Honoring the history of ceramics, while drawing on elements of the modern human condition, ceramic artist Matt Wilt creates functional vessels with strong visual impact. From mugs to covered jars, Matt’s stoneware pieces reflect the tactile nature of craft and forming a piece by hand.
Read on to learn more about Matt, his practice, and his thoughts on craft and an artist’s role in society.
I feel like some great art can have virtually no craft skills involved at all, pure expression. Conversely, some great craft objects can have no expression or feeling, all technique and technical prowess. But isn’t it so exciting when the two merge and balance – heartfelt expression with beautiful execution of the hands?
What is your artistic background?
In high school I had an art teacher who went out of his way to bring clay into his curriculum. His name is John Ziegler, and he sparked my interest in clay work along with books and music that I was unaware of. That experience led me to study ceramics at Penn State for my undergraduate degree.
What are your favorite materials to work with/types of items to make?
Usually stoneware is my preferred clay – I like its associations with being straightforward and sturdy, but stoneware also has a huge range of variations in color and surface. I do also incorporate other clays like porcelain and earthenware, but probably 90% of my work is in stoneware of some type. As far as types of objects I like to make, I really love making covered jars. They’re architectural, interactive, and visually enticing.
From where do you draw your inspiration?
Inspirations for my pots vary widely: Cast iron cookware, oil cans, funnels – the types of objects you’d find in a 1970’s garage in rural Pennsylvania. Less apparent inspirations come from musicians, songwriters, and writers who reflect on the human condition (people like Tom Waits, Gillian Welch, Soundgarden, and Wendell Berry). Perhaps most importantly, the great wealth of ceramic history that came before us: Moche pots of Pre-Columbian Peru, Native American Mimbres pots of present-day New Mexico, and Jomon pots of prehistoric Japan (among many others) fire my imagination and love of clay work.
What is your creative process like?
Keeping a sketchbook is valuable to me – Paulus Berensohn called the sketchbook (or journal) a “portable studio”, and I feel the same. Drawing and developing basic sketches for forms/ideas often comes first. I frequently make 3 – 7 forms based on the drawings in my sketchbook. After this first round of forms are made, I like to step back and choose the more successful 2 or 3 pieces and make another group based on my preferences. Working in series like this is common in ceramics, and helps distill ideas in a way that also allows them to evolve and change.
I also look at a lot of artists, both historical and contemporary, and in a wide variety of media. These historical and ongoing traditions feed my curiosity and continue to excite me about my involvement in this historically rich discipline.
What is the most rewarding thing about your practice?
There are many rewarding aspects, and I’d be hard pressed to choose one. The making process is special because you see ideas taking shape, and in the leather hard stage the pots are perhaps their most exciting. I get great satisfaction from firing pots and seeing results that meet (and sometimes exceed) my expectations. Using these pots in my house is very gratifying, as is selling them to enthusiastic pottery lovers, and giving them to friends and family.
And what challenges do you face as an artist?
I find clay constantly challenging and demanding as a material. There’s a variation of an old proverb that seems fitting: “With clay, be humble, or prepare to be humbled”. Every phase of the process demands care and attention. Other challenges involve balancing work, home life and studio time. Like everyone else, finding a good work/life balance can be difficult.
Outside of your practice, do you do any other creative activities/what are your interests?
I love playing the guitar (not particularly well), reading both fiction and non-fiction when I have time, following Pittsburgh sports teams and Penn State football… Being involved with my two daughters as they grow up is hugely important, and trying to be a good partner to my wife is both important and challenging!
What role does the artist have in society?
There probably isn’t one singular answer – many different roles, depending on the artist. I think of the artists that I admire and aspire-to as reporters on the human condition. They question what we are doing on this planet, question what we value, question what we worship (in the secular and religious sense), invite our hands to run across the skin of an object, share their experiences, and heighten our awareness of our ourselves and our fellow creatures, both human and non-human.
What is art/craft to you?
I love this question because art and craft are so intertwined. I feel like some great art can have virtually no craft skