Material World

Material World

David Peters Digging Clay

Ceramist David Peters digs clay near where he used to live in Montana. He is contributing a chapter to a new book on sustainable ceramics, due out this year. Photo: Steve Helmbrecht

At a time when we know so little about where our stuff comes from, four innovators are demonstrating craft’s potential to reconnect us to our resources.

Digging His Own Clay / David Peters
It was 2008. David Peters was nine months into a two-year residency at the Archie Bray Foundation for the Ceramic Arts in Helena. “I sort of made this crazy decision,” he recalls, “that I was going to make everything for my exit show out of only Montana clay.”

That meant studying geology and mineralogy. Reading the landscape, finding clay. Digging and hauling it. Drying and crushing it, then slaking, sieving, and drying again. All before knowing how a particular streak of clotted earth would behave in the hand, in the kiln.

Why go through all the trouble? Consider the example of kaolin, the white clay in porcelain, Peters urges. Ninety-nine percent mined in the United States becomes paper. Of the fraction routed to ceramics, 90 percent is commercial. Individual makers are using materials, often shipped cross-country, that are “designed and milled and blended for the paper industry and for making toilets – not making art.”

That’s significant to Peters, but not because commercial clay is somehow inherently ill-suited to art. He’s quick, in fact, to point out that easy access to materials has driven artistic progress; when everything is at your disposal, you have more time for ideas – and no limit on their scope. But we’re missing something when we don’t see – really see – the source of our materials, says Peters, who grew up in Amarillo, Texas.

“That’s a part of contemporary ceramics that we don’t really think about because we get all of our materials out of bags,” he says. “We look at historical pots and think, oh, the Japanese guy who made that wanted it to look that way – and it looks that way because of the culture that produced it. While there’s a lot of truth in that, there’s also a lot of the geology of the area – the materials they had to work with.”

For Peters, now pursuing his MFA at Montana State University in Bozeman, exclusively using local clay for the past several years has influenced and enriched his artistic practice. It has propelled certain forms to the fore and imbued them with meditative depth. The minimalist stoneware crucibles, mortars, and pestles Peters crafts speak to his adopted state’s history of mining, reflecting the connection he feels to people who “were looking for a material in the wilderness.” He finds fascination in the alchemy of transforming dirt into a meaningful, powerful object.

But going local has forged other kinds of relationships, too. For one, he’s more connected to nature’s cycles and the seasons. “You can’t just go out and melt snow and dig clay,” Peters notes. Prospecting has also brought him to neighbors’ doorsteps, asking if he can dig up dirt. “It starts a dialogue and creates – for me, anyway – a meaningful relationship to where it is that I live.”

“It’s given me a sensibility,” Peters says. He saves the wood ash from his firings, for example, washing it with lye to use in glazes. He then saves the lye for soap-making friends, or uses it to fertilize the land. “That kind of sensibility is there because I’m the one moving all the dirt around all the time.”

“I see what comes out of it,” he says, “and I think about what it’s good for.”

Relying on Nature’s Palette / Sasha Duerr
“It’s like an heirloom tomato. Once you taste one, you never go back.”

That’s artist, designer, and eco-textiles advocate Sasha Duerr, talking about the beauty and feel-good appeal of hand-dyed organic fabrics. The food analogy is apt, and not just because she’s the author of The Handbook of Natural Plant Dyes: Personalize Your Craft with Organic Colors from Acorns, Blackberries, Coffee, and Other Everyday Ingredients (Timber Press, 2011).

Duerr’s lab is her kitchen and backyard in Berkeley, California, a city that has long been fertile ground for fiber art, as well as for the slow food revolution centered on local, sustainable harvests.

“Both movements are really saying the same thing, which is to slow down, appreciate craft, and understand the effect on people and nature,” Duerr, 36, says over organic tea and muffins at Urth Caffé in Santa Monica, during a recent visit to Los Angeles. She’s radiant in borrowed maternity clothes (her second child is due this spring) and a linen sweater she’s dyed in subtle gray-taupe tones, using leaves from a Japanese maple on her street.

“Textiles are almost an invisible aspect of our society,” she observes. “Everyone wears them. You need them in your life. Yet understanding where they came from is so abstract to most people.”

Duerr grew up close to nature, on her family’s organic farm in Maine (home to “a lot of weavers and spinners, people growing and canning their own vegetables”) and later in Hawaii, where the family moved when she was 12. As an art major at Middlebury College, she found that oil paints made her sick. She gravitated to textiles, finding in fiber a rich history of sustainable practice that “connects us back to our environment and our cultures.”

Her mission now is to encourage a shift in our consciousness of textiles “from the ground up.” She has led workshops at schools and community gardens around the country (including Berkeley’s Edible Schoolyard, created by famed organic chef Alice Waters), and teaches at the California College of the Arts, where she did her graduate studies. In 2007 she founded the nonprofit Permacouture Institute to engage with the fashion and textile industries.

