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Published Mar 18, 2024

I have always admired potters who have the talent to tell stories on their pots because it has never been something that I have been able to do. Michelle Ettrick is one of those story-telling potters who I hold in high esteem. Through the distinctive lines that make up the illustrations on her functional pots, Michelle conveys themes such as social equality and empowerment, and offers insights into her autobiographical story.

In this post, an excerpt from the March 2024 issue of Ceramics Monthly, Glen R. Brown discusses Ettrick's powerful pots and tells us more about the woman behind them. –Jennifer Poellot Harnetty, editor

PS. To read more about Michelle Ettrick, please check out the full article in the March 2024 issue of Ceramics Monthly! If you want to help us continue to bring thought-provoking stories like this to you in the pages of Ceramics Monthly and online, subscribe today!

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.” 

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

Topics: Ceramic Artists