This issue features our annual readership-wide contest, “Grounded” and our focus on artists using low-fire red clay. As we compiled the issue, I started to think about what influences each of us as artists to choose the clay we use, or develop a specific body of work. I kept coming back to the idea that what you’re exposed to at pivotal points in your learning can really influence the materials and subjects you choose to explore throughout your artistic career.
My undergraduate ceramics studio was limited to mid-range glaze firings, so we didn’t have the chance to use low-fire clays. One semester, a visiting artist left behind some of the engobes he used to alter the surface of our gray, iron-speckled shop stoneware, so I took the opportunity to experiment with them on my own work. The results were intriguing. Transparent glazes fired with more depth and better color response, and the colored engobes offered even, integrated color that accentuated form. This experience led me to learn about and work with porcelain.
Each artist in this issue who uses low-fire red clay has a personal connection to it that started from a similar initial spark of excitement and recognition of its potential. For some, red clay is familiar from childhood or world travels. For others, there was an a-ha moment when they felt an immediate connection to its physical properties as well as its historical and cultural significance.
Gabo Martini’s vessels references the terra cotta from her childhood—like the roofing tiles used in the Spanish Mission–style architecture and the pottery of her hometown of Tarimoro, Mexico. Patterns carved through vibrant underglazes and slips reveal the vivid color of the clay underneath. This provides a strong, graphic quality that allows her to express her personal and cultural heritage in a contemporary way.
Jim Smith was introduced to red earthenware clay when he studied with Walter Ostrom at Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. Smith found the local red clay to be a good fit for his cross-cultural explorations in clay and in pairing food with pots—explorations inspired by exposure to pottery from many cultures through decades of travel.
Arthur Halvorsen inherited his enthusiasm for red clay’s color-rich malleability and cultural history from his professor and mentor, Lucy Breslin, at Maine College of Art. He has mined its potential to create brightly colored, bold surfaces using slips and collaged underglaze transfers of personal iconography from flowers to traffic cones.
This issue’s Spotlight artist Shanna Fliegel and Studio Visit artist Susan McHenry switched to working with red clay a little later in their respective artistic careers. By the time Fliegel was a studio assistant at Greenwich House Pottery, she had worked with all sorts of clays and firing types. As part of her job, she was mixing up red clay, and was enthralled with how smooth, responsive, and rich it was. Now 16 years later, she’s never looked back, and enjoys the material as a luscious and inviting surface.
Susan McHenry began using red clay after taking a workshop with Victoria Christen in 2011. As she watched Christen pour white slip over a dark-red, leather-hard piece, she was instantly hooked. Today, McHenry’s white-slipped pots provide a ground for loose, botanically inspired drawings and patterns.
I hope you will find it instructive and inspiring to see the ways that several artists approach using this versatile clay, as well as the wide variety of work submitted by the contest winners.