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Cross Pollination Through Clay: Baltimore Clayworks

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I watch Jeremy Wallace, a wood kiln technician, close off the stoking hole with yellow fire bricks, but I can see the red hot glow of flame through small gaps between them. In this “reduction phase,” wood is loaded into the first chamber roughly every five or ten minutes. Ceramicist and technician Matt Gaddie built the two-chamber wood/soda Noborigama, a Japanese term for a climbing kiln. This ascending tunnel of connected chambers has been used in Japan since the 17th century. Wood firing takes an entire day and night with a group of artists on three to six hour shifts, never leaving the kiln unattended.

Nada Abizaid, a ceramic artist, puts on leather gloves and opens a small steel door to add pieces of recycled pallet wood. This process is repeated until the second chamber is fueled with wood and the temperature of 2400°F is reached. In wood firing, the ash inside the chamber becomes an essential element as it allows for surprising and unexpected patterning in the glazing.

Soda ash added to the second chamber affects the sheen, texture, and glaze of pieces which all contribute to the final outcome and variety of the finishes in works by Abizaid and a group of other ceramicists. “I enjoy the community aspect of firings as well as discovering each piece’s uniqueness when unloading the kiln,” says Abizaid. “The imprints of elemental properties inherent to ceramics fired in a wood kiln often yield mesmerizing finishes; it almost adds a fourth dimension to the artworks.”

Wood-firing is by nature a communal activity.
Nada Abizaid

Wood firing is one of the biggest community events at Baltimore Clayworks and it is attended by ceramic artists from Maryland, Virginia, and Pennsylvania. Connection, collaboration, and cooperation are crucial for this process; as artists toil together in loading the kiln, stoking the fire, and checking the temperature of the pieces. Meanwhile, they share food, drink and conversation—occasionally cooking out or grilling by the roaring kiln.

“Wood-firing is by nature a communal activity,” says Abizaid. “Participants work as a team with Jeremy; whether wadding artworks, loading the kiln and sealing it, taking shifts in smaller groups stoking the kiln overnight, and finally, meeting again a few days later once the kiln has cooled down to unload and restore shelves to a usable condition for future firings.”

 

Clay is intrinsically community oriented as a material that is deeply connected to the earth, molded by hands, and transformed through fire. As students and mentors work side by side to create unique works of art, they affect not only one another’s practice, but also each other. Clayworks facilitates opportunities to craft and collect.

Within its walls, the labels of teacher and student are fluid and interchanging. In addition to their unique wood firing kiln, the ceramics studio at Clayworks is also a larger community where cross-pollination occurs—a perfect mix between gallery and maker space where artists, teachers, and students create both together and in close proximity to each other, leading to fruitful conversations and new discoveries. 

Clayworks also champions and aids emerging ceramic artists through their fellowships and residency programs which aim to foster the best and brightest—locally, nationally, and internationally. This summer there were five artists-in-residence: Kiran Joan, Patrick Bell, Shea Kister, Clarissa Pezone, and Vanna Ramirez. While Joan was the EMBARC Fellow, the latter four are longer term residents, and all of them take part in teaching classes, with inspiration flowing both ways.

I caught up with Joan over the phone in early September, just after her fellowship ended. Joan is a graduate of the MICA MFA Illustration program and her work is characterized by bold, vase-like forms and warm colors, with fluid illustrations on these functional and sculptural objects. “Clay is a separate headspace from working digitally,” she says. “Especially thinking about how to push and pull a 2D image on a 3D surface.” Like her, I also feel that working with clay brings me closer to earth. There is a certain tactility that comes with clay that is soothing and gratifying. BCW resident Patrick Bell also relishes the infinite possibilities of this natural material that transforms from something extremely malleable in the artist’s hands to a rigid form. 

Having space, time, and access to equipment is essential for ceramicists to create their work. Meanwhile, the proximity of other artists helped Joan envision her place within the fine art and ceramic world. It lent itself to conversations and collaborations, such as a collection of mugs that Joan created with Bell, the Lormina Salter Fellow, a fellowship that is awarded to an emerging artist with benefits including studio space, solo exhibition and material stipend. Their collaborative black and white vessels combine Joan’s illustrative style with Bell’s figurative finger components appearing as handles and asymmetrical protrusions. Joan was Bell’s student before becoming a Fellow, demonstrative of the fluid path of artists who pass through or stay at the organization. 

