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Feminist Ceramicist Michelle Erickson Makes Pottery Political

Aug 14 2015 9:00 PM
Feminist Ceramicist Michelle Erickson Makes Pottery Political

All photos courtesy of Michelle Erickson

Ceramics have traditionally been relegated to the realm of "women's arts." But Michelle Erickson's political pottery is anything but dainty.

I've always considered pottery one of the most boring art forms, somewhere between theater and weaving. But because ceramics--and the rest of the "decorative arts"--are traditionally relegated to the realm of the female (and, thus, the implied realm of the not-as-good), I feel guilty about thinking it. I should be defending the validity of what has historically been women's work! I should be fighting the impulse to reject pottery as boring, because that impulse is a result of ingrained notions of men and men's work as superior!

So when a friend told me about a "feminist ceramicist" he knew, I wondered if she could make me care about ornamental sugar bowls. In the age of MakerBot dildos and Instagram art shows, the idea of talking to someone whose life's work involves firing up a kiln and making vases--even weird and very involved ones--feels almost quaint. But a quick look through Virginia-based artist Michelle Erickson's work reveals her to be anything but quaint, or boring. Traditional Moravian animal figurines wield grenades; tread from Nike Olympic track shoes is used as a relief. Her work has been featured at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and she's finishing up a show at the Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art this weekend.

Erickson practices something called "experimental archeology," an intensive examination of historical and traditional ceramic techniques that she then reworks with a contemporary political slant. We spoke over the phone about history, Ai Weiwei, and the wrongness of calling what she does "women's" arts.

Broadly: Okay. First, what's experimental archeology?
Michelle Erickson: Well, experimental archeology is the term used when practitioners in a particular medium try to understand how things were made [in the past]. That's what term is often applied to what I do--trying to recreate these objects and what the process of their making is.

So where does your interest in it come from? Did you go see some ceramics in a show or something, and then you were fascinated?
Yeah, I went and saw 'em in the basement across the street. I went to school at William and Mary--I was in painting, and I switched to ceramics.

Was anybody really doing that? Switching from painting to ceramics? Do people do ceramics that often?
Well, they had a ceramics program. I think that was probably [when] postmodern ceramics was burgeoning--that was like 1982. It was really kind of coming into its own. But I didn't know the first thing about any of that--I was getting a little bit fed up with the painting department, and I just decided to try it, that's all it boiled down to. The only classes that were available were in what you call "raku" firing--I don't know if you know what that is.

I have no idea.
First of all, the ceramics department was like, you know, in this crap old abandoned factory building. The others--the sculpture, all the fine arts--were in the newest facility. But, anyway, raku firing is where you take any kind of pots or whatever you made and fire them at a very low temperature. [You] heat them up to glowing hot where the glazes flux, and then you actually open the kiln out, and you pull these red-hot, glowing pots out of the kiln, and you stick 'em into stuff, you know, whatever combustible material. [It] catches on fire, and they get all this sort of crackling--so obviously there was no turning back from that. It was, like, this beats painting!

What was wrong with painting? Why were you fed up with it?
Oh, nothing was wrong with it. I just didn't feel like I was moving forward.

It's interesting that ceramics was a progressive move, and you felt like you were moving forward and advancing. Because most people would see it as this stagnant thing in a shitty facility, you know what I mean?
Yeah! I remembered sitting down and throwing a pot [at another university, where I was before William and Mary]. There was nothing alien--I had never done it, and I didn't know anything about it, but I just basically sat down and did it.

But--wait. Isn't it really hard? I feel like I tried to do it once, and I physically couldn't.
Yeah! A lot of people struggle with it.

I go through a lot of hell to make it work.

Did you think, Oh, this is my thing; this is my calling?
Well, I didn't really think too much about it for a couple of years. And of course that's not the case for a lot of pots after that, but for some reason, but it just all--you just do this and pull it up and make a shape.

I do use my sort of talent in clay. I can model any kind of thing and face; I can throw pots; I can do all of that stuff--I kind of use all those things as tools. I don't see them as an end in themselves.

Is all your stuff one-of-a-kind?
Essentially, yeah, it is, because I don't make things to multiply them. Some things are--and in fact the Moravian squirrels, the ones with the guns and grenades and things--they're a piece that I've done some number of times. They're never the same, but they're something that I've repeated because I like the idea of repeating them that way to see how they evolve. Or if I need more than one figure, I'll usually make a model, make a mold, and then repeat the figure because I want more than one that's identical for what I'm doing. But for the most part, yeah, all the works are, thus far, entirely unique. Well, not for the most part--they all are.

How long have you been doing this? Since you "discovered" ceramics when you were in college in 1982?
I've been doing it ever since then. [After a couple of years in the ceramics program] we took a field trip to Colonial Williamsburg's department of collections--I think it was in a basement--and I was looking at this huge breadth of ceramics that I had never been exposed to. I don't know if we ever learned anything about any of the Western ceramic tradition, which generally gets categorized as "decorative arts." If you go to Japan, suddenly it's not "decorative arts" anymore--it's just art. It has this whole different aesthetic that gets elevated for some reason.

Are you saying Japan is elevating the tradition? Or do you think that the West is diminishing the tradition unnecessarily by calling it "decorative arts"? Because I know there are lots of people who reject the "decorative arts" category because it implies a hierarchy.
It's basically saying "decoration art." For me it doesn't really make any sense. Largely art is not useful--it's decorative. And for some reason, "decorative arts" includes a lot of utilitarian objects.

