Ceramicists seem to find their calling the first time they plunge their hands into the clay. And they're usually hooked for life.
Nina Lang, who just turned 95, still makes an occasional pot at the Potters Guild. Baltimore has a vigorous ceramics community, ranging from mud pushers at community centers to skilled potters at the Potters Guild and Baltimore Clayworks, with a strong academic program at the Maryland Institute College of Art. And these days ceramics runs the gamut from a teacup to realist sculpture to abstract installations.
Here are some of our town's notable clay workers.
The director of exhibitions at Clayworks, Leigh Taylor Mickelson was an undergraduate English major at Hamilton College in upstate New York when she had to take an art course.
"I took ceramics and immediately fell in love and discovered it was my medium," she says. She went on to graduate summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa with a double major in English and studio art. She returned to Baltimore, where she'd grown up, after earning her fine arts master's degree in ceramics in 1995. Now 34 and the mother of two young girls, she thinks of herself as a ceramics artist.
"I work very intuitively," she says. "I find the most interesting things come out when I work that way. I just kind of let the clay do what it wants to do."
She works in two formats: wall pieces on shelves and stacked works rising from the floor as high as 6 1/2 feet.
"They started out small and just got bigger," she says.
All her work has an organic quality. The stacks look like crazily balanced, surrealistic fruits and gourds, stream-bed rocks and pebbles. Her wall works recall snakes, snails and protozoa tails. More than 90 of her pieces can be seen until Feb. 22 at Villa Julie College.
Bonsai, the elegant miniature trees cultivated for centuries in China and Japan, and the containers they grow in have captured Ron Lang's imagination for a long time. Lang has chaired the ceramics department at the Maryland Institute College of Art since 1978. He came to MICA as a ceramics sculptor with a strong and witty narrative bent that won him much praise internationally.
"Most recently, with my falling in love with the wood-firing process, I've gone back to my roots in ceramics by making pots again," he says.
His pots now are combined with and inspired by the bonsai he has also been growing and training for many years: "That's really where my heart and passion are now."
He makes traditional bonsai pots that are lovely but subdued in the presence of their trees. But he also makes containers that are more assertive.
His Utah Ledge sets a Chinese juniper, a bonsai he grew, against ceramic slabs that recall a terrain of cliffs. He won first prize for a nontraditional bonsai pot at the 2002 North American juried competition of the National Bonsai Foundation and Tokyo's Takagi Bonsai Museum. Later that year he paired ceramics and bonsai artists in a tradition-challenging exhibition he curated at Baltimore Clayworks and the National Arboretum in Washington.
A teacher at the Pottery Guild, Vicki McComas is also such a long-running student at MICA, she's become a kind of den mother in the ceramics continuing education classes. She's a good cook who brings goodies, great technical advice and a strong creative imagination to class. She started out looking for a place to work and just never stopped going: "I have never missed a semester since 1985. I probably have 145 place credits now."
She'd earned a degree from the institute in 1978, in graphic design - "Which I don't like." She's been working in clay 35 years. She's 52.
"If you want to get exact about it, I started when I was seven. But I didn't really get serious until I was 18."
She throws lovely pots, sometimes glazed with slashes like Chinese calligraphy. But she also makes sculptured pieces, such as the ceramic elephant at the Potters Guild studio, which she modeled after a toy of her father's. Her three cats also turn up in her work, notably Bear-Bear, who's decked out in a busty, scooped-neck dress in a work titled Fortuneteller at the Jersey Shore. You can see her in a window next to McComas' shop at 1430 Fleet St. Ron Lang calls McComas "an urban folk artist."