Kansas City in 1974 was a wonderland. That year was the first time I’d lived in an urban environment, the first time off the East Coast. In my foundation year at the Kansas City Art Institute, the city was my resource for finding subject matter and gathering found materials to use in diverse projects in drawing, making sculptures, and performance. This first year in college, during which I rarely touched clay, was a powerful influence on my art, not least because of the many hours I spent walking and biking through residential neighborhoods and the often poor and decaying business districts of Kansas City. I began to observe what, for me, was unusual decoration on the facades of many older buildings – patterns, colors, forms, and motifs I had never seen or at least never noticed.Architectural terra cotta, Wyandotte St., Kansas City, Missouri. Photograph by the author.

I gradually came to realize that I was looking at fired, and sometimes glazed, clay on these buildings – it was my first intimation of the formidable history of ceramics in architecture. I was familiar with the history of vessels and had been seduced by them and by the tactile and responsive nature of clay, yet here was the larger vessel, the architectural structure, often made partially or wholly from bricks. The surface was sometimes veneered by tile and relief that encompassed – on a monumental scale – the vessel’s fascinating elements of containment. It was this direct experience with viewing and even touching ceramic ornament on Kansas City buildings, which I later learned was called architectural terra-cotta, that launched my investigation into clay as both a decorative and structural element of architecture.

I left Kansas City in 1980, and didn’t return for sixteen years. Now, I often drive or walk by my favorite terra-cotta haunts (though many have been razed). In their ornament, I see the point of departure for almost forty years of art-making. I see in its pastiche of styles a lineage of history and culture that reaches back through Europe – predominantly Muslim Spain – to the ceramics of the Middle East.

What energized my work in the study of Kansas City architectural ornament, continues to hold my interest and has sustained my sustained my art-making. First are the colors, shapes, and kinds of motifs present in the individual decorative components, and their repetition that determines the surface pattern on a structure. In regard to motif, I have an abiding curiosity about the origins of these images and why humans have chosen to enhance their shelters with images of plants, figures of humans and animals, geometries, tessellations, and shields that remained amazingly consistent over centuries of architectural embellishment.

As well, I appreciate the sculpted aspects of architectural relief that rupture, fold, and modulate over the surface of a building, that are highlighted as they respond to the shifting light of a day, and that often punctuate a window or doorway. There is a bodily characteristic to relief ornament that is like musculature on bone or an orifice that marks passage to the interior.

This mention of the body brings me to a point about the primary substances of ceramics, the moist clay and other minerals that are extracted from the earth, which can be manipulated and shaped. The relationship between clay, the landscape, and cultural form, especially of the built environment, relates back to my earliest experience of earthy substance – the iron-bearing soil of North Carolina’s Piedmont region, with agricultural fields of raw reddish-orange dirt interspersed with impossibly long and orderly rows of early green crops emerging from it. In Kansas City terra-cotta and elsewhere, I was looking not at the actual plants but at images and configurations of them embedded into repeated images of fired clay blocks. They are representations of growth, perhaps even a veiled, pagan appeasement of the gods. In retrospect, I see how the necessary organization of orange clay and green plants into pattern primed my eye to search for and recognize it in the fired manifestation of ceramics on architecture.

When I go to my studio, my memories of ornament and architecture are tucked away in my mind, and I have images of relevant sources posted on my studio walls. But, the primacy of my making starts with material, process, and experimentation. In the beginning of a new series, I operate on hunches, often with only a nascent notion of what may lie ahead. I pursue a material quality, a color palette, a shape of tile, a motif. Over a period of playful testing that may involve many false starts and frustration, an organization of visual and conceptual ideas will emerge. Glaze – its hues, textures, and light reflectivities – is a substance that is both physical and retinal. Finding glaze qualities can be as motivating for me as finding form, in fact, I almost think of the glaze layer as form. Remarkably, or maybe not so remarkably, these ideas as they develop always relate directly to a powerful experience I’ve had with architecture, ceramics, or nature, and I sometimes see the relationship only in retrospect.

Cave in Cappadochia, Turkey. Photograph by the author.My Landscape and Topo series (2008–2011) are examples of this approach to making. I began with two tile shapes that tessellate, one five-sided and one seven-sided. I used the tile to test glaze bases with diverse consistencies, opacities, translucencies, and the potential for a broad range of color, then applied them to the tiles. I arranged the tiles horizontally in response to color relationships as well as to pattern, and then into compositions yielded by the complexity of the repeated units. The heights of the extruded tile range from one half inch to ten inches tall, generating topographies that seemed to be architecture and landscape, monument and miniature, aerial and cell. The final sculptures evolved through a process of discovery that began with two elements of shape and color.