Well, people often make a feminist argument about that, saying that it's an attempt to diminish the female aspects of history or culture or art, to sort of separate them. It's the same with "women's magazines" or "women's literature," where we imply that what women do is somehow less.
Yeah! Get rid of that "women's." At the same time, you have to identify yourself to be able to break down those barriers to identity, so it's a sort of catch-22.

Do you see your work fitting into a tradition of feminist responses to history? Is it related to pottery/ceramics having been regarded as a women's art form? (Is that true of pottery/ceramics, in fact? Has it been primarily women making pottery historically?)
It is true that pottery is the art of women in many cultures, including African and Native American [cultures], which interest me a great deal. It's especially true before Western industrialization, where--as in many things--the actual work force behind so much of what we own remains purposefully elusive.

When Ai Weiwei debuted "his" seminal installation work Sunflower Seeds, it seemed ironic to me that the 1600 laborers (a large number being woman) were required for years to create these millions of porcelain seeds could barely be seen or heard from. In fact, now you can hardly find a single image on Google of this work being produced. [It's a piece that] intends to reflect and expose a condition of a people and place, [but it] uses the very same oppressive mechanics of that condition to communicate through a work of art.

When I make a statement, I don't want it to be so vague that no one knows what that statement is.

I'm wondering how you come up with your juxtapositions--maybe that's a vague question, but what I mean is, basically: Putting the Nike Olympic track shoe tread on a 13th-century vase is completely inspired.
All cultures share the need to create things out of clay, from fertility idols to chamber pots--ceramics has touched every aspect of the human experience. It's the democracy of the medium that has allowed for its use as a communicator. Sometimes I see such striking parallels: late 18th/early 19th-century abolitionist ceramics as a conduit for exposure of 21st-century child slavery, fueled by many of the same commodities now as then--coffee, sugar, chocolate; the figural bottles. Specifically the green glazed squirrels--produced by the Moravian potters of North Carolina as a modern statement of man-versus-nature, as well as an Animal Farm turn on gun culture in America; the fascination with fossil imagery in 18th-century decorative arts as telling for our relentless pursuit of fossil fuels in the 21st century.

What many people take in as quaint antique china was, in fact, by the 18th century in Britain, a global industrial powerhouse, a commodity that fueled technology, industrialism, trade, and the practice of slave labor; the ceramic industry of Britain fueled a colonial empire. That pottery reached every colonial household--hence the parallel to a company like Nike.

Can you have a positive effect on social issues as an artist? As opposed to being an activist and saying, "I'm not going to make pottery; I'm going to help these women in El Salvador get access to safe abortions."
I think that there's a movement of this sort of social engagement [in art]--[the idea] that if you're an artist you need to basically have some kind of a social relevance and figure out how to engage a lot of people in society through how you're working. To me, that's a bit of a fallacy.

If I were going to put that much effort into [engaging people with social issues], I think I would just be an activist and do it directly. I kind of feel like a lot of times what I'm working on is a--I hate to use the word--an empathetic or empathic connection to things going on in the world. It's more a reflection of that than trying to advocate for a certain thing. But I do feel like I use the history of ceramics as a tool for making [what's going on in the world] make sense to me while I'm doing it.

Do you think it's possible to avoid advocating? If somebody sees your work, they're going to derive a political viewpoint from it, regardless of intention.
Yeah, I don't think it's possible--and I don't want the work to seem neutral. I think it usually does have more than dual meanings. I also feel like, when you're putting all that focus and energy into what is in part researching and understanding your idea but also in part just the creative process, that there's a lot in [your work] that you just don't consciously know.

I feel like when I make a statement, I don't want it to be so vague that no one knows what that statement is. If you are trying to say something, you should say it, and not have it be so ambiguous that you have to hear a lecture about it to know what it is. Certainly you do have to hear a lecture about my stuff to know everything that's there, but I think [viewers] can bring to it what they see. I almost find it personally irritating when [an artist's] message is so convoluted [that it] could be anything--you just avoid the repercussions of saying [something directly].

I don't want the work to seem neutral.

I think that's why people are rejecting highbrow "pretension" and turning towards pop culture. People think, I don't need to be spoken to like this, so I'm just going to intellectualize pop culture instead of working with an intellectual source.
I am all for knowing things. I think power is knowing. I think it is good to have a breadth and depth of understanding about where you're coming from and what the hell's going on in the world and where that comes from, to whatever extent you can. But especially in the critical realms, it's just gotten ever and ever more inaccessible, and the language is obtuse. That does generate a reaction of "to hell with all that [highbrow] stuff." And that's not good--to have a pop culture idea of everything. Though it's certainly advantageous to industry; it's very advantageous [if you] want to have people buying stuff all the time.

Do you fail a lot?
I use a lot of different materials and methods and techniques, including the most modern crap I can use to do what I have to do. But the success rate of actual work is kind of high for me because I go through a lot of hell to make it work. It can be just hours and hours and hours and hours of standing there, repositioning something, like, a thousand times.

Is it torturous?
It is torturous. And I'm really, really good at all those things, so it's not like it's hard because I don't have the skills. It's just hard work. It's not like anybody's gonna die, like I'm doing brain surgery or anything, so it's OK. [But] you can have 1000 hours of work in something, and it can be lost. It doesn't mean that, just because you toil away forever, you're going to make a great piece of art or anything worth having. It is kind of a high-stress, without it having the consequence of driving the space shuttle into a hospital or something.

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