At first glance, Stephen Heywood’s emphatically industrial wheel-thrown ceramic vessels appear quite the opposite of everything we might associate with handcrafted pottery. These small-scale works seem timeworn, their weathered, seemingly rusticated metallic surfaces betraying decades of use. It’s all playful tromp l’oeil wizardry, of course, the product of atmospheric wood and soda firing. Heywood’s vessels are, for the most part, functional, but their striking mimicry of architectural structures and their uncannily industrial aesthetic suggests that these are also sculptural art objects, and they reward close inspection in sometimes unexpected ways.
Evolve from Inspiration
Heywood’s work takes its direct inspiration from his childhood in Brigham City, Utah, a rural town that, at the time, had a population of about 16,000. Inexorably part of the landscape were the rural-industrial structures like grain silos, pole barns, and cylindrical water tanks that would later factor so prominently in his work. He also studied ceramics at Southern Utah University and Pennsylvania’s Edinboro University, both institutions situated in comparatively small, rural communities. As he and I discussed his work and his sources of inspiration, Heywood explained that it was a semester-long assignment during his graduate work at Edinboro that ultimately established his lifelong interest in industrial forms.
Instructed to produce an art project that was rooted in substantial field research, Heywood purchased a camera and, over the course of several months, traveled hundreds of miles in search of abandoned, dilapidated industrial structures in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and New York; taking reference photos of old factories, smokestacks, and farm implements, establishing a massive visual catalog that became the source for much of his subsequent work.
Heywood was particularly drawn to painted and stenciled markings on abandoned buildings. Stripped of their original context, these numbers and forms, once demarcating loading docks and such, now exist as visual fossils that defy interpretation, their original purposes and meaning long-forgotten. He would also look for bricked-up windows and entrances on the sides of buildings, which were sometimes painted, offering rectilinear swatches of color. “You see them everywhere,” Heywood remarks, recalling that once he began intentionally looking for such markings, they suddenly revealed themselves to be ubiquitous in any industrial space. Applied either with a slip stencil or by custom decal, these swatches, symbols, arrows, and numbers appear in his work, lending an industrial aesthetic to domestic objects.
Using atmospheric firing, a process that naturally lends itself nicely to mimicking rusticated surfaces, Heywood began translating the texture of industrial forms into ceramic vessels. Experimenting with soda kilns (the subject of his graduate research), Heywood was able to attain a visually satisfying speckled orange-peel texture in his work. Much of the excitement in his early work came from altering the surfaces through the firing process.
These mostly functional containers assume the form of structures that were themselves containers (silos and water towers). But where we might expect to see a spout or a lip on a vessel, Heywood surprises us with forms evoking exhaust pipes, or handles reminiscent of the flexible metal spout of an old-fashioned metal oil can. He frequently adds vertically ascending metal pieces on the surfaces of his works, evocative of the ladders on the exteriors of some industrial structures. These ladders are made from pieces of high-temperature wire, and some of his works, on close inspection, reveal themselves to be playfully multimedia.
Elements of Discovery
Heywood’s forms invite interaction with the viewer in ways as subtle as they are surprising. Many of his vessels are composite structures; placed on a table, they become self-contained miniature industrial landscapes. But their components unstack or open, revealing hidden vessels within vessels, much like Russian nesting dolls, so interacting with his works involves an element of surprise and discovery. Heywood also incorporates subtle visual details of interest; a small handle on a vessel might be enclosed by an actual metal spring that can be squeezed and released. Some handles are hinged, and some vessels contain small, whimsical metallic or ceramic components that dangle or spin. While many ceramic forms seem to exude a prohibitive aura that commands “don’t touch!”—a Han Dynasty urn, for example—Heywood’s vessels are purposefully crafted to be tactile, sensory, and reward interaction. Symbols occasionally placed on the underside of his vessels encourage us to rotate the object in our hands, lest we miss anything.
Today, most of Heywood’s work is fired using atmospheric kilns, their surfaces frequently characterized by warm oranges and muted reds. Over the years, he has experimented with wood firing, a centuries-old tradition that he became interested in during graduate school. Most recently he has been able to focus on wood firing with his students and his colleague, Trevor Dunn, at the University of North Florida where he has taught since 2006. These works are much more muted, bathed in subtle, smoky earth tones. For Heywood, much of the joy of wood firing comes from the relinquishment of control. The movement of the flames in the kiln results in arresting finishes that are difficult to replicate.
For me, the appeal of Heywood’s work is its seemingly incongruous industrial aesthetic, which initially seems quite contrary to the ethos of handmade pottery. But much of the enjoyment Heywood derives from wood firing is that it’s ultimately a process literally rooted in the earth. “You’re glazing with trees!” Heywood stated, with an audible hint of wonder in his voice, poetically observing that during the firing process, “the minerals and composition of a tree break down and complete the cycle; the clay and the tree both come from the earth.”
Heywood’s work has appeared in hundreds of exhibitions across the US and abroad, including international shows in Korea and China. But perhaps his most remarkable achievement is his seemingly effortless ability to take the battered and weathered textures of the industrial and mass-produced and translate them by hand into welcoming, human, and domestic vessels created through a process closely tied to the earth.
the author Jonathan Rinck studied art history at the University of St. Andrews in St. Andrews, Scotland, and teaches at Spring Arbor University in Spring Arbor, Michigan. He blogs regularly for the International Sculpture Center and occasionally contributes to Michigan History magazine.