Michelle Erickson is a graduate of The College of William and Mary with a BFA in Fine and Performing Arts. In addition to her considerable contemporary ceramic work, Ms. Erickson has over twenty years experience in working with 17th- and 18th-century reproduction pottery. Her exquisite recreations and contemporary pieces have won critical acclaim internationally and been featured in many national and international publications. She is currently showing at Virginia MOCA through August.
AltDaily: Can you recall your first art making experience?
Michelle Erickson: Well I can’t remember a time when I was not making art. Like all young children I loved to draw and paint but the passion to create art never let up. I was always consumed by art, and though using clay did come later I never questioned that making art would be my life.
How would you define traditional ceramics?
My career long practice in the rediscovery of lost ceramic techniques has focused on numerous ceramic traditions within the global context of colonialism. My own fascination with ceramic history began with exposure to the significant collections of archeological ceramics in the “colonial triangle” of Virginia. Fragments of British, European, Asian, and Native American pottery unearthed in early colonial excavations embody a remarkable convergence of cultures in clay. It is during this period that the east opens to the west through Dutch and Portuguese trade and ceramic traditions begin to migrate through western exploration expansion and dominion. For me this point in history represents the beginning of a dramatic shift where the lines of cultural identities in clay begin to blur.
I would describe ceramic traditions as the established methods passed through generations to produce clay artifacts that fulfill the functional, social and spiritual needs within a culture. Whether formed into a cooking pot or fertility goddess ceramics touches on virtually every aspect of the human experience.
Taste In High Life
Is there still tradition in traditional ceramics?
Many cultures produce their ceramics in the same way they have for a thousand years, but many also continue to live in the same way- in huts without running water, electricity or transportation. So it is hard to say if these world ceramic traditions remain intact only due to necessity and whether their practice will be quickly lost once that need is replaced with industrially produced artifacts as it has in wealthier societies.
My work not only involves rediscovering lost techniques but the lost function and meaning of the pieces I recreate. This presents the opportunity to reinvent their relevance at a time when they have no practical purpose. Bringing these crazy objects into 21st century social situations can be kind of awesome. On the final day of filming Making a Delft Puzzle Jug (on view in the exhibition), my V&A colleagues, curators, artists and educators and I took the jugs from the kiln and walked out of the museum around the corner to the pub. The bartender filled the communal jug with beer while people watched as we began passing it around sucking on the nozzles around the rim. As it turns out, drinking in the 18th century out of a delft puzzle jug was equivalent of ‘shot gunning’ a beer. I only wish we had gotten the pub scene on film because we would have never learned the true purpose of that vessel by using it to drink water.
What have you discovered about the human experience from reaching into the past?
I perceive our past as a shared continuum that describes our present moment. In this moment many of the struggles of the human condition don’t appear to be solved by the astounding technology we carry in our pockets. The struggle for power, wealth and environmental resources has propagated war, hunger, violence, suppression and bigotry for millennia. These issues are not new and are not problems for technology to solve but rather must be resolved through our common humanity. Whether using the precedent of anti-slavery ceramics as the basis for my series on 21st-century child soldiering, or exploring the 18th century fascination with the discovery of fossils to address our modern predicament with fossil fuels. The substance of our shared past is a powerful tool to find common ground that speaks right now to the social political and environmental issues of the 21st century.
Globular Chintz Teapot
Pectin Shell Teapot
How do your partnerships influence your direction in your work?
I have been an independent self supporting artist for almost 30 years but my approach requires working with many institutions archeologists, anthropologists, historians, curators and collectors as well as other artists, craftsmen and designers. I am interested in the broad range of disciplines within the ceramic medium from the historical to the space age and I think it is important to be aware as an artist of what science, industry, and technology are up too. Perhaps my longest partnership has been with archeologist, historian, and editor Robert Hunter. Since 2001 my practice in experimental archeology is the subject of several articles in his annual journal Ceramics in America published by the Chipstone Foundation. My seminal work in the 2007 issue on recreating an important American porcelain pickle stand produced in Philadelphia just prior to the revolutionary war spurred a series of contemporary protest pieces including American Pickle, a statement on 21st century gun culture in America.
How do you construct your ideas?
Inspiration- something that captures my imagination and sparks a vision in my mind’s eye. Whether a piece from history, a concept or even just a beautiful dug clay something begins to resonate more and more deeply and that original inspiration becomes a path forward through the process of making. My piece Relic in the exhibition developed from several things I was involved in that converged in this work.
