Centuries Collide

It is easy to get pigeonholed in our field. We become known for a particular style or technique we use. As artisans, it is, in a sense, the crux of what we do; putting ourselves at the mercy of a well-honed skill and repeating. A graduate professor of mine called it our "ceramic shtick." The professor's simple comment was a significant moment in my education as it was the first time I considered the hazards of becoming overly precious about an idea or process. Her perception was that this push for consistent craft and understanding of one’s skill through persistent repetition was the death of creativity and refutation of art. 

Perry Haas has committed to honing his skills, repeating a process and investing in an aesthetic that began to achieve serious recognition around 2015 when he became the MJD Fellow at the Archie Bray Foundation in Helena, Montana. His speckled wood-fired porcelain vessels are now iconic. From his time as a student at Waubonsee Community College in 2003 and Utah State University in 2004, he has been widely exposed to various styles of wood kilns and firing techniques. He’s also had many first-hand opportunities to study and reflect on traditional Asian vessel forms that have infiltrated the American ceramics lexicon. His training has included a residency at the Jingdezhen Ceramic Institute in China and time studying ceramics in South Korea. Currently living near Red Lodge, Montana, Haas’s lived experiences and exposure to local landscapes have been used to inspire his interpretation on forms that he has deemed appropriate for the wood kiln. “I am interested in the vertical movement of wood fire: ash accumulation, drips, running, etc.”

The vessels are his canvas.  

From stark white to crusty blues and grays, Haas’s wood-fired vessels have traditionally celebrated much of the palette that is readily achievable in the wood-firing process. Using bulbous, dynamic forms, reminiscent of the Korean moon jar and Japanese Muromachi forms, his vessels create dips and valleys for ash to accumulate, pool, and drop. 

Feeling that he was at a stalemate in his work, and in an attempt to introduce new colors and additional layers to his pieces, Haas tried re-firing some of these vessels in electric and gas kilns. The crystal growth, flashing, and subtle color palette, attributed to long-stoking cycles in a wood kiln, all but disappeared in the resulting pieces. It was as if they denied or covered up the time and work achieved during the wood-firing process.

“I really wanted a certain outcome – and I wasn’t getting it,” explained Haas. “So, I tried resin. I started with certain color choices (pink being the first) and worked on how to incorporate these soft pastel colors layer after layer. I tried to find contrasts to the fired work. There was a more physical approach to how the resin reacted, unlike the wood kiln where there are so many variables that don’t allow me the control to directly choose where and how the color and drips happen.”

The contrasts created physically via this post-fire process are fairly obvious in the forms and colors. The fat porcelain vessels with soft curves and carbon blacks and blues are abruptly contrasted by webbing drips of hot pink and meridian blue in the resin. There is a merging of twenty-first century chemistry with seventeenth-century ceramic chemistry. A crafted object that has withstood 2300°F for several days in a wood kiln is now draped with a material that needs to cure at 75°F in low humidity for several hours. 

Succumbing to the limitations that are bound within the ceramics process, Perry began to expand his thinking and possibilities to find the results that he felt were true to his ideas – instead of being wed to a specific process as those in the craft can be. Haas’s latest round of work gets to the heart of the philosophical struggle found within the craft community. “I enjoy the fact that I don’t have to put in all this labor on the second round of color. The initial goal from the start was not to cover the results of wood firing, but to enhance them,” he said. 

Without a doubt, these start out as pottery vessels that are wood fired. It is hard to deny the craft-based nature of his work. Does adding a foreign material to the mix begin to change the final outcome of the piece? Does the resin deny function? Does that alone push these forms from “craft” to “art?” It is the same debate that many of us deal with in our work when deciding who is the audience for our work: me or you. The serendipitous moments when the work hits a resonating tone to all audiences removes this need to decide.  

Just as our field continues to evolve on what is “acceptable” to be called ceramics, Haas’s ceramics are on a continuum in our field and he is pushing the line as to where his work sits. From his functional mugs and tumblers to his larger moon jars and anti-vases, [Editor's note: "anti" meaning against type in this scenario] Perry has continued to evolve his aesthetics. He doesn’t create traditional crockery or Asian ceramics, but he is informed by them. He isn’t making radical, ephemeral sculpture, but he is informed by it. In the collide lies Haas and his evolution. 

At the heart of what Haas is creating is pottery: an object based in function that can last longer than human existence, now adorned with a finish that may only last thirty years. His work is doing what ceramic work for centuries has been unable to do ­– become ephemeral. With the additional resins and paints added to a finished, fired surface, the resin will forever be in a state of flux and change as it continues to react to UV light and oxidize. It will swell as it absorbs humidity and the colors will change. Much like the process of wood firing, this process takes time and patience. It will yield subtle changes granted only to the owner or patient onlooker willing to devote their observations to the process of time.