My approach to ceramics involves an effort to make discoveries about the physical and natural world—specifically the interaction between humanity and plants, animals, the landscape, and geological phenomena—through research, experimentation, and a healthy amount of daydreaming. Ceramics, itself one of our earliest records of human ingenuity and collaboration with nature, serves as an apt vehicle for my explorations.
Sunsets, geysers, and geological features of the world all leave me in awe. Yet, my work is not a copy or even an impression of these things. Instead, I think they develop in a similar way. It all comes down to science and chance when we are dealing with the natural world. Rock strata can take millions of years to develop, but are essentially movement and flow of materials. I set up situations with the right conditions and, much like in nature, allow the materials to do the rest.
I begin my studio practice by asking “What if?” The question and the searching are what drive me from day to day; one discovery feeds the next question. I combine my perspective as an artist and my studies in chemistry, physics, and geology with the curiosity of the early natural philosophers as I explore the endless possibilities found within ceramic technology.
The early natural philosophers predate modern science. Their main goal was to learn about the natural world and make predictions about how it would behave based on observation and experimentation. These early scientists gathered data in an empirical way, learning as they went along. I relate to their aspirations for investigating the mysteries of nature.
The main difference between natural philosophy and modern science is that the former relies on mental or cognitive observations while the latter requires a more exacting quantification of results with the goal of confirming a scientific theory. I find myself having much less in common with the modern scientific method. I do like to conclude my research, but I work based on my excitement and interests, rather than with an end goal in mind, and evaluate my work visually, emotionally, and viscerally.
I began working with clay as a potter. As I learned more about the material, I opened up to the variety of ways in which clay can be manipulated. Colored clay initially came into my practice as a solution for working with beautiful, but difficult to use, native clay. My intention was to make an object using native clay from the Cub Creek Foundation in Appomattox, Virginia, where I was a resident at the time, and combine that with native clay from North Carolina that was processed at STARworks to make as a symbolic object bringing the two clay centers together through geology and a shared community. I started the project after a visit to North Carolina with fellow Cub Creek residents. Takuro Shibata, the director of STARworks, and his wife Hitomi—themselves former Cub Creek residents—hosted us, and we all formed a family-like connection.
The attempt to make a quality piece at that time was a failure, but the effort opened up a door for me. Initially, I attempted to maintain the separate qualities of each clay. I paddled simple patterns of the Cub Creek clay onto more plastic slabs of the STARworks clay and handbuilt with them. I was attracted to the way the inlay would move and grow as I stretched and altered the slabs. It occurred to me that if I could do this on a thrown cylinder, I could achieve patterns of natural growth in the round.
Of course, throwing with your fingers will smear and blur pattern on the outside of a form. To get around this, I first tried a four-part plaster mold wrapped around a cylinder on the wheel, pressing out from the inside to make the pattern flush. The technique evolved quickly as I was using a standard wooden roller (brayer) to fix the seams and to compress the clay as I stretched it out. The turning point was when I learned the initial cylinder needed to be up to an inch thick to accept the inlay. Then the colored clay could be paddled in, thrown thin afterward, and the final vessel formed completely using the wooden rollers on the outside. After realizing the rollers’ potential, I customized them in order to achieve more complicated forms and maintain finer finishes. The rollers I use now are made with this purpose in mind; I have developed a number of shapes and sizes to navigate the various forms I create (see 5, 6). The original rollers are lathe turned and have a hole with a binding post going through the center. Later rollers are outfitted with double-sealed stainless-steel bearings.
More recently I have been making clay cane for the inlay, which is similar to a Venetian glass technique called murrini, or the Japanese colored clay technique called nerikomi. I make colored clay coils and wrap multiple slabs of varying colored clay around that. Then this is stretched out, stacked, and formed into a block. Slices from the block can be applied directly to the cylinder. The outermost slab color ends up appearing like the background color. There are limitless opportunities to play with pattern and color relationships within the cane itself.
This technique allows an element of chance into my work. The color and patterns grow into their final form, taking a simple pattern and adding life to it. I do have some control if I want the pattern to move more or less. However I typically choose to allow the demands of form to dictate the surface.
Focusing on Movement and Flow
At some point I became so focused on the movement and flow that I could capture with colored clay, it became clear that pottery forms were not a necessary part of the equation all the time. I needed a way to make larger-scale work while maintaining the quality that I am getting from the thrown work that is in motion and moving together all at once. I decided to simplify form and make wall tiles.
The large tile format allows for a larger scale and enables me to command more space for the viewer to have a fuller visual experience. It has the ability to place the work in the realm of painting by removing all reference to form. It is important to me that while allowing one to freely look at the pattern and color, the tiles still pronounce their materiality.
My undergraduate experience was at Utah State University. Atmospheric firing is quite common there, as John Neely has innovated on the process with his wood-fired train kiln, and has also focused on the technique of reduction cooling. His approach impacted my curiosity for phenomenology and discovery of the unknown with an emphasis on aesthetics. In many ways, the wood-firing technique parallels what I am doing now. There is a great deal of chance involved. Rather than introducing chance via the firing process, I use systems like my inlay to curate and allow for chance to play a role.
Over the last several years I have moved from relying on the firing process for color, to using native clays and clays colored with oxides, to coloring clay with Mason stains. Over the course of this growth, I experienced some major geographical shifts. I moved to the New York City metro area to be at the Clay Art Center, where there are no atmospheric kilns. Therefore, I had to choose color rather than relying on the blush of the firing process, which I simply didn’t know how to do. This came as a shocking realization because I had no idea that while I was lusting after those oranges and reds from the wood kiln, I was actually letting chance choose color.
Making large flat ceramics presents a variety of challenges, but after many failures I discovered that I could laminate colored porcelain onto heavily grogged sculpture clay. I have tried a number of ways to create appealing patterns, but more often than not, the pieces still end up being thrown, cut off the wheel, stretched flat, and backed with groggy clay. Flipping the slabs every day through the soft- to leather-hard stages avoids warping.
I began to read about color theory, its psychological impact, and how colors speak with one another, but initially I was timid in my approach. I found the painter, professor, and theorist Josef Albers’ research into color in his book Interaction of Color to be very helpful. He approached color from a phenomenological point of view; playing with the perception of color. I related to the systematic way in which he investigated color and the way in which color is perceived. While helpful in understanding the theory of color, I was afraid that I needed to follow rules, which made no room for the freedom I was looking for. I needed something more. I needed to have an experience that would blow away my chroma phobia.
I began to search for any opportunity to get myself to India, which seemed like the best place to immerse myself in an environment where vibrant colors and patterns were the norm. The big jump from using “natural” colors to more bright and saturated color in my work came about after spending six months in India teaching a ceramics course at Golden Bridge Pottery in Pondicherry, India. There, surrounded by life inundated with color in nature and on the clothes worn by the people around me, something popped inside me. The riot of color in India actually turned the volume down for me. When I arrived in graduate school, John Gill confirmed something I was unable to articulate from my experience in India: that “all colors go together.” Full immersion in color made everything okay. In my practice now, I still like to read about theory for inspiration on how to use color, but I don’t let those rules limit me. At the end of the day I choose what I like.
Similar to chaos theory, the patterns I use are sensitive to the initial conditions I set forth. Slight differences can yield widely diverging outcomes. Research, experimentation, daydreaming, and hard work allow for a deeper and more specific collaboration with my materials. The challenge is to balance control of the work with letting go at times to allow nature and chance to make their mark.
the author Cory Brown is an MFA candidate in the ceramics program at Alfred University in Alfred, New York. Learn more about his work at www.cory-brown.com.