THE POTTER IS PRESENT
Alex Matisses Creative Cycle of Intention, Accident, and Community
Made by hand, the craft object bears the fingerprints, real or metaphorical, of the person who fashioned it. These fingerprints are not the equivalent of the artist’s signature, for they are not a name. Nor are they a mark or a brand. They are a sign: the almost invisible scar commemorating our original brotherhood or sisterhood.
—Octavio Paz, “Seeing and Using: Art and
Craftsmanship,” Convergences: Essays on Art and
Literature (Harcourt Brace, 1987).
Snow. An old black dog. A worn white house tucked into a mountain valley. Across a small field, flames rocket upward from the brick chimney of a massive wood fired kiln protected by a shed roof. The red-orange flare means East Fork Pottery is in the midst of a firing, a seven day cycle of heat, smoke, and gradual cooling that produces over 1,000 pots ranging from monumental forms and dynamically patterned chargers to simple vases, bowls, and cups.
The pots are the combined output of East Fork’s two potters, Alex Matisse and John Vigeland, and the culmination of a quarterly process that turns locally sourced raw materials into earthy, at times sexy, ceramics. Tactile, functional, and well-wrought, the work is the result of an exploration of European and American folkways anchored in rigorous training and a sense of community. Its subtle power connects us, in the manner suggested by Octavio Paz, to not only the makers, but to each other by referencing aspects of shared cultural inheritance and the small satisfactions of everyday life. While doing so, the work comforts us with its grounded tactility, and gifts us with the often profound aesthetic pleasures offered in the space between clay and glaze, form and surface, the hand and the eye.
The cycle begins with the preparation of a blend of stoneware clays from the Eastern Piedmont of North Carolina. Local sourcing extends to East Fork’s glazes, which are made in-house using the ash from the oven at a friend’s bakery and colored clays from around Asheville. Waste from a nearby saw mill serves as fuel for the kiln. “We do this not because local is the new buzzword, but because I was ‘brought up’ in my apprenticeships using local, unrefined clay,” explains Matisse. “I generally don’t cling to dogma, but there are a few principles worth maintaining.”
Working on the potter’s wheel is one of those principles. “I guess I enjoy having a few boundaries to work within, the wheel probably being the greatest of all,” comments Matisse. He honed his skills during three years of apprenticeship in two North Carolina workshops belonging to Matt Jones and Mark Hewitt. During long hours replicating his mentors’ work at the wheel, he became well-acquainted with the South’s unbroken history of useful, regionally produced ceramics.
That history still informs some of East Fork’s vocabulary. “I started out with functional pots similar to something you would find in Thailand, or China, or rural North Carolina 150 years ago. Our larger pieces still reference massive wheel-thrown 18th-century grave markers from the Eastern Piedmont.” Matisse and Vigeland add their own voices to this historical base with original slip decorations, and forms and details that feel whole and coherent to their 21st-century eyes.
After about three months of work on the wheel, between 1,000 and 1,500 green pots crowd the studio. It’s time for a firing. The single chamber cross draft kiln, designed and built by Matisse in 2010, is loaded with care over four days. Pots are meticulously wadded with balls of china clay so that heat can circulate across bottom surfaces. Some care is taken about which pieces to place closest to the pyre of wood: these pots will be most prone to spontaneous, uncontrollable coloring from the wood ash racing with the blazing heat through the kiln.
During the first two days of firing, three people feed the flames around the clock in six-hour shifts. The demanding last day requires long hours from a crew of five to raise and hold the temperature. Even with this constant presence, the results are uncertain. “The unpredictability of the kiln’s combination of heat and smoke and salts emerging from the wood undoes or elevates our intentions during the making,” explains Matisse. “A certain amount of letting go is required.”
The letting go extends to unloading the kiln. “There is often a sort of post-partum depression that sinks in at this point. After so much work and so many expectations, it is easy to focus on the negative: out of 1,000 pots, only three or four embody everything I am working toward. It must be a little like children: you eventually realize they are their own beings that don’t always fit into our expectations. It takes a few weeks to see them objectively.”
East Fork’s pots don’t generally linger that long, however. “People usually start showing up 30 minutes early to our kiln openings to start setting aside little piles of pots for themselves,” Matisse describes with some pleasure. “It’s so clear when someone buys something because of a force in themselves that defies all logic, all marketing, all pressure from external forces. Because I am interested in vibrancy, in making something that hums with energy and life, seeing that magnetism exert itself is satisfying.”
Is that indefinable ripple of experience engendered by an act of art the goal of Matisse’s ceramic practice? “I believe in the beautiful object, that there are inescapable aesthetic truths, physical attributes, that remove limitations of time and place as the defining characteristics of the made object. But I make pots and I don’t necessarily need to elevate that to another plane.”
But the elevation happens all the same. Contemplation of the runnels of glaze traveling fluidly down East Fork surfaces burnished darkly with flame and ash, generates a pulse across the quotidian miasma of 21st-century life. Does the pulse beat because of the almost anachronistic processes and lives that create the work? Does it come from the rich traces of history and community that outlive the heat of the kiln? Does it come from the intention of the maker or the sensuous spontaneities of the process? Matisse is too modest to say. “I’ll leave that to somebody else.”
KEITH RECKER is the founder and editor of HAND/EYE Magazine, a journal of global handmade creativity, and has worked in U.S. and international artisan business development for over 20 years.