Connected by Stories

Covered serving dish, 7 in. (18 cm) in height, Nova Scotia earthenware clay, fired to cone 04.

Pairing specific recipes with specific pots is a common occurrence in the kitchen. It is not as common, however, for ceramic artists to strike up a conversation with their customers about both recipes and uses for the pots they make. We learned that Jim Smith not only envisions specific recipes and food pairings for his pots right after a piece emerges from his kiln, but he also shares these with his customers on a regular basis. We were intrigued and were eager to hear how this process works, what his reasoning is, and how people respond. —Eds.    

Ceramics Monthly: When describing your work you usually mention a food recipe that would pair well with each piece. Is this something you think about as you build the pieces and as you determine the motifs you will use for surface decorations?

Jim Smith: I connect stories to my pieces. When engaging my customers, I communicate the ideas that inspired a piece, describe the process, discuss the decoration, and suggest a use, whether that be the placement in the home, a specific recipe, or a food pairing. This brings the pieces alive to the viewers. They understand where it came from and their imaginations are sparked as to how they can incorporate it into their lives.

While there is a vast and noble tradition of displaying functional ceramic pieces as art to be admired, I feel that engaging the function of a piece opens up another level of appreciation. Many of my customers are excited at the prospect of displaying my work in their homes with beauty as function, and I’m honored that they do so. Other customers crave the possibilities for enjoyment and interaction that a piece can present. By suggesting uses, recipes, or food pairings, I am opening a door to those experiences.

Once a piece emerges from the kiln, I decide what food would best complement its shape, color, or decoration. It’s a creative process, imagining the sensual possibilities, much like planning a meal itself, and communicating how I see a piece being used is an integral part of its story.

Vase with Etruscan rosettes, 20 in. (51 cm) in height, Nova Scotia earthenware clay, fired to cone 04.

CM: Do your travel experiences inform the recipes that you pair with the individual pieces?

JS: I relish experiences that combine my passions for pottery, travel, and food. As I travel, I am excited to explore regional cuisines and to learn how each culture expresses its relationship to food through the way it is served and the dishes it is served on.

My Madina Platter was informed by a recent research adventure on the Silk Road in Uzbekistan. I had the honor of being hosted for dinner in a private home where Uzbekistan’s national dish, a delicately spiced blend of lamb, rice, and vegetables, was served in a great mound and eaten from a generous communal platter. As the meal is shared, layers of nuanced decoration are revealed on the serving platter, just as the flavors of the meal itself are discovered. The generous platter, conducive to sharing, with its intertwined arabesque decoration, captured a joyful sense of life unfolding and paid homage to the spectacular ceramic traditions of Uzbekistan.

In considering the Madina Platter, I chose a strong European Baroque shape as a backdrop to the Islamic-inspired decoration in order to illustrate the cross-cultural influences inherent on the Silk Road. The wide, generous rim provides a frame of intertwined motifs, which visually enhances the presentation of food while setting a tone of joyful, celebratory sharing. I envision the Madina Platter with an herb-crusted leg of lamb served on a bed of wild rice with roasted vegetables, as an homage to Uzbekistan’s national dish.

Table centerpiece with blue tulips, 24 in. (61 cm) in length, Nova Scotia earthenware clay, fired to cone 04.

CM: What resources do you use to research stylistic developments and  motifs in historical ceramics?

JS: One of the most rewarding ways to research ceramics is to explore the great museums of the world. Visiting these collections is like journeying through the centuries. By means of trade, conflict, and migration, cultures have influenced each other, resulting in new ideas being born and new aesthetic solutions being investigated. I am happy to spend hours and days tracing and exploring stylistic developments and reading the dialog between cultures evident in historical ceramic pieces.

While on route to a residency in Italy, I stopped at the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) in London to research Italian majolica. I came across a series of 16th-century salt cellars from Urbino that sparked an exploration of how those remarkable forms celebrate the once rare and valued edible mineral whose food preservation property has been instrumental in the establishment of far flung empires. Carefully controlled, distributed, and taxed, wars have been fought over salt, revolutions sparked, and gorgeous salt cellars imagined and created.

Although my salt cellar can be appreciated on a purely aesthetic level and delighted in for its unique function, understanding the profound historical importance of salt allows another level of appreciation. Keeping in mind the Moorish influence on the 16th-century Italian majolica that sparked my research into this object, I decorated my salt cellar with Islamic references and Italian flourishes to emphasize these ubiquitous
cross-cultural influences.

