I’m Intuit: Looking Back on a Summer in Ceramics, By Nathan Tonning

Ceramics has an undeniable sense of history and tradition. While the studio ceramics movement is less than 100 years old, the inclusion of ceramics in the daily lives of people dates back many thousands of years. However, this history is so long and expansive that it can almost fade away into “a fact of life” at times. The sky is blue, the sun is hot, and people have always been creating objects out of clay. Week 1 & 2Depending on the lens with which ceramics is viewed, the long history of the medium can fade into the background of your consciousness or exist at the forefront of your thoughts. The familiarity that we all seem to have with ceramics seems to allow space for something different to happen as people enter the studio and begin to interact with the clay. We have all seen it, all touched it, and so we approach the clay uninhibited. This inhibition creates a safe space for the development and execution of intuition in response to or despite tradition.

Tradition and intuition have been danced around all summer long at the ceramics studio here at Ox-Bow. Four vastly different courses were delivered in the studio by faculty with widely ranging backgrounds and approaches to clay. As the Ceramics Studio Technician, I am provided a unique perspective on the progression of the summer. Working closely with all of the faculty and students who flow through the studio throughout the summer, I am allowed space to step back and observe the summer with a slightly more long-term consideration. Looking back at these courses I am provided the chance to take on the role of historian, to iterate a narrative linking these different approaches to teaching and learning through ceramics despite the fact that the course were developed and delivered independent of each other.

Ox Student Work   04The first course offered in the ceramics studio this summer was taught by Anna Mayer. Anna’s course was titled “The Land is as Land is Land Art”. Anna directed the students into an exploration of clay as a site-specific medium. Linking the traditions and history of ceramics with the history and traditions of Ox-Bow, the class proceeded to interact with the Ox-Bow campus and surrounding area. Their site-specific investigations culminated in an exhibition on the more than 100 year old pylons that still inhabit the lagoon. These timbers, many of which began their lives as trees long before Michigan was anything else except an un-named wilderness, were put into conversation with a variety of ceramic objects. Was the specific history of the pylons or the ceramic objects with which they were coupled addressed in the installation and conception of the work exhibited? Maybe not directly, but there was an intuitive response to the place and the clay that came together to present comfortable acknowledgement of those histories while at once speaking of something new.

Week 3 & 4Xavier Toubes and Patricia Rieger instructed the next class that moved into the studio. Their class, titled “Color has Depth” addressed the traditions of ceramics at the core. Ceramics has long existed as an internal conversation between form and surface. The shape that clay takes seems to ask the maker for a specific surface. This voice of clay does not come from the material itself, but from a deeply internal response emanating from within the maker. This voice of intuition was drawn out of the students as they worked in an, at times, silent studio, moving the clay as they felt it should be moved, finishing the forms with layers of glaze. While the forms were often amorphous, the depth of surface and glaze seemed to suggest the deep and complicated sources of their manifestations. This class seemed to tap into a tradition of intuition in ceramics, and in turn present that intuition as something to be considered and re-examined with every new object created by the class.

Week 5 & 6Nicole Cherubini instructed the third class offered in the Ceramics Studio this summer. Nicole’s class addressed a very specific tradition in ceramics. Delftware, commonly identified by blue decoration on stark-white clay was introduced as a starting point for the students. The class proceeded to make work that often drew inspiration from the history and imagery common to delftware while coupling it with their own interests and investigations. Starting with a brief introduction to the methods and history of delftware, the students proceeded to react and interact with this specific ceramic tradition. This class seemed to directly address the tradition of ceramics while openly re-orienting it. Taking the familiar and making it new through an intuitive response to the material and information provided.

Jack Troy taught the last class offered this summer in ceramics. This class, which was focused on creating work to finish in the wood-fired kiln, was steeped in ideas of history and tradition. The students were encouraged to create vessel-based ceramics which were finished during a 36 hour long firing that required constant attention and stoking until a temperature of over 2300 degrees Fahrenheit was reached. The process of firing ceramics using wood as a fuel has a specific history and tradition in Western culture, but that tradition is also a reiteration of a much longer history in Asia.  The layers of tradition and process that stand behind any wood-fired vessel are immense. Week 6 & 7It was from this foundation that the students moved forward to create a prolific amount of work. Having such a broad and well-established tradition behind a process such as this created a space for the students to access intuition. When it comes to handmade utilitarian vessels the word “good” is often used to describe those with the most identifiable merit. This word “good” comes to identify a connection between the intuitive actions of the maker and the intuitive reactions of the user of that vessel. Neither of these reactions can be reduced to a science or a list of quantifiable attributes, and so are often left un-examined but agreed upon. It was in this manner that the class managed to find intuitive interaction with tradition.

Throughout the summer, it has been interesting to see how the faculty and students have negotiated ceramics. While acknowledgement of tradition is inherent to working with clay, that acknowledgement can range from denial to an embrace. It is that sense of tradition that makes ceramics a fertile place for experimentation and development.

Anyway, enough of this thinking, I will be in the lagoon.