CG: What was your first experience with clay, and what was it that “grabbed” you?
Thullen: I grew up in a house where handmade functional and decorative objects were ubiquitous. Reed Baskets, Ceramic Figurines, Cross-Stitch, Ukrainian Easter eggs, and a plethora of other meticulous, detailed objects were my everyday surroundings. The small electric kiln in our basement was the first introduction to clay, long before I even knew what it was used for. I was exposed to these objects from a very young age, but it wasn’t until my first experience with clay in Junior high school that I really understood the potential of the material. Or, the possibilities that it would open up for me to fill my need to make things with my hands, and in some way, shape my own surroundings.
CG: You are both prospecting glaze materials, yet very differently from one another. What is your approach to prospecting, and how has it changed since you began?
Thullen: My interest in working with locally sourced materials began years ago when I began working with atmospheric firings, and started looking into more traditional, historic methods of creating glazes. After spending so much time testing and experimenting with traditional reduction glazes, I was ready to move beyond the conventional “crayon box” of the materials that I had at my disposal from ceramic suppliers, and to see what could be achieved with materials sourced from my own surroundings. This began with more conventional choices akin to the material that were used by early potters to create their glazes, such as wood ash, locally dug clay, and numerous materials derived from traditional geological sources, and the landscape around us. I was interested, as I began to develop my own personal aesthetic, in carrying this idea through to my glaze materials and palette as well.
More recently, I have begun what I refer to as “Urban Prospecting”. In thinking about the process of sourcing my materials and how this related to the work that I was making, I began to consider the source of my aesthetic. I am heavily influenced by, and interested in the application of ceramics to architecture. The patterns and texture used to decorate my pots began by looking at pattern and geometry in architectural embellishment and decoration, including brick, tile, and other uses of ceramics in constructing our environment.
I started to realize that I could be using these materials themselves physically, and not just as inspiration, by processing these materials to create my glazes themselves. Additionally, in thinking about the origins of my materials, we all derive sourced material from our surroundings. Living and working in an Urban (and suburban) environment, I don’t have landscape or geology readily at my disposal. My landscape is the urban environment that I work in, and drive through every day. This is where I have begun to draw from to create my glaze palette. The materials that I use are essentially the detritus from Architectural and Industrial sources in my surroundings. Old building bricks, broken glass, industrial slag, and chunks of concrete contain the necessary chemical makeup to make glazes just as beautiful as any that can be derived from the rocks and minerals that shape the natural world around us.
Specific Glazes I Use:
Clay Bodies: I use a very simple porcelain body, mainly Kaolin, Feldspar and Silica and a few small additions for workability. This is the basic clay that I use to make the majority of my pots. Three of the pieces in the exhibition are made with an iron-rich version of this clay body that contains Iron-rich slag which I found on a beach in Northern Michigan last summer. The clay body has such a high thermal expansion and contraction rate as a result of the iron that only my shino glazes can be used on this clay without causing significant glaze fit problems. The resulting clay body has a beautiful deep brown color, and a metallic sheen from the reduction firing.
Beach Glass Celadon: This glaze starts as a traditional celadon, but incorporates beach glass as a pigment, rather than the traditional Iron oxide compounds. Being related closely to glaze, glass uses virtually identical pigments to create color. By taking a combination of blue, green and brown glass washed up on the shores of the Detroit river, I can grind these materials into a fine powder, and essentially create a “stain” of my own. Because this material contains cobalt and chrome from these glasses, the colors are more intense, and a bit more reliable and true than a traditional celadon glaze.
Angle Iron Celadon: This is a very traditional celadon glaze. In this case, I have taken sheets of rust from the Angle Iron supports of an old salt Kiln that was torn down and re-built during my first year at Pewabic Pottery. This was my first kiln-building project, and is full of nostalgia for me because of the friendships that we made while working on it. The rust sheets were ground and ball-milled to create a very fine iron oxide that is used to color this glaze.
