Meet A Maker: Matt Dercole

Meet a maker: Matt Dercole from West Hartford, CT.

The Studio is excited to welcome visiting artist Matt Dercole who will teach “Sculpting Small Animals with Clay” workshop on Saturday and Sunday, September 10 – 11, 2016. Read on to learn more about the artist’s process and inspiration in creating his emotive and curious critters


CC: How did you get into your craft? What is your educational background? Who are mentors or artists that you admire or have influenced your artistic development?

Matt Dercole (MD): I took a sculpture class in undergrad and one of the assignments was to make something out of clay. I never worked with clay before that and basically just really enjoyed the way the material was able to be handled and manipulated. I became a ceramics major after my first clay class my sophomore year and have been working with clay since. My professor was somewhat hands off (I don’t mean this in a bad way), but I feel that it allowed me to explore the material without limitation or be bound by the endless rules of ceramics classes.

I had few rules to follow in my learning of clay, so I was able to approach it from multiple directions. After undergrad, though, I didn’t touch clay for three years. I love drawing and painting, but I really missed working sculpturally, specifically with clay. He was very supportive of me and helped me to challenge myself in the studio and he helped me get into grad school. I worked with a great group of grad and undergrad students at the University of Iowa who helped push my techniques and ideas. I think getting back into sculpting after three years and working with that group of people was incredibly helpful to give me a better direction with my studio practice and professional endeavors.

Matt Dercole sculpture of rabbit

CC: Please talk about what the material means to you — why you are attracted to it; why it is important within your work??

MD: Clay, as a material, has no familiar shape or texture, protean and amorphous by nature. It has no limits to what it can be molded and formed into. I like that clay can take on the attributes of other materials, and it can be complimented with other materials so well. I like using porcelain for it’s texture and I like to think of it as relating to a fancier material. Porcelain is clay-like, but it really is it’s own category. References to dolls, cleanliness, a prized material are interesting associations that II have with porcelain and I’ve used it a lot for my sculptures for a while now. Wool is an important component I have been exploring. Quite simply, I like that it refers quite literally to an animal. It looks like fibers, like hair. Unwashed fleece will smell and feel like an animal. It becomes a very real component of pieces, that can be shaped and processed, but always look like fibers, and relates to an animal.

Wood and reference to wood is something I like to use to allude to opposing ideas of nature and construction. Planks of wood and wood grain textures are used to reference the act of building and structure. Sometimes I make wood drawings and sculptural wood-looking elements out of clay, and depending on the idea, sometimes I will just use actual wood to incorporate a more literal idea. Other materials vary, and if I feel the need to use plastic or resin or found objects, I will add them into the piece. But as of late, I have been sticking mainly to clay and wool.

CC: Describe your process and talk about the things you are thinking about as you work.

MD: In a general sense, my work is dealing with reason and ability. Ideas of nature conflict with aspects of being human, and I like to explore and question these thoughts. Our identities as creatures with animal instinct and the ability to reason make for some curious and playful situations. I take experiences from my life and those around me and try to shift the point of view to cater to my own reinterpretations. Usually by means of animals and humans on the same level of thought and existence, where I can try and better understand a situation or feeling. I often think of it as looking to nature for answers and explanations when human logic and reasoning seem to be counterintuitive to understanding.

I pace a lot and I sketch a lot. When I’m working, I usually have music playing loudly. It helps me focus. When I’m working, I am just working and figuring out the issues dealing specifically with process and form. I pace and I stare at the piece a lot while in the studio. Everybody has different ways of working, and my process changes with the series I’m working on at that time. I usually work in a way that involves planning and deciding before I start the piece. Multiple sketches and notes on what I’m thinking about and how to tie things together. With each component or appendage, I’m trying to figure out what would be the best way to keep things true to the original idea. I always allow for change, though, as new thoughts will always inform a different approach. There is a narrative and metaphoric logic that I’m trying to utilize. I used to write short stories to go with the series, and I like the idea of including narrative elements instead of just an implied narrative. I may revisit writing more in my practice in the future.

Matt Dercole sculpture of rabbit

CC: Please tell us about your current work. Why is this work important to you? What are you looking forward to and/or where do you see your work going in the future?

MD: Currently, I am making a few pieces for exhibitions. Two sculptures I have been working on deal with raccoons. In a nutshell, a large tree by my studio that was the home for many raccoons fell during a storm and displaced the raccoons. They were always out at night to keep me company during late nights in the studio, but they all had to find a new place to live. When I noticed this, I thought about this as an idea I should explore, in a sense of displacement and comfort in your living space. I work with animal forms in my sculptures often. As seen in the work of surrealists, romanticists, and contemporary artists, animals can be used as symbols and metaphors for instinct and used to disguise the human figure to focus on simplistic attributes that we place on certain animals.

With newer pieces, I am thinking of using more color and glazes again. I have been using unglazed porcelain for most of my work for the past few years, and am deciding to begin to use different clays and finishes to bring color back into my work.

CC: What are some things you learned the hard way? What advice do you have for aspiring artists?

MD: I’ve always worked by trial and error. The experience of working through ideas has been a valuable means of learning for me. I like to approach ideas with some element of the unknown. When I don’t know how to do something, there is the greatest chance for me to grow and learn something new. Sometimes the results are not what was expected, or the lessons come slowly, but that keeps my studio practice interesting and always in a state of curiosity. Try to be honest and open with your work. Allow for change and failure; they keep life and the studio from being boring.