Nestled within the Mt. Washington neighborhood, Clayworks has been a tremendous resource for ceramic artists. Entering its 43rd year, it aims to introduce individuals to clay and “to create pathways for [them] to onboard and engage with handmade ceramics; whether that’s functional or sculptural objects,” according to Matthew Hyleck, an artist, teacher, parent, and the Executive Director since 2022. 

Hyleck has been with Clayworks for twenty-three years, initially teaching and shepherding the Educational Programs. His dedication is palpable and he brings a nuanced perspective to the needs of artists and students in this role. About 75% of the staff are active makers and their commitment to making endows them with distinct perspectives on contemporary ideas and a continuous enthusiasm to improve one’s craft. 

Hyleck explains the Clayworks community as “the people that come through our door, the people that we touch as collectors. It’s our donors and our members and our partners in the off-site satellite programs that we operate. It is the artists that we represent from across the country. So the community is not just local—it is everybody that we directly and indirectly serve through the program.” 

 

The traditional craft guilds—ceramics, woodworking, fibers—those communities are tight-knit and open to sharing ideas, techniques, and recipes. Everyone is in it to help elevate the craft. The success for each of us only makes it more accessible to the public.
Clayworks Executive Director Matthew Hyleck

The Clayworks Community Arts Program specifically aims to bring ceramic education to Baltimore schools that have had their arts programming cut or reduced, as well as schools that only have materials available for 2D instruction.

In addition, Clayworks teachers work with Tuerk House, a men’s recovery program; Evening Report Center (ERC), an educational and cultural programming organization helping adjudicated youth; Arlington Elementary’s daytime enrichment program; and ARC Baltimore, a disability service and support organization. Currently, a one-off workshop is being developed and tested with the Blind Industries and Services of Maryland. Hyleck hopes that some of those students can be onboarded to work within their facilities. This speaks to Claywork’s vast efforts to provide access to clay and to the empowering effect of working with one’s hands. 

Baltimore Clayworks offers a variety of workshops as well as longer classes through three “semesters” in the fall, spring, and summer—for children and adults. Their workshops and classes provide opportunities to learn techniques like hand building with different focuses: Jamaican coil and soft slab building, human-hybrids, or figurative sculpture. They also offer lessons on wheel throwing and students can advance through multiple levels. There is so much to learn that experimenting with ceramics can be a lifetime endeavor. The students who have been actively taking classes for the past twenty years are a testament to the organization’s educational values, community, and facilities. 

I can personally verify that the clay community feels inclusive and sociable at Clayworks. Although my primary art medium is not clay, I had a phenomenal experience in a basic wheel class with Maryanne Daymont in 2021. My vessels came out a little wobbly, but the touch of wet clay on Friday afternoons helped to calm my jittery nerves from a long stressful week of work and it reconnected me with my own creative practice. Also, I think that the idea of a vessel, as a central metaphor, can be applied to ceramics itself as a nurturing space. 

“The traditional craft guilds (ceramics, woodworking, fibers), those communities are tight-knit and open to sharing ideas, techniques, and recipes,” says Hyleck. “Everyone is in it to help elevate the craft. The success for each of us only makes it more accessible to the public.”

Clayworks Tea in the Gallery

Upcoming Clayworks Event: Sunday, March 3, 2024, 11:00 – 12:00 pm

Join us at 11:00 am for an hour-long tea-time experience where you will learn about the healing properties of tea from Juniper Farm’s founder, Sarah Acconcia and the art of the teapot from Executive Director, Matt Hyleck while enjoying classic tea-time nibbles from SoftStuff Distributors and the Baltimore Clayworks community. Tickets must be purchased in advance.

Enjoy the one-hour tea-time amongst the Teapots X exhibition pieces:
Sip on healing tea blends from Juniper Farm.
Nibble on sweets, savories, and scones from SoftStuff Distributors.
Learn how to use tea to bring wellness with Sarah Acconcia.
Learn about the art and artistry of the teapot with Matt Hyleck.
Enjoy conversation with other communiTEA members with family style seating.
Single ticket $45 ($20 is tax-deductible)
Private Table of 4 is $200 ($100 is tax-deductible)
Purchase tickets here

This story is from Issue 16: Collaboration, available here.

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