Molasses: This glaze started as an amber-colored, high-iron ash glaze. I’ve incorporated concrete dust into it as a source of calcium. Processing the concrete so that it is usable requires calcining the material to break down the chemical bonds that hold it together, and then carefully screening out the sand and gravel that is added to the concrete during the original mixing process. It is quite a caustic material, so care needs to be used when handling and spraying the glaze, much like an ash glaze. I have carefully adjusted it so that it is fluid enough to highlight the carved decorations on my pieces, but is still stable enough to keep it from running badly.
Belle Isle Black: This is one of my favorite glazes. It’s a high-magnesium matte black glaze that is based mainly on a red local clay that was sourced from Belle Isle, a state park in middle of the Detroit river. The majority of my glaze materials wash up on the shores of the island.
Brick Powder Slip: This is a simple flashing slip that I use for soda firings, made by blending ground brick powder with Kaolin, and small amount of feldspar. The brick powder deflocculates the slip, making it ideal for bisque application without cracking, and the Iron in the original brick clay gives the slip a beautiful color when flashed by the wood ash and soda in atmospheric firings. Coming from a city with a northern climate, the small chunks of brick that wash up out of the river have been exposed to possibly over 100 years of freeze-thaw, making them extremely porous, and easy to break down into a very fine powder.
Slate Shino: This simple shino glaze contains powdered slate from the roof of Detroit’s old University Club, now demolished. This historic gem was an incredibly beautiful building full of intricate architectural details. Tragically, it fell victim to urban decay, corruption and looting, and had to be torn down several years ago. I was lucky enough to salvage some of the old roof tiles from the grounds just before it was demolished, and used a ball mill to grind them down to a fine powder. The iron in the slate gives the shino it’s rich red-orange color over the porcelain clay that I use.
Luster Shino: This glaze is a layering of a high-alkali Shino over a dark iron-rich slip containing ground brick powder. The high iron concentration combined with the carbon trapping caused by the high soda content of the glaze causes the intense metallic luster in the fired glaze surface. This is one of my favorite, but most unreliable and variable glazes.
EB: Who introduced you to clay- and what were your early pots like?
Heerspink: Growing up I was privileged to attend a school were the arts were regularly taught. Due to this, I was introduced to clay at a fairly early age. However, it wasn’t until my junior year of undergrad that I was completely captivated by this versatile medium. In 2005 I enrolled in my first college level ceramics class. Through the instruction of Anna Greidanus, I quickly realized that I had found my passion. My early pots were thickly thrown, poorly trimmed, lopsided versions of what loosely resembled mugs. As my skills developed so did the work. Looking back at my earlier work I have noticed common elements that persistently continue to show up. These early pots were electric fired porcelain with overlapping thicknesses of different colored brushed lines, often in a repeating pattern. The repetition of shapes and the thin controlled line continue to interest me and play an important role in my current work.
EB: Our mutual friend, Mark Arnold, introduced me to your work a couple of years ago. He described it like- What if there was handmade pottery in Star Wars? I found the question and concept absolutely fascinating. So what’s with the obsession? Obviously you’re not alone, but what was it that captivated you?
Heerspink: I was 12 the first time I saw Star Wars: A New Hope. With the first notes of the opening title and the iconic scrolling text I was interested, as soon as those first ships flew overhead, firing green and red laser bolts I was hopelessly hooked. As I have aged the reasons I like these films have perhaps not changed, but deepened. As a 12-year- old boy, I was fascinated by the technology of space ships and light sabers and of course the action of the films. (I mean what 12-year- old wouldn’t want a light saber.) Now, as a 33-year- old “man”, there is an element of nostalgia that is comforting. These movies have become really good friends; friends you know everything about and can finish their sentences. But more than that, I find myself increasingly interested in the design elements of the film; set, costume, and props. This interest in the design (more than the characters or story) is what influences my work.
EB: When did your love of Star Wars and ceramics finally merge?
Heerspink: It was Joe Page, my graduate instructor, who first asked me why I was not letting my work be influenced by such an obvious obsession. In graduate school I would often be found working in the studio with the original Star Wars trilogy playing on my computer. The simple answer to Joe’s question was that I didn’t think it would be appropriate for the work to be influenced by something so pop culture and “nerdy”. Through the prodding and guidance of Joe, my work took a complete 180 degree turn during my last semester. Instead of making the functional work I had been doing my entire time in grad school, I started to explore sculptures that were influence by the mechanical workings of the space ships in Star Wars. Following graduation, while I still have an interest in sculpture, my work turned back to functional ceramics, but the influence of these films has remained.