As guest artist at the Metropolitan Museum last summer–in conjunction with the exhibition Making Pottery Art–I demonstrated the art of glazing using a cast porcelain skull to illustrate that process. Inspired by the extraordinary ceramic art in the exhibition, I took the Met demonstration skull back to the studio and began constructing Relic. I decided to use a beautiful but unpredictable indigenous Virginia to create base in the form of a five petal lotus connected with bands of contorted bullets. The duality of peace and war reinforced the inscription trailed in black porcelain on the skull – liberty in Arabic and justice in Hebrew in empathy for the Israeli and Palestinian peoples in this endless conflict.
For the final firing I collaborated with Old Tavern Kiln Collective, a communal wood fired kiln outside of Richmond who let me include this experimental piece to the unpredictable environment of thick wood ash and higher temperatures. This experiential process brought concept, clay and fire together as a succinct expression that is both deeply personal and universal. I strive to connect with humanities past and present, whether harsh or beautiful humorous, satirical or even tragic- sometimes all those things at once.
How has your research influenced your work?
I have a self-taught mastery in a broad range of ceramic techniques and methods that developed through handling artifacts from some of the country’s most significant archeological and extant archeological collections. I am interested in the juxtaposition of pre-industrial art forms with contemporary material culture in an increasingly digital age. In 2012, while artist in residence at the V&A, I began a collaboration with Nike’s London Olympic track and field innovation. This ongoing series of work correlates the 18th century global enterprise of the Staffordshire pottery industry to the industrial design giant, both availing themselves or developing the most cutting edge technologies, for example Nike’s 3d knitting technology, to make a product that reaches virtually every household. Both are a story of globalization where commodity drives technological advancement.
What do you think of contemporary ceramics?
I think it’s interesting that two of the most high profile contemporary artists in the world at the moment- Ai Weiwei and Grayson Perry- began in clay and both use the power of the ceramic traditions within their own cultures- a very 21st century east meets west paradigm. However, I have a feeling neither would embrace the moniker of ceramic artist, which is another story. The incredible diversity in the field of contemporary ceramics makes it difficult to address as a single entity, but something that I have noticed over the years is the increasing and dominant use of commercially produced clay pigments glazes and even design elements, including an explosion of 3d printed forms. Maybe because I handle so many old ceramics where the beauty lies in the unpredictability and impurities, the unexpected outcome of hand and natural material that this easy bake artifice is unsettling. It’s like the colors in art and photography and film that suddenly shifted to the technical dictates of a digital palette. I tend to formulate all my slips and glazes from raw materials and like to have a first hand working knowledge of that part of the process.
Flyknit Buddha Teapot (photo credit | robert hunter)
What artists are speaking to you now?
I was really taken by an exhibition of contemporary Korean art at Saatchi Gallery in London a couple of years ago. The use of different technology that has filtered down into common material culture combined with some extraordinary craftsmanship and artistry just blew me away. I’ve liked Kara Walker’s art for a long time and her new work, Sugar Mamma, is a powerful mess. I’m grimly fascinated with Wim Delvoye’s work but it creeps me out a little. As far as clay I have been getting to know the work of some amazing ‘traditional’ potters – the wood fired earthenware potters I worked with in North Devon, UK in 2013 and the wood fired stoneware potters in and around Seagrove, NC. I’m also taking in the massive dose of new technology in the field with a bit of salt but some pretty exciting stuff happening. I like the work Olivier Van Hept is doing with his 3D clay printing machine. Historically I have many loves: the English satirist painter and engraver William Hogarth; the 16th century French potter Bernard Palissy; the palatial Dutch delft known as the Greek A factory pieces; and last night I was thinking about Wedgwood.
Does art need a message?
Art is creative expression that can reflect the world around us and the world inside us. I think when my art has a social, political, or environmental message I like it to be strong but with the weight of history behind it and a level of virtuosity that gives the work its power to speak universally. I would not ever say that art needs a message but I do think it always has one.
What is a message you would like read into your work?
My work has a number of layers that develop my narratives. My hope is that the more people look the more they discover. I am always amazed when others read what I have ‘written’ and how that conversation changes and expands with every individual. This is the life that art has independent of the artist.
What advice do you have for young artists?
I’m not sure they would want my advice. I took a pretty hard road, unchartered, and not the most fashionable when I began, though now there is a renaissance of referencing history, material culture, and tradition in ceramic art. For what it’s worth, follow what truly inspires you, what creates energy rather than drains it. Get good foundations in whatever medium you choose and be aware of its history and origins. I would also say to make the most of the environment you are in. If you are in a college or university, experiment with other mediums. Connect with other disciplines and learn about other cultures. If not, be aware of the history in the place you are and think about what may be beneath your feet.
The artist’s solo exhibition Michelle Erickson: Conversations In Clay is now on view at VA MOCA thru Aug 15. For more info, click here. There will also be a master class and lecture scheduled as well.