Researching museum collections such as that of the V&A allows me to draw cues from historical models that serve as a framework on which to build contemporary ideas regarding function and beauty.

Salt cellar, 6 in. (15 cm) in height, Nova Scotia earthenware clay, fired to cone 04.

CM: When and why did you decide to work with earthenware clay?

JS: Early global travel experiences in my youth instilled in me a profound interest in other cultures and ways of living. Throughout these travels was woven an interest in pottery, and a curiosity in the ceramic history of other cultures.

Walter Ostrom convinced me to study with him at Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (NSCAD) and introduced me to working with earthenware clay. His knowledge of ceramic history dovetailed with my interest in the pottery of other cultures previously ignited by my travel experiences. An enthusiastic student, I found earthenware provided a versatile means for my cross-cultural exploration. The soft, sensual quality of earthenware clay, its strength and plasticity in the forming stage, the immediacy of the slipping process, and the myriad of possibilities for decoration were attributes of the material that I responded to. The rich, worldwide history and traditions of earthenware pottery provided a vast resource to explore and learn from.

Now, four decades into my career as a potter, I am still enthralled with the delicious properties of earthenware and enjoy bringing this gorgeous material to life. I am truly fortunate to be able to use a Nova Scotia earthenware—fine, strong, and malleable, it is a prince among clays, and one of the finest earthenware clays in the world. It’s a delight to breathe life into this luxurious clay, so open to any form or expression that I suggest.

Monthly Method: Forming, Decorating, and Firing a Platter

A good deal of thought goes into a piece before I even touch the clay. Sketching, drawing details, and consideration of color, design, and surface treatments are essential parts of the process. The pieces are made by handbuilding, throwing, altering, or a combination of these processes. Then, each piece is coated with a luscious slip, a liquid white clay the consistency of melted ice cream. This is done by either dipping the piece in the slip or painting it on the surface with the softest of brushes. Once this voluptuous coating has dried to the consistency of a chocolate bar, the decoration process can begin.

1 The initial design is drawn freehand and by tracing cut-out paper design elements using a soft 4B pencil on the leather-hard slip.

2 Sgraffito lines are drawn through the slip using a pointed sgraffito tool.

The designs are sketched on the surface using a soft 4B pencil so as not to leave indentations in the slip (1). I sketch either freehand or by tracing outlines of cut-out paper design elements, and then fill in the details freehand. The freehand component of this initial sketch ensures a fresh, gestural quality, even on designs that are repeated on several pieces. If corrections are needed, these soft pencil lines can be wiped away with a finger or a lightly dampened sponge. Once the sketch is in place, I carve sgraffito lines through the slip using either a pointed or looped sgraffito tool (2). Using a brush or vacuum with a brush attachment helps to remove the subsequent burrs from the piece (3). I will then paint with a fine brush any elements of the design that require a non-sgraffito line (4).

3 A brush and a vacuum with a brush attachment are used to remove the burrs created by the sgraffito process from the piece.

4 Non-sgraffito lines are painted with underglaze using a fine brush.

The sgraffito technique provides a strong outline for the next stage of the process, which involves painting numerous colors and materials, each applied with a particular effect in mind (5). Some are stiff and solid, others melt and flow. I use sulfates, stains, oxides, and commercial underglazes to achieve the various effects I am looking for in any given piece. This is a time-consuming process, informed by experience as to the correct thickness of each material applied.

The piece is then slowly dried, bisque fired, and glaze fired with a clear glaze that allows some materials to flux and flow while others remain in place. The overall effect in the finished piece is one of rich layering, of building up and drawing through, of a complex surface where all the parts relate to the whole (6). It’s a process that requires patience, taking approximately six weeks from start to finish.

5 Stains, oxides, sulfates, and underglazes are carefully painted in place.

6 Madina Platter, 19 in. (49 cm) in width, Nova Scotia earthenware clay, fired to cone 04.

Four decades of practice has taught me how to bring life to this exceptional earthenware material, as sturdy as a brick, as sensual as chocolate, and as beautiful as the finest work of art.

the author Jim Smith lives and works in Chester, Nova Scotia, Canada. To learn more, visit www.jimsmithstudio.ca or
facebook.com/jimsmithstudio.

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