EB: You could have approached this body of work from so many angles- imagery, character’s faces, etc. It seems like you’ve put yourself into the shoes of the intergalactic potter. How did you arrive at this point of view?
Heerspink: Like most artists, my work has evolved over time. Graduate school was a period of intense change that often seemed disjointed at the time. Looking back at the work, I can now see more clearly connections between various bodies. Entering college, I had intended to become an engineer. I was interested in engineering because of my fascination with machinery and drawing. In particular it was the crisp precise lines of mechanical drawing that drew me in. I lasted one semester before I realized that I wasn’t meant to be an engineer. However, I took that interest in line with me. It emerged in my early pots as a decorative element both brushed and carved. Later in graduate school, this fascination manifested itself as mechanical drawings that were screen printed onto the forms. Crisp precise lines continue to play a prominent role in my current work. When I began my investigations into this series I knew I wanted to avoid imagery that overtly screamed Star Wars. This was ultimately due to the fact that the work is about more than just those films. I am just as interested in how the formal elements of shape, color and line interact. Repetition and pattern as well as symmetry and asymmetry are explored within the work. The pots are just as much about these formal concerns as they are about Star Wars. I do enjoy the subtle references within the work to the films. One of my favorite moments to witness is when someone is looking at my work, turning the piece over in their hands, then turns to the person they are with and says, “I think this is from Star Wars”.
Check out Heerspink’s solo show HERE.
Eric: You’ve been working in clay for 40 years, yet my perception of you is emerging, or constantly emerging, or, perhaps re-emerging or starting over. Would you care to speak to this?”
Dick: I suppose that there is a “near” and a “far” element to this, Eric. And I’m happy to see that you found this quality in my work. The “far” back element has to do with the way I was trained, back in the early 1970’s. I was taking an introductory class in clay. Most all of us were not art majors. I think that we were not educated as art majors – rather the idea was to introduce us to the many wonders that make up clay, and then to step aside and see what we students would do with that introduction.
When we asked professor Marvin Bartel…..”So, what do you think would happen if we tried to …..?” He’d always respond, “Well, why don’t you try it and see what happens.” I think that we grew into clay with the idea that there were few limitations, that failure was also learning. We could try/sample/investigate in as many directions as we wanted.
This approach, as you might imagine, led to some wonderful discoveries, but also to some (literally) monumental failures – not the least of which was the brick-making fiasco that Bob Smoker and I ventured into. Bob and I, with Marvin’s support, decided to make bricks to build a kiln. Instead of making either hard/high-duty bricks, or soft/insulating fire bricks, with Marvin’s nudging we decided to make a single brick that would be both: the hot face was made up of a dense mixture and toward the middle, the consistency of the brick material was filled with sawdust and became more insulative in nature. We prototyped and test-fired with great results. Then we made the fatal error: instead of using, for the final brick production, the silica sand that we’d used from the clay lab, we ordered our sand from a local gravel pit. Several tons of the stuff was unceremoniously dumped outside the back door of the ceramics lab. We proceeded to make hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of these bricks using (as we learned later) an untested material.
The local sand had some calcium in it…..probably little pieces of aquatic shells….not much….but it was there. After all the bricks were made, we began firing them. The first load – an ungodly-long firing – cooled and all looked just fine. But then…..little by little…..as the days passed….little pieces of the bricks began popping off (just like a plaster pop-out on a studio pot). Before we knew it, the bricks came entirely undone! They completely disintegrated into dust, right before our eyes, as we watched all our labor and vision and youthful naive energy come crashing down in a pile of dust.
What had been the norm: Bob and Dick working away at the studio at every available hour, turned into a complete absence from the studio and we licked our wounds, wondered “what had we been thinking?”, and tried to learn from the experience. Marvin took pity on us and simply called the college ground keepers who with front-loader and dump truck, hauled away all the contaminated materials, the decomposing fired bricks, and the bricks waiting to be fired. Hauled them away, along with our invested energy and emerging clarity.
