Miami Valley Pottery

Collaborative. Accidental. Fruitful.

By Eva Buttacavoli

Photo: David Leach & Naysan McIlhargey, ceramic, glaze

I took the occasion of the recent collaboration of potter Naysan McIlhargey with printmaker David Leach, drawer/printmaker Erin Holscher Almazan and painter/printmaker Jennifer Rosengarten to visit McIlhargey’s studio, Miami Valley Pottery, for the first time.

Located just outside of Yellow Springs, where McIlhargey grew up, the studio is part of a complex that includes a showroom, his home and a building that houses a giant wood-fired kiln.

He built the kiln in 2004 with his wife and father-in-law after a series of apprenticeships. His early discovery of ceramics was as part of Yellow Springs High School’s “Community Experience” program, where he spent two years working in the studio of David and Keiko Hergesheimer, followed by four years at Earlham College (Richmond, Indiana) being mentored by Mike Theideman. It was at Earlham where he was introduced to the work of Bernard Leach (regarded as the “Father of British studio pottery”). From there, he worked at Yellow Springs’ Community Pottery and then trained with Cary Hulin at Holmes County Pottery in Big Prairie, Ohio and at Cornwall Bridge Pottery in Cornwall, Connecticut, before returning to Yellow Springs to open Miami Valley Pottery. The focus of Miami Valley Pottery is handmade, functional, wood-fired pottery.

Wood-fired kilns produce a distinct type of pottery. The fire and ash temperature variations inside a wood kiln produce beautiful surfaces on both glazed and unglazed pots. The kiln is approximately 400 cubic feet, and it takes several months of creating pots to fill it. They fire the kiln only three to four times a year. A typical firing lasts three to four days, requiring constant attention to the stoking of the flame. The peak temperature reached is around 2,400 degrees Fahrenheit. In each firing, they use roughly four cords of wood. At the end of each firing, they have a “kiln opening” to which the public is invited to see and purchase the new work.

This recent collaboration with two-dimensional artists was McIlhargey’s second and reflects his peripatetic artistic spirit.

Collaboration, or joint production by two or more artists, is more common among musicians and performance artists but not so popular in the world of visual art. A strong sense of individualism long possessed by visual artists remained the norm for centuries, even though it was well known that many artists’ works were produced by apprentices or entire teams of studio artists. Even in the early 20th century, when the Dadaists (the international art movement born out of negative reaction to the horrors of World War I, which rejected reason and logic, prizing nonsense, irrationality and intuition) claimed the value of art lay not in the work produced but in the act of making and collaborating with others to create new visions of the world, this sense of individualism still prevailed.

However, when we do talk about art world collaborations, the work of Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns is often held in regard as one of the most well-matched and fruitful collaborations of all time. Melding drawing, printmaking, painting, sculpture and even dance, their collaborations led the way to new possibilities, especially across media.

Collaborations work when there is mutual respect, mutual work and mutual risk-taking. For this collaboration, McIlhargey chose to work with three two-dimensional artists, whose works each allude (and here is the key to the success of the project, I think) to forms in three dimensions. David Leach’s linear abstractions tempt the eye to follow the lines right off the surface; Jennifer Rosengarten’s florals reach out to wrap and entangle; and Erin Holscher Almazan’s bulbous bodies already mimic the sturdy base, rounder curves and elegant necks of the vessels.

Risks came with the nature of firing in the wood kiln. McIlhargey created the base shapes for each artist and compiled a list of possibilities and outcomes of each of the different glaze processes the artists could use. Although the list was quite extensive, he couldn’t resist including a mention of some commercial underglazes that he had heard might work to the temperature to which he fires but that he had not tested. The potential colors resulting from this process were so tempting that each artist chose these underglazes, knowing the risks.

Of this collaboration, McIlhargey said, “As the ‘producer’ of the pots, I feel comfortable talking in grand terms, with adjectives I normally wouldn’t use to describe my own decorated work. This project has been one of the highlights of my career as an artist because of the results and the process but, more importantly, what we all learned together. Jennifer, Erin and David are accustomed to working in certain media and understand process in those media, but to do this project, in mid-career, was brave.”

He continued, “[As] for the results, I would say they have created a body of work [that] is far beyond anything I could have created myself, and because of each artist’s individual focus on subject, the show is completely overwhelming, professional and beautiful. I am so proud of the work they did … to take shapes I have made and create such impressive art. This body of work lifts the definition of what is possible in the world of ceramics.”

Miami Valley Pottery’s Holiday Sale, featuring the Collaboration Project, will take place Friday-Sunday, Dec. 5-7, from 10 a.m.-5 p.m at Miami Valley Pottery, 145 E. Hyde Road in Yellow Springs. For more information, please visit mvpottery.com.

A Dayton transplant from Austin, Texas, via Miami, Fla. and Brooklyn, New York, Eva is Executive Director of the Dayton Visual Arts Center. A curator and arts administrator for over 23 years, she previously served as the first executive director of FilmDayton; the curator/ director of exhibitions and education at the Austin Museum of Art and the director of education at the Miami Art Museum. You can reach her at EvaButtacavoli@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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