A trip to Istanbul and the Cappadocia region of Turkey in 2013 had a significant impact on my work in ceramics. For many years I have pored over images of the tiles that have covered mosques beginning in the fifteenth century as well as the caves that, for millennia, have been carved into the soft volcanic formations of the Cappadocian landscape. Seeing these architectural features and spaces firsthand led me to two distinct series of works: Veils and Parfleches.

My Veil series is a response to the Iznik tiles that veneer the walls of Turkish mosques. The repeated panels of tiles create a cool, liquid ceramic surface of brilliant color and image, suggesting to me the notion of the infinite in these spaces dedicated to spiritual reflection. Up close, it’s clear that the Iznik potters and architects were not particular about flaws, such as glaze dripping from or pooling around their stylized images of flora. As part of the process of making Veils, I prick shallow pinpoint holes into simple linear designs that are subsequently filled with cobalt. When covered with a low-temperature, runny crystalline glaze and fired at a diagonal, the glaze drags the cobalt into blue linear patterns, away from the original design and leaving an inverse trace of it. I collaborate with raw materials, gravity, and heat to create these glaze flows. I aim for them simultaneously to suggest and obscure an image, a memory, or a place.

The caves in Cappadocia have organic, white, honeycomb-like interiors punctuated by archways, columns, and windows. Light from openings in the walls filters in and shifts around the softened shapes of the interior, creating changing envelopes of space. The Parfleche wall reliefs are influenced by my experience of the caves and by Native American bison-hide carrying cases called parfleches. These are envelopes, too, in a literal sense: softened rectangles made of folded hide, painted with abstract designs, and used to store and transport provisions. Since seeing examples of these objects on display at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in the early 2000s, I have been fascinated by the way the leather folds and wrinkles and seems to organize the painted geometric patterns. I have never had the chance to untie and open a parfleche, I only know them from their exteriors, yet the slim, creased interior space implied by these wrapped cases captivate me in much the same way as do the Cappadocian caves.

Cary Esser, Veils, 2015-16. Glazed earthenware tile. 16.5 x 7.5 x .25 in. Photograph by E.G. Schempf.

My parfleches depart from my usual passion for the decorated and highly glazed surfaces of many architectural ceramics. They are solid-cast with slip in flexible molds that are configured to encourage what might be considered technical flaws. In these pieces, the markings and fissures left by their forming process contrast with grid lines that recede into the mass of the objects, aiming for a tension between order and entropy. They celebrate the raw clay surface and provoke me to consider the mysterious interior of a form.

An important practice in my studio, but one of the most difficult, is to see the work afresh as it is being made. Inviting others to visit can be a huge help in this matter, and being able to hear the comments offered is equally critical. Some of the most crucial decisions I’ve made in my work are a result of this watching and listening. The development of the Parfleche series is a prime example. The original purpose of making these forms was to prepare a surface for glazing and applying large decals of flora. A curator was in my studio one day just as I was preparing to brush a coat of glaze onto a piece. She called my attention to the form in its bisqued state, its monochrome, dry clay surface, its torn edges, holes, and splits, and proposed that the piece was complete. Her visit was one of several productive visits with local curators and artists.

I have been working on Parfleches and Veils concurrently for more than a year. While they are visually divergent, a similarity between them comes from my striving to embrace accident and phenomena in their making, in the casting of Parfleches and in the firing of Veils. I have surrendered an aspect of control that has been an active part of my work until these present investigations. I produce objects more quickly than I’ve been able to in the past, but the process demands a subjective and rigorous exercise of post-production selection. Some pieces call to others to be paired or grouped together, while others stand alone. I must cull those that fall short yet remain open to unexpected results that may at first seem unacceptable.

Looking back at the Kansas City architecture and terra-cotta adornments that fueled my artistic passion for many years, I see a shift in my attraction to them. There is positive force of architecture in its solidity and strength, and the potential for this force to be expressed by an element of its whole, in other words, by the brick, the decorative terra-cotta block, or the tile. In retrospect, this sense of wholeness and completeness drove my work for many years. Architecture usually begins with a building up from the earth. My interest now is equally in the end or memory of architecture, its inevitable succumbing to gravity and decomposition, and its return to the earth.