Mountains on Mugs

As the Amtrack roars across the plains of North Dakota, Joel watches the fields outside his window fade back into the landscapes of Central Minnesota. He reads a Snowboarder magazine to pass the time, and his mind instantly returns to skiing fresh powder at Big Sky three days earlier. Before the moment fades, he snaps a picture. Perhaps it’ll give him inspiration when he returns to the wheel.  Joel Cherrico Pottery, Big Mountain Skiing, Amtrak, 2014 Since he was 3 years old, Joel has taken yearly trips like this one out to the Rockies. They are his second home, and as a result, they appear on his pottery. Drawing inspiration from his former professor and mentor Sam Johnson, who signs many of his pots with a simple-line landscape drawing, Joel signs each piece with an image of the mountains.

Pottery signatures offer us an intimate look at where an artist’s inspiration hides. Sam says his signature represents the flat landscape where he grew up, in western Minnesota. In Joel’s case, the mountains are a symbol of moving forward. They not only show the foundation from which he builds his art, but they show an image of where he wants to go.

“I want you to feel like you’ve got a mountain of clay to work with.” – Sam Johnson

Stoneware Mug Signature by Joel Cherrico, Carved through Porcelain, 2014
For Joel, the mountains symbolize where he’s going. They find a home on every pot he makes.

In practically every creative writing workshop, beginning writers hear the motto, “Write what you know.” With pottery it’s no different. Potters pull inspiration from the world around them and try to bring these inspirations to life in their work. Perhaps the most revealing aspects of a potter’s art then, are the elements he/she leaves constant. The inspirations that continually find a home in their work.

With this in mind, let’s return to the mountains on Joel’s mugs. As new life circumstances reshape his pottery, Joel still draws mountains on every pot. While he calls them, “a symbol to where he’s going,” I read them as a testament to where he’s been. They stay constant while nearly everything else changes around him, offering a link between the past, present, and future. Look at his glazing for instance. The mountains come to life in the way the dark blues meet the pale Nuka glaze like the sky meets a snowy mountaintop. In everything from his abstract expressionist glazing to his simple-line signature, the mountains are present.

Stoneware Bowl, Cobalt Blue glaze over Nuka Glaze, Joel Cherrico Pottery 2014
The Nuka and Cobalt glazes on this bowl remind me of a snowy mountaintop as it meets the dark blue glaze near the lip.

It’s strange to think that an annual ski trip could have such a large influence on somebody’s pottery. But that’s the joy of art; inspiration hits often when the artist least expects it. He may be on a train barreling across North Dakota, and BAM, there it is. Steven Hill, a potter who I mentioned in my last post, describes finding inspiration like climbing a mountain. In Tales of the Red Clay Rambler podcast Steven Hill is interviewed by fellow potter Ben Carter. Hill says:

Landscape Mug, Stoneware Clay, Joel Cerrico Pottery, 2014
This pot shows a realistic representation of a midwestern landscape. Notice how the porcelain slip represents clouds, cobalt blue looks like birds, and raw clay near the bottom resembles a horizon line. The creamy, gray glaze feels like a winter sky.

“I feel like we all need to have something that we’re searching for that’s out of our grasp. It’s kind of like you’re climbing a mountain. Once you get to the peak there’s no where to go except down. And the search for a better resolution, a better curve, a better surface…a better something that’s always been elusive of my grasp, but it’s always been right out in front of me and I’ve never attained it.”

Successful full-time artists rarely separate themselves from their work. They always look for inspiration, even in the strangest places. If you follow Joel on Instagram, you’ll see how his obsession with rock music, rock culture, and skiing all influence his pottery. True to this culture, he even has a large tattoo of his pottery signature on his arm. Many historically famous potters spoke about synthesis of life and art. In short, the two fuel each other, providing moments of inspiration when we least expect them.

Instagram Photo, Joel Cherrico Pottery, Rock Music

 “…it is obvious that Shoji [Hamada] approached his life and work in a holistic manner, and that his workshop, house, clothes, and lifestyle were all related to his greater motivation for working in clay.” 

Andrew L. Maske, on National Living Treasure Shoji Hamada, February 2009, from “Three Generations of Hamada Potters,” Pucker Gallery, Boston.

Jar by Peter Swanson, from Phil Rogers, "Ash Glazes." Joel's Nuka glaze recipe came out of this book, and he's conducted over 300 tests to experiment with the glaze at varying temperatures and in both gas and electric kilns. The drips of iron on this stunning pot exemplify an abstract depiction of a mountainous landscape.
Jar by Peter Swanson, from Phil Rogers, “Ash Glazes.” Joel’s Nuka glaze recipe came out of this book, and he’s conducted over 300 tests to experiment with the glaze at varying temperatures, between cone 6 and 13. The drips of iron on this stunning pot exemplify an abstract depiction of a mountainous landscape.

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