Rob Sutherland, D. Phil.
My involvement with pottery began relatively recently, in the fall of 2001. My first clay class was offered at the community studio I now own, Good Dirt in Athens, GA. Having ‘grown up’ in clay in such a rich community environment, I have had the benefit of contact with numerous visiting artists, instructors, and fellow students of pottery. This constant source of fresh inspiration has helped me avoid falling into a creative rut. I am constantly challenged to embrace new materials and techniques, and I have promised myself to find something else to do should my learning curve ever flatten out.
I took my first pottery class immediately after completing my doctorate in molecular ecology. At the time, I never dreamed that this would result in a career change. However, I soon found myself getting more and more involved in the studio, first as an intern, then as a manager, and finally as the owner. Although seemingly unrelated, my educational background does inform much of what I do in the studio. From the beginning, I have embraced the technical side of the craft, from glaze chemistry to firing kilns. I always allow myself to experiment and push the envelope technically. Just as science constantly progresses based on new discoveries, I want my work to move constantly forward.
My background in the natural sciences also informs my aesthetic. I want the geologic origin of the clay to have a voice in the final product. I want the intense heat and turbulent atmosphere of the kiln to be read on the surface of the pots. I marvel at the formation of crystals in a slow-cooled glaze and enjoy incorporating local unrefined materials into my glaze formulae. My pots celebrate the process of their creation with spiraling undulations evincing their origin on the wheelhead. I strive to create pots that combine sound technique with humble materials and a healthy dose of serendipity. In this way, I believe my pots can continue the conversation I started by forming and firing them when they find their way into a collector’s daily life.
Most of my pieces begin at the potter’s wheel, but I frequently stretch, dart, and assemble wheel-thrown parts to create a more interesting final product. One of my specialties is enclosing a volume of air within the piece at some stage of its creation. This allows me to push against the clay ‘balloon’ so that distortions to the form in one place are transmitted to other areas of the piece in sometimes surprising ways. In my work at the wheel, I like to set up conditions or parameters within which chance can play a part in the final outcome of the piece. This gives the pieces a life and voice of their own, and also keeps me engaged with the pieces and the give and take of their creation.
Firing is an aspect of the potter’s art that I particularly enjoy. Those who know me would attribute this to unresolved issues of childhood pyromania. Although there is probably some truth to that, the more compelling reason is my enjoyment of the spontaneous effects both gas and wood fire create as they interact with clay and glazes. As a stoneware potter, I enjoy both the raw power of the hot, reactive gases in the kiln and the challenge of understanding the relationship between all the variables that influence the outcome of any given firing. I constantly tinker with my gas downdraft kiln in an effort to increase energy efficiency, consistency, and evenness of the firing. This can be frustrating, but the overall process is very rewarding. I have also recently designed, built, and fired a new wood-fired kiln on my property in East Athens. Although I have already received some remarkable gifts from that kiln, I have only scratched the surface of how to manipulate this kiln to achieve the kinds of surfaces I desire. Even the theoretical ideal is a moving target, as each firing has produced surprising results that I could not have preconceived but would certainly like to reproduce.
Collectors of my work recognize the value I place on discovery and innovation. They are therefore willing to accept that forms and surface treatments to which they are attracted today will likely have evolved by their next visit to my gallery. My pieces are designed to do more than catch the eye of a customer and generate a sale. I want my pieces not only to be used and enjoyed, but also to break through into the user’s conscious aesthetic experience of the object and to create a meaningful dialogue. I recognize that this lofty ideal might not be achieved with every piece or with every customer, but the thought that it does happen from time to time sustains me in my craft.