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Thursday, March 27, 2014

Geology, ceramics and art: aesthetics in 3D

"Of all the arts, ceramics is the most fundamentally linked to the physical make up of the planet that we inhabit and best illustrates the link between science and art. It can be seen as an artistic expression of the geology of earth."
— Mattew Blakely, 'ceramic landscapes - the idea'

The 'ceramic landscapes' of Mattew Blakely exemplify the link between ceramics and geology. In fact, each of Blakely's artworks illustrates a specific landscape of Britain, with particular reference to its geological features. This example suggests that ceramic is an emotional medium of expression for geological themes, allowing to render complex subjects such as the geology of a landscape.
In addition, ceramic artworks can be thought as geological objects themselves. In the case of Blakely's ceramic landscapes, each piece is entirely created from rocks and minerals collected from individual locations. In more general terms, ceramic artworks are commonly realized with clay, which is the result of geological processes. With the words of Mattew Blakely: "Pots represent our relationship with and dependency on the planet, making things for human use from the dug earth beneath our feet."

Mattew Blakely, Precambrian Sphere. This artwork is inspired by the geological landscapes of Leicestershire. Image from the artist's website.

Besides Mattew Blakely, several ceramic artists referred to geology in their artworks. Among others, Akiyama Yo titled Geological Age V one of his ceramic artworks; Len Castle's ceramic fossils have been exhibited as Sea Secrets and Searching for Fossils in Gondwana; Ettore Sottsass developed a set of layered ceramics ('geology bowls'); Naomi Teppich realizes ceramic fossils; the creative process of Sally Rockriver is inspired by geochemical processes and crystallization.

Akiyama Yo, Geological Age V. From the website of the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Ceramic fossils by Len Castle (from Sea Secrets and Searching for Fossils in Gondwana).

Ettore Sottsass, Geology 4 Bowl. Image from Wright's website.

Naomi Teppich, Standing Scaphite. From the artist's webpage.

Sally Rockriver, Arctic Spring. Image from the artist's website.

Despite these recent examples, the relationship between geology and ceramics dates back at
least to the sixth century B.C. In fact, the Corinthian vase painting known as the "Monster of Troy" establishes a link among ceramics and the early days of paleontology. This artwork, pictured on the cover of "the First Fossil Hunters" (Mayor, 2001), depicts Hesione and Heracles fighting against the legendary monster that appeared nearby Troy.
In light of the title of the book, a question might arise:"What is the relationship between the Corinthian vase and fossils?"

The 'Monster of Troy' on the cover of 'The First Fossil Hunters'.
According to Mayor (2001), the “Monster of Troy” was inspired by a fossil skull protruding from an outcrop, as confirmed by its morphology and the rich fossil fauna of the Mediterranean coast (see this previous post for more details). 
In more recent times, fossils inspired Alan Spencer for realizing Strata in Clay, a series of stoneware vessels representing fossil forms through deep time. With the words of the artist: "The stoneware vessels, Strata in Clay, were created as a series to represent examples of the fossil time line that have been preserved in rock strata during the past 500 million years". 
I interviewed Alan Spencer, the deep time explorer.

Alan, who are you and what you do?
I was born in Providence, Rhode Island in 1955. I teach ceramics and sculpture as a visual art teacher in the Worthington city schools in central Ohio. When I am not working with students in the high school, I find time to work on my ceramic artwork. Through my recent series of artwork, Strata in Clay, I get to combine the two passions I have in my life, ceramics and geology. Since I was young, I have had an interest in working with clay on the potter’s wheel, and I have been fascinated with fossils.

What career path did you take to get to where you are now?
After graduating from the College of Wooster in 1978 with a major in geology and a minor in
Alan Spencer, Triassic (from the Strata in Clay series).
studio art, I worked as a geologist in Indianapolis, Indiana for a civil engineering firm for five years. While working as a geologist, I continued to create my own artwork. Many friends and family encouraged me to start my own art studio after seeing my stained glass artwork. As a field geologist, I was often traveling around the country working with drill crews during the week
and at home only on weekends. The work schedule with the company eventually pushed me to look for new opportunities. In 1985, my wife’s family invited us to move back to their 70-acre property in Delaware, Ohio, offering a location for me to start my own art studio, where I produced ceramic, stained and blown glass works of art for 17 years.
In 1999 I went back to school at Ohio State University to get my teaching certification and my Master’s degree in Art Education. I have worked as a visual arts teacher in Worthington, Ohio since 2002. While teaching in the schools, I continue to create my own style of ceramic artwork, utilizing the potter’s wheel to create the large thrown forms.

How has being a geologist influenced your art and your philosophy of life?

I don’t believe that being a geologist has influenced my philosophy of life, but it has given me avenues of inspiration as an artist. The knowledge I received in college helped me to understand concepts such as geologic time periods and the evolution of life on earth. Studying detailed fossils as a geologist has allowed me to be able to recreate fossil forms as accurately as possible in my artwork.
Your current project is ‘Strata in Clay’: how do you describe it?
The stoneware vessels, “Strata in Clay,” were created as a series to represent examples of the fossil time line that have been preserved in rock strata during the past 540 million years. In each of the geologic time periods, certain life forms have become known as indicator fossils. After the identification of the indicator fossils for the geologic periods was completed, researching, sketching and modeling of the fossil forms commenced.

Replicas of the fossils from each of the twelve geologic periods were sculpted and fired, creating a mold that could be used to make multiple copies. After the vessel form was completed, press mold techniques were utilized to decorate the large thrown forms. Some of the low-relief sculptures that are represented on the vessels came from casts of actual fossils; others were sculpted by studying photographs of real fossils. Each vessel represents a particular geologic period in time.

Sedimentary rock strata, such as limestone, siltstone, shale, and sandstone, are the predominate materials in which fossils are naturally preserved. For this reason, the surface decoration and glazes used on the vessels in the “Strata in Clay" series were carefully selected to resemble the appearance of these sedimentary rocks that typically encase fossil remnants. 

Alan Spencer, Cambrian (Strata in Clay series). Note the abundant trilobites, which are amonrg the most iconic fossils of the Cambrian period.

What is exactly a stoneware vessel?
There are three types of clay that ceramists typically work with when making sculptures or functional ware. Earthenware, or terra-cotta, is the lowest firing clay and is usually used for hand-sculpting. Earthenware is usually reddish-brown in color after it has been fired. Stoneware clay is a mid-range fired clay that is very durable and can be used for functional or sculptural artwork. Stoneware usually fires to become a dense, off- white or grayish clay. Porcelain is a very fine-particle clay body that is pure white when fired and can be heated to the highest temperature of the three clay types.

Alan Spencer, Devonian (from the Strata in Clay series).

Clay is an artistic medium and a geological object: how do you reconcile these aspects?

Formed by the weathering and erosion of rock strata, clay seemed to be a perfect material to work with to create this series. The earth constantly recycles and rebuilds surface layers. As sand, silt, and clay weather away from older deposits, and new layers of sedimentary material form, occasionally an organism gets buried between the layers. Clay and the unique fossils found in the sedimentary strata of the earth are the focus for the Strata in Clay series. 
What is your typical workflow for ‘Strata in Clay’?
When working with clay for the Strata series, I began by researching the fossil forms that I

wanted to place on the surface of each vessel. I looked for fossils that were very abundant during that particular geologic time period, like trilobites during the Cambrian.  Once the fossils were selected, I printed out images of the creatures and built low-relief replicas of the life form onto a slab of clay. From the low-relief sculpture, I cast a negative mold of the form. Once I had all of the negative molds, I began to throw the vessel on the potter’s wheel.
The forms of the vases in the “Strata in Clay” series are reminiscent of ancient Greek vases and amphora.  The vases are tall (2-4 feet in height) and thrown in multiple sections. The sections are stacked on top of each other to complete the vase to its full height.  After the vase is thrown, I use the molds to make multiple copies of the fossils and apply them to the surface of the vase. Handles are often added to the form to create interesting negative space to the vessel. I try to make connections whenever designing and decorating these vases. The handles often take on the attributes of the fossils that are on the vase. The stains and glazes used to color the surface of the clay are selected to look similar to the rocks that the fossils were found in. The process of making one of the vases can take several months to research, create the molds and throw the vase, then decorate and glaze it.

Crinoid columnals in Mississipian (detail).
Alan Spencer, Mississipian (from the Strata in Clay series).

Detail of Mississipian. Note the abundant crinoids.

How have you documented and expressed geologic time?
Over time paleontologists and geologists have studied the fossils and the rock strata of the

earth and have developed a timeline that is divided into eons, eras, periods and epochs. Eons represent the longest time interval, and epochs represent the shortest. The geologic time scale is used to describe the timing and relationships between events that have occurred throughout Earth’s history. There are twelve geologic time periods, ranging from the oldest, Cambrian, beginning 540 million years ago, to the Quaternary, which began about 1.8 million years ago. In my artwork I have tried to mimic the life forms that were significant in each of the twelve geologic periods. I researched fossils that were abundant during the geologic periods and recreated the fossil forms on the surface of twelve thrown wheel ceramic vessels. 

Alan Spencer, Pennsylvanian.
What artists, what geological themes inspired you in developing Strata in Clay?
In the medium of glass art, William Morris has been an artist that helped to inspire some of my artwork. His Artifact series led me to have a vision of what I wanted to create in my Strata series. Morris’s Standing Stone series motivated me to create very large forms.
Ceramic artist Maria Martinez inspired me in my work with clay. Martinez’s forms and special firing technique inspired me when I was creating the form and firing the vase that represents the Pennsylvanian period. During the Pennsylvanian period (one half of the Carboniferous age) there were large quantities of coal deposited in the strata of the earth. The form of the vase is a traditional wedding vase, the surface of which has been polished with a sooth rock in the style that Martinez typically produced. The vase was heated up to 1500 degrees in a Raku kiln and then placed in a metal barrel filled with sawdust and newspaper. The hot vessel tries to burn the organic material, but because the barrel is sealed, no oxygen can get in. The normally white clay turns jet black in the process, which is referred to as carbonizing. The black vase is meant to look like the coal that is so often found in the Pennsylvanian deposits.  

Detail of Alan Spencer's Pennsylvanian.

What is crucial for your ceramics: communicating geological concepts or expressing your personal fascination for Geology?
For the Strata in Clay series, my focus was to communicate the concept of geologic time periods. The series of vessels helps to communicate this concept by creating a vessel for each of the twelve time periods. As an educator and a visual artist, I wanted to show people what life forms were most prevalent in each of the twelve geologic periods. I researched the fossil record and consulted with other geologists to determine what fossils to place on some of the vases. The artwork in the series helps to illustrate the complex evolution path that life on earth has taken during the last 540 million years.

Eurypterids and crinoids charachterize Alan Spencer's Ordovician (from the Strata in Clay series).
How long have you been working professionally as an artist?
I have been working as a professional artist for 29 years. In my studio I worked with clay, stained glass and blown glass materials to create artworks for sale and for commissions.  Since I became an arts educator, it has been more difficult to find time to work on my own artwork. It has been rewarding to finally complete the geologic vases and have them on exhibit in a gallery where people can learn about geology, the evolution of life on earth, as well as enjoy the aesthetics of each piece in the series. 

What was the turning point in your professional career?
The largest turning point in my career was when I decided to switch from working as a

professional geologist to being an artist. Getting a teaching degree and working as a visual artist in a high school has allowed me to earn a decent income, while still having time to work professionally on own artwork. So often as a professional artist I felt that I needed to produce as much work as possible to earn a living. Creating the geologic artwork while teaching has allowed me the luxury of being able to take the time to do research, and make test samples, in order to complete the series with the highest quality.

Is there a client base for ‘geological ceramics’?
Over 300 students from local schools as well as several hundred community citizens came to view the exhibit during the seven weeks that the show was at the McConnell Arts Center (MAC) in Worthington, Ohio. None of the vases were purchased, but my hope is that the entire series of geologic vessels will be purchased by an institution and used for educational purposes someday.

Alan Spencer, Silurian (from the Strata in Clay series).
Are your geological works exhibited in scientific institutions?
I have not had any of my artworks exhibited in a scientific institution. The Strata in Clay series is the first collection of mine that has had a geologic theme. I have been researching, sketching designs, making the molds, and throwing the forms since 2004. None of the pieces from the collection were available for purchase until January of 2014 when the exhibit went on display at the MAC in Worthington, Ohio. 

Alan Spencer, Cretaceous (from the Strata in Clay series).
How important it is for artists to know about geology, and why?
I feel that it is important for artist to know about geology because the rocks, the earth, fossils and crystals, can all be such a strong source of inspiration for many forms of artwork. So many of the raw materials used in any artwork come from the strata of the earth. It is imperative to be aware of these materials and how to use them properly to create successful artworks.  I believe that the more knowledge an artist has at his/her discretion regarding subjects like geology, the more variety that artist will have to be inspired in different directions.

Alan Spencer, Jurassic (from the Strata in Clay series).


Mayor, A. 2001. The first fossil hunters - paleontology in Greek and Roman times. Princeton Press, 361 pp.