Josh DeWeese, who teaches at Montana State University (MSU) in Bozeman and was formerly the resident artist director at the Archie Bray Foundation for the Ceramic Arts in Helena, Montana, has been surrounded by art and artists for his whole life. His parents were pioneers in the Montana art world.
I had the opportunity to ask about his education, creativity, and his career in clay in the lead up to an exhibition of his work at Eutectic Gallery in Portland, Oregon, earlier this year.
Nicole Curcio: What is your first memory of interacting with clay?
Josh DeWeese: I grew up surrounded by art, but my first exposure to pottery was in a class at 5 years old. There were all kinds of art projects happening at home when we were kids. By high school, I didn’t want anything to do with it; my friends were doing other things: football, rodeos, and activities that were very different from the artistic background of my family. It wasn’t a strong feeling of revolt, I was just interested in exploring other things. I started college with general studies; I did a little of everything before I finally gave in and signed up for an art class. I’d remembered thinking my high school ceramics class was fun so I signed up for an art fundamentals class because then I would be able to take a clay class the next semester; after that I was hooked.
NC: How are you involved in the Montana Clay Community these days now that you’re not the resident artist director of the Bray?
JD: Being affiliated with the Archie Bray Foundation is a life sentence, but in a really good way. I left in 2007 but joined the board in 2012, and am closely connected to that community. It feels vital, exciting, nurturing, supportive, and engaging. It’s not competitive at all. You want to do your best because everyone is working so hard, and you’re inspired by this thing you’re a part of. That is the core of the Archie Bray mission. It’s inspiring and intimidating at the same time.
NC: Can you tell me more about the International Wild Clay Research Project, which you co-founded with your colleague Dean Adams?
JD: It’s a research branch as well as an overarching theme in the MSU ceramics program that focuses on the use of local materials and advancing sustainable, efficient practices in the ceramic arts. It’s an interest area of mine that was spurred on by a graduate student, David Peters, who is focused on sourcing all of his materials in Montana. When Peters came to graduate school, fellow artist and MSU faculty member Dean Adams and I started the International Wild Clay Research Project, a name we came up with almost jokingly. We had to name it a “project” instead of a “center” because at the university, a center is designated as having a certain level of university research funding. It is an official university research project, and Adams and I are the co-directors. This collaborative research project includes, but is not limited to, geology, agriculture, GIS, chemistry, physics, ecology, history, soils, engineering, business, and art. We just received a grant that will help tremendously with university funding to further the project’s goals of investigating, harvesting, and use of local materials in the studio, and the specific effects those materials have on the finished artworks.
I’ve organized research expeditions [to China, Korea, Chile, Italy, Japan, and Thailand] and have been awarded several research grants. Every three years I teach a summer workshop that is focused on studying and using local materials. That research emphasis is woven into every grant proposal I write. It’s a big part of being a potter; learning geology and the environment.
NC: Can you describe your studio and share your daily routine?
JD: There’s no set schedule. There are too many variables with school. When school is in session, I work a lot. There are lots of big changes happening, so the faculty members are taking on a bigger workload. I really believe in the program, but I also need to protect my studio and research time. I teach three classes, three days a week, but I’m often there five days a week. Graduate students working on their thesis shows also require lots of help. It makes it impossible to get much studio work done during the week, so I work mostly on weekends. Summers are great, because I have so much more time to develop ideas. Once I get going in my home studio I can find a rhythm and work quickly.
My studio workload is really driven by whatever the deadlines are. I plan my calendar around upcoming deadlines. When I get into the mode of making, I’ll work evenings too, but I’m not staying up all night in the studio these days. I like to sleep. On weekends, I can work 5–10 hours a day, depending on where I am in the cycle. I’ll set a firing date and work as long as I can in the greenware stage to make as much as I can. Then I move on to glazing and firing. My glazing process has become more involved and I’m trying to plan more time for this stage of the process.
I really like the framework that the idea of pottery provides—there’s always something to do. For me, ideas come out of the process. I always have a direction; pottery provides the framework for a place to start. I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel, instead I’m making innovations on familiar forms.
NC: What’s happening in your studio now?
JD: I’m really excited about my new wood-fired salt/soda kiln (2 years new). I’ve fired it about twelve times so far and I’m getting a pretty good feeling for the glaze palette of the kiln. That’s a constant, fluid revision process. I’m not particularly interested in trying to produce a consistent palette. It’s one of the things about the wood-fire process—the quality of the glaze surface is amplified. Even electric kilns have their own individual flavor. That’s where I draw inspiration from. I don’t want the same outcome every time or the work feels dull, which is not to say that a few old predictable standbys aren’t nice.
NC: How has your work evolved over the course of your career?
JD: The constant thread throughout my career is my love of the process. I love wet clay and the throwing and firing processes. I feel the happiest and am most at home when firing my wood kiln. I’ve always been a sucker for the process, but now I feel more interested in how those objects interact with our daily routines, with our food. How the objects become entwined with people’s lives. The best example is a handmade cup. There’s something so simple about a cup. It drifts in and out of our focus, we sort of forget about it, and then are captured by its power as it returns to our consciousness. Cups are like our friends, a feeling most illuminated when our favorite one is broken. I try to think a lot more about the engineering of how pots work. I still feel incredibly challenged by that, the engineering of lid fit, or pouring from a pitcher. I’m interested in the character, particularly with pouring vessels. They take on a personality and become animated in a way.
NC: How did working at the Bray influence you?
JD: I think the history of the Bray’s founding and the people who were involved in building the program were very influential. Peter Voulkos, Rudy Autio, Ken Ferguson, and David Shaner, they were all my mentors and heroes. Each one of them was really influential to me and they’re all gone now.
