Drawing Systems: The Work of Tim Christensen

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1 Octopoda (plate), 12 in. (30 cm) in diameter, wheel-thrown porcelain, black slip, sgraffito design. Photo: Andrew Edgar.

For Tim Christensen to live any closer to the land, he might have to be underground. He knows the wilderness surrounding his studio in easternmost Maine so intimately that he can navigate it in darkness. For years, Christensen lived almost solely off this land—foraging for mushrooms, berries, ducks, rhubarb, and fish. He estimates that he harvested 80 percent of his food from his eleven acres of forest and shoreline, buying only flour and dairy when he had to. His studio is off the grid and off the beaten path. You can’t find him without explicit directions, so he’s in little danger of foot traffic—he likes it that way.

His art is a graphic, narrative homage to this land and the region surrounding it that he loves so well. Christensen’s porcelain pots and vessels tell stories through drawn images of nature: cormorants, sea bass, chickadees, whales, puffins, and all manner of flora that make up the ecosystem he himself is supported by. “This is spiritual information,” he explains while dragging his stylus through gun-metal gray slip. It leaves a thin, white line in its wake. “Sometimes I’m capturing observations about the world around me, and sometimes I’m drawing a requiem to something we’ve lost or are losing.”

Christensen chose to become a full-time potter on what sounds like a whim as he describes it now, many years later. At the age of 29, he lost a job selling textbooks, took his severance pay and used it to camp in the Florida Keys for six months. He had no history with pottery, but chose the vocation the way you or I might select a sandwich from the menu: because it sounded really good. He budgeted six months to learn the trade, took private lessons from Tamsin Whitehead in Newmarket, New Hampshire, and started making functional pottery. She taught him everything he needed to know to make pottery professionally. He got into his first gallery six months (to the day) after he made his decision. At the height of his five-year career as a full-time production potter, he was throwing over 18,000 pounds of clay each year. “I had something to say. I was trying to put it into the work by making 80 pieces a day,” he explains. “But the message was getting broken up across all these pieces. I stopped that and brought it down to one a day. I could say everything in one piece per day instead of spreading it across 80. I found my communication conduit.”

2 Tim Christensen working in his studio in Roque Bluffs, Maine. Photos: Penny Guisinger.

3 Carving the sgraffito patterns through black slip to reveal the white clay body underneath. Photos: Penny Guisinger.

Christensen decorates the surface of his work using the sgraffito technique, scratching off one or more layers of colored slip to reveal the clay body underneath. During a phase in which he was making clay-and-steel sculptures on the side, he developed the slip he still uses today. It’s a mixture of coloring oxides and dried porcelain trimmings. He brushes about five coats of slip on every pot. After the piece reaches the bone-dry stage, he uses a stylus to carve through the slip, creating images made of white lines against the black background. He waits until the clay is dry because it gives him far better line control, although it also leads to greater risk of cracking. After he finishes creating the surface designs, he once fires the pieces to vitrification. The scenes are elaborate, but the technical aspects are very simple. “It’s a white line on a black background. I can’t use gray or colors,” he says. “I use the same five basic tools that we see in indigenous work to describe the scene and its importance: parallel lines, circles, dots, black, and white. I’m using simple tools to tell complicated stories.”

Stories of Place and Time
For Christensen, the natural world is as political as it is personal. He lives and works with awareness that we live in a time of great extinction and that climate change has accelerated what used to be a slow pace of ecological transition. “On a particular drive up the coast, I saw cormorants gathered at the mouth of every river I drove past. They were waiting for the eels and smelts. They time their nesting with these runs so they can feed their chicks. There was no fish run that year, so I drew cormorants and seals just waiting, doing nothing,” he explains. “I was making a record because that might be the last time I’ll ever see that. With no food, there is a nestling failure and that’s how populations go extinct. At the end of last year, the great cormorant was listed as endangered. I needed to record that.”

