We are reminded daily that the natural world is threatened by human activity. At a time when that immense challenge can make one feel mournful, overwhelmed, or cynical, Michael Sherrill’s extraordinary mixed-media botanical sculptures give hope. His work seems to rescue fragments of the natural world and emphasize our human connection to organic growth; it demonstrates how well humans can connect to and collaborate with nature, acknowledging and appreciating its beauty. Sherrill refers to his work as “natural narratives,” metaphors for the experience of the natural environment. His work emphasizes the beauty found in decay, the subtle sexuality of flowers, and the extraordinary perseverance of plants under environmental stress.
Born in 1954, Sherrill grew up in Charlottesville and was influenced early on by North Carolina folk pottery tradition and the arts community of the Penland School of Crafts. He is primarily self-taught. In the 1970s and 1980s, he focused on making functional clay objects and gradually made more abstract sculptural forms in the 1990s. He stopped making functional objects because, as he said, he wanted “to speak more than the potter’s inside language.” As function lost its importance to him, an obsession with color took its place.
Discoveries and Epiphanies
Sherrill founded Mudtools in 1997, which is a line of colorful pottery tools he created after feeling a need for particular tools not available on the market. He is a self-described tinkerer and inventor, also defining himself as a materials-based artist now working with metal, glass, and clay. He lives in the mountains of rural Bat Cave, North Carolina; its landscape provides him with constant inspiration. He says, “the flora and fauna surrounding my studio continue to surprise me. For me, these discoveries are epiphanies. My desire is to create something that might bring its observer to the same place of discovery.” Plants surrounding his studio include native Appalachian varieties such as mountain laurel, apple trees, magnolias, and rhododendrons—these provide the imaginative catalyst for the sculptures he has been making from the 1990s up to the present. These sculptures bear only a slight resemblance to the plants that lend them some of their characteristics; ultimately the actual plants loan their visual DNA to objects that are wholly imaginary, a form of fictional botany.
Sherrill has been using porcelain for decades. When his interests moved from function to more abstract objects, he started using porcelain as a surface on which to float vivid contrasting colors. As he came to focus on botanical forms, Sherrill expanded his use of porcelain as a means of continuing to use brilliant color. The organic, patterned, and multi-colored porcelain elements of his recent work are made using an extruder. Creating the final pieces involves layering, abrading the surface, and four kiln firings of descending temperatures.
3, 4 Old Man’s Beard (detail and overall), 38 in. (97 cm) in diameter, porcelain, silicon bronze, 2014. Photos: Scott Allen—Hang the Moon Photography.
Sherrill has made heavy use of an extruder since the 1990s; he refers to the extruder as his workstation. He makes the dies himself, producing hollow, tubular extrusions with diameters of up to 4 inches. He pinches off various shapes and sizes of the extrusions, which has been a major aid in dealing with porcelain’s temperamental nature. When he first started experimenting with glazing techniques, he made hollow, closed shapes out of the extrusions and stacked them on metal rods as a means of testing glazes. These tests became the basis of his new work, objects threaded onto metal.
Because he’s interested in the transition of colors, he had to figure out an engobe formulation that would permit the application of many coats of glaze. As a consequence, he’s developed a lot of binders and suspenders, some of which have been adapted from the ceramic industry, including ones that act like latex paint. Carving is also an important component in Sherrill’s work—it exposes the color transitions and affects the glazes. He starts carving when the porcelain is leather hard. He uses a variety of tools for carving; palm gouges and tools he makes himself for cutting and creating patterns.
Uniting and Integrating Materials
Although the centerpiece of all his work features porcelain, Sherrill felt a need to expand what clay can do when used in coordination with other materials. He introduced metals almost as way of drawing. His use of metal provides a particular kind of setting for clay and he has used it primarily as a means of creating branches, stems, thorns, tendrils, and, in some cases, tree trunks. He started using flame-worked glass as a way of introducing transparency into his objects and to also employ its particular range of colors. He feels that because he’s no longer limited by a single discipline, he is free to use many materials in the right place and for the right application. While he still loves the many qualities of porcelain—particularly its skin or surface and its carvability—he feels it has limitations and although the same can be said for metal and glass, used in combination they expand the possibilities of all. His materials are united by the fact that all involve the use of fire; he so thoroughly integrates them, it’s often difficult to identify which is which.
Sherrill’s metal, glass, and porcelain pieces make an indelible visual impact. Their drama is not only as a result of the forms and color, but also a consequence of their scale. The piece Yucca Temple of Cool Beauty is 54 inches high and 38 inches wide. A piece such as Undressed Magnolia is 16×22×16 inches. The sculptures inspired by rhododendrons are often as big as a rhododendron bush. The scale within scale presents contrasts between the delicate flower parts with the leaves and the stems and those combined elements with the overall size of the sculpture. It’s carefully orchestrated so that no matter the ultimate scale, the size seems right, like something one would see in nature. Sherrill works at the smallest micro-scale of wonder, expanding that intense focus into the macro without losing any of the intimacy of the experience.
6, 7 A Beautiful Death (overall and detail), 3 ft. 9 in. (1.2 m) in height, porcelain, silicon bronze, 2017. Photos: Scott Allen—Hang the Moon Photography.
Michael Sherrill’s work is beyond craft, skill, technique, and expertise. His labor and aesthetic choices are so integrated that you can only perceive them as an entirety. His use of glazes and color fit the forms so well they seem to be the only colors possible; nothing seems forced or dissonant. In his functional objects, you don’t focus on a spout or lid or belly or foot—these things are bound into the totality of the object. Of course these are essential elements, but because they work as a totality, their individuality is something you perceive last, or only if you are looking at those things with critical or analytical eyes. Sherrill’s objects, for all their extraordinary amount of detail, look effortless, they work from every possible point of view, and they are so coherent, focused, and orchestrated that all of the steps needed to make them and all necessary aesthetic decisions become invisible in the finished object.
A retrospective of four decades of Sherrill’s work is on display at the Renwick Gallery in Washington, DC, through January 5, 2020. The Renwick and numerous other institutions have added Sherrill’s work to their collections including the White House Collection of American Crafts in Washington, DC; the Clinton Presidential Library and Museum in Little Rock, Arkansas; The Corning Museum of Glass in Corning, New York; The High Museum of Art in Atlanta, Georgia; John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan, Wisconsin; Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, California; The Mint Museum in Charlotte, North Carolina; and The Museum of Arts and Design in New York, New York.
Publications include Michael Sherrill, Retrospective, The Mint Museum, 2018; Craft for a Modern World: The Renwick Gallery Collection, Nora Atkinson, Smithsonian American Art Museum 2016; Color and Fire: Defining Moments in Studio Ceramics, 1950–2000, Jo Lauria, 2000, Rizzoli International Publications, New York, New York; and many magazine articles and exhibition catalogs.
I am indebted to Michael Sherrill and the Mint Museum for their help and input in producing this article.
the author Kay Whitney, a frequent contributor to Ceramics Monthly, is an artist and writer living in Los Angeles, California.