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.

Athletic Pottery: Tough Times Call for Strong Potters

When Joel went to see Bill Gossman at a small pottery workshop in New London, the time-tested artist wedged, centered, and threw 25-50lb. blocks of clay at a time. These blocks, impressive in themselves, soon became massive 3-4ft. jugs that Gossman needed to finish in multiple sections. If you have ever thrown pottery or seen somebody throw pottery, then you’ll understand the effort Gossman needed just to raise that amount of clay once. He did it three times per jug.

Bill Gossman, Stoneware Throwing in Sections, Joel Cherricon Pottery, Big PotsBill Gossman, Fire, Fired Pottery, Stoneware Throwing in Sections, Joel Cherricon Pottery, Big Pots

Bill Gossman Pottery, Athletic Potter, Joel Cherrico Pottery, 2014
Click the image to view Joel’s Facebook album of the “Gossman and Morris Workshop”

As someone who’s only thrown about ten functional mugs in his life, potters like Gossman amaze me. They possess an unparalleled dedication to their craft. And like any professional athlete, these guys will often spend years practicing and perfecting their work before they receive any recognition.

Don Reitz, Abstract Expressionism, Clay Sculpture, Pottery, Massive Clay Work, Joel Cherrico Pottery, Flagstaff, Arizona
Reitz working long hours at a 2009 pottery conference in Flagstaff, AZ.

Consider someone like Don Reitz for example. When Joel went to see the 84 year old potter at a 2009 workshop in Flagstaff, AZ, Reitz started working before anyone else in the morning and stayed well over an hour late each night. In only 2 days, Reitz went through 2 wheelbarrows full of clay! These pictures show only a small sample of Reitz’s work, but listen to him discuss it here for the full story.

Warning -it gets emotional.

Don Reitz Throwing, 3 Images, Joel Cherrico Pottery, Abstract Expressionism in Clay, Flagstaff AZ

Years after the conference, Joel contacted Reitz. This workshop directly led to Joel’s creation of Mindscape, and Joel wanted to connect with Reitz by sending him a cup or two as a thanks. Still humble after years at the wheel, Reitz wrote back saying, “A cup is not necessary, I’m just happy to know that my work is appreciated. Also, watch the movie The World’s Fastest Indian. Rent it or whatever. It’s about TOTAL COMMITMENT.” Mindscape, Joel Cherrico Pottery, Abstract Expressionism, 2009

As spectators to art, we only see the final product. We never see the hours of studio-time behind the world’s fastest motorcycle or even a massive clay sculpture. We see the game, but we don’t see the practice. What I’ve learned from hearing the stories of people like Gossman, Reitz, and Joel is that to make beautiful pieces of art, a potter needs to balance inspiration with dedication. Like Reitz says, he needs TOTAL COMMITMENT by immersing himself in the clay.

Michael Cardew was a historically famous potter that lived a tough life partly by choice and also by circumstance. While in Africa, he made pottery in places where water was so scarce, he had to use caustic wood ashes to make clay more plastic. Joel often looks at Cardew’s biography when he needs motivation, especially in the more difficult times of his career. Here’s a quote from the book that I feel speaks well to Joel’s pottery. Joel first heard it from his friend and author Ken Ferber. It says:

“…a good design in pottery is the product of a tension or ‘dialect’ between the demands of pure utility and those of pure beauty, and only a long experience and continual struggle enables you to achieve a successful fusion of the two.”

-Michael Cardew

The biography goes on to describe Cardew as a potter with “athleticism” and his work with clay as, “direct, physical and urgent.” I think you could prescribe the same qualities to almost any professional potter, especially guys like Gossman and Reitz who continue to make massive ceramic pieces throughout the second half of their career. These guys are making a statement through their effort. And in many ways, their art then becomes the direct expression of this effort.Don Reitz Workshop, Flagstaff AZ, photos by Joel Cherrico

Compressed, Peter Voulkos Stack, Minneapolis Institutue of Art, photo by Joel Cherrico
8ft. tall Wheel-thrown clay sculpture by Peter Voulkos, converted to bronze, Minneapolis Institute of Art, photo by Joel Cherrico, 2009

A lot of this philosophy parallels the Abstract Expressionist school of thought which was made popular by artists like Jackson Pollack and Peter Voulkos. Joel himself draws heavily from the abstract expressionists. He feels abstract expressionism has the potential to foster a healthy lifestyle through clay. Mindscape was Joel’s first experiment with abstract expressionism, but even with his functional pottery or hump throwing demonstrations, he likes the almost unconscious movement of working through 50lbs. of clay spinning on the wheel. For him, clay becomes an expression that’s at every moment “direct, physical, and urgent.”


