Spotlight: Skin of the Vessel

Ceramics Monthly: What inspires and motivates you in the studio?

James Watkins: When I am working in my studio, discovery is as significant as invention. I approach my surface application research with vigor and patience, and the attitude that every chemical and every mineral has the potential to do something magical. So, not unlike an alchemist, I test everything in the kiln and alter the materials and the proportions of the glazes. I am interested in discovering what these alterations and changes will do to the surfaces of my vessels. I am constantly experimenting to create new engaging textures and alluring colors. I call the surface of my vessels “the skin of the vessel.”

I live in the southwestern part of the US in Lubbock, Texas. My love for the Southwest environment has made me an acute observer of nature. Through exercises of drawing, photographing, and intense observation, I have found inspiration in examining sandhill cranes, Canada geese, the patterns of cotton-field furrows, irrigation circles, and cotton-gin cyclone dust collectors. The Southwestern landscape inspires me to experiment with materials found in the desert and canyons to create glazes, slips, textures, and forms for my ceramic vessels.

In my studio, I am also motivated by music. The internal visions of high and low intervals in the one, two, three, four rhythm time of John Coltrane’s album A Love Supreme act as a conductor for an orchestra of personal memories. I am consciously collecting memories from interpersonal relationships, travels, and happy accidents. I am actively participating in the ritual of remembering, and using these experiences as a creative mechanism and reservoir for ideas. As I work and listen to Coltrane’s energized rhythms, the studio becomes a place of improvisation. All my memories become players—composing vivid, internal images of line, movement, and form that manifest in real time.

CM: Can you describe the alternative firing processes you use to achieve the surfaces on your work? What do you hope your work will evoke for viewers?

JW: I am exploring using metal saggars and aluminum foil saggars to trap carbon in terra sigillata–covered pots in order to achieve deep black surfaces and flashes of graduating tones. I am also experimenting with using stannous chloride to fume both gold luster and platinum luster to create radiant, archival surfaces. The colors will not fade over time.

I hope the vessels I make will stimulate all the senses and provoke memories. Each piece is comprised of preserved memories from both a personal and borrowed history, and becomes an artifact of my reality, made of historical references, cultural melodies, physical stimuli, and an aesthetic vocabulary. The pieces selected for the “Texas Master Series” exhibition at the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft (through May 8) are a sampling of work created during my 35-year teaching career at Texas Tech University.

Learn more at www.jcwclayworks.com.

Photo: Bonni Oakes.

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