Systems and Economies
Christensen is currently in the process of transitioning from living solely in his remote studio in Roque Bluffs, Maine, to a slightly-less-remote house in Franklin, about an hour south. He and his partner, jewelry maker Nisa Smiley (and her children) are building an off-the-grid house and launching a small, organic farm in cooperation with several other families also living on the same property. Christensen travels between house and studio, needing solitude to create. “When I lived in the studio full time, I threw my work outside on a kick wheel that I made myself, and did all my firing in the electric kilns at two local community centers. It kept me from having to bring in a big electrical line or propane tank. I didn’t want a wood-fired kiln because I don’t like ash on my pots: I don’t like the surface it creates.” He pauses to study a white-throated sparrow at one of the many feeders visible from his drawing table, then resumes. “Without community-center kilns, I would not have been able to do this, to make my work, to make this transition.”

Squid Rising, 8"h, porcelain, 2013.

4 Squids (cup), 7 in. (18 cm) in height. 5 Perfect Vision (lidded jar), 11 in. (28 cm) in height. All pieces are wheel-thrown or handbuilt porcelain, black slip, sgraffito decoration.

His reliance on local resources—food, water, community-center kilns, firewood—is a theme that surfaces throughout his art. It’s all manner of life within existing systems and economies that Christensen seeks to capture in his work. Because he has relied directly on ecosystems, and what he calls the “economy of calories,” to put food on his table, he has a very direct knowledge of how organisms live off each other. He can tell you how many calories he had to expend each day to gather enough food with the necessary calories to go out the next day and do it again. And because he relies on galleries and the commerce they create to help provide for his family, he also participates in what he calls an “economy of time.” With a foot in both worlds, he is fascinated by the connectivity of it all. “When it comes right down to it, I’m drawing systems,” he says. “Economic. Ecological. Environmental. Family. All systems, and they all have redundancies. I like thinking about what happens when systems run out of redundancies. What happens when you’re in fallback position number seven. I think systems survive until redundancy number eight.” He believes in pottery as a permanent record of things that his generation may be among the last to see. “I’m putting these things on clay so in 10,000 years, they will look exactly like this. They will be understandable to anyone who wants to understand them.” For systems that fail, Christensen’s depiction of them may serve as the next best thing to fallback position number nine. It may be all that’s left.

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6 Durham Pond (large bowl), 14 in. (35 cm) in diameter.

Christensen used to participate heavily in craft and art shows, but has cut back dramatically. Most of his work is sold through galleries in New England, though he is increasing his presence in the Mid-Atlantic states as well. He finds that, increasingly, he sizes his pieces based on the market: they are either very small or very large. “There isn’t much of a market for the $100 piece anymore. There’s no middle. It’s either got to be less than $50 or very expensive. The urge to chase the bottom doesn’t have much of a future.” He is primarily making large pieces that tell specific narratives, are one-of-a-kind, and offer lots of real estate to fully explore an idea.

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7 Winter Wren, 7 in. (18 cm) in length. All pieces are wheel-thrown or handbuilt porcelain, black slip, sgraffito decoration.

It’s unlikely that most people will find their way to Christensen’s remote studio, and anyone who tries should be sure to wear waterproof boots. But those who make the trip might be rewarded with a strong cup of coffee, a good view of the bird feeder, and a sense of solitude. “Sometimes the world is insanely beautiful and precious, but that doesn’t make it move less slowly,” says Christensen, still watching the sparrow. “I come here because I need the singularity and calm in a world that’s moving insanely fast.”

Learn more about Tim Christensen’s work at www.timchristensenporcelain.com.

the author Penny Guisinger is a writer living in Trescott, Maine. Learn more at http://pennyguisinger.com.

Subscriber Extra Images and Video

Watch video here: http://www.timchristensenporcelain.com/about/

Subscriber Extra:

Octopus vessel, wheel-thrown porcelain, sgraffito decoration, salt fired to cone 10, 2015.

Squid lidded jar, wheel-thrown porcelain, sgraffito decoration, salt fired to cone 10, 2015.

Bowl, wheel-thrown porcelain, sgraffito decoration, salt fired to cone 10, 2015.

Bird bowl, wheel-thrown porcelain, sgraffito decoration, salt fired to cone 10, 2015.

Bird bowl, wheel-thrown porcelain, sgraffito decoration, salt fired to cone 10, 2015.

Tim Christensen holding one of his salt fired cups after unloading it from the kiln. Photo: Nisa Smiley.


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