Seth Charles wants you to look closer. At first glance, his wood-fired sculptures might remind you of an eroded rock formation or the carved arch of a cliff. With his largest works ranging from just 18 inches to his smallest at 4 inches, Charles hopes the intimate scale of his work will invite a closer view. He believes that the more we observe nature, the more we’re reminded that we’re connected to—not separate from—the natural world. Though it’s easy to identify with the obvious beauty of a majestic landscape, Charles is more interested in finding beauty in things that are a little more elusive, more subdued, things you have to reflect on and spend time with to appreciate. Imagine the first bud of a plant emerging from the snow. For Charles, “that subtleness, that quietness, is arguably more beautiful than the most scenic landscape.” It’s this same subtle quietness that he hopes to convey in his work.
Unearthing a Sense of Place
When he applied to graduate school, Charles had participated in just one wood firing. As an undergraduate at the University of North Florida, he was invited to take part in an anagama firing. Intrigued by the surfaces, Charles got the bug for wood firing after that. He loved everything about the process—the hard work, wood preparation, wadding pots, and careful loading. In applying to graduate school, finding a program that offered wood firing felt essential. When he was accepted at Central Washington University in Ellensburg, Washington, students were told they would be firing an iron-bearing clay to cone 8 with a reduction cooling. Firing this way in a train-style wood kiln was so different from his anagama experience where the pots were fired to cone 10–11 and tended to have shinier surfaces. Though Charles was initially hesitant, after researching train kilns and reduction cooling, he grew excited by the possibilities.
In reduction cooling, once the kiln is at peak temperature (in this case, cone 8), it gets sealed up, with the exception of a few 2-inch square openings where small pieces of wood and lump charcoal can be stoked. The main damper is sealed off, while a passive damper in the chimney is opened. The goal is to starve the kiln of oxygen. Small, infrequent stokes to add charcoal or wood allow carbon to be introduced into the kiln. With very little oxygen left in the kiln, it then gets pulled from the iron in the clay. As the fuel burns, the temperature in the kiln decreases. Stoking continues at spaced-out intervals until the kiln reaches the desired temperature (the sweet spot for Charles is 1550°F (843°C)). The lower the cooling temperature is prior to completing reduction, the darker the colors of the pots. The process of cooling in this way produces a wide spectrum of iron colors that can’t be achieved in other atmospheres.
Unloading that kiln for the first time, Charles immediately saw a connection between the surfaces of his work and the larger landscape around him. The earthy red flashing from the path of the flame and weathered appearance from ash deposits mirrored Central Washington’s terrain with fewer trees, more rocks, and rich earth tones. This awareness led Charles to want to create work that spoke to a sense of place, work that felt specific for that particular wood kiln and way of firing. Here began his gradual move from functional to sculptural work.
The Beauty of Imperfection
Technical proficiency and uniformity initially felt satisfying when Charles began working with clay. Yet once he began researching historical ceramics, he felt drawn to 15th- and 16th-century Korean and Japanese pots that were more irregularly formed, revealing a sense of vitality and gesture. Wabi-sabi, a traditional Japanese worldview that suggests that beauty exists because of—not in spite of—imperfection, began to influence his work. The wabi-sabi aesthetic celebrates asymmetry, roughness, and a reverence for natural materials and processes. Subscribing to the concept as a way of life, Charles believes that human beings are innately drawn to objects that aren’t refined. Yet in Western cultures, we interact with so much refinement in our daily lives. Take the smartphone, for example. It’s the epitome of slickness, yet the object is essentially lifeless. While beauty could be found in this object if considered a sculpture of sorts, its perfection doesn’t speak to Charles.
He regards nature as both his mentor and co-creator. With this in mind, it’s easy to find geological references in his works, which are reminiscent of rock fissures, eroding wood, or a dry lake bed. In considering objects from the natural world—with their chips, craters, and variegated surfaces—Charles found ways to mimic those geologic actions in his sculptures. The works begin as solid blocks of clay that get carved and altered. He uses clay that has not been run through a pugmill since it’s less compressed than pugged clay, allowing for more air, or what Charles calls breath, in the finished forms. Though the visible effects of erosion in nature might take thousands of years to form, Charles found he could create similar effects by taking a blowtorch to the outside of the work, sintering the surface until sections would crack or break off. Or he’d position a hose above a piece and, over the course of 1–2 days, allow water to drip down its side at intervals of 30 minutes to 1 hour, collecting the runoff water for reuse. The resulting forms look warped, cracked, or wrinkled by the sun, wind, or rain. The wood kiln is the final voice that adds dimension to his compositions, producing richly diverse surfaces from the path of the flame and built up layers of wood ash.