Hard lesson. But one that was great preparation for a life in clay. It’s ok to fail. What did you learn? That lesson in consistency between prototypes, tests, and small batches and consistency with the final product, production, and large batches, likely saved me far, far more time over the course of my career than it cost me in the brick project. And there at school, the materials were free, and the haul-away complimentary. Not the case in ‘real life and work’.
So that early lesson gave me permission to try and fail. To explore and investigate. And ultimately, I set aside 15% of my time each year to investigate, start over, explore and develop. I budgeted my time and production so that if the 15% of time committed to development yielded nothing of value ($$$), my 85% of efficient production time had me covered. Budgeting for failure led to my most important developments over the years: side-firing; fast-fossils-saggar-firing, unconventional ultra-long 15-day near-solo wood firings. And the same could be said for the new triplet-glaze-series to which I’ve already devoted two year’s worth of exploration. The cups in this exhibition are a result of this process.
The “near” element is tied to my having been diagnosed with a terminal illness some years ago….long periods of being out of the studio for chemotherapy, transplants and recovery; the loss and sale of my production studio and gallery. Being left with only a 200 square-foot home studio with little-to-no energy to use it.
During the intervening years, I’ve experienced a quite remarkable recovery and remission. Initial diagnosis was more than a dozen years ago. I’m healthier now. I’m able to work. After I sold my studio and spent several years out of production, when the time came to start over, I promised myself that I would try to commit to making only what I really wanted to make. For me this meant trying to cram the “rest of my career” into a “brief and uncertain timeframe”. And that is what I’ve done.
That commitment has a cost to it: because I’m naturally curious, my work over the last 5 years has not been single-minded, consistent, predictable; it does not have these qualities which most galleries require from their suppliers. It’s meant that my work has been rejected from galleries that had previously courted my work.
But giving myself the freedom to emerge, re-emerge, start over has held wondrous benefits as well. First of all, it keeps me from competing with anyone but myself. It helps me focus on MY work. It scratches MY itch. And it offers me the opportunity to invite others into this adventure. To join me in seeing things we’ve never dreamed of…..and in learning to make the things I have no idea how to make.
Eric: Many from my generation, myself included, are equally curious and cynical about chawans and yunomis being made by protestant white folks from middle America. I think it’s fair to say that your generation of American potters has been significantly influenced by Asian ceramics….perhaps even overly influenced. I wonder what sense can we make of Caucasian Midwestern Christian potters chasing the aesthetics and practices of Asian Eastern Buddhist makers. You’ve been to Japan on multiple occasions and those experiences have shaped you…you’ve written quite a bit about it. Through all of it your work rings sincere. How do you decide what you take with you and what you leave behind? How do you to make it your own?”
Dick: My generation of potters – and the one before me – seemed to inherit an uncritical indebtedness to Japan, in particular. It can be traced back to the American GI forces returning from the second world war. The GI bill pumped untold millions into the American higher education system. Schools flush with money jumped to expand their offerings by which to lure students. Arts education benefitted from the gusher of dollars. Clay programs, particularly at community colleges, absolutely flourished.
Add, now/then, the “Gospel proclamation” from Bernard Leach, Shoji Hamada and Soetsu Yanagi, about the truth and wonder and clarity and vision of Japanese ceramics (….how interesting that these clay-crazy GI’s just back from giving Japan a “ come-up-ens” in the War, now kneeled before the altar of Japanese ceramics). Leach and company began traveling to the US, visiting colleges and universities, proclaiming the vision, “rescuing” a ‘dying-and-almost-dead’ studio pottery movement here in the US, and generally making converts. Just look at the decades of brown simple pots that reflected their effect and influence. It was (almost) the duty of every American potter to make that pilgrimage to (Mecca) Japan to drink from the fountain of the masters there.
Enter my generation of clay artists: we inherited an unquestioning embrace of all things Japanese. We, too, wanted to make a pilgrimage. I was no exception. I did. And I’m the better for it. But somewhere about then… let’s say… in the mid-80’s-ish, we American potters began actively wondering if it was time to look more inward….away from the strict, inherited, restrictive, exclusively linear Japanese way….toward the options, innovations, development, rule-breaking, emerging, revolutionary-thinking that had come to characterize America. We wanted our own voice. And there came a time where contact with the East came to be looked upon with suspicion; a time when it was better to lay low and just not admit that you’d made the pilgrimage — so’s not to have to wear the scarlet letter “J”. And god-forbid if you admitted to making tea bowls…….
