Entrepreneurs People

The Voice of Clay

Melissa speaks of clay as though it is some mystical part of the human story – which it is, and she consistently refers to her growth as a clay artist as “finding [her] voice.”  But does clay speak? It does, and what it says is profound.

When we think of spinning wheels, we might relate them to those on the highway, traveling along to destinations of work or play.  Perhaps we think of manufacturing, the fast turning of the industrial age yielding products with costs both human and environmental.  Maybe we think of being stuck in the mud, driving as hard as we can and going nowhere.  If we are the young, whimsical type, we might think of pinwheels.  Older and more cynical – the colorful prize wheels of carnivals that always seem to land on the marker of least consequence.  For most of us, it would take some time before something as simple and ancient as the potter’s wheel comes to mind.  For Melissa Michael, however, this is the spinning that sets her world in motion.

Melissa Michael is a clay artist and private instructor living and working in Solebury Township. Image by Kristina Gibb Photography.

A potter and private instructor living and working in Solebury Township, Melissa speaks of clay as though it is some mystical part of the human story – which it is, and she consistently refers to her growth as a clay artist as “finding [her] voice.” But does clay speak?

It does, and what it says is profound.

Pottery has been part of our human culture for millennia.  As archeologists pull the past from the ground, they piece together our history by reassembling fragments of broken pottery.  The patinas and sediments, traces of contents, ornateness, locations, abundance or scarcity of pots and bowls and other vessels tell the stories of lives lived as many as 20,000 years ago.  Handfuls of mud molded and shaped, given form and function, become part of our anthropological record with the mere application of heat.  “Once you fire clay in the kiln,” Melissa explains, “it undergoes a physical and chemical change.  The clay changes from a soluble material into an insoluble ceramic.  It becomes a permanent part of history.  This is why we are able to carbon date pottery and learn about cultures throughout history.”

This means there is an “environmental implication to making pottery.  Discarded pots won’t break down in a landfill.  When I taught high school ceramics, I graded work before it was fired.  I did not want my students to fire work they did not intend to keep, use, and enjoy.  It didn’t hurt their grade to make the decision to recycle their work.  In my own studio, when I’m trying out new forms, techniques, and processes, not everything makes it to the kiln.  I consider it part of the journey to make-and-toss (recycle) clay as I explore new things.”

Melissa works from a home-based studio where she creates as well as conducts private instruction with students, one-on-one. Images by Kristina Gibb Photography.

With the ramification of permanency hanging over the bowed heads of potters and sculptors at work, the stories told by clay are selected, and they have changed over time.  Countless generations ago, they spoke simply of necessity.  The transport of water, mead, or wine.  Perhaps they held salt for mummification or herbs for healing.  As we progressed, so did our pottery.  It became decorative, detailed, gilded, revered as the work of masters among us… masters like Toshiko Takaezu, a Ryukyuan American native to Hawaii and world-renowned potter who taught at Princeton University and set up a studio and school in Hunterdon County, New Jersey – a studio Melissa visited.  She rang the bells and spoke with the master.  Melissa describes Takaezu the same way I remembered her from my childhood (an acquaintance of my father), a gentle and soft-spoken woman who exuded peace and warmth.  “She wanted to share with others and encourage others,” Melissa says, “and help them find their voices.”

Their voices…

When clay speaks, it does so through the potters.  Today, most ceramics come from assembly lines in faraway places – World’s Best mugs, fancy plates with holiday imagery, and everyday dinner dishes, but there are still artists speaking to us through clay.  Melissa, for one, and her story began generations ago.

Most heartwarmingly and possibly most influential is Melissa’s grandmother, a Penn State graduate who studied and taught Home Economics.  She was an aboveboard cook who explored her culinary talents at home.  She was also an exceptional seamstress who made clothing with the use of a dress form that now stands in Melissa’s home as a decorative reminder of the beloved matriarch.  “She was a maker and a saver,” Melissa says, “someone who lived through the Great Depression and took from that time an understanding of what was essential and how to value simple things.  I can see now how that has been passed along from my nana to my mother, and to me.  She prized things that were handmade above those that were machine made and store-bought.  They held more meaning and typically lasted longer.”

This thinking holds true in Melissa’s ideas about what makes artisan items more precious and valuable than manufactured pieces.  “There is time not only in the process of making but in the experience behind it… There is something different about handmade.  There’s spiritual energy that is present in pieces that have been hand formed, handmade.  Every part of it touched and pressed and manipulated.”

Melissa’s work is throughout her home-based studio. Images by Kristina Gibb Photography.

A self-proclaimed “functional potter,” Melissa comes from a long line of artists.  Her roots grow from the soil of central Pennsylvania where her ancestors were dairy farmers and agricultural landowners who, at one point, leased land for the growing of tomatoes that found their way into Chef Boyardee’s canned foods.  They eventually expanded into food transportation when the horse drawn wagon that carried their produce into town became a fleet of trucks.  Domestic arts were ever present in their story, however.  More recent generations found their artistic expression conveniently through work.  Melissa’s father was a claims adjuster in Philadelphia who inspected old buildings, photographing damage for insurance companies but capturing for himself curious, expressive, and interesting photos of the places his work took him.  Her mother was a homemaker first, but her artistic inclinations were satisfied with a part-time job at a local flower shop where she was responsible for arrangements and displays.  Melissa and her brother both pursued careers in Art Education.  Melissa married an artist who worked in custom lighting design, and now their daughter has an affinity for painting.

