The potters’ field: Ceramic artists have an earthy take on building community outside the gallery culture

Ken Nagakui of Karematsu Pottery learned from Crowe and he shares his teacher’s connection to the land. As a child Nagakui climbed a small hillside near his family’s home in Japan nicknamed Karematsu, after which he named his studio. On the hill, he occasionally found pieces of ancient earthenware pots dating back to the Jomon era, which spanned roughly from 10,000 to 3,000 BC. Jomon pottery was so named for the cord-pressed patterns on the surface of the clay.

Although Nagakui is influenced by this formative experience and Japan’s rich history of earthenware, one of the oldest in the world, he is more captivated by the creativity that emerged from this ancient period than by the pots themselves. He didn’t start his own career with clay until he moved to Charlottesville in 2010.

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Ken Nagakui of Karematsu Pottery. Photo: Elli Williams.

He might not have expected a career in pottery the first time he placed his hands on the wheel, but looking at his earth-infused pots sitting on the table next to the remains of ancient Jomon pottery from his childhood, it is hard not to want to see something of the inevitable.

“It was almost like my hands knew,” Nagakui said of the first time he worked with clay. “It led me to things I didn’t expect.”

What he didn’t expect is that while, as he says, he “cannot escape” those fragments of ancient earthenware ceramics, it is that infamous red clay endemic to central Virginia that has inspired his newest pieces.

“I want to create something different,” Nagakui said. “If I make pieces without using local clay, I feel like I am cheating.”

Nagakui digs up and filters the red clay and then mixes it with a commercial clay to use on the wheel. His experiments mixing other local clays, including white and yellow clay from a clay mine near Staunton, have produced interesting results and deep colors from the various minerals present, such as iron which creates a speckled effect. The clay inspires the pottery’s aesthetic.

“Nature is one big source. I like utilizing local clays; that is what other potters are not doing, and I wonder why. That is the fun part, actually—connecting to the soil and the environment and nature here,” he said.

Crowe sees ceramics as an art form that encompasses all of these unique influences while simultaneously steeped in tradition and mainly unchanged.

“I think that as opposed to fine art, where there is an incredible pressure to be original, which often produces more novelty than real work, that working in the vessel tradition, functional pots, it’s all been worked out,” he said. “Even the way that we fire, the way we make pots, hasn’t changed much in 3,000 years, so it’s a slow process of learning to let your own voice and take on the tradition come out.”

Clay city

While Crowe’s kiln has become something of a national pilgrimage site for traditional potters, Clarkson’s PVCC pottery class has remained an incubator of dreams for students.

“I’m so happy to share what I’ve learned and have somebody else discover what a wonderful material clay is,” Clarkson said. “One of the things I try to get everybody to understand is the possibilities are endless.”

Ilsin was one of Clarkson’s students and his biography, like Nagakui’s, demonstrates the diversity in the local pottery scene. Ilsin has been influenced by his upbringing outside of the United States—in his case Turkey. After moving from Ankara with his parents to attend college in Charlottesville, Ilsin took Clarkson’s ceramics class to fulfill a humanities credit but kept coming back for more.

His Turkish heritage is a steady influence on Ilsin’s pottery.

“Almost all my bowls are a combination of a negative and a positive curve, and that was something I’d seen in the Anatolian Civilizations museum in Ankara. There’s a lot of use of negative curves in the pottery that’s found in Anatolia,” Ilsin said. “What you find is that things come from your subconscious and all of the shapes you see growing up you end up starting to create. It’s really much later in my process that I’ve consciously designed a form and then decided to make that. Before I was really just sitting on the wheel and seeing what came out.”

While Nagakui lets the Jomon pottery of his youth meld with his artistic intentions in a subconscious soup, Ilsin has consciously channeled Turkish influences to create new forms, such as his whirling dervish pot, which highly resembles the form of a Sufi dervish in motion.

“The whirling dervish just kind of came to me; it was the first form that I knew I wanted to make. My success rate is like one to two in four, so it’s a pretty heartbreaking experience actually,” he said.

Clarkson achieves a uniquely indecipherable pattern by throwing clay against a tree to imprint the bark onto the clay.

“Playing in the mud—that’s the key,” Clarkson said as he opened a drawer revealing a hefty collection of found objects he uses to create his patterns.

His former mentee, Suzanne Crane of Mud Dauber Pottery, creates fossilized leaf patterns using plants from around her Earlysville studio.

“Part of the pleasure of this job is that I get to take my dog and go out looking for new things that have come up in the woods or a particular specimen of fern for a pot I have to make that day,” Crane said.

Her highly detailed process, self-described as just a little obsessive compulsive, involves pressing the leaves perfectly flat onto the clay and painting liquid porcelain on top before pulling off the leaf to create the fossil-like impression of its outline, veins, and even spores. According to Crane, it also “involves a lot of spit.” She creates the intricate triangle patterns by pressing a churchkey one painstaking point at a time into the clay. At this point she had to stop and marvel at my youth before explaining that a churchkey is simply a beer bottle opener.

While many of the artists’ I spoke to create work with overt references to the earth, Ilsin is taking environmental inspiration in a different direction.

“My process is pretty resource heavy,” Ilsin said. “I do what I can now to offset any carbon I’m putting out but I feel confident that I can actually be carbon free.”

In addition to using water from a rain barrel and reclaiming clay scraps and glaze, Ilsin is currently working on building a solar kiln, which would derive its energy from a 10 to 12′ satellite on top of his studio. By tracking the sun horizontally and vertically, the satellite would concentrate solar energy down into the kiln, heating the pot inside.

He hopes to extract from the solar kiln similar results to pit firing by using various kinds of plants, which when packed with the pot and heated to an extremely high temperature, would create unique effects on the surface depending on the chemical composition of the plant. Bamboo, for instance, would produce a “shiny flash,” according to Ilsin, due to its high silica content.

“I am trying to make it very affordable, because I want to build one for myself but I want it to be replicable,” he added.

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Alp Ilsin’s pottery reflects a collision of influences: physics theories and ancient Turkish designs. Photo courtesy of subject.

Sixteen years after first coming to Charlottesville, Ilsin has developed his own process for firing a crystalline glaze on his pots that, to his knowledge, no other potters fire the same way. These crystals are what give Ilsin’s pots their ethereal quality and undoubted recognition of belonging to him.

Ilsin draws this inspiration from a source of his heritage much closer and more direct than Turkey.

“This is the influence of my dad essentially, talking about quasi-crystals and stuff like that. It’s strange actually—he was here in the ’60s getting his Ph.D. at UVA, growing crystals for his Ph.D. work, and 50 years later, I’m here, and I’m growing crystals, but with a completely different aim.”

His father’s influence is clear—diagrams cover chalkboards and line the studio walls. Phrases like “solid state physics” and “five-fold symmetry” get thrown around and fly right over my head.

Ilsin’s cerebral approach to his work underscores his desire to make things heretofore unmade, the way that he wants to make them.

“One thing about me is that I’m lazy. And not necessarily lazy in a bad way, but when there’s a hardship, if there’s a wall, I don’t want to take down that wall—I want to go around that wall,” Ilsin said. “Finding more efficient solutions to problems is actually where creativity lies. Instead of saying I need to do this thing because this is what you do, you say ‘no I’m not going to do that thing because I don’t like doing that.’ That’s what I’ve done with the mugs, with the handles.”

The handles of his mugs, referred to by customers as brass knuckles because of their rounded indentations, have, according to Ilsin, kept him afloat as a potter over the past few years. When he realized that he did not want to pull handles for his mugs by hand, he decided to make his own handles by punching shapes out of a slab, modeled after an Ottoman mug he saw in a museum in Portugal.

Handing me a mug he said, “This is an especially uncomfortable one here,” referring to the awkward grip created by the many indentations in the handle. Ilsin has worked to modify the original Ottoman design to become more round and therefore more comfortable to hold.

However, novelty presents its own problems when it comes to selling the pieces.

“I like making things that haven’t been made before,” he said. “There are some unique challenges to selling things that haven’t been made before. You go to shows and people look at it and say, ‘Oh that’s so cool,’ but do they want to take it home?”

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