Arts & Entertainment » The Arts

The life cycle of ceramics

Sculpting growth and decay with Ryan Mitchell



Ceramicist and painter Ryan Mitchell wants to make you see things differently. Everything, that is. He admits he uses the word “thing” a lot, perhaps because it’s simpler than repeating the more formal name he’s given the main subject of his work: material hardware. The term encompasses many things—the orange street cone, the sidewalk gutter, the rotting fencepost, the piece of old pipe lying in the alley. These are objects we see every day but might not really look at. They are functional parts of our lives that, as Mitchell says, we “put to use and then sort of set aside in our minds. We have these objectives that we want to meet in our lives,” he says, “and all these things are put in place to get us to where we want to go…but we don’t really think of them. We’re not paying attention to them.”

In his current exhibit at the Clay Studio, Mitchell displays 15 works—a combination of ceramic sculptures and oil paintings—that ask us to look more closely at our world’s gritty, industrial objects, the functions of which we assume rather than behold. The show’s title, Technik (which is German for both technology and technique), addresses another of Mitchell’s focal concerns: how technology affects society.

“I think it detaches us from what’s immediately in front of us,” Mitchell says of television, media and digital technologies. He places no blame on such advancements; he just points to how living on a more global level can make us “kind of forget the here and now.” Walking around Missoula, though, has been a good antidote to getting caught up in the larger fray; raised in Parker, Colo., Mitchell came here two years ago from Bozeman to enter UM’s MFA program. With one year left in his degree, he’s wandered around Missoula enough to have the city rub off on his work.

“There are two different aspects to [Missoula],” he says. “One being the Garden City idea, that this is a place of life and growth. And it’s progressive in certain aspects, and really beautiful in many regards. But then on the other side, which is just as strong, is this kind of decay and destruction and entropy that is all a part of my thought processes. It’s an overused place, overextended.”

But in decay, Mitchell finds beauty. An old pipe rusts. A forgotten wall crumbles. “The world isn’t always friendly toward things,” he says, and it’s that “brutality of existence” that he likes to capture in his work. One piece, “Vestige,” is made up of a series of encased ceramic slats akin to an old radiator or gutter grate. Mitchell has sculpted the slats to appear worn and buckled; he’s fired the clay to look burnt. Another sculpture, “Column Row,” consists of seven pieces that collectively form a wall of clay pipes standing on end. It’s significant that the wall is in pieces, that its sides undulate and, like old parchment, look stained.

Mitchell wants his viewers to see how beauty and decay are connected. “I think it’s an important part of living,” he says, to look at an object like an industrial pipe and see it in a new light. In his sculpture “Millenia,” Mitchell stands porcelain pipes inside fence posts glazed a dull gunmetal shade. All of the pipes are gleaming white except one, which Mitchell submerged in coal when he fired it in the kiln. The coal prevented oxygen from reaching the pipe, which made the porcelain turn black. The effect is two-fold. First, the shiny white porcelain makes you see those pipes as fragile and valuable objects, rather than industrial ones. Secondly, the one blackened pipe against the fence reminds you that these objects, too, will suffer decay.

Mitchell says that his “intent as an artist is to just really have a kind of authentic relationship with the world,” and he finds that authenticity in these double-edged interpretations of his environment. “We want the world to be concrete, nailed down,” he says. “And it’s not. It’s a process of loss.” By loss, he doesn’t just mean entropy and death. He also means a loss of what many of us e-mail-communicating, satellite-TV-watching, iPod-listening humans seem to want: control.

The kiln offers a ceramicist only so much control. Mitchell has lost several works-in-progress to the oven’s extreme heat. “I’d say my failure rate is 20 to 30 percent,” he says of pieces that have broken in the kiln. “There’s always surprises…you have this idea of what you expect something to be, or what it has to be, or what its place can be, or how it can affect you…but there’s so much potential for loss. You have to be prepared for that.”

Mitchell uses the University’s wood-fired anagama kiln, which can reach temperatures of 2,400 degrees Fahrenheit. He feels that the firing “kind of reflects that violent, brutal process” that material hardware experiences in nature. The process is pretty tough on the artist, too. Mitchell explains that the University’s anagama is 20 feet long, 48 inches tall and 60 inches wide, and takes about 48 hours to load with students’ work. Depending on the size of the work to be fired, the kiln can hold anywhere from two to 500 pieces at once, and those pieces fire for about six days. Keeping the fire going all that time takes about a dozen artists to alternate checking on the flames, adding wood every five minutes. Near the end of a firing process, once the kiln’s temperature has exceeded 1,000 degrees, the wood burns faster and needs to be replenished every two minutes.

And that’s just the bare bones of firing. Ceramicists often choose to fire their works more than once, layering them with different glazes and reducing oxygen levels for other color or texture effects. Mitchell prefers to fire his works just once, though he does experiment with the materials he uses. For “Thesis,” a work referencing Martin Luther’s 95 Theses, he drove 95 nails into a rectangular slab of clay to see what would happen when he fired metal. In the finished work, the nails look like they’re made more of ash than metal, some bent over, a few heads puffing out like burnt marshmallows.

The oil paintings in Technik echo the sculptures’ themes of industry and entropy. Dark and abstract, they are, to Mitchell, “the kind of place where I can work out the things that are more vague for me, more disparate.” While the clay objects are tactile and “referencing some very real things,” painting, he says, gives him “the ability to deal with space and scale that I can’t do in clay.” With clay, he explains that “I try to restrict myself to dealing with it in ways that mimic industrialization. I don’t want to put very much emphasis on my hand leaving the imprint of my touch.” But with painting, his hand does play a significant role as he repeatedly edits strokes on the canvas, so that an initial idea for a painting might evolve into something he hadn’t anticipated.

Together, the sculptures and paintings complement each other in a way that meets Mitchell’s goal: “To create an arena for the viewer to have the potential to see things in a different way.” To ask, “What does this do? Why is this here?”

Technik will be showing at The Clay Studio of Missoula, 910 Dickens St., through June 27. Ryan Mitchell will hold a closing reception on Friday, June 25.

Add a comment