Duerr lives her philosophy and has fun doing it. Occasionally she hosts “Dinners to Dye For,” where guests do some dyeing with plants, then enjoy the same produce in a delicious, healthy meal. Lately she has done a lot of dyeing for friends’ weddings, “a neat way to tie in that connection to where they’re getting married or what they’re holding in their bouquets.”

At her own outdoor nuptials in a redwood forest, the wedding party wore bright chartreuse from a fennel dye, to magical effect: “Because they’re living color molecules, it glowed – like lit-up lichen.”

Recycling ‘Garbage Glass’/ Christian Thornton
Christian Thornton isn’t sure exactly what the name of his glass studio in Oaxaca, Mexico, means in the local Zapotec language. He’s heard different translations of xaquixe (cha-KEY-chay): “foot of the mountain,” “welcoming point,” and his favorite, “the man in the town who doesn’t have his hat.”

Sustainability is an ambiguous word too, Thornton notes, one that “gets thrown around a lot,” and not always meaningfully. For him, it entails “an all-around change in our perception and how we actually function, and a real, committed decision to do that each day.”

“Enviroglass” is the term Thornton uses for his holistic approach. At Studio Xaquixe, he and his team of local craftspeople create vibrant vessels, sculptures, and architectural pieces out of “garbage glass” from local vendors, using a
formula he devised (95 percent recycled glass, 5 percent raw materials), a mix that is refractive and malleable enough to be transformed into art. He designed and built the shop to be energy-efficient, with a system that reuses waste heat; lately he’s been looking into using manure and other organic waste for biofuel.

Thornton, 45, grew up in Washington state and ran a stained-glass studio there in his teens. He spent his 20s in New York City, working at UrbanGlass and doing glass conservation for the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In 2000, longing to be outdoors and “in touch with what I considered to be real life,” he headed to the Caribbean, where he blew glass (and explored recyclables) at an eco-resort on St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands. He moved to Oaxaca in 2001 and opened the studio in partnership with artist Salime Harp Cruces. He loves the slow pace and rich culture of his adopted home, “a frontline between modern changes and the old ways.”

One key lesson Thornton has learned is that, even when your aim is altruistic, there’s nothing wrong with earning a reasonable income. In fact, for a responsible business model, it’s essential.

“We came to the realization that part of being sustainable is to be happy and healthy ourselves. [At one point] we were struggling so hard that we weren’t making any money. We kept making all these sacrifices because we thought we were doing the right thing, and almost closed the studio. We really had to face ourselves and say true sustainability is about functioning on all levels, and people living their lives happily – even the owner.”

Wasting Not /  Ann Savageau
Seeing potential – for Ann Savageau, it’s a way of life. “I’ve always been a natural scavenger,” she says. The environmental artist collects it all: odd pieces of discarded technology, cast-off elements of nature, the flotsam of consumer culture. “I don’t necessarily know exactly how I am going to use them immediately, but I know that they have potential.”

Many of these materials find their way – days or years later – into Savageau’s mixed-media sculptures and installations, provocative works that explore the intersection of culture and the natural world. Others have a different, equally noble destination: the classroom.

Savageau, who taught for 24 years at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, joined the design department at the University of California, Davis, in 2005. The artist looked around her new campus and saw – no surprise here – potential. She began teaching a studio workshop in sustainable design, bringing in discarded items she had collected on campus and asking students to consider their properties, instead of the products they once were – to see a rigid, thin, flat disc instead of a used CD, for example. Then she set them loose on campus to collect and create. “I’ve never seen such excitement in students,” she says. “Limitations really bring out people’s creative imaginations.”

The class blossomed into Savageau’s BAG (Bags Across the Globe) project, a two-birds, one-stone attack on the global scourge of plastic bags and the 2.5 billion pounds of textile waste produced each year in the United States. Between 2008 and 2009, the BAG team created shopping satchels out of fabric remnants and vinyl banners, distributing dozens of bags to 63 countries and triggering spin-off projects in England, Japan, Iran, and Colom­bia. The BAG project will be part of the 2012 Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, D.C.

When the campus waste-reduction manager invited Savageau and two graduate students to launch a student-run store, they leapt at the chance. Carol Shu, Margot Bennett, and Savageau spent 16 months planning, negotiating with administrators, and lining up volunteers and donations. In January, the Aggie ReStore officially opened.

Funded by the student government, the store stocks “a whole gradient of things,” Savageau says, from bulk paper (cut-offs from university printing presses), fabric swatches, and tile samples to clothing and small electronics collected from residence halls. The facilities staff will also be diverting materials they spot in the waste stream, Savageau says. “We have all sorts of units collaborating with us – and with each other – that never really had any contact [before].”

Located in the student center, the ReStore will help UC Davis meet its goal of zero waste by 2020. But to Savageau, who now serves as informal advisor, the real prize is teaching people to see waste in a new way – to see its potential. “A lot of people are not familiar with how to creatively reuse something,” Savageau says. With that in mind, the ReStore team is partnering with the campus Craft Center for a series of creative-reuse workshops.

“Especially in this age of computers, there’s a real hunger and desire among people to create things with their own hands,” Savageau says. “We’re tool makers and art makers.”

Sometimes we just need a little push to see it.