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


I was invited to participate in a panel as part of the North Carolina Wood Fire Conference 2022 hosted by Starworks in Star, North Carolina. When I first heard the title of the panel, Surface, admittedly, my initial thoughts were, “Surface? How much is there to say about that?” But, as I was working in the studio, slowly considering the idea of surface, I began to realize that it is affected by every decision I make, from the clay I use and how wet or dry the clay is at each step in the process, to how I build and how I fire. . . you get the idea. Everything is visible on the surface! 

1 Lindsay Oesterritter at a recent kiln firing. Photo: Alex Olson. 2 Jabu Nala with one of her pots exhibited at Starworks during the conference. Photo: Susan Bernstein.

“The surface of a thing can be most often what we grasp first, but as you know, there is that dance between surface and form. One intrinsically embraces the other in a forever push and pull. When did the utilitarian surfaces of ceramics become the aesthetic choice? How much did this shift have to do with surface? How do the culture and/or environment in which an object is made inform the final piece? What roles do cultural propensities and expressions of self play in our understanding of how the finish also motivates the form beneath? Surface as metaphoric moment, what does that look like? What does it feel like? And to what audience does it pertain?” These are the thoughts and questions moderator Bruce Dehnert posed to Mark Hewitt, Jabu Nala, and me, the wood-fire artists that comprised the panel. 

 3 Thembi Nala with Isikhathi Sethu (Uphiso). Photo: Susan Bernstein. 4 Mark Hewitt with a couple of his finished pots.

Differing Backgrounds

Mark Hewitt was born into a familial tradition in Stoke-on-Trent, England. Both his grandfather and father were directors of Spode, the fine-china manufacturer. He apprenticed with Michael Cardew in England and Todd Piker in Connecticut, and then went on to set up his own pottery in North Carolina in 1983. Today, Hewitt has his own lineage of successful apprentices. His wares are a combination of traditional English and Southern US forms, fired in a Northern Thai–style kiln. Hewitt states, “The Northern Thai–style kiln is like a big anagama. There are lots of different parts to it that I continue to learn about. The front of the kiln produces lots of wood ash; the floor of the kiln develops ember charring and wood ash drips if you burn the embers down. I enjoy playing with a variety of Southern traditions, notably salt glaze and the Catawba Valley ash glaze, which changes when fluxed by salt. I’m also intrigued by the 19th-century South Carolina celadon tradition and have a glaze made from rocks collected near Edgefield, which looks good in the quieter parts of my kiln.” 

Jabu Nala was born in Oyaya, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. She is honored as being one of the master makers of Zulu pottery. Zulu pottery dates back to nearly 2000 years ago and Jabu has learned these techniques first by watching and learning from her grandmother, Sipiwhe Nala, and mother, Nesta Nala, both esteemed makers in their own right. Jabu started making pottery at the young age of 11 and now with 40 years of experience, continues this tradition from her home and studio in Johannesburg. She collects her own clay from two different mountains and fires her vessels in a pit. Similar to her own traditions, Jabu notes, “I was so happy to see the similar way of collecting the clay here. First, we do not work in clay, we just collect it. Next, we combine clay and water, and then start to prepare to make pot by hand wedging. It’s not until all this is done that you can start making pots by coiling.” She adds that they only use coil-building techniques, and do not use a wheel.

Then there is me, Lindsay Oesterritter. I was born in Louisville, Kentucky, and my pottery traditions were taught to me through American university settings: Transylvania University and the University of Louisville, both in Kentucky; and then Utah State University in Logan, Utah. I am the first potter in my family, and to this day I am not sure they know exactly what I do. My work is reminiscent of Scandinavian aesthetics and is fired in a train kiln with a controlled cool. Which is to say, once the kiln has reached the peak temperature, I will mud-up the kiln, shut the damper, and continue to add small amounts of fuel to create a reduced atmosphere that is also dropping in temperature. I’ve done a lot of tinkering in this area, and it’s a technique that heavily influences the forms going into the kiln and the finished surface coming out.

5 Mark Hewitt’s rectangular platter, 17 in. (43 cm) in length, high-alumina slip, wad marks, blue glass accents, wood-fired salt glaze, 2021.

