Nathan Willever is the 2017-18 Zeldin Fellow Resident Artist. He is dedicated to exploring the possibilities of using local clay and wood firing to create work inspired by the simplicity of historical American and Asian ceramic forms. The exhibition will display the process of researching, digging, and processing local clay by hand. Sublime surface markings produced by his wood firing techniques complement his use of historical forms for inspiration.
The work in From the Source represents one year of collecting my favorite pots from every firing. The clay and glazes I used were developed from local, un-processed materials that were refined through research and testing. When I applied for the Residency and Zeldin Fellowship at The Clay studio, I proposed making an evolutionary change to my work by employing local clays from throughout the Mid-Atlantic Region. I knew there had been a rich tradition of potters working in the Philadelphia region making lead glazed slipware, and by the early 18th century, salt glazed stoneware. Areas where there has been a history of pottery-making have always had sources of good clay.
Early into the residency, I was able to find a source of refractory stoneware clay that has high iron content. I hand dig this clay which comes from Stancills, a company that mines and sells aggregate on a large scale. Found near the north-eastern corner of the Chesapeake River, the “Marlboro Clay” was deposited in the region by a shallow marine environment during the late Paleocene period, around 55 million years ago. This clay has proven to be a beautiful clay to work with, and it has a very rich color. Wood firing the clay often brings out “Bizen” style surfaces, and the clay’s coarse nature helps produce the “Gohonde,” or firefly spots, seen on the reduction fired work.
Once I found the clay, I moved onto developing glazes that highlight the clay’s character. The most important material for my glazes is what I call Mineral Hill feldspar. I found this rock by researching feldspar mines that were in use during the early 19th century. Mineral Hill, located in Media, Pennsylvania, was used as a source for soda feldspar for a short time. To process the rock, I first calcine it by firing to 1700 degrees, then crush it in a ball mill for use in the glazes. Wood ash, a byproduct from wood firing, is sifted and used in conjunction with the feldspar to achieve the Nuka and Mineral Hill green glaze.
In October, I was a Guest Artist at the Shigaraki Ceramic Culture Park in Shigaraki, Japan. During my stay, I was able to observe the Shigaraki style, visiting with several local potters. I worked with the Shigaraki clay, high iron clay, and the local slip to create the Gohonde surface I use here in Philadelphia. The Shigaraki clay was wood fired in their traditional Noborigama for four days, revealing the “Hiiro” flashing color and large feldspar chunks in the clay. The pots in the show that are titled Shigaraki or Gohonde were made in Japan.
Using these unprocessed, “wild” materials has influenced how I make pots and has produced surfaces that will age and develop over time, much like the pots from Korea, Japan, and Europe that I have found inspirational for years. My hope is that these pots show both their recent origins and their traditional cultural influences.
Stay up to date on all things Clay Studio with announcements, invitations and news delivered straight to your inbox.