1 Bowls, mug, tumbler, and jar, red clay, colored terra sigillata, underglaze, glaze, fired in an electric kiln to cone 4.

Mark Arnold’s first exposure to clay coincided with his interest in bicycle motocross, commonly known as BMX, at around age seven. Arnold and his fellow riders would construct solid jumps out of clay found just beneath the topsoil in the woods of Arnold’s hometown on the outskirts of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Arnold considers these jumps to be functional objects in the same way that pots are. Maintaining the jumps was often an exercise in creative problem solving, a life skill that would come in handy later as a potter. He and his friends would cover the jumps with tarps to protect them from the rain, later adding concrete and carpet remnants to improve durability and assist with drainage. Riding would remain central to Arnold’s life until age 27 when he stopped riding due to a knee injury. At that turning point, he decided to go to college.

Arnold studied graphic design, printmaking, and photography at the Community College of Allegheny County, in Monroeville, Pennsylvania. But he didn’t enjoy working on computers, and photography was becoming digital, while he still preferred a manual camera. So, he focused instead on printmaking classes, where he met his future wife, Caitlin McDonald. McDonald’s dad, Brian, taught pottery classes at a place called The Crafty Shack, and Arnold recalls he and Caitlin visiting the studio on a date “just to mess around on the wheel. But I threw my first piece and it kind of worked out.” Arnold was hooked. His printmaking professor also taught ceramics, and upon learning of Arnold’s newfound interest, allowed Arnold to make use of the campus ceramics studio. He ended up taking two more clay classes there and then transferred in 2010 to Edinboro University of Pennsylvania in Edinboro, Pennsylvania, where he would earn his BFA with a concentration in ceramics.

Making the Switch to Red Clay

While at Edinboro, Arnold worked with porcelain to make pots for atmospheric wood, salt, and soda kilns. It was at this time that he began carving on his pots. “Surface seemed like an important step to consider,” he reflects. His signature color blocking began to come into focus then, but Arnold says it was more intuitive at first, and not as considered as it is today. Once he started wood firing, Arnold found many similarities between the BMX riding community and the clay community. The close reliance needed to maintain a wood kiln mirrored the same quality of community he experienced when diverse groups of people from all over the world would congregate for weeks at a time at BMX jump sites. And just as Arnold stays close to those he wood fired with, he is still in touch with his riding community. In fact, he wants to make a series of cups and donate the proceeds to help cover the cost of insuring the land they recently purchased for riding. Arnold has acquired clay from some of the most well-known riding trails and plans on turning it into terra sigillata to use on those pots.

2 Bowl, 8 in. (20 cm) in diameter,  red clay, colored terra sigillata, underglaze, glaze, fired in an electric kiln to cone 4. 3 Bowl (alternate view), 8 in. (20 cm) in diameter, red clay, colored terra sigillata, underglaze, glaze, fired in an electric kiln to cone 4.

When he entered graduate school in 2014 at Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville, Illinois, Arnold was excited to have three years to research and investigate the direction he was taking with his pots. But a back injury in his first year made it difficult to continue wood firing, so Arnold began experimenting with low-fire red earthenware. He was looking for a softer outer surface than what most glazes can offer, so he started testing various terra-sigillata recipes, finally settling on Pete Pinnell’s Lip Smacking Terra Sigillata. Arnold found the red clay to be more approachable and “not as precious” as the porcelain he was previously working with. He also noticed his work becoming looser in subtle ways that appealed to him. Arnold says the layered surfaces on his first kiln load of low-fire pots gave him everything he was trying to get out of atmospheric kilns, and he knew instantly this was the work he wanted to keep making.

Developing Abstracted Surfaces

While studying the abstract expressionists in graduate school, Arnold felt drawn to the landscape works of Richard Diebenkorn, a San Francisco–based painter and printmaker most known for his late 1960s Ocean Park series of abstract geometric landscape paintings. This series in particular inspired Arnold as he delved more deeply into his surface designs. He began screen printing bridges and scenes from his hometown, but it seemed like too much content on the pots. In Diebenkorn’s early work, objects and figures are clearly visible, but in his later Ocean Park series, the images become more abstract. Diebenkorn would crop into a scene, focusing closely on color, texture, and line. Arnold started to adopt this same approach on the surface of his pots, honing in on details like the rusted-out surface of a bridge or crumbling brick wall. These qualities are revealed in how Arnold permits his construction methods to have a voice in the finished piece—highlighting seams and textured surfaces by applying and wiping away black underglaze over the bisque-fired surfaces.