These items speak of the artists themselves.  When you buy something handmade, you’re acquiring a visual representation of that moment in an artist’s career, an expression of their creative self, a page from their book.  For Melissa, right now, that expression is something that is changing.  It is as transformative as the material itself. 

“I am caught in trying to find my voice, in what I want to offer with my artwork,” she explains.  She lifts up a mug that she made, warm and aromatic with tea, as she continues.  “I love being part of someone’s daily ritual at home.  However, I also love sculptural ceramics and one-of-a-kind art pieces, functional or not.”

Plaques, vases, cups, mugs, bowls, and teapots are just some of the pieces that adorn Melissa‘s Solebury studio. Image by Kristina Gibb Photography.

As she goes on, Melissa makes it clear that she is “still on the journey,” discovering the things she can bring to others that no one else does.  She is joyfully “pushing boundaries” and exploring the width of her own talent and expression, looking for “something that I can continually take joy from.”  Having given herself permission to “try and fail and try again,” Melissa is simultaneously searching for her voice and acknowledging that she may never speak a single language.  Perhaps the journey is the story she will tell in clay.

With no pressure to put her career in the kiln, she is truly living in the muddy moment.  Her hands gliding up and down a shapeless mass of spinning, wet clay, Melissa brings form, and sometimes function, to that which you and I would shake from our boots on a rainy day.  For her, this creative process is a zone, an almost meditative state.  “Working on the wheel,” she says, “definitely forces you to really focus on this.  You really can’t be worrying about other things or focused on your next to-do list.  This really forces you to let that all go.”

Melissa demonstrating paddling and wheel methods. Images by Kristina Gibb Photography.

From this mindful place, Melissa speaks through her art, giving life to pieces beautiful and often useful.  She explains the chemistry and magic of shaping, firing, and glazing, of reductions, different types of kilns, and the multitude of factors a potter or sculptor will manipulate to get a variety of outcomes.  She knows this art inside and out.  She studied it first at Kutztown University.  From there, she did an exchange program at what was then Buckinghamshire Chilterns University College in England.  Now called Clay College Stoke, the ceramics program was separated out when the university was restructured and renamed Buckinghamshire New University in the early part of this century.  Clay College Stoke was cofounded by Melissa’s former instructor and current course director, Kevin Millward, who is also the producer of The Great British Throwdown, a pottery challenge show.  Needless to say, she was taught by a master while overseas.  After graduating with her degree in Art Education, Melissa went on to teach ceramics in North Hunterdon and Voorhees Regional School District.  With time and change, she left teaching to be a wife and mother, roles she currently sees as first and foremost in her life.  Building her business as a marketable potter and private instructor is a new adventure.  One that is growing her as a businesswoman as well as an artist.

When asked which of her pieces she felt were most important to this growth, Melissa directed Kristina’s lens to animal sculptures sitting in her windowsill.  “I was working with another artist who is now a good friend of mine.  Her thing is teaching animal sculpture.  I had always been a wheel thrown potter.  I considered myself a functional potter.  She introduced me to this other world of hand building and sculpting, and there was something in me that just kind of burst open.”

The Satisfied Fox (bell) and a reading rabbit are Melissa‘s personal explorations with hand-sculpting animals.
Images by Kristina Gibb Photography.

One piece is a reading rabbit, inspired by her daughter.  The rabbit is laying on her back with her legs leaning up the wall and her ears flopping over the edge of the sill, lost in a book.  The other is a bell with a gorgeously detailed fox head at the top, licking his lips after a meal.  There’s a napkin tied around his neck, and the clapper that rings out when she lifts it are a pair of chicken feet – all that is left of his supper.  They are exquisite and deserving of far more attention than they will get in her windowsill, but Melissa reserves them for her personal history and honors what they represent.  “I am caught in the middle,” she says, “of trying to figure out who I am [as a potter] and finding my voice, but still have this love of doing what she encouraged me to do.”

Part of a circle of clay-working artists, Melissa is sharing her growth with others and patiently coming into her own.  For now, her work has a wide range. 

“I love the idea of making ceramics have a function other than pottery,” she says as she shares a set of bells she made that seem to merge her interests.  Topped with tiny animals, they are beautiful, functional, and employ both pottery and sculpture.  Perhaps this will be the direction in which she will take her art.  Perhaps it is just an exploration she is moving through.  There is so much to be determined.

Melissa‘s “I Miss You, Too” bells were inspired by the birds around the feeder in her yard and merge her love of hand-sculpting with functional pottery. Image by Kristina Gibb Photography.

In the meantime, Melissa is assembling a market schedule for spring, creating pieces to sell online and at markets, welcoming one-on-one students into her home studio, and enjoying the process.  “I just don’t ever see myself getting bored working with clay.  The possibilities are endless and the process itself – working with clay, along with firing and glazing the material – continues to challenge me.”

While Melissa continues to challenge herself and shape her business, we will be listening for her emerging voice.  A voice that will tell her story to generations we won’t live to see through a medium as endless as time itself.  One that been speaking to us for 20,000 years.

I am a published poet and ghostwriter, an aspiring novelist, and finding my way through blogging. I keep two Wordpress blogs. A creative outlet that bears my name as the title, JillArcangela M. Kopp, and The River Bridges, a local interest blog that focuses on life in along my stretch of the Delaware River. I am thrilled to work with the talented photographer Kristina Gibb on the latter. I am also realtor working in Bucks County and a mother of three boys. You can also follow me on Facebook (names match respctive blogs) and see the visual world that inspires me on Instagram (@jillarcangela or @BucksCountyLifeAndHome). Like what you read, have ideas to share, or need ghostwriting services? Drop me an email: jillarcangel@live.com

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