Wang: Potter’s goal is create work with beauty, functionality

By IAN WANG
Rantoul Press columnist


It is hard to believe, but I am happy it is holiday season again.

Several years ago at the Thanksgiving holiday studio show and sale at the Boneyard Pottery in Champaign, I got to speak with and learned about its owner and ceramic artist Michael Schwegmann.

He grew up in St Louis and started his art studies in 1993 at Kalamazoo College in Michigan, where he worked toward a BA. While looking for a new school option in 1995, he apprenticed for a potter.

He then came to the University of Illinois for the bachelor of fine arts program, and in 1996 he took over the operation of Boneyard Pottery. There he began doing juried fine art/craft fairs, which he has done since 1999 across the U.S.

Schwegmann said his desire to make ceramics began after watching a professional potter at work on the potter’s wheel. A master potter looks like a magician as he transforms a lump of clay into a beautiful shape.

It takes a lot of skill and practice to have the kind of mastery that looks like magic.

Schwegmann wanted to have that mastery, so he practiced. After a while Schwegmann turned out some respectable shapes, but there was a lot more involved in ceramics than just making some shapes:

“These challenges include physical coordination, sensitivity to the drying and the stress points of a material that changes from the consistency of pudding to the hardness of rock, and a deluge of technical knowledge regarding chemical calculations, mineral properties, and firing atmospheres and protocols,” Schwegmann recalled.

“On top of the technical stuff, fine ceramics requires creativity and an understanding of design.”

At the holiday studio show and sale, I selected two bowls and two mugs from his Forest series to collect. I have known Schwegmann for many years. I have such high regard to him, and I always enjoy his ceramic art.

The four ceramic pieces featured the combinations of functional art pottery and sculpture.

I told  Schwegmann I was sure I would enjoy using them, but in the meantime I would also see them as beautiful sculptures.

He proudly and happily replied: “I have made ceramic art for years, and I have always first regarded my work sculpturally, even when I have made fine pottery. This is to say, I am primarily concerned with my work having the right balance of form and surface, the attention to detail that an artist brings to his work. If I make a piece of functional pottery, such as a bowl or vase, then it should serve well or hold flowers beautifully; but I also want it to function as a presence of grace and mastery and good design.”

Schwegmann believes the function of something he makes is not complete if it only meets what we might consider the basics of hands-on utility. Part of his intent is to provide beautiful well-designed and perhaps thought-provoking objects that people will enjoy on a regular basis. So Schwegmann has never stopped thinking and exploring new directions.

Just about a year ago when I was interviewing Schwegmann for a life model drawing group exhibition, I noticed he started a new series and this was another way for him to address the question of utility and fine art.

“To make ceramic objects that were never intended as ceramic, or the kind of objects that show evidence of their use: tools, such as hammers and shovels, paint cans,” he said. “Or I take reference from other overlooked objects and give them a new form that is very considered. A bucket of old metal parts or a haphazard distillery becomes something architectural and narrative when I render it in porcelain.

“The objects I choose are immediately recognizable to most people. So these things tell a story or remind the audience of some story they may already know.”

Schwegmann was invited to show this new sculptural series at SOFA Chicago 2012 in October.

As a newcomer to this prestigious expo Schwegmann was well-received, and his art drawn interests generated a great deal of conversation.

Someone might say, “Hey, what is this piece of old junk doing here?” and then on inspection they understand it is not what they thought at first.

Schwegmann explained: “I leave plenty of hints that these pieces are handmade out of ceramic, though they can appear very much like the referenced object at first look. In these cases perhaps the sculptures become icons that ask questions about the items they represent. Often this work will engage the intellect, emotion or sense of humor in unexpected ways.”

Schwegmann said most people who know his work think of fine art pottery, and he sometimes hears the question, “How do you go from making vases to making paint cans?”

He responds: “I believe I have been doing sculptures the whole time, like I mentioned above. My new works are still about good design, interesting geometries and beautiful surfaces, and the details are the key to understanding these objects. I feel like with the newest sculpture, I am also able to add in a new narrative and establish more control over the contexts in which people understand my work.”

Dr. Ian Wang is the curator of the Spurlock Museum and may be contacted by e-mail: wangyu@illinois.edu

 

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