4 Mugs, to 5 in. (13 cm) in height, red clay, colored terra sigillata, underglaze, glaze, fired in an electric kiln to cone 4.

“With functional work, the focus tends to be on individual pieces,” notes Arnold. So, for his MFA thesis show, Arnold grouped the works to tell a story. If he wasn’t riding in the woods, Arnold says he would be riding in the city, taking in the landscapes, architecture, train bridges, worn-down bricks, and weathered buildings. These abstracted representations on the surfaces of cups, flower bricks, and trays, when grouped collectively, comprised the city skyline that Arnold looked out on from his childhood home. Arnold’s dad worked for Union Railroad, and Arnold says this ended up influencing his choice of clay body—a mid-range red clay he uses to this day. “The dark brown clay is reminiscent of the rusted-out train bridges my dad would drive trains across.”

Arnold was also heavily influenced by American painter Wayne Thiebaud’s cityscape paintings. The hills and inclines featured in his works were reminiscent of Pittsburgh’s rolling hills, and Arnold responded to what he described as “the flatness of the work.” This same flatness can be seen on the satiny surfaces of Arnold’s thoughtfully considered pots through his use of color blocking with terra sigillata. Carving into leather-hard clay, Arnold sets up a grid pattern that will receive various colored terra sigillatas at the bone-dry stage. He leaves select areas free of color to let the red clay have a voice.

5 Bottle set, to 14 in. (36 cm) in length, red clay, colored terra sigillata, underglaze, glaze, fired in an electric kiln to cone 4.

Embracing Handbuilding

Though he worked primarily on the wheel for many years, Arnold says he was always interested in handbuilding, remarking that “handbuilding opens the door to more possibilities.” Today, the wheel is just a tool like any other in his studio. Arnold most often uses it in lieu of a banding wheel to attach slab sections to bisque-mold parts.

Most of his current work begins with custom molds and templates. The basis for his signature mugs involves the use of a custom plaster mold for the base. Arnold says discovering the mold was a happy accident. He had made a clay press mold for a large pint glass, but hadn’t considered the shrinkage. “When it was fired, it ended up being the size of a juice glass,” he says with a laugh. Still, he tested the mold, and liked the look of the foot, so he went to the woodshop and cut off the top of the mold. This then became the prototype for the base of the mug.

Though he admits to being a perfectionist, Arnold is learning to embrace the imperfections and irregularities that can give a piece more character. For instance, when he attaches a slab to the base of his mug, the overlapping seam creates a small nub on the lip that helps break up the otherwise level surface. He likes the unintentionality of it, saying it reminds him of a busted-up sidewalk.

6 Mugs, to 5 in. (13 cm) in height, red clay, colored terra sigillata, underglaze, glaze, fired in an electric kiln to cone 4.

Arnold notes that he gets bored easily. He recalls building BMX jumps that were challenging at first, but then became easy over time. So, he’d find ways to rebuild the jumps to create more of a challenge. He finds this tendency in his clay work too, remarking, “I need to make myself feel a bit uncomfortable creatively.” So, he’ll decorate with the same patterns for a while, and when that starts to feel too familiar, he’ll switch to new patterns. He’s always been interested in exploring repetition and pattern from his BMX days and how those qualities can intersect with his work. He recently created a series of hand-carved, custom roulettes featuring abstracted tire-track marks and stitch work on bike seats. He rolls the roulettes into soft slabs that he uses to build his forms in order to add another layer of depth to his surfaces.

Life in a Small Town

Arnold and his wife accompanied each other from community college to undergraduate school, then to graduate school and to residencies at Pocosin Arts School of Fine Craft in Columbia, North Carolina. After their residencies, the couple relocated to Elizabeth City, North Carolina, for an art teaching position McDonald took at a nearby public charter school.

Just as the cityscapes from his hometown once influenced his pots, Arnold finds his current home is influencing his thoughts about surface design. Elizabeth City is located just 45 minutes from North Carolina’s Outer Banks, a cluster of barrier islands separating the Atlantic Ocean from the mainland. The pastel yellows, blues, and greens on its beach houses are now influencing Arnold’s terra-sigillata color choices.

7 Teapot, 8 in. (20 cm) in height, red clay, colored terra sigillata, underglaze, glaze, fired in an electric kiln to cone 4.

