1 Consequences, 6 ft. (1.8 m) in length, ceramic and wood.

I’ve had two major career switches in my life, both leading me to and then eventually back to clay. 

The Bronze Age

After graduating from the College of Fine Arts at Boston University in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1990 with a degree in sculpture, I decided to get a job in a bronze foundry to learn the casting process, so that eventually I would be able to cast my own sculpture in bronze. The idea of focusing on casting my own sculpture didn’t exactly work out, and I ended up owning my own foundry and casting other people’s work for close to 15 years. The work I did get done was modeled in clay, then cast in bronze and would be that way for years. Clay, at this point, was nothing more than a material we used to produce the original sculptures, which were then cast in bronze. The original was discarded and the clay we used was always stored in some filthy container and usually had plaster chunks and bronze dust mixed in. 

2 Albert, 3 ft. 6 in. (1 m) in height, ceramic.

In the early 2000s, I moved my foundry to the Armory Art Center in West Palm Beach, Florida. I ran the sculpture department, which included the foundry, and I eventually took over the ceramics department. I developed the artist-in-residence program, which at the time consisted mainly of ceramic artists, many of whom would play a big part in my shift to ceramics. At this point, I was still casting my work in bronze, but had the chance to participate in one of the Armory’s large fundraisers. I created my first handbuilt clay sculpture, a Mad Hatter teapot, which was purchased by the Sonny Kamm Teapot Museum. The experience of creating that teapot was enough for me to stop casting in bronze and turn exclusively to handbuilt clay sculpture. The clay itself was no longer just a material used in the casting process, it now had meaning; it was the beginning of an entirely new career for me. 

Clay is the Way!

I had traded the hot, sometimes dangerous world of the bronze foundry for the unknown of this new ceramic medium that I knew little about. As a bronze sculptor, my work was usually created in clay, then a mold was created, and from that mold a limited-edition series of that particular piece was pulled. The series would generally run around 25 pieces, plus artist proofs. This all meant that I had the chance to make mistakes in the casting process. If I lost a piece during the process, I could pull another wax model from the mold and replace it. The final bronze sculpture had gone through so many steps since it was first sculpted, but it was merely a copy of the original clay object. The idea of working on unique, one-of-a-kind pieces and not having the luxury of multiple castings was the first big obstacle I had to overcome when I began to work in clay exclusively.

3 Selfie, 18 in. (46 cm) in height, ceramic.

The idea of working on a single clay piece for weeks at a time and then entrusting it to the kiln gods was at first insane to me, but eventually it changed the way I looked at my work and how I produced it. While every piece was and is important to me, I realized that I couldn’t be as attached to them as I was when I was casting in bronze. I learned to sculpt at a quicker pace, giving me more time to hollow the sculpture and then put it back together in a way that gave it the best chance to survive the firing. Everything was new to me, I had to learn about the different clay types, glaze formulations, firing temperatures, and so much more, but I was fascinated by it all, and I was hooked.

4 Head Stack, 24 in. (61 cm) in height, ceramic.

In 2012, a friend suggested I apply for a summer residency at The Archie Bray Foundation for the Ceramic Arts in Helena, Montana. While I had been running the residency program at the Armory for years, I never had the chance to attend a residency myself. To my surprise, I was accepted and spent that summer at the Bray in Montana. That experience had such a profound impact on me, and solidified my love and commitment to ceramics. I knew it was time to leave the administrative work behind and devote my life to being an artist. Little did I know how quickly that would change; another career switch was coming.

The Museum Years

In 2014, I had the opportunity to return to Helena to open Studio 740 with a few ceramics friends. Within a year, I was offered a two-year residency at the Bray, which I quickly accepted. At the same time, I was teaching teen classes at The Holter Museum of Art in Helena.
A mid-sized contemporary art museum in the foothills of the Rockies in a town of 65,000, the Holter had entered into a period of uncertainty and began to struggle, like so many museums around the world. With over 20 years of non-profit experience, the museum asked if I would consider stepping in as executive director, which I agreed to do.

I found myself as a full-time resident artist at the Bray as well as executive director of the museum, having no idea how I was going to be successful in both roles. With limited time in the studio, I began to work in a much looser style, which is still with me today. I finished my residency and began to devote my time entirely to the museum. I had no studio space, and it was almost impossible for me to turn off my museum brain to focus on my work, so I made no new work for years; my clay career was put on hold.

5 Tips, 18 in. (46 cm) in height, ceramic. 6 Kickstand, 20 in. (51 cm) in height, ceramic. 7 Veronica, 24 in. (61 cm) in height, bronze. 8 Clay study, 12 in. (30 cm) in height, unfired clay.

The stress of running a non-profit museum in normal times isn’t easy, running one during a global pandemic was nearly impossible. It wasn’t until 6 months ago that I realized how much it had affected my health and wellness. The only time I can turn off the pressures of the outside world is when I am sculpting. While I am extremely proud of what we were able to accomplish at the museum, I knew my days in the non-profit world were over and it was time to return to what I love most…clay.

9 Our Lady of G, 38 in. (97 cm) in height, ceramic.

I recently announced my departure from the museum, and I moved on in mid-October. I hope to spend the entire next year focused on my clay work. I’ve had a crazy path to ceramics and learned so much from all of the resident artists I have met over the years. The ceramics community took me in and gave me the support and knowledge I needed to now be able to call myself a ceramic artist.

To learn more, visit http://chrisriccardo.com.