Theo Uliano: State of Flux

1 Untitled jar, 14 in. (36 cm) in height, handbuilt earthenware, slip underglaze, glaze, fired to cone 1 in an electric kiln, luster, 2020.

When we speak on the phone, Theo Uliano is making coffee in his kitchen, which has been under renovation for the past few years. With a background in construction, he’s doing the work himself. The meticulous detail and precision required to build the cabinets stands in stark contrast to Uliano’s ceramic construction methods, which often employ what he refers to as sloppy and uneven building techniques that reveal an immediate engagement with the material. He tells me he’s on the cusp of returning to his studio practice after nearly a year and a half of not making. The subject of being in flux came up several times in our conversation and seems a recurring theme in his life.

Piecing Together a Life

To live in a state of flux demands a certain level of comfort with and capacity to respond to change. Meaning literally to move with ease and fluidity, it’s no coincidence that flux is a key component in any successful ceramic glaze, without which melting cannot occur. It’s also this very quality that makes the long periods of immersion and productivity, followed by equally long periods of not making, possible for Uliano. His current teaching job at a prestigious Washington, D.C., high school permits him to enter his studio practice the way he wants, though a three-hour commute means splitting his time between his home in Glenside, Pennsylvania, and Washington, D.C., in what sometimes feels like a fractured lifestyle. Yet this sense of piecing together a life by embracing what, at first glance, seem like disparate parts is what ends up feeding him creatively.

2 Lighter plate, 10 in. (25 cm) in length, handbuilt earthenware, slip, underglaze, glaze, fired to cone 1 in an electric kiln, luster, 2020.

Several years of what he refers to as a “mad dash” of making and showing work, giving workshops, speaking, and traveling culminated in a Ceramics Monthly Emerging Artist award in 2015. A subsequent residency in southern France gave the Philadelphia native the opportunity to travel outside the US for the first time. The pace of life in the small coastal region of Côte d’Azur, a place he describes as “rough around the edges,” was transformative. Uliano always felt like he was part of two different worlds. Growing up with a mother who had an academic background as an English major and a father who was a tradesman working construction left Uliano feeling confused about where he fit in. He says he never felt at home in the art world, so it came as a relief when those insecurities seemed to fade away in France. Feeling compelled to continue living there for awhile, he returned home after the residency, and with the support of his wife, Christina, quit his job at The Clay Studio and returned to France with no plan.

Going back was not as he imagined, though. He was living in a bug-infested shed with no working kitchen in the midst of a heat wave. It was August—vacation season in France. Packed beaches and loud parties took the place of the quiet and slow-paced way of life he experienced during his residency. Though he planned to stay longer, Uliano returned home after a month. He says there was no great epiphany from this experience, other than learning it was okay to not have things turn out the way he had hoped. It’s the importance of taking risks like this that Uliano hopes to impart to his students. He sees his role as teaching life skills through the lens of ceramic materials. He wants them to become comfortable with failure, to expect it and learn how to work through it, to become resilient. A sense of pride and trust in their instincts are skills that can be developed, and these are what Uliano hopes to foster. He finds it easy to relate to his students, remembering how hard life was for him at that age.

Though he excelled in his high-school art classes, Uliano struggled academically and almost didn’t graduate. He had no interest in higher education, but his parents expected him to attend college. He applied to a dozen schools and got accepted into Kutztown University in Kutztown, Pennsylvania, on academic probation. Majoring in art, Uliano was studying painting and drawing, but began to feel troubled by what seemed to him like an elitist, esoteric form of expression. Then one day, he walked into the ceramics studio, “It looked dirty and dusty and physical.” And the rest, as they say, is history.

3 Cups, 3½ in. (9 cm) in height each, wheel-thrown earthenware, slip, underglaze, glaze, fired to cone 1 in an electric kiln, luster, 2016.

4 Untitled plate, 14 in. (36 cm) in diameter, handbuilt earthenware, slip, underglaze, glaze, fired to cone 1 in an electric kiln, luster, 2020.

Truth in Materials as a Path to Authenticity

Learning to throw on the wheel came easily to him, but eventually, making symmetrical forms didn’t allow him to fully express his ideas. Influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement, which advocated for truth in materials, throwing good pots eventually became less important for Uliano. After graduate school, he embarked on what he refers to as the “de-skilling of craft,” happy to abandon the all too often restrictive notions of a comfortable handle or evenness in wall thickness as the sole measure of what makes a good pot. In its place, authenticity became a guiding principle. The narrative surface began to take precedence and handbuilding offered a direct way of engaging with the clay.

Throughout the history of ceramics, humans have responded to the impulse to decorate the surfaces of their pots—from simple, linear or geometric patterns to more elaborate, ornate designs. The narrative pot—one that tells a story through the use of imagery—dates back to ancient Greece. Browse any online ceramics gallery today and you’ll see how the narrative pot continues to evolve and gain popularity. Uliano’s surface designs range from the representational to the abstract, incorporating expressive underglaze paintings, drawings, scratches, and marks left behind by a tool or the hand. Much of his imagery consists of self-portraits, which he describes as metacommentary on himself, letting the viewer know, “I’m self-absorbed and I’m aware of that.” He often depicts himself as nude, noting that he finds the nude male both comical and vulnerable. “Don’t take me too seriously; I don’t even have clothes on,” he jokes. He’s drawn to imagery that could be considered ugly or traverses the sad or embarrassing as a counter-narrative to the excessively idealistic images we often find in the media. “So much of what we see is upbeat for the sake of being positive that it makes people think they’re doing something wrong if they can’t relate,” he says.

Most of Uliano’s forms begin with roughly assembled coils, and his goal is to make work that doesn’t feel too self-conscious. This desire to unlearn, to get back to something direct and intuitive is at the heart of his making. In fact, he can’t seem to loosen up enough these days. The impulse to make work that feels more honest—cracked, heavy over here, bent over there—feels less like a choice and more like a necessity. Uliano explains, “I’m not a refined fashion statement. I’m a huge mess! Making a finished, labored-over, well-crafted piece started to feel like lying. Clay is heavy and dirty. Why are we trying to hide the mess? Use the bump on the surface of the pot—accentuate it, don’t hide it.”

He recognizes this approach can pose a challenge when it comes to showing his work in galleries, where pieces are put on literal pedestals. He sees similar limitations with Instagram and Facebook where images often float against a white background, devoid of context or humanity. After all, in our homes, the mug tends to reside on the stained countertop alongside the spilled coffee grounds. Perhaps this is why earthenware continues to be his chosen medium. Often considered the common person’s clay, it resonates with Uliano’s upbringing, connoting a sense of his working-class roots.

5 Jar with lid, 26 in. (66 cm) in height, wheel-thrown earthenware, slip, underglaze, glaze, fired to cone 1 in an electric kiln, luster, 2015.

6 Untitled plate, 16 in. (41 cm) in diameter, handbuilt earthenware, slip, glaze, fired to cone 1 in an electric kiln, luster, 2018.

Soon after earning his MFA at Tyler School of Art, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Uliano opened his own landscape company in the Philadelphia area. That’s when he met Doylestown ceramic artist Lisa Naples. Sensing he was unhappy, Naples urged Uliano to return to clay. Her belief in him was so convincing that he sold his business and went to work in Naples’ studio where he started using red earthenware clay in earnest. He credits Naples with both boosting his confidence and helping further his technical skills. To this day, Uliano continues to work with earthenware, using the same slip from Naples’ studio, almost as a tribute to the influence she has had on him.

He had been a fan of Speedball underglazes when he met a representative from the company at the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts (NCECA) conference in 2014. They’ve been a sponsor of his ever since, sending him products over the years to support his creative process. To achieve his surfaces, Uliano applies Speedball underglazes over the white slip, outlines his images with an Amaco Velvet black underglaze, then scratches through the layers with an etching needle to reveal some of the red clay. He glaze fires with Laguna’s Clear Cone 1 Glaze, and sometimes does a second luster glaze firing.

These days, Uliano prefers not to earn a living solely by selling his work. He wants to make what compels him rather than spend his days meeting the demands of the marketplace. Admittedly, he realizes this might not make the most sense in terms of gaining commercial success. Galleries tend to want a cohesive, recognizable body of work from the artists they represent, and he’s certainly risen to the occasion to meet those expectations in the past. His narrative cups sell well and he knows he can turn to those when the need arises. Yet ultimately, his interests go beyond the format of a narrative functional vessel.

Embracing Discomfort

Uliano admits he’s not as compelled or driven as when he was younger, and the mental and emotional demands of teaching sometimes make it difficult to sustain the energy needed for his own work. He’s okay with this though. Even when he’s on a hiatus from working with clay, he’s doing something with his hands—building furniture, learning to sew, working on car engines. He admits that if he’s not “in the scene,” he can stay away from clay longer than he’d like. Feeling connected to other ceramic artists helps push him back to the studio. He likens it to exercise: we know it’s good for us, but we sometimes have to talk ourselves into it. Setting deadlines, having some outside pressure, or feelings of “guilt over not being a good artist,” motivate him to get back to work. Ironically, it’s when he’s not in a making cycle that he often feels at his best. And when things aren’t going well, he knows he’s not far from getting back to the studio. It’s the hard stuff, the brutal stuff, what’s ugly, that continues to motivate him. He still struggles with the urge to get all his ideas out at once and worries whether his work seems cohesive, “If someone looks you up online, what do they see? Hopefully some kind of evolution will be apparent.” Navigating the desire to stay in a creative state of flux while being aware of his presence in the art world is tricky business. The idea of a production line lacks appeal since repeating a successful form doesn’t interest him. A plate of his with a gold luster drip garnered a lot of attention after appearing in Ceramics Monthly’s Emerging Artist feature in the May 2015 issue. When a few commercial galleries and designers contacted him about selling the work and asked him to make more, he rejected the idea, having moved on from that work after achieving what he was going for. The idea of going back and mass producing it seemed absurd. The gestural swipe of gold on that ragged earthenware form feels unexpected, perhaps reflective of both feeling lost between the world of academics and his blue-collar upbringing, and his place in the art world. “In many ways, I’m a ditch digger dirtbag with a gold swipe of two degrees on him.”

Bowl, 22 in. (56 cm) in diameter, wheel-thrown earthenware, slip, underglaze, glaze, fired to cone 1 in an electric kiln, luster, 2015.

Insecurity continues to serve Uliano creatively and a “compulsion with boredom” keeps him curious about himself and the world. A quote from the book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryū Suzuki reads, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.” While the goal of many artists may be to strive to reach a state of mastery or expertise, for Uliano, this feels like a trap. He believes art is about innovating, and certainty has no place in that arena. Discomfort is necessary for possibility to exist, so why not embrace it? When asked how being a teacher affects his work, he says he hopes that he’ll continue to make work that is worthy of his students. Uliano hopes to draw back the curtain a bit in being upfront about his career, recalling that when he was younger, he didn’t hear enough of those voices. “When we see ourselves as experts, we become more interested in protecting that status than in growing.” He’s fine if you think his work is disjointed or unpolished, and he rejects the impulse to appear as though he has it all figured out. “That separates people. I want to connect with those who feel like I do. ”

the author Susan McHenry is a studio potter, writer, and educator based in Kalamazoo, Michigan. To learn more, visit www.emptyvesselpottery.com.

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