Joel Cherrico Pottery, Throwing Sauerkraut Crocks, Stoneware Crocks, 2014

2,000lbs Stoneware + 3 flights of stairs = afternoon workout
2,000lbs Stoneware + 3 flights of stairs = afternoon workout

Accidental Abstract Expressionism

Guest Posting by my friend and writer Laura Fuller:

My sister wonders at my memory for weird details of childhood. I remember when I was four and she was seven, and Dad caught us flushing the toilet with our feet in it after 10 PM, you know, just to see.

But it’s trouble to remember what others don’t.  In my last post, I remembered that Joel and I had big plans to build a fort in third grade.  He’d forgotten this; I looked like a creep.

My Lumberjack friend drove me home sometimes when Dubai got too hot for walking. Toward June, this frequently became a ride home plus happy hour or an episode of Mad Men. I’ll remember these moments with weird clarity, for I liked them. He said something on the final ride home about the last three weeks of concentrated expriences like this – ex. college, international teaching posts – being “pregnant with meaning.” We’re purposeful on the way out the door.

Two days later, I squinted through salty contacts at my computer screen somewhere above the Atlantic, committing to language a memory from the last year:

I stood in the center of the Souq al-Arsa in Al Sharjah at noontime while the Whitneys went to see about lunch.  I stayed in the hallway, out-of-homebody and drunk on the Call to Prayer. I felt in my pocket for the Joker card I’d found in the parking lot, the first in a mysterious collection of mismatched playing cards acquired on Middle East adventures. I’d later find a seven of hearts at Wadi Damm in Oman, a queen of spades near Mt. Nebo in Jordan.

Lipton table tops and a hand-washing sink in the dining area.

Over bottomless chicken biryani, they told me about moving abroad, how their family wasn’t too excited about it. They exchanged confident smiles. Non-English-speaking men bustled through spicy air, weaving between Lipton Tea tables.  My friend proclaimed that she would one day honor this deliciousness with a dog named Chicken Biryani. I quietly tasted the idea of living a life that scared me.

Six months later, I came back.

I wonder now whether it even happened, whether she recalls naming her imaginary dog.

It’s disappointing, moments like this disappearing from the rearview mirror, leaving me with an incomplete hand of foreign cards from a deck of memories too specific to mention. No one will draw the Queen of Biryani, the Ace of Al Sharjah.

Joel invited me to write about Abstract Expressionism.

Championing this movement in a previous post, “ROCK! Music that makes the wheel go round,” Joel said, “With Abstract Expressionism, you go with the flow and surrender to the process.” This school of art heavily influenced his piece “Mindscape” and the work he recently showed at St. Cloud’s Paramount Arts Center for his FROM THE BASEMENT exhibition.  In particular, his work reflects his admiration for Jackson Pollock. Joel says, “I’m thinking about the innovative ways he used paint to bring out the essence of the material. Each hanging sculpture reminds me of one of Pollock’s drips.”

To help me understand what that means, Joel passed along a Youtube clip of Pollock discussing the activity of art-making:

“When I am painting,” Pollock says, “I have a general notion as to what I am about…There is no accident, just as there is no beginning and no end.”   He is as much a part of the art as the paint or the canvas. He doesn’t say he knows what the painting is about, but what he is about. Surrendering to the moment, Pollock says, “Sometimes I lose the painting, but I have no fear of changes, of destroying the image. Because the painting has a life of its own, I try to let it live.” He can be a part of the creative moment without deciding how it will turn out.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s crash course in Abstract Expressionism helped, too, for I knew nothing of this stuff until challenged to write about it. The Met’s Stella Paul uses language similar to Joel’s in boiling down the movement. Abstract Expressionists, she says, “accorded the highest importance to process.”  As I understand it, then, the moments spent in creating the thing are more important than the thing itself. The piece of art is only that—a piece, an artifact of the more-important creative moment.