For a while, he experimented on a larger scale, thinking that more surface would allow for more expression. But in the end, that scale shift compromised something essential and the resulting sculptures didn’t feel as approachable as his smaller pieces. Charles has always been interested in how the inner and outer worlds converge. Though most of us can agree that a place like the Grand Canyon holds an unsurpassed beauty, its vastness can feel overwhelming. Creating pieces smaller in scale can impact people on a quieter level, says Charles. It’s a different kind of invitation, “more in here than out there.”
A Change in Work and Life
In late 2019, Charles moved to North Carolina to take the position as Director of Ceramics at the Sawtooth School for Visual Art, a non-profit, community-based art school in downtown Winston-Salem. Having spent several years living in different cities for artist residences, Charles felt ready to set down roots. After years of teaching in academia at Central Washington University and State College of Florida, returning to community-based education began to appeal to him. From his previous community-based experience at Atlantic Pottery Supply in Florida, he noticed that students seemed more engaged than many at the college level, and he felt eager to reconnect with those students.
Charles has aspirations for guiding the program at Sawtooth in a new direction, and that’s been feeding him creatively. Future goals include a collaboration with Salem College where students can come to Sawtooth to supplement their ceramics studies. He’d like to see Sawtooth’s older student population and younger college students benefit from being in close proximity to each other. With the cities of Seagrove and Asheville close by, both possessing rich ceramics histories, Charles also sees great potential for a future residency program.
Charles’ partner, ceramic artist Amanda Bury, currently lives in Kansas City where she’s doing a residency. The two met at Central Washington University where they discovered a shared passion for wood firing and kiln building. From there, they went on to offer kiln-building services to other potters and educational institutions. For now, the couple maintains a long-distance relationship with the hopes of setting down roots in one place in the near future. Once they do, they plan to build a moderate-sized kiln on their property, one they can fill and fire together every few months—a small train kiln for him and a small cross-draft soda kiln for Amanda, with one shared chimney to minimize their footprint.
Shaped by Experience
Because his sculptural work was so heavily influenced by a sense of place in Washington state, Charles felt ready to leave that behind when he moved to North Carolina. After focusing solely on sculpture for the past four years, he felt like he had answered all the questions he’d been asking of himself. When Charles accepted the position at Sawtooth, not having access to his own wood kiln where he could control the firings did not feel like a hindrance. He felt ready for a change and was missing the interaction that happens around functional pottery—the conversation between maker and user. Right now, he feels called to explore objects meant to be held in the hand and engaged with in a way that’s different from his sculptural forms.
Exploring new surfaces without relying on the wood kiln feels exciting to Charles, and returning to the potters’ wheel and functional forms has been a welcome challenge. He uses a kick wheel, allowing for more gesture and movement in his pots than a motorized wheel, and enabling a slower pace and more direct engagement with the clay. It allows him to put more of himself into his pots, quieting the voice of the tool he’s using to make it. More and more, Charles realizes that the work he’s making comes from his soul and the energy he’s putting into it, rather than his mind dictating how it should be.
And a sense of place is finding its way into his work once again. He’s been digging his own iron-rich wild clay right in downtown Winston-Salem, where there’s an abundant supply of high-fire stoneware. He refines the clay as little as possible to allow its natural qualities to show through. The clay is quite sandy, which appeals to Charles, yet it’s plastic enough for him to throw on the wheel. Unlike his sculptures, where he tried to hide the marks from his hands or a tool, these new pots are created with utility in mind, so Charles is allowing those marks to have a voice alongside the coarse texture of the clay. He’s layering the pieces with a wild-kaolin porcelain slip, often making finger swipes through the slip to show the dark clay body underneath. Fired in reduction to cone 6–7 in a gas kiln, the pots are cooled in an oxidation atmosphere, allowing the slip to re-oxidize, resulting in white spotting on the dark clay. Charles hopes the pots’ tactile nature will invite the user into a quiet sense of engagement in a way that feels personal.
As he explores new work in a new place, Charles continues to keep the honesty of materials and process foremost in his mind. Stepping away from the familiarity of wood firing for a while may be just the impetus he needs to allow for further exploration, to create from a place of curiosity and uncertainty. In much the same way that his wood-fired sculptures were reminiscent of the processes of erosion and weathering over time, it’s clear that his new home and new body of work are shaping him.
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.