The audio file for this article was produced by the Ceramic Arts Network staff and not read by the author.

Girls, 14 in. (36 cm) in height, stoneware, fired to cone 6 in oxidation.

A living line is an evolving compendium of moods. Here, toothed and determined, it cleaves like a crack through the resistance of a concrete sidewalk. There, more speculative, more explorative, it scratches tentatively along the roofline and window frames of an urban apartment complex, sometimes breaking into remnants on the edge of depletion, sometimes momentarily vanishing altogether like seepage into sand. And here, in its most extroverted rapport with the eye, as it sketches the contours of a youthful body in the motion of play, line takes a nostalgic turn that is not so much an expression of emotion in the moment as a distillation of emotional aspects of memory into the signature of a hand attuned to a reminiscing mind. 

The Potential of Line 

As Michelle Ettrick’s wiry line wanders over the walls of vessels and the faces of plates, and across the spectrum between cautious reserve and unrestrained lyricism, it exceeds its capacity to ornament surfaces, illustrate figures, or even express emotional states. It becomes a personal signifier, a deliberate indicator that her art is immersed in life, specifically her life. Every element of her compositions is a passage of autobiography, of the doubts and perseverance, the setbacks and the surges forward that have defined her experience. “I had a very heavy childhood,” she explains, “but I wanted to draw things that pertain to me. If I have an interest, a connection to memory, the line flows a little better. But, I’ve always had issues with remembering some parts of my childhood.” 

1 Tough, 5 in. (13 cm) in width, stoneware, fired to cone 6 in oxidation. Photo: Charlie Cummmings Gallery. 2 I Matter, 6 in. (15 cm) in height, stoneware, fired to cone 6 in oxidation. Photo: Charlie Cummmings Gallery.

Appropriately, Ettrick’s line is imperfect, variable, and unpredictable: not the consistent, universally defined line of geometry, but rather a unique, living line with decisions to make and stories to tell. Currently an adjunct professor of visual arts at Penn State Altoona, Ettrick acquired many stories while following a longer and less-traveled path to academia than most: one leading from a childhood in Panama to adolescence in New York in the 1980s, twice through periods of homelessness in Florida, beyond a fortuitous change of majors from business to art at the College of Central Florida, into the BFA program at the University of Florida, and finally, after she was already well into her forties, to Penn State’s MFA program in ceramics. But art feeds on experience and prospers from uniqueness. Once Ettrick realized that the trove of stories she had acquired simply by living them could be tapped for the content of her art, she experienced a wave of inspiration that continues to propel her in the exploration of imagery, series, and above all the potential of line as an expressive device. 

Engagement Through a Laundry Line 

While the images in Ettrick’s works are only vignettes—glimpses of autobiography that hover between self-portraits and decorative motifs—behind them lie memories that are deeply personal and crystal clear. In evidence of a buoyant personality despite past adversity, she has largely drawn on memories with positive associations, such as, for example, those of roller skating in New York or the even earlier recollections of Panama that gave rise to her Laundry series. “I was the oldest student in my programs at Florida and Penn State,” Ettrick recalls, “and I would say, ‘You guys have no idea.’ I would talk about when I was little, back in Central America, and my mom used to have to wash clothes outside in a cement tub with a washboard. I drew a laundry line, and later I just started adding those to cups, remembering when my mom used to yell at us for running through the laundry. To us it was just fun: little kids and my mom doing her laundry.” 

3 Afro Latina, 5 in. (13 cm) in height, stoneware, fired to cone 6 in oxidation. Photo: Charlie Cummmings Gallery. 4 Self Love, 10 in. (26 cm) in width, stoneware, fired to cone 6 in oxidation. Photo: Companion Gallery.

Autobiography condensed into a laundry line, especially one restricted to the walls of a ceramic cup, must of necessity dispense with most details, both narrative and visual. For Ettrick, the most important formal consequence of gravitation toward the abstract side of representation was an unpretentious directness of line that conjured the childlike purity of vision pursued by such exponents of instinctive drawing as Paul Klee, Corneille, and Jean Dubuffet. At their best, the lines of the Laundry series appear effortless, intuitive, and resistance free. They convey the genial simplicity so naturally associated with childhood, and, more important, the nostalgia for it. Through engagement of that quality, the Laundry series cups passed from serving as sites of personal reflection to acquiring more universal relevance. “They connected with a lot of people,” Ettrick recalls. “They would say, ‘That reminds me of my grandma,’ or, ‘That reminds me of our laundry drying in the sun.’ People were having a lot of memories, and I just kept going with them.” 

