drawn in by peeling paint, lichens growing on the side of a wind-blown escarpment, and weather-worn steel, still strong after many years in the rain. In some ways these aesthetic domains are divergent. One speaks to strength, modernity, conscious design, and the other is about age, reclamation, and renewal. I didn’t necessarily set out to explore these dichotomous visual and conceptual spaces, but as my current body of work evolved, these ideas have been at play.

Addressing Form First

With this body of work, I tend to address form first. I concern myself with balance, line, and emphasis, and then work backward, making changes and choices that improve the functionality. This is an intuitive, evolutionary process, an ebb and flow of reactions to the pots as they progress. But, at the outset there was an abrupt change due to one single tool: the Surform. Prior to my introduction to this tool, I was making fairly simple wheel-thrown pots. When I started to use a Surform on the pots, it created a dramatic break, and a more direct line from my inspirations to my finished work became clearer.

The Surform gave me a very controlled altering approach, and resulted in a texture that was a consequence of the forming, instead of a separate act. With the Surform, I became enamored with the ability to create direct, linear edges through the process of reduction. Lines and edges appear as the cutting face of the Surform pulls ribbons of clay away from the established faces of the pot. It is as if the pot reveals itself through this process of reduction. I began to make pots with four distinct planes, and these planes have become great design spaces; through incised details and stamps, I break these spaces up to create visual interest, which draws the user in visually and physically.

Function from Multiple Perspectives

I view function from a few different angles—close up: how a pot works while in the hand; middle distance: how a pot is viewed while in use, on a table; and the larger view: on display, or in a cupboard, at rest. This final view is what often encourages me to create saucers, stands, and trays for pots; I like to give them a resting place. I think of this as giving the functional piece a place to live, a spot to return to after or during use. These stands add an extra level of complexity when designing and making. Saucers need to fit proportionally with a mug, as do trays and stands. While trays or stands are often secondary pieces in a grouping or set, they also need to have an appropriate relationship, so there is a balance to be achieved where each item has its own presence while also joining together in a unified, functional whole.

When I am not making sets in specific groupings, I’m always reflecting on the entire body of work and how all the parts relate, similar to the way I look at a single pot, like a mug. Is the handle the right size? Has it floated from the form too far? I consider the proportion of a pitcher to drinking cups, or how large a mug is compared to a dinner plate. Then there are the details: how the incised marks and stamps relate within a single piece, and how they connect across the whole body of work. These visual cues tie the various pieces together and encourage use in concert, whether they are paired specifically or not.

The Mug

I love making mugs. It has become a vessel that informs all of my other work. One of the challenges the mug has is its scale; there are smaller mugs and larger ones to be sure, but as function goes, a mug can only get so small or so large. By contrast, pitchers, plates, bowls, vases, and most other functional forms have a much broader range. I love the challenge a mug holds; fitting a number of functional and decorative design elements into a (roughly) four-inch cube, keeping in mind it must meet the mouth gently and sit in the hand with balance and purpose. I find this design space ever challenging.

Like most of my work, my mugs start on the wheel. I throw them quite thick. An inwardly curving cylinder with a rounded bottom (1) is thrown and squared before I pick it up off the bat. The corners are pushed out with the back end of a drumstick (2). At this point I’m just as concerned with the integrity of the interior of the mug as I am with the exterior (3).

Once my mugs are leather hard, they are trimmed (4) and rasped (5). I start the rasping by drawing in guidelines down the corners of the form, which helps as I begin to peel clay away with the Surform. The first pass around the mug is a rough out; as I rasp my way around the mug again, I strengthen and define the edges that result from the planed surfaces (6). Each of the four faces becomes a design space, and on each series of mugs I make different choices as to how I interrupt the textured surface. I use a small, flat-ended carving/trimming tool to incise small square details, and often utilize my signature stamps as design elements (7).

My handles are half-finished off the form, attached, and pulled to completion (8). I allow the bottom of the handle to stay larger so that, when finished, it has strong connection points, both physically and visually. I also angle the handle out and away from the mug slightly, which makes for an ergonomic grip (9).

When I make a saucer for a mug, I like to keep the size very similar to that of the mug so that the lines of each piece reflect and continue from saucer to mug, creating a pairing that visually reads as a single piece.

The handle is started off the mug, attached, and then the final pulling is done.

Strong connection points on the handle increase the durability and the handle is angled slightly to improve ergonomics.

Strong connection points on the handle increase the durability and the handle is angled slightly to improve ergonomics.

Once bisque fired, I line all my work with durable gloss glazes and dip and spray satin glazes over the exteriors to develop varied surfaces that interact and contrast nicely with the details and texture.

I have enjoyed the challenge this body of work has presented. There has been a reciprocal development of both function and form; at times, both function and form have led the making process, and my intended result is always to finish a pot that expresses itself with balance, giving equal credence to both considerations.

Light-green mug and saucer, 4 in. (10 cm) in height, porcelain, fired to cone 6 in an electric kiln, slow cooled, 2015.

Dark-green mug, 4 in. (10 cm) in height, porcelain, fired to cone 6 in an electric kiln, slow cooled, 2015.

the author Nick DeVries has been living and working in Minneapolis, Minnesota, since graduating from Saint Johns University in Collegeville, Minnesota, in 2001 with a BA in art. Alongside his studio practice he has taught classes and worked at a production pottery. He currently works out of his studio in the Northeast Minneapolis Arts District. To see more, check out www.devriespottery.com.

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Nick DeVries’ mug and saucer, ceramic.

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