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Seriously Playful: The Pottery of Matt Jones
Posted By Katey Schultz On October 20, 2010 @ 8:37 am In Ceramics Monthly,Daily,Features,Functional Pottery,High Fire Glaze Recipes,Video,Wood Kiln Firing | 37 Comments
Today’s post highlights the pottery of Matt Jones, the cover artist from the November 2010 issue of Ceramics Monthly. Using local materials and decorative traditions, Matt’s work pays homage to the time when pottery played an important role in survival.
Even the tools he uses exemplify this reverence for “our collective pottery past” as he puts it. Take, for instance “The Crusher,” Matt’s super low tech and incredibly brilliant homemade device for crushing old bottles into powder for his glazes. Matt explains how it works below, and we have a video of it in action! So cool! He also shares a couple of glaze recipes. – Jennifer Harnetty, editor.
To enter the world of Matt Jones’ pottery is to meet more than just the potter and the work. It requires balanced consideration of historical influences, the needs of the modern consumer, and the opportunity to make something distinct.
Let’s start with the materials themselves. Excavated eight miles from Jones Pottery in Leicester, North Carolina, Jones’ “blue pipe clay” is alluvial sediment found just below the topsoil. Sounds simple enough, but for Jones, this clay conjures much more than these facts: he thinks of eons of geological and ecological forces. “Alluvial clay beds are built up from hundreds or thousands of floods in which the smallest particles of eroded rock from upstream settle slowly next to the river instead of flowing to the Atlantic or Gulf of Mexico. I find these forces of nature to be very beautiful.”
Jones expresses a similar infatuation with surface treatments. With a nod toward the decorative traditions of Edgefield, South Carolina, he uses an alkaline glaze with kaolin slip trailing. The brushwork is largely inspired by Chinese floral patterns and centuries of European and American interpretations of these motifs. That’s the short version. But ask Jones to talk about the crusher, a water-powered machine used to grind glass into a fine powder useful as a constituent in glazes, and his response is full of awe and respect for the simplicity and pedigree of this device (see “The Crusher” below).
It seems entirely fitting, then, that Jones makes forms steeped in traditional sources that complement this sense of reverence. Many of his forms borrow from the crocks, jars, and jugs of 19th century American traditions. “I certainly don’t want to travel back in time,” Jones says, “but I have an appreciation for what kind of native intelligence was needed to survive [then.] The pottery played a key role in that survival and I love that integration of production and use.” Indeed, garden produce was pickled in stoneware jars. Jams or preserves were also kept in stoneware. Sausage, lard, and salted meat were packaged in storage jars, tied down with cloth, and sealed with wax. Molasses, milk, and water were kept in jugs and crocks, and even corn distilled into moonshine kept gallon and half-gallon jugs in high demand.
“I think most of my work honors our collective pottery past,” Jones says. But where does influence stop and a potter’s own voice begin? At what point does a sense of reverence morph into something a potter can call his own? For Jones, that’s precisely the catch. When it comes to the larger forms, there is no boundary where his influences stop and his own contributions begin. Like the floods from centuries ago that formed the clay he uses today, these things are intrinsically interconnected.
Form is only one third of an equation that should add up to distinct expression. Function and surface decoration make up the other two-thirds. With regard to function, the work is never complete until it is used or until it engages us in some way. The modern utilitarian function of pots that are 30–60 inches tall or jugs that are 10–25 inches tall is immediately questioned. Not many people have used a stoneware churn to make the butter they spread on their bread at suppertime. Nowadays, “display and memory are the function of these pots,” says Jones. “They literally contain empty space, but they contain and preserve some portion of our values as Americans from a time that has slipped away.” Fair enough. But numerous potters can say that about their work.
Surface decoration is the final consideration and it is here that Jones’ greatest contribution reveals itself. Whether he is making large jars or small soap dishes, Jones uses slip trailing for patterns that evoke the natural world. Fish, lizards, herons, hummingbirds, snakes, flowers, vines, and roots are common components of his designs. These images are arranged playfully around each form, inviting you to walk around a large jar or to turn a mug over in your palms. It is as though the creatures and patterns are in motion. In order to experience the whole story, you have to follow their lead. When you do, more often than not, you’ll end up with a smile across your face or a bounce in your step. “Many of my decorative treatments have historical precedent, but I take them in my own personal direction,” says Jones. “All of the natural beauty that I paint and slip trail on pots is connected back to my childhood when all of my intimate encounters with the natural world were brand new, delightful experiences.”
At a time when many of society’s “technological time savers” (Internet, cell phones, airplanes) enable us to find out more, be more accessible, and get there quicker, we’re also seeing the side effects of such advances. With machines that aid our efficiency at our fingertips, we are now expected to be efficient in almost all areas of our lives, without fail. “In some ways this technology is psychologically beneficial,” says Jones. “But I find myself longing for the simplicity of my childhood. Our rights to indulge, play, or enjoy leisure time. I worry that the ‘American ideal’ is currently threatening all of these.” What happens when what we have at our fingertips is a piece of handmade pottery, whimsically decorated with a nod toward history? It’s in this moment that we hear Jones’ voice, subtle but tempting: Get outside. Play. Enjoy life.
To learn more about Matt Jones and Jones Pottery, visit www.jonespottery.com or look for him at the Potter’s Market International in Charlotte, North Carolina, in the fall of 2010.
the author Katey Schultz specializes in essays about contemporary American craft, writing short stories, and having a good time. Follow her two-year journey across the United States as a “writer at large” by visiting: http://sites.google.com/site/kateyschultz/.
|These glazes are measured by dry weight, slaked and passed wet through a window screen. They are refined in the ball mill for a couple of hours and applied to leather-hard greenware. The pots are fired to cone 11 in a 600-cubic-foot wood-burning kiln. I add about 16 lb. of salt to the kiln towards the end of a 36-hour firing.
*A chalky, white, high-silica clay dug in Seagrove, North Carolina.
** Alluvial clay excavated 8 miles from Jones Pottery in Leicester, North Carolina.
*** The common sandy red clay found throughout the mountains and piedmont of the southern Appalachian region.
Crunch! The sound of dribbling water changes pitch as it slowly fills the 3-gallon wooden box. When the box is almost full, its weight lowers one end of a small wooden see-saw to which the box is attached. As it descends, first filling, then spilling its water back into the creek from which it came, the other, longer end of the see-saw, armed with three pieces of rebar, rises. When the half-empty box hits bottom, it weighs less than the long end, and the balance shifts, bringing the rebar crashing down into a box of broken glass. Crunch!
The entire process takes about ten slow seconds and it seems a little unimpressive when it isn’t in motion. But the steady trickle of water never sleeps. Crunch! it sounds again, 6 times per minute, 360 times an hour, 8640 times per day. In one week, the rebar strikes the box of glass 60,480 times. All of my beer bottles and salsa jars are fed into the crusher, which yields a surprisingly fine powder of glass to add to my alkaline glazes.
The steady flow of water and the laws of gravity are ingeniously harnessed in this simple machine, which has been employed in western North Carolina, upstate South Carolina, and northern Georgia for over 150 years. I had read about these “plunking” mills in Terry Zug’s book, Turners and Burners, but after seeing one in action on an American Folkways video featuring Vale, North Carolina’s Burlon Craig, I was captivated. Every few days I walk up past the goat pen and apprentice cabin to add more glass or harvest powder, and I have to sit down and watch and listen. Serene and beguiling, this machine has a powerful hold on my imagination. Crunch!
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