Social Inequality and Line 

In the Laundry series, thin washes of color often relegated line to the role of boundary for shapes in the representation of figures and articles of clothing, but in the series Natural Hair, Ettrick’s line has taken center stage. Color in the compositions has been reserved for accents or often abandoned altogether for the high contrast of black lines on white or cream backgrounds. Her line has also acquired a greater formal range, sometimes inching its way across open expanses like a cross-country skier leaving a long, thin track in a virgin bed of snow, sometimes occurring as short dashes, nearly dots, densely arranged in open forms like sponged applications of slip, and sometimes drawn in parallel and overlapping arabesques that meander outward like myriad vines of a hanging plant. The impetus for the greater variety of lines was the subject matter of the series and the focal point of each composition: hair, women’s hair, abundant, assertive, and uncompromising. 

The imagery of the Natural Hair series, begun in 2017, originated in memories of women that Ettrick had met six years earlier while residing at a homeless shelter and beginning studies toward an associate degree at the College of Central Florida. She found the differences in their hairstyles intriguing and later reflected on the social regulation of hair and its not-so-subtle connections to social inequality. “I’m Afro-Latina,” she explains, “so I have soft hair, but there was this whole thing. We used to chemically straighten our hair with relaxers because straight was the right thing. There were women of color who couldn’t go to work, or were being turned down for jobs, or were asked not to wear their hair like that, but it’s our natural hair. So, the series speaks to women to just be themselves. You don’t need to be what somebody else is telling you to be.” 

5 Afro Skater, 11 in. (28 cm) in width, stoneware, fired to cone 6 in oxidation. Photo: Companion Gallery. 6 Super, 5 in. (13 cm) in height, stoneware, fired to cone 6 in oxidation. Photo: Charlie Cummmings Gallery.

While that could be a message to anyone, in the first instance it is Ettrick’s advice to herself. Instructive on this point is a hand-modeled plate from the series on which bubbles (a personal symbol of optimism) stream like strands of a bead curtain behind a woman with hoop earrings and a large Afro hairstyle. Embedded in her hair are brightly colored words that in their ragged style reference messages in graffiti. “When I was in New York growing up,” Ettrick explains, “graffiti was a thing. I was drawing graffiti and bubble letters. The words in the hair describe the woman, kind of like how I feel. Love, happy, hope, sexy, Black: all these things that describe me or what a woman of color would feel she is. I hope they feel that. It says dope; I hope they feel dope. I hope they feel happy. I hope they feel like queens.” 

Expressing Oneself 

Empowerment is a recurring theme in Ettrick’s work, but she is quick to assert that her intention in exploring it is autobiographical rather than political, a distinction easy to overlook in a culture that is race conscious and has made race a partisan issue. The works of her Power Fist series are especially vulnerable to categorical interpretation. “But I don’t consider myself a very political person,” she relates, “When I was an undergrad I made a sculpture of a fist. To me that fist was about fighting for my life: trying to get out of my home, trying to make everything better for my kids. I used to do boxing, too, so that fist was all about fighting to get what you need, fighting to survive, fighting to have food on the table, fighting to have a roof over your head. The image is really about me. It’s always about how I feel about things.” 

7 Bubbles, 5 in. (13 cm) in height, stoneware, fired to cone 6 in oxidation. Photo: Charlie Cummmings Gallery. 8 Double Dutch, 11 in. (27 cm) in width, stoneware, fired to cone 6 in oxidation. Photo: Charlie Cummmings Gallery.

That, of course, has been the essence of tendentiously expressive art since the late nineteenth century. Like the early modernists who made it a principle in their work, Ettrick withholds specifics of the storyline, the particulars of her biography, to express the emotional aspects of stories through form, the drawn line, which by absorbing that affective energy be-comes the living line ubiquitous in her work. “Almost everything that I make a drawing of is something that I experienced in some way,” she says. “It’s something that affects me or comes from me, but I don’t put the story out there. In my head, the story is there, and I just make the piece.” 

the author Glen R. Brown is a professor of art history at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas.