Gail Nichols refers to her evocative ceramic works not as pottery or abstract sculpture, but simply as vessels. It’s a term she adopted purposely to help make her pieces more accessible, and to better represent the process by which she creates them. By calling them vessels, she says, people are more apt to interact with her work.
“I encourage people to touch them and feel them,” she says of her free-formed vases, bowls and plates. “I call them vessels partly because a lot of them are not truly functional domestic pots and such, and I like that reference to the vessel because it means people are comfortable walking up to the piece and feeling it. If it were considered an abstract piece of sculpture, they would just stand and stare.”
You don’t have to touch one of Nichols’ pieces to notice their exaggerated dimpled texture, similar to an orange peel. The effect is the result of a unique form of soda glazing (an environmentally friendly alternative to the more common salt glazing) that Nichols developed while studying at Australia’s Monash University and teaching at the Australian National University School of Art. Instead of using a traditionally thin soda glaze, she employs a heavier mixture that creates “a visual impression of snow and ice moving glacially over the surface” in the kiln. By knowing how to manipulate the atmosphere during firing and cooling, and responding to form and flame movements, Nichols can create a wide spectrum of colors. It’s a process she’s teaching to local ceramic artists while serving as artist-in-residence at The Clay Studio of Missoula.
“There’s an interest in soda glazing here, but I don’t really see my approach being done,” she says. “My approach is more based on fire and atmosphere.”
Nichols does not name her individual finished pieces—“I tried to use fancy names and it didn’t work,” she explains—instead relying on more literal, general descriptions of her work. Her signature form, which looks like a three-dimensional heart with an opening at the top, is called a “shouldered jar”; she chose the shape because the broad, rounded surface was receptive to the pour of her glaze. Her “basic cylinders,” a combination of thrown and manipulated clay, are asymmetrical and have “a certain sort of awkwardness that I could play with in the fire.” Her “plates” have been described as looking like stingrays, and were another perfect match between aesthetics and glaze.
“My aim is to create beautiful objects,” she writes in her artist statement. “Not just pretty things to look at, but a powerful beauty that quietly overwhelms, moves, and reveals some of what human beings are capable of, beyond the ordinariness of existence.”
Nichols’ presence in Missoula is something of a benchmark for The Clay Studio, according to Executive Director Jayson Lawfer. When he was an art student, Lawfer remembers admiring Nichols’ work on the cover of prominent industry magazines, and he’s followed her career ever since. He’s been working to bring Nichols to Missoula for over two years.
“The dynamics of where we were as a nonprofit two or three years ago to having someone like Gail Nichols teaching here is amazing,” says Lawfer. “It’s really important to our becoming a draw to both national and international ceramic artists.”
In addition to creating new work, studying the different clay bodies available in the area, conducting workshops and presenting lectures during her six-week residency, Nichols is also helping The Clay Studio redesign its gas-fired soda kiln. Lawfer timed the reconstruction of the kiln so the studio could benefit from Nichols’ expert input.
“I believe the greatest thing Gail brings to the ceramic world is such a high level of intelligence,” says Lawfer. “The whole time she’s been here she’s been researching and working. She has a very comprehensive, academic approach—her knowledge in soda glazing is unbelievable.”
And her work?
“To be able to make pieces like that and surfaces like that,” says Lawfer, “just seeing it was part of what made me want to do what I do.”
Imagine if he had touched it as well.
Gail Nichols’ work will be on display at The Clay Studio (910 Dickens St.) through Saturday, Aug. 27. On Thursday, Aug. 18, Nichols will present a gallery talk at the Missoula Art Museum’s Temporary Contemporary gallery in the Florence Building at 7 PM.