Making it Work as A Ceramic Sculptor

There are about as many ways to make a living as a ceramic sculptor as there are people attempting it. Mark Chatterley makes his living making large-scale figurative ceramics. Today, in an excerpt from Ceramic Sculpture: Inspiring Techniques, he shares his advice and experience on balancing life and work, promoting and selling, as well as his aesthetic perspectives. He also takes us through the process he uses to make his large-scale sculptures.

So read on and learn about Mark Chatterley’s ceramic figure building and everyday studio practices. – Jennifer Harnetty, editor.



The best part of being a ceramic sculptor is working with clay and making the forms. I barrel through 18,000 pounds of clay a year. I make work for 3 months then fire it all in one kiln load. The rest of the sculpture making process goes downhill for me as far as pleasure. Loading the kiln, glazing and finishing the work are all things that need to be done so I can continue my addiction with clay.

This article is included in Contemporary Clay Sculpture: A Collection of Four of Our Favorite Articles on Contemporary Ceramic Sculpture, which is free to Ceramic Arts Daily Subscribers.


The “Making a Living” Part
Child Pose, handbuilt ceramic sculpture, crater glaze, fired to Cone 6.Although neither marketing nor selling my work are very high on my list of favorite things to do, both are necessary evils and must be considered. The economy is down and people are concerned with their 401k plans. Art is not on the average person’s mind when they are worried about paying the mortgage. So I am looking for the not-so-average buyer, people who want art either for an investment or as an enhancement to their quality of life. I work with sixteen or so galleries around the country that hopefully have access to this ideal art collector.Throughout the year, I have an average of six one- or two-person shows. People don’t want to see the same thing year after year and this keeps me in a constant state of trying to reinvent myself and come up with new work. I find myself revisiting old themes but hopefully with a different point of view. After working with clay for over 20 years, my options of something new become smaller. A Zen saying goes, “A beginner has many possibilities and an expert has few.”

Finding Inspiration (and Helping Others do the Same)
I have been teaching workshops on creativity and the golden mean, trying to help others and myself make inner connections for a more personalized style. One of the class assignments I give is to take pictures of interesting objects that resonate for each individual. Then I have the student combine three of these images into one using the golden mean proportion that we will later translate into clay. Rorschach ink blots and guided meditation are also experimented with for inspiration.

I also like to read books outside of the art field for inspiration, including quantum physics, psychology, string theory, shamanism and Kama Sutra. Then I try to figure out how conceptual ideas can be translated into clay forms.

I also have a small group of friends that I can bounce ideas off of. We meet once a month for a show and discuss what we are working on. Mostly, inspiration comes down to going into the studio everyday and trying to figure out what I can do that is new but won’t be too weird or different from my previous work so that I will lose my collectors. Maybe that is what it means to be old school, stuck in a style that is recognized as mine and being financially fearful of branching out.

The one advertising class I took in college droned on about name recognition. I realized that it is a way to get work out into the marketplace and try to elevate prices. For each show I do, the gallery provides a press release of my artist statement and photos to the local papers that sometimes lead into featured stories. I also split ads with the galleries in national art magazines. In addition to building name recognition, I try to attract attention to a specific piece.

Being a ceramic sculptor, the physical aspect of working large becomes an issue. The older I get, the larger and heavier the work seams to get. I keep threatening to become a jeweler when I grow up. Until that happens, I go to the gym 3 days a week for an hour of weight training followed by an hour of aerobics. I try to maintain my strength so I can move my own work around. When I do a show I drive a body of work in my own van, which can hold 2 tons, rather then making crates for each piece. Unloading and placing the work can get physical, especially if stairs are involved. I find myself shying away from shows if I have to walk the work up stairs. I imagine someday I might have to hire assistants or get a fork lift to move the work around, but until then, I think of it as a free work out.

Diving Relationships, slab-built ceramic with brushed glazes, fired to Cone 6.I work with slabs of clay on a scale that goes beyond most thrown work. But the forms are constructed as if they were pots. To make large human ?gures, I start by manipulating a slab about 8 inches wide and 1/4 inch thick. I keep the walls an even thickness throughout, as in a well-thrown pot. I cover the lip of the piece with a 4-inch-wide piece of plastic and allow it to dry overnight. The next day, I add 8 more inches and repeat the plastic-on-the-lip process, allowing the rest to dry. This is continued until I reach the top. On a 7- or 8-foot piece, the bottom of the sculpture is bone dry, but the top is wet and workable. The problem with this procedure, of course, is I can’t work on the bottom once I hit the top, so I do a lot of planning and many drawings beforehand to minimize surprises.

Firing is in a 700-cubic-foot down­draft kiln that I built. I can place more than 14 life-size ?gures upright in the kiln and there is still room for shelves. Because the kiln holds so much work, there are usually 3 months between ?rings. Each piece is ?red 2 to 3 times: the bisque is to cone 07, taking 3 days to ?re off; and the glaze to cone 6, taking 2 days to ?re off.

I apply the glazes with big ugly brushes, ?inging them everywhere in a painterly frenzy. After the glaze ?ring, some pieces need a little more interest, so I add Egyptian paste and ?re to cone 07. This allows a multilayered surface with minimal ?rings.

Survival in the art world is an ongoing struggle. Creative change and personal growth keep it interesting.

Where to See More:

Goldesberry Gallery,
Houston, TX

Longstreth Goldberg Art,
Naples, FL

Next Step Studios,
Ferndale, MI

Sculpturesite Gallery,
San Francisco, CA

Summerhill Gallery,
Durham, NC

Tory Folliard Gallery,
Milwaukee, WI

  • nawal a.

    it is amazing the way you build those figures if you dont mind I like to know how you made it (the glay, building,firing)if you dont mind

  • Subscriber T.

    I’m curious to know what kind of clay you use and what kind of support structures you use inside the figures…. or are they completely hollow?

  • Carol N.

    Mark, it is amazing to see your large scale work. The question I have is how doyou manage to get the big, big sculptures to not crack as you work, is the clay grogged to allow the bottom to dry and the top to stay moist until you finish?

  • Mark it is time to get an assistant for your glazing, perhaps. I hate to mow grass because it is usually time to cut it when I am most productive and on a roll in the studio. By the way I have a push mower and a large yard. I too am getting an assistant who will free up that flow of expresssion. Does anybody know Mark’s clay body he is using for large scale outdoor works?

  • I like the photo of the sculpture with the balanced figure posed on the back of a friend.
    It would be good to communicate with a sculptor working as you do. I make sculptures myself though never so big because i cannot handle them. Also I do not have such a big kiln. In the past I have thought of sitting in my kiln and working but never have done that either.
    Thanks for being so open and sharing.

  • Judith R.

    Great to see other sculptor’s work, Thank you

  • Mark, great to see your work and to know you continue to be an inspiration to all potters in Michigan and other places. WOrk never gets easier or lighter…. just more interesting;. Peace, Kris

  • Jennifer D.

    Truly fascinating and amazing..and enjoyed the down-to-earth(excuse the pun!)writing style..I enjoyed the description of the glazing process and intend to get myself into a ”painterly frenzy” soon.

  • Excellent summary of a process both physical and mental. The outcome of many dedicated years.

  • I totally enjoyed reading this article.
    Mark Chatterly is very talented and dedicated.
    His work and expression of it, is inspiring!
    Thanks for sharing this 🙂

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