Raw Clay and Woodfire with Micah Thanhauser
Posted on Thursday, March 29th, 2018.
I grew up on the Martha’s Vineyard, an island in the atlantic ocean, surrounded by deep, dark blue ocean. One of the most recognizable features of the island is the towering cliffs of multicolored clay found at the Western tip of the island. That particular clay belongs to the Wampanoag tribe, that has lived on that land forever. Much of the island has clay on it, and it was a major brick manufacturer before whaling became the dominant industry.
So I grew up on this beautiful island, and I was lucky enough to have a high school art teacher who was also a potter, and made the clinically crazy decision to run a wood firing every June for any high school students who were interested in participating. I fell in love with this tradition, and was hooked on the magic of wood firing – a process of finishing pots that Randy Johnston, a notable wood fire artist, aptly called “a triumph of desire over sensibility.” From my fist experiences of it, the pull of ceramics was something visceral, physical, and basic – the feeling of a ball of clay on the wheel, the sight and sound of a rush of flames coming out of a kiln’s chimney, the squish and splat of a clay pit on my arms, toes and elbows.
I came to North Carolina for the clay. For the potters who are my heros who are here, for the historical tradition of great pots made in this area, and for the physical stuff itself, abundant below our feet, some of the most wonderful stoneware clay in the US, or perhaps the world. The artists I most admire make wonderful use of their materials. I admire contemporary artists, and ancient potters, who based their practice on the limited materials, both physical and cultural of their time and place. My hope is to draw my greatest inspiration from the materials I work with directly, from the clay, the wood, the rocks, the fire. The more I can keep my mind clean, while engaging with beautiful and interesting materials, the
better I believe my work can become. Of course, everything that I see influences me on some level, so I try to look at and use great pots as often as possible.
I came to Odyssey ClayWorks so I can watch others work here, see where they excel and where they struggle, and see the work we all make pile up side by side. Another beautiful thing about working here is that the kilns are always getting fired, and the materials are always well stocked – so testing is a breeze and a joy. I am somewhat addicted to testing – clays, slips, glazes, raw materials, tinkering with formulas and combinations and seeing how they react. With a large group of people working here, new discoveries happen often, and the next breakthrough always feels right around the corner.
I draw a lot of inspiration in my work from looking at the natural world. Tree branches, grasses, rocks, the sea, seed pods. I don’t want my work to try to copy, mimic, or graphically represent what I see in nature, but I would love for it to have something of the unselfconscious beauty of these natural objects. Working with materials that are beyond my control – wild clays, wood, and fire – lets me participate in making objects that, at their best, feel like they could be cousins with sticks and stones of the woods. There is a bit of the unpredictable in wood firing, something just outside of my grasp, that leads me onward, and inspires me to experiment, take chances, and be open to unexpected beauty.
Wherever you find yourself in the world, there are naturally occuring ceramic materials that can be utilized in your studio practice.
In North Carolina we are blessed with many such very useful and beautiful ceramic materials. When interacting with these material, I I try not to ask “can this material conform to the work I am making?” but rather to ask “What does this material want to become?” Or, I put another way, “Ask not what your clay can do for you, but rather ask what you can do for your clay.” Some clays are smooth, some clays are rough. Some clays can become glaze, some can become slip. Some clays can be thrown, some can only be pinched, coiled, or carved. I try to work with each clay I find, buy, or am given, in a way that brings out its best qualities. Often the ones that are the hardest to work with, are the most beautiful when fired.
I love to observe how the work that someone makes flows from who they are, what they choose to attend to, and what materials they utilize. I believe that the materials we use have a stronger influence on the work we make than we might suspect. But still, ten people will take the same materials and go in ten different directions with them. When I see work that seems to flow out of a person, true to who they are and what they are physically, literally working with, I love it, I am energized and inspired. I am moving towards making this sort of work, and it looks to be a lifelong pursuit.