Spotlight: A Level of Alchemy

Ceramics Monthly: How did your work in earthenware develop?

Michelle Im: When I first started out in ceramics, I was immediately attracted to porcelain and the results you can get in cone-10 gas firings. As I experimented with different clay bodies, I learned more about where ceramic traditions come from. It was a gradual process, starting with high-fired clay and glaze, then moving to mid range, and then eventually to low-fire materials.

When I got into Delftware and Italian majolica work, I fell in love with earthenware. It surprised me that you could get such stunning results with a clay body I typically looked upon as a material for beginners. Earthenware is primitive, ubiquitous, and the high-iron content makes for a strong color that stains everything. But, when it is dressed and manipulated (as in the Delft and majolica traditions), it possesses a hidden power of elegance and maturity, like porcelain. These traditions aimed to elevate the material by emulating highly valued porcelain-ware aesthetics. There is a little bit of a game involved when you work with earthenware. If the inherent color and surface are not what you’d like to showcase, the question becomes how to transform it into something different that doesn’t bear the typical associations.

As I switched to an earthenware clay body, my process naturally became more handbuilding focused. The two felt like they were interconnected. While there is an impressive quality about wheel throwing, for me, handbuilding relates to the idea of using a perceivably low-skilled forming method to make something refined. It’s a relatively intuitive process, and it lets clay do what it does best—be molded by hand. With pinching or slab building, you can choose to allow forms to be as lumpy as you want. I use handbuilding to get close to a uniform shape for a classic form and then finesse the irregularities. The imprints left behind give a subtle texture that adds to the liveliness of my decorations. Finding the balance between intention and spontaneity is a constant part of the process.

Ceramics makes you aware of how ideas travel and evolve over time. I am always inspired by how new ideas can form out of a lack of resources or technology. There is a level of alchemy, which is part of the decorative stage.

Korean Buncheong ware was one of my first sources of inspiration to start using slip decoration. Although my work does not directly reference the aesthetics of this traditional stoneware, I identify with the whimsy, immediacy, and humor contained in its slip gestures. I cover my earthenware with white slip that I carve through, making repetitive marks that create movement within the surface decoration. I strive to emanate this energy through colorful patterns and imagery.

I often look to various forms of Latin American folk art to display a sense of spirituality in my color choices. Living in New York City, I started depicting rats and pigeons in my work. But in general, I find a wealth of inspiration in the natural world. My goal is to create ceramic objects that add warmth and playfulness to acts of everyday rituals.

Photo: Alexandra Genova. www.alexandragenova.com.

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