The World through Ceramic Traditions: An Interview with Michelle Erickson

by Jihyun Ro

The Ceramics Program at Harvard will host a visiting artist workshop with Michelle Erickson, a contemporary ceramics artist whose work features multiple themes and historical influences, on Thursday, Feb. 28. Her work, juxtaposing ancient ceramic techniques with modern symbols and imagery, provides insight into political, cultural and environmental legacies from around the world. Along with her upcoming workshop, Erickson is also speaking at a Gallery Talk at the Harvard Art Museums on Wed., February 27. I spoke with Erickson about her work, hoping to gain more insight into her fascinating artistic process.

I was looking through your blog and your website, and noticed that many of your pieces have an Asian motif. Why do you focus on that heritage?

My background as a ceramic artist is so that I reference ceramic history during the period of colonialism, so I'm taking that period when the East opened up to the West, all the influences coming in from Eastern ceramic tradition, changing the course of Western world ceramic history for the next 300 years. Part of my interest in adapting that to my contemporary work is to connect that history to our contemporary circumstances of globalization and how we appropriate other cultures through their objects or through their technology.

You seem to be talking a lot about the juxtaposition of history and contemporary culture. What are your thoughts about the role of ceramics in the modern age? Ceramics seems to be a medium very much founded in history, so how do you think that translates to the current perspective on art?

This is something people who are ambitious to define the role of contemporary ceramics in contemporary art have a lot of ways of dividing up. I find that I use my mastery in the medium of ceramics to communicate what I am interested in in narrative ways, and I feel that the state of ceramics in the 21st century is associated with ballistics and space shuttle tiles, and the technology that is used to turn ceramics into those is completely removed from what most people have access to. I go back in history to the time when ceramics was a necessary global commodity, but it also has a huge role in art over the course of 30,000 years of human history. That's kind of where I feel I can connect to that history, through a practice that I can actually understand and do.

What compelled you to start working in the medium of ceramics?

When I first started, I was really taken with the immediacy of ceramics. I had been doing two-dimensional stuff and was at a block with that, so I decided to take ceramics. It was like a whole other world, pretty removed from the rest of the art department - the island of misfit toys - there was just no rules in a way, so I think that appealed to me. That's what really got me going. It wasn't until some years later, while trying to do clay for a living, that I even became aware of all of this historical/archaeological ceramic material in this area, which is from some of the earliest colonial American sites. And from those ceramics you often find porcelain from China, which is half a world away, and Native American ceramics from late 16th, early 17th century in the same context, and that juxtaposition is very interesting to me.

It sounds like you're taking the medium of ceramics from a very global angle and looking at the upcoming New Blue and White exhibition at the MFA. What are your thoughts on the exhibit and about your work being displayed with similar works?

That global context is definitely where I'm coming from, so even though I do appropriate the use of blue and white ceramic for specific works, I feel that that particular genre of ceramics does something for me to communicate an idea. If I am using blue-and-white porcelain or a specific object from history, it's usually because that's what fits what I'm trying to communicate. I do many different genres of blue and white in some depth. I think the show itself is a great way to pull together people working, completely differently, with completely different entrees into the psyche of what is blue and white, and I think that's what the show is really addressing. I have one piece in the show, but it's something that has a very significant, symbolic meaning and definitely says something important about our current circumstance that I find is not approached as much as one might think.

I know that you're doing a ceramics workshop here at Harvard. Tell us about it, please.

I'm probably going to be doing some different techniques from parts of my work and rediscovering these ceramics and how they connect in a global context. I will be doing a pretty broad, fast-moving range of things that include anything from 17th-century Italian slipware to tanks and guns. So I will be doing a fair amount with slipware, which is the other end of the spectrum from porcelain, and I'll be doing things with Delft decorating, overglaze. Delft is a kind of response from the Western world trying to imitate Chinese porcelain. I'll also probably do a couple of things with life casting and casting shells, similar to what I have in the MFA exhibit.

[Caption: Michelle Erickson]