And, unfortunately for some of the most conflicted and insecure among us, there still exists the “gotcha” urge: last autumn while participating in an international collaborative woodfire workshop, several of the (perhaps over-intellectualizing) participants lobbed the ‘loaded softball’: “Do you make tea bowls?”…….just waiting for someone to take the bait so that they could be strung up, flayed and dried. Then the question was more pointedly directed at those of us who’d spent time in Japan…… “do you???…make tea bowls?????” Of course the question eventually came to me (what it’s exactly trying to prove or expose, I’m still not quite sure)….”Dick, do YOU make tea bowls?” (Perhaps…..”Dick, are you…still…. overly-influenced by Japanese ceramics?…are you an easy target?…are you a Nihon-ophile?”) At that point I imagined the flexed biceps of criticism and the tightly clenched fist of “gotcha” being wound up behind the back of the questioner: “go ahead….admit it…..I’m gonna pounce on you and beat the Japanese out of you”.
I suppose I may be credited with deflecting, if not diffusing, this one incident. I said, “I make bowls. Sometimes people use them to make matcha tea. So…..yes….I guess that I do make tea bowls, when people choose to use them as tea bowls.”
Do I feel some…..what?….empathy, sympathy…pity… for the conflicted and over-intellectualizing questioner? I suppose I do. I can admit to being – at least at one time of my life – an unswerving, captivated and unquestioning ‘Nohon-ophile’. All things Japanese were unquestionably good. But that was then. It’s part of my journey to now. Anyone who knows me realizes that I don’t try to make “Japanese pots”. I’m not culturally or artistically naive. I’m quite happy in my own skin. I don’t mind acknowledging all of my influences – Japanese included. And I don’t mind disappointing old Mr. Matsuyama sensei – teacher of one of my teachers – who while visiting my exhibition in Japan, pointedly reminded us when referring to a kake hanairi (wall vase) that was only slightly more than completely understated: “Always remember,” he said, “always remember that the vase is for the flowers. The flowers are not for the vase.”
Ok, I get it. Let’s not overpower the flowers with the vase. (But remember, “quiet beauty” is only one of the Japanese aesthetics….can you say Kutani ware?)
So: I cannot – will not – stop making those beautiful, colorful, complex, nuanced, detailed, sophisticated, overstated….yes…even loud shapes and surfaces – even on wall vases – if it means suppressing my commitment to continually starting over, seeing in new ways, enlarging my visual literacy.
Each of us finds our own way from/through/out of the sphere of influences that have made us. We stand on them…we stand on their shoulders. With luck, we surpass them.
Eric: Your last show with us was almost 2 years ago. Of the 40+ pieces in that show (December 2015) you included 3 cups with boxes. Those pairings were captivating, and in the conversations leading up to this exhibition, I asked if you’d like to show a large series of them. What can you tell us about the history and importance of these boxes?”
Dick: Paulownia wood is the wood of choice for Japanese boxes. It’s a fast-growing softwood. In Japan the use of Paulownia boxes is not limited to housing clay works. They are used to store, house, and present a wide variety of important and special objects that could be made from glass, bamboo, lacquer, metal, and fabric.
Usually called the Empress Tree, Princess Tree or Foxglove Tree, its soft wood makes sense as the storage material of choice in earthquake-prone Japan. Many a boxed clay piece has jostled safely off the shelf during an earthquake. The insulative compression strength of the wood has saved lots of important fragile work. But more, the wood is an insect-deterrent, much like American cedar used in storage chests. In addition Paulownia is flame retardant. It grows fast; is invasive; and isn’t picky about soil. (In fact it has been classified as a “persistent exotic invasive” here in the United States.)
My friend, Mr. Kanzaki told me stories of fires that happened in the homes of some of his collectors. The fire department arrived and watered down the place. Because of the flame retardant nature of wood, the boxes were slow to burn. And when wetted, they expanded to further protect the precious goods inside. $9000 tea bowls: safe!
