In his essay, “The Symmetrical Universe,” American physicist Alan Lightman explores why human beings are drawn to symmetry. According to Lightman, “symmetry represents order, and we crave order in this strange universe.” Examples of symmetry in nature are all around us. Consider the mirror image of a butterfly’s wings or the precise uniformity found in each point on a snowflake. Lightman considers why bees build hives comprised of hexagons rather than more organic shapes, noting that economy is the driving force behind the shape. Hexagons lie flat against each other leaving no gaps, allowing the bees to work in a more orderly and efficient manner. It’s this same sense of economy that drives Andy Bissonnette as he creates the intricately ordered patterns on his blackware raku ceramic vessels.
A Gift for Design
Though he took ceramics all four quarters in his senior year of high school, Bissonnette never saw himself becoming a potter. Ceramics was fun, but he wanted to work in a field where he could earn a decent living. When his ceramics teacher encouraged him to pursue ceramics in college, he responded, “Why should I go to school to become a potter?” Having recently begun his MFA studies at University of Nebraska-Lincoln, he now sees the irony in this.
Bissonnette first started making his signature blackware raku pots when he took an elective ceramics class as an undergraduate student at Minnesota State University Moorhead. He briefly considered a ceramics emphasis, but graduating with a degree that would put him on a clear career path drove his decision to major in graphic design, which still gave him an outlet for creative expression. He describes himself as being average in design, but excelling in Adobe Creative Suite. Knowing how to implement design concepts came easily to him.
He recalls the day his ceramics professor, Brad Bachmeier, brought in one of his own pots to show the class. Bissonnette had never seen what he refers to as a fine-art piece of pottery, and he knew then that was the kind of work he wanted to make. He initially replicated some of Bachmeier’s pots before finding his own voice. It was Bachmeier who encouraged Bissonnette to bring his gift for design into his clay work. He enjoyed making patterns, so why not incorporate those patterns on the pots? Eventually, the same principles of design utilized in his graphic design work—emphasis, hierarchy, pattern, repetition, and proportion—found their way onto his ceramic vessels.
After graduating in 2008, Bissonnette went on to work for 10 years as a production designer with an advertising agency in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He likens the job to that of a production potter who makes someone else’s work. He would take the graphic designer’s concepts and turn them into physical products, serving as a middle man for the designer and the printing vendor. Though he was good at it, he didn’t love his job. Ceramics kept beckoning him. In 2012, after a hiatus from making pots, he became a member at Fired Up Studios, a community pottery studio in Golden Valley, Minnesota. It wasn’t long before he found himself becoming more passionate about clay and less passionate about graphic design. He didn’t enjoy going to work, and didn’t think he could continue in a life-long career in advertising.
Bissonnette began to consider graduate school in 2015, despite not having a good portfolio. Still, he applied to the University of Minnesota, not realizing how competitive it would be. When his application was not accepted, he put the idea of graduate school on the back burner. In 2018, he grew more serious about it—submitting to more juried shows to build up his resume, and focusing on making portfolio-level work. He knew he wanted to attend the University of Nebraska-Lincoln so he could study with Margaret Bohls, Eddie Dominguez, and Pete Pinnell. He was accepted and began his studies in the fall of 2020. With no technical background in ceramics, Bissonnette is eager to learn about things like glaze chemistry and how to fire gas kilns, knowing these skills will also serve him well as a teacher. Though his current body of work has garnered him a lot of recent attention, including a 2020 Emerging Artist Award from Ceramics Monthly, he says he’s willing to step away from that work for the next 3 years so he can use the time to experiment, explore, and grow.
Precision Through Making
In making his work, Bissonnette says that starting with a strong form is of the utmost importance. Since symmetry has been so pivotal to his forms, all of Bissonnette’s pots are thrown on the potter’s wheel. Throwing is what initially drew him to pottery, and it remains a fulfilling part of his process. Precision is also key when it comes to conceiving his carving patterns. He first creates a grid on the computer that allows him to map out designs. His Shimpo banding wheel has three divided sections, which he splits up further into six sections. He then divides the radial grids he’s made on the computer into even more sections, ranging from 6–30, depending on the scale of the piece. He visually eyeballs the pattern and uses the banding wheel divisions as a guide. Using a flexible ruler that is 2–3 mm thick, he connects the lines on the grid, creating repetitive patterns. His carving tool has a sleeve that holds the carving loop. A joint between the sleeve and wire stylus catches on the ruler, creating a natural gauge for a consistent depth of carving. The line quality he’s going for is very precise. “I hate to say I’m a perfectionist, but I think I am.” If he were to carve freehand, there would be a varied depth to the carved lines that would change the visual width of the line and create a distraction.
One might assume the uncarved areas would be considered negative or white space, but Bissonnette considers the carved areas of his pots as such. “Negative space can be interesting too,” he says. These carved areas incorporate the design principle of hierarchy, and are intended as a place for the eye to rest before traveling around the remainder of the pot. Bissonnette refers to it as “breathing room.” In making these considerations, he’s thinking about the person viewing the pot, much as he would think about the viewer when he was a graphic designer. Imagine how difficult it would be to read something if there were no margins on a page—if the type went from edge to edge. The white or negative space is essential so the text doesn’t overwhelm.
Bissonnette admits that color has always been a challenge for him. He recalls early on using three different colors on one raku pot with the end result looking like a hot-air balloon. This made him think, “What if I just made it all black?” He tested a small vessel with no carving, but wasn’t happy with the results. Then one day he just started carving. He hoped to see a contrast between the carved and uncarved areas and began to consider how he could achieve this in the raku firing. Applying terra sigillata to the uncarved areas allowed for even more contrast. Once he saw the end result, he knew that would be his focus. It finally felt right.
While raku has been around since the 16th century in Japan, when we refer to raku in the US, we are generally talking about American or Western raku. Japanese raku refers to red ware, which is low fired and cooled in the open air, or black ware, which is high fired. Colors on the surfaces are achieved from metals in the glazes, not from the use of combustibles or smoking, as in the American tradition.1 In American raku, pots are low fired, removed from the kiln at bright-red heat, and then immediately placed in containers with combustible materials like sawdust or newsprint. These combustibles create a post-firing reduction atmosphere, blackening the clay and promoting crazing on the glazed surfaces. Because the tea ceremony was never part of the American raku tradition, more variety of forms and shapes are fired than the traditional teabowls seen in Japanese raku.
While technically American raku, Bissonnette avoids the flashy or metallic glazes often associated with this firing method. He focuses instead on the atmospheric effects derived as the pots cool. Generally, in American raku firing, the goal is to not have sawdust or newspaper touch the surface of the pots during the reduction phase of the firing. In most cases, a softbrick will be laid inside the reduction bin and the pot will be set on the brick so the combustible material won’t touch the vessel. But Bissonnette wants to encourage the combustible material to interact with the piece, so he hollows out a hole in the sawdust where he then sets the pot. Typically, the top third of his pots are carved while the remaining two-thirds are left smooth. These uncarved sections are brushed with terra sigillata, allowing for more contrast between the smooth and carved areas. When the sawdust touches the uncarved areas, the result is a metallic silver/bronze effect that Bissonnette wants to encourage. Because so much of his work is tight and symmetrical—from the throwing, to the trimming, to the carving—he wants post-reduction surprises like this to add a quality of spontaneity to his work. This allows space for creative dissonance in the final outcome—something unexpected and uncontrolled—an intentional break from the predicted order and symmetry that mark the pots up to the firing.
Bissonnette admits he’s often disappointed that raku does not get the same respect or credibility that wood-fired or high-fired pottery does. For this reason, he sometimes hesitates to identify himself as a raku potter. On more than one occasion, people have said to him, “I hate raku pottery,” and some who’ve never seen his work react negatively when he tells them he raku fires.
The craft side of ceramics says that pots should function, and because raku pots aren’t utilitarian, they can be looked down upon. “Pottery has often straddled the line between craft and fine art, and I think the work I’m making continues to blur that line. Whether you’re turning on one of my lamps as you sit down to read a book, or are simply pausing to look at a piece you pass by after a stressful day, I want the work to instill a sense of comfort and beauty that is often overlooked in our chaotic lives.” Bissonnette enjoys making work that can stand on its own, where someone doesn’t have to put something in it to complete it. He hopes to redefine function as allowing the beauty of symmetry and order we all seek into our homes and our lives.
Note: 1. From an address by Paul Solder given to the International Ceramics Symposium on The Americanization of Raku, Everson Museum, Syracuse, New York. Text of the speech was published as “The American Way of Raku,” Ceramic Review, vol. 124, July-August,1990, pp. 8-11.
Monthly Methods: Depth of Surface
Andy Bissonnette often turns to his sketchbook for inspiration in creating the detailed patterns on his signature raku blackware vessels (1). Using Adobe Illustrator, he first designs a radial grid. To ensure the pattern will be seamless and symmetrical, he works with even-numbered sections. Though the same results could be achieved on graph paper, Bissonnette’s background as a graphic designer makes using Adobe Illustrator faster and more efficient. Once the pattern is complete, he prints it out and adds it to his sketchbook.
After trimming, he taps the leather-hard pot until it is centered on the wheel. Some moisture needs to remain in the piece so it will stay securely in place. Before making any marks, he gets the wheel going at the same speed he would use for throwing or trimming. Preferring the look of a rounded edge over a straight edge, Bissonnette used a Dremel tool to create a semicircular cutout on one end of a flexible metal ruler. He pushes this rounded edge into the clay to create a beaded line (2), delineating the top of the form from the body. This detail also allows for some breathing space in the finished piece, giving the eye a place to rest in between the carved sections.
Using a Kemper WS stylus tool, he carves a few lines on the top and side of the form. These lines help demarcate the areas for more detailed carving later (3). Bissonnette’s wife, Grace, an optometrist, gave him an Amcon flexible ruler used for measuring eyeglasses. This tool has become an invaluable part of his carving ritual, as the thickness of the ruler allows the carving stylus to rest on its edge. This enables Bissonnette to achieve an exact uniform depth in all his carved lines.
He then moves the pot to a banding wheel at his work table. All Shimpo banding wheels are made with three dividing lines, but Bissonnette has further divided those sections to create a total of six dividers. Using the dividing lines and flexible ruler as guides, he marks the pot into six sections with a needle tool (4).
Since he will continue the pattern on the side of the form, he follows those same guides in making the marks on the upper third portion of the pot (5).
Rather than carving in just one direction, Bissonnette is interested in creating multiple sections where the carved lines can vary their direction (6). This results in more depth of surface, and any light that hits the finished piece will bounce off the form in interesting ways.
He then carves the remainder of the lines on the top of the form, varying the line direction from section to section (7, 8). When the top is completed, he begins the same process on the upper third side of the pot. The carving on the side of the pot mirrors the same carved pattern on the top of the form.
Once the carving is complete, he brushes away any burs of clay that remain on the piece (9). Before bisque firing, Bissonnette applies terra sigillata to any uncarved areas at the bone-dry stage. The pieces are bisque fired, then raku fired to cone 06, followed by post-firing reduction. The resulting surface shows the contrast between the carved areas and those with applied terra sigillata.
the author Susan McHenry is a studio potter, writer, and educator based in Kalamazoo, Michigan. She has an MFA in writing and literature from Bennington College. To learn more, visit www.emptyvesselpottery.com.