Part of a Community

We were all invited to speak on the panel because of our expertise in wood firing, our differing backgrounds, and our varied aesthetic choices. However, the panel quickly turned to the ideas of what we shared and collectively contributed to by working within our traditions and communities—how being part of community influences and develops the surface further. 

Nala remarked, “I’m making ceramic pots according to the culture where I grew up. Most of the designs we use on ceramic pots come from designs on beadwork. We are interpreting those designs onto pots. The decoration on the beer pots are also various visual interpretations of a similar meaning. Decorating is my favorite part. I never copy someone else; there is no feeling then. I wake up with ideas that have come to me while I sleep [and] don’t know who’s giving me that kind of design.” 

6 Mark Hewitt’s pitcher, 13 in. (33 cm) in height, looping kaolin slip swags and ash-glazed neck, wood-fired salt glaze, 2020.

Two points that Nala articulated that have changed the way I understand my choices as a maker both revolve around the idea of community. She talked about how her ancestors are with her when she makes her pots, they are imbued in the pot. She also explained that a pot is not special until it has been used. A pot that is passed around and shared within the community is more revered than a pot that simply sits on a pedestal in a gallery. 

Hewitt added, “I came across a wonderful Zulu phrase, ‘ubuntu,’ referencing Zulu beer pots like the ones Jabu makes, in a book by Elizabeth Perrill about the communal drinking of beer. It means, ‘A person is a person because of other people,’ which plays into this idea of community. It also plays into my idea of what surface is because it’s about my understanding of the community of potters that have come before me, as well as my embrace of this moment in time with my contemporary peers. My surfaces are a summary of all these ideas and thoughts in concrete form, in a material language that’s specific to me, one that is practiced and honed . . . . A potter is a potter because of other potters.” 

7 Lindsay Oesterritter’s finished vessels in her train kiln. Photo: Alex Olson. 8 Lindsay Oesterritter’s pentagon plates, 7½ in. (19 cm) in width, iron-rich stoneware.

Capturing Moments and Intentions

I also like to think about all the intention and care that go into a pot as it progresses in the studio. This is a surface that is visible and not visible at the same time. I can feel this difference as the maker, but I like to think that the person taking the pot home and using it when they’re eating or drinking and sitting with it sees the intention as well.

The pots that we make are capturing a moment in time and place in the kiln, but it is all that we cannot directly see that finishes them. What I continue to appreciate, having participated in this panel, is that while it would have been so easy to talk technical specifics of how each individual surface is explained through the process marks that we potters all know and love to discuss, we instead tried to bring to the surface all that is shared and felt. 

9 Jabu Nala’s umbaqa, hand-dug clay. Photo: Amilcar Navarro.10 Jabu Nala’s umpotshiyana, hand-dug clay. Photo: Amilcar Navarro.

Thank you to Ben Carter and Tales of a Red Clay Rambler for providing me with the audio recording of the panel that greatly helped in my writing efforts. While the recording is not public, it is available upon request. I also want to mention that, throughout the recording, Jabu Nala spoke in her native language, Zulu. I was not able to include that in this article, but that alone is worth a listen.

Special note: Thembi Nala, Jabu’s sister, was also originally part of the panel; however, unforeseen difficulties entering the US meant that she was not able to participate. Because of this, I felt it was important to include her work in the article. 

the author Lindsay Oesterritter is a full-time studio potter in Manassas, Virginia. She is a co-president of the Studio Potter board and co-organizer of the Southern Crossing Pottery Festival in Louisville, Kentucky. In 2021, she received an Innovation Award from the Pennsylvania Guild of Craftsmen for a piece in the Strictly Functional Pottery National exhibition. Her first book, Mastering Kilns & Firing, was published in 2020. She was an assistant professor of ceramics at Western Kentucky University (2009–2015) and was promoted to associate professor in 2015. She was a resident artist at Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, and at Strathnairn Arts Association in Australia. She earned an MFA from Utah State University in Logan, Utah. She has led workshops, curated exhibitions, lectured and exhibited nationally and internationally, and is continually inspired by the craft community.