For me, they were all contemporaries of my parents, they were all from the same generation. I’ve always been in awe of that generation of people; what they experienced and the work they did. I’ve come to believe that one of the most important roles as a teacher is being able to communicate the importance of the previous generation and what they were all about. Once they’re gone, they’re gone and it’s a really big hole.
Ceramics is in a really interesting transition now. The previous generation, with the great pioneers in American ceramics of that time, are passing on. It’s exciting and terrifying to witness the changes coming.
NC: Can you speak to some of those changes and transitions?
JD: With all the new technology available, the digital interface is a hot topic in the field and there’s lots of discussion about 3-D printing. I think it’s important, but it also makes me feel like the work with wood fire and local materials, making handmade pottery, those elements are really critical. I want to champion those things that aren’t digital. We have a good balance, my colleague Jeremy Hatch is interested in the technology, but there needs to be this other voice about the value of learning the basics. It’s important to be aware that you can go out and dig something out of the earth and turn it into something useful and beautiful. Sometimes I feel like a bit of a dinosaur, but I’m happy to play that role.
NC: How often do you exhibit your work?
JD: Each year, I usually have between two to four major deadlines for bigger shows (solo) and work with the Artstream Nomadic Gallery at the annual National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts (NCECA) conference. Whenever I have to get 50 pots together, that’s a big show. I’m always sending stuff to smaller group exhibitions I’ve been invited to. I also have steady inventory locally in Bozeman and in Montana at Red Lodge Clay Center in Red Lodge, the Archie Bray Foundation in Helena, and Radius Gallery in Missoula.
In addition, I send work to Harvey Meadows Gallery in Aspen, Colorado; Northern Clay Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota; AKAR Design in Iowa City, Iowa; Lillstreet Art Center Gallery and The Nevica Project in Chicago, Illinois. Maintaining those relationships is enough to keep me busy to capacity.
NC: What clay do you use to make your work?
JD: The clay bodies I use are produced at the Bray, and one of them includes a somewhat local clay, Helmer kaolin, from Idaho. My main use of locally sourced materials is for my glazes—about half of my glazes use these. I am not a purist by any means so I will mix and match commercial and wild clay surfaces without any problems of morality!
In some sense it is the same old stuff, but that is what I love about the framework of pottery. Things happen in the making process, rather unconsciously when you least expect it, all of a sudden you look up and you’re many miles away.
NC: You’ve been so deeply involved in ceramics and art, for so long, is it fair to say you’ve become a keeper of the craft?
JD: I suppose keeper of the craft is appropriate, although I have never thought of myself as a fine craftsman. I do believe in the idea of establishing a strong foundation of skill so one is equipped with the tools they need to find their own voice. It ties in with the idea of discipline, and the necessity of practice. Throwing pots is about repetition and practicing the same movements over and over again so they become fluid and confident, like dancing, or skiing, or playing music on an instrument. The hands/body need to acquire the knowledge. That’s something that takes time, discipline, and patience.
the author Nicole M. Curcio is a freelance writer and artist. Her interview with DeWeese was included in the promotional materials for his recent exhibition at Eutectic Gallery. Learn more at www.eutecticgallery.com.
Josh DeWeese’s Thrown and Altered Pitcher
To make the pitcher as lightweight as possible, the body is thrown with 3 pounds of clay (1, 2). After throwing, trim excess clay from the bottom, create a bevel, and make a mark around the widest point of the form to prepare for cuts and alterations (3). Leave the form attached to the bat during assembly.
Once the body of the vessel is complete, allow it to dry to cheddar-cheese hard. Alter the form by cutting half way down from the top edge to meet the marked circumference line (4).
Fold the clay walls across each other (5) and cut through both walls at a 45° angle to create a beveled edge. You should have two edges that meet perfectly; join them by scoring and slipping the beveled edges together to create a bird-shaped body form (6). Set the form aside.
The spout is formed on a separate bat by throwing a flat disk with a recessed center portion that is inch thick and an outer portion that is -inch thick (7). Using a wire tool, cut the outer section to create texture and divide the surface into faceted thirds that resemble a Mercedes Benz emblem. Shape and attach the spout while the clay is wet and at full plasticity. Immediately remove it from the wheel, fold it into shape, and place it onto the body. The placement should emphasize the vertical angle of the spout and the breast of the bird-like form. Shape the spout by hand to create the pouring edge.
Mark the placement of the spout (8) and carefully remove it from the form. Use a knife to remove the folded areas and eliminate any extra clay weight. Set the spout aside, facing up and remove the marked area from the body. Prep the edges (9) and attach the spout, joining the interior edge completely. The spout is then finessed for definition.
Cut away the back edge of the body to create a lip that follows the line of the spout (10). This detail will help engineer a smooth flow of liquid. Pull several handle forms (11) and lay them on a surface, like taffy, until they become soft cheddar-cheese hard. Attach two of these to the cut rim, meeting at an upward curve opposite the spout. This defines the rim of the body (12).
Prepare the raised center of the pulled rim for an added handle (13). After determining the location for the handle, attach the coil and pull it up from the tail end of the form. Double the coil over to create a layered handle, pull again, and curve it into place, attaching the top to the raised part of the pulled-coil rim (14). Pay close attention to the weight of the attachments, the overall mass, shape, and proportion of the handle.
Using your tools, clean up the edges and create a foot. Use a wire to cut the pitcher from the bat and finish the bottom by tapping the center lightly with the palm or ball of your hand.