In Japan, these boxes are referred to as “kiribako”….the box made of “kiri” wood…from the kiri tree: the Paulownia tree. Boxes made of “kiri” have been used to protect items of importance for long years in Japan.
In addition, it’s undeniable that boxing an important piece, elevates the piece’s value and stature. Not just anything gets boxed. The most important things get boxed. It’s a way of calling attention to the piece: “This is important and valued.” And the boxes themselves are most-beautifully-made, and tied shut with a silk-woven ribbon/fukurohimo.
For some years I’ve tried to make/find/commission an “American box”…a box that would include the very best traits of the Japanese boxes: protection, beauty, and elevation, while using/exploiting the very best of American lumber, craftsmanship, joinery and hinging/closing hardware. To date I have neither found nor developed such a box. So for now I continue to appropriate boxes from Japan, where there is an entire industry developed around the production of such boxes.
Eric: What additional insights can you give us into this most recent series of cups?
Dick: This last autumn and winter I again had a long stretch of illness. I’d not fired the kiln for almost five months. I’d been away from making and from active use of my glaze-triplets for just as long. I was, in fact, a little intimidated by the challenge of starting over: starting over with respect to making, glazing and firing. So it was such a great excitement to open the kiln and find all these cups. Certainly, it was one of the most memorable and among the finest overall firings from my career.
This series also highlights my newest efforts at making the cups that are fully and ergonomically hand/mouth-friendly. It’s quite a challenge – with the wide variety of hand-sizes to make a cup that fits all sizes and that is also ambidextrous. Pick them up and find the one that fits you best. I hope that the progress I’ve made on this will be noticeable and satisfying the moment you unpack your box and try the piece out for the first time.
View Dick Lehman’s solo show HERE.
CG: We’re fascinated by this series of work. The references to rock faces, tectonic plates, and graffiti are evident. Could you speak to the origins of this body of work and your thoughts behind it?
BC:The Uncertain Image series began as a limestone sculpture and has since moved in and out of my mixed media ceramic work and functional pottery forms. In 2010 I installed Fount Solace; 26 pieces of limestone hung horizontally on a gallery wall using the linear core marks to compose the form. During a conversation my father at the opening reception, he told me how his father used to work at the same mill where I collected the stone. Having never been too close to my family due traumatic events, this news connected my labor in the trades to my grandfather’s labor which I knew little of. A simple idea: my grandfather and I could have labored in the same quarry, which felt immediately reverent in a way that was strange yet curious. That evening my father spoke of growing up around the many mills telling stories about late night fishing trips to the quarries deep water. Using these fragmented histories, I developed several bodies of sculpture and functional ceramic work using a reductive cleaving method to create stone like textures from black clay. Bright bands of color circled around each functional form add layers of information taken from contemporary graffiti found on the stone walls of the quarry.
BC: In this most recent series, Uncertain Image, a portion of the story has changed creating a new layer of confusion. I decided to call my father to re-live these experiences seven years later, hoping to find new information about my family history. Instead, my father now tells a different story; one that does not involve the same kind of work that my grandfather did in the quarry, with a completely different location where they would go fishing at night. I immediately felt disgrace, like I had made work about a fictitious event claiming it was real. Did I tell myself these stories as a way to deal with or explain previous trauma? Could my father have told me these stories, beginning to now suffer from the same Alzheimer’s that killed his father? Tim Obrien writes about a set of stories told by soldiers, explaining the same events from the Vietnam war. As the stories unfold they are told with vastly different accounts for the same event. I know that my history does not compare to the traumatic events of the Vietnam war. Yet I am unsure how I interpret information, such as personal stories, news, and other forms of “reliable sources”. This recent turn in the story has changed the forms of imagery that I place on the cleaved, functional ceramic forms. Each imaged section starts as an unclear, thin line, dividing sections in the wet clay. After bisque firing, I apply glaze to the sections of the form inside the thin lines. Post firing each glazed image shows up in unexpected ways, mimicking my uncertain view of the convoluted stories that I hear, read, tell, and remember.
Click HERE to view available works.