During the pandemic, Arnold worked full time for Pocosin, helping facilitate their virtual Zoom workshops. When Albemarle Sound Community College approached him last year to teach, Arnold left Pocosin so he could become more involved in his local community. Arnold says he enjoys living in this small town of just 18,000 residents, and he’s committed to finding ways to be more connected to his community. For instance, he had a sale last year and donated 50 percent of the proceeds to the local food pantry. Teaching locally allows him to be more invested in the town too. “Teaching community college is so rewarding,” Arnold reflects, though he never thought he would want to teach. It’s a full-circle moment, reminding him of his own time in community college where his interest in ceramics was first nurtured. He’s reconnecting with his roots and is excited to pass on his enthusiasm for the material. 

In addition to teaching at Albemarle, Arnold has also been teaching at Elizabeth City State University since 2020. The trade-off for a full teaching schedule is not as much time in the studio. He’s had to reduce how often he restocks his work at the galleries that represent him—Companion Gallery in Humboldt, Tennessee, and In Tandem Gallery in Bakersville, North Carolina. Just as clay became more central to his life after he stopped riding BMX, teaching has brought its own rewards, despite having less time in the studio. “Even though I’m making fewer pots,” he notes, “I’m making up for it in other ways.”

Follow Mark Arnold on Instagram @markarnold_ceramics or at markarnoldceramics.com.

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 emptyvesselpottery.com or follow on Instagram @emptyvesselpottery.

Monthly Method: Making a Textured Mug

Mark Arnold gathers the necessary tools to make his signature mug (1). He then secures a custom plaster mold to a Giffin Grip on the potter’s wheel (2), pressing small pieces of clay into the base of the mold (3). Next he drapes a thin slab of clay over the pressed pieces of clay, smooths with a damp sponge, and compresses with a rib (4). This leaves behind a textured surface on the mug’s exterior while allowing for a smooth interior. Arnold throws a bevel into the side edge of the base and scores the area (5).

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Moving to his work table, Arnold uses a tar-paper template to cut a 3/16-inch-thick, curved slab pattern for the body of the mug (see 6). He then rolls custom carved roulettes with patterns of bike-tire treads into the slab (see 7). Since the stamping process stretches the slab, Arnold uses the template to recut the slab. Using a pony roller, he bevels both sides of the slab at a 45-degree angle. He then scores and bevels the outside edge of the slab (6). He applies magic water to the scored areas, wraps the slab around a plaster cylinder for support, joins the beveled seams, then reinforces the seam with the pony roller (7). Arnold touches up any areas where the texture may have gotten erased.

5 67 8

Returning to the wheel, Arnold then attaches the slab to the base of the mug. Using a wooden rib, he compresses the interior seam where the two parts were joined (8). He then compresses the outside seam (9). Using a rubber rib, he stretches the slab, adding volume to the body of the mug. He rounds the lip of the mug using a chamois. So as not to remove any texture, Arnold torches the outside of the mug briefly, pushing the clay in slightly to define the midsection. He then compresses the interior seam line with the wooden rib. Arnold torches the outside edge of the mug to help release it from the mold. Using a damp finger, he softens the outside seam where the body of the mug and the base come together (10).

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When the pot is leather hard, Arnold makes a handle using a custom-made plaster press mold. He packs clay into the mold, compresses it with a rib, then adds a small coil before joining the two halves of the mold (11). He touches up imperfections, cuts off the seam line on the inside of the handle so it will feel smooth against the user’s fingers, and softens the outside seam line, leaving it visible (see 12).

Arnold then attaches the handle to the mug, compressing firmly (12), smoothing all seam lines with a skewer and a soft, damp brush. With a wet finger, he then shapes the interior of the handle to form a curve.

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To set up the leather-hard piece for terra-sigillata decoration at the bone-dry stage, Arnold consults his sketchbook, using abstracted patterns from bike tire treads as his inspiration. Using an MKM decorating disk, he sets up a grid pattern using even sections so he can alternate colors, marking the dividing vertical and horizontal lines using a knife and a straight edge (13–15).

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Arnold uses a custom bisque mold to dry the completed piece upside down to protect the foot ring (16). 

Once the pot is at the bone-dry stage, Arnold applies between 1–3 coats of colored terra sigillata (enough so the clay-body color disappears) to the grid pattern. He uses a red terra sigillata on any areas of exposed red clay. After bisque firing to cone 08, Arnold applies watered-down (50/50) Jet Black Amaco underglaze to the piece, wiping away the excess to highlight any textured areas. He glazes the interior with Linda Arbuckle’s Majolica Liner Glaze and fires to cone 4. Figures 17 and 18 show the finished mug, after the glaze firing.

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