Paul quotes the 1952 writing of critic Harold Rosenberg, who considers a piece of Abstract Expressionist art “not a picture but an event.” We call it a painting, after all, not a painted.

His very blog is evidence of Joel’s Abstract Expressionist tendencies.  Sure, it’s nice if you like his work, but he cares deeply about how it’s made, what materials go into it, what music he hears while he’s working.  All of the variables in his creative moments add to the eventual thing. If you were there while he was working, you’d be in it, too.

In his novel Bluebeard, Kurt Vonnegut writes as a fictional character named Rabo Karabekian, a retired former Abstract Expressionist painter whose paintings no longer exist. They destroyed themselves because of the materials he used, leaving nothing but the memory of their creative moments.

Rabo explains why even before his work was lost, he couldn’t compare to the real masters of Abstract Expressionism.  He failed to paint time in motion: “life, by definition, is never still,” he tells us. “Where is it going? From birth to death with no stops on the way.” He calls it a “miracle…which was achieved by the best of the Abstract Expressionists,” that for their work to be great, “birth and death are always there.” The moment accounts for its own changing place in time.

There’s solace in knowing that to Abstract Expressionists, the creative moment is the art.  For better or worse, time travels, and we have no choice but to go with it or risk missing new moments.

But if we spend our moments in a way that respects their quick passing–creating something, collecting cards– that is, if the thing you’re doing qualifies as art in and of its active self, you can remember that art when you look back, stoneware vase or abandoned playing card in hand. The magic is in the moment, and the moment moves.

Joel: “So Don, when do you know when to stop working on a piece?”

Don: “When someone hits me over the head with a baseball bat.”

Don Reitz, Abstract Expressionist in Clay, quoted during “Potters As Sculptors, Sculptors as Potters: NCECA Pre-Conference Symposium” Flagstaff, AZ, 2009.

ROCK! Music that makes the wheel go round.

Rock is definitely my favorite type of music to throw to.  After a few hours of Red Hot Chili Peppers I just feel like I made more pottery than if I had been bobbing my head to Mr. Sunshine on my Shoulders, John Denver.  I do think mellow music can be great for detail work or anything tedious.  For example, when I mix and test new glazes I like some old Coldplay, like High Speed.  Here’s an image from a bunch of testing that I did during my senior thesis in Spring, 2010 on the Nuka glaze:

I’ve never been a fan of tedious work that takes a lot of concentration.  I’ve made tedious work even since freshman year in college, but I like to work fast.  I made this one for a cardboard project in our Intro to 3D Design class.  It was partly the result of a whole lot of Smashing Pumpkins.


In Spring 2009, I went to Northern Arizona University to see 6 artists at a 2 day workshop. Don Reitz really stood out in my head because of his style of working and because his sculptures seemed really fresh.  His process reminded me of drippy paintings by Jackson Pollock.  This is my favorite way to make artwork: fast and direct.  With Abstract Expressionism, you go with the flow and surrender to the process.


For me, the Red Hot Chili Peppers embody this artwork in their music.  Anthony Kiedis belts out catchy vocals and lyrics hidden in random sentences that would be grammatical nightmares.   Flea’s bass lines have a huge presence in every song, and they meshed perfectly with John Frusciante’s melodies and Chad Smith’s loud, fast beats- good luck finding a drummer that hits his drums harder. The band writes each song from jamming- just rockin out together and letting the music flow.  With Frusciante now pursuing his solo career, he trained in little Josh Klinghoffer to live up to his legacy.  After releasing their new single I’d agree with Rolling Stone that their “juicy funk-pop groove” isn’t going anywhere.  I have a feeling I’ll still be throwing pottery and sculpture to the Chili Peppers for decades to come, hopefully with the same energy embodied by their music, Abstract Expressionists and my Mindscape sculptures.

Take it from Dave Grohl, drummer of Them Crooked Vultures and lead singer/guitarist of Foo Fighers.  He rocks with the best of them and knows there are few things in this world that can get you going like a heavy rock song.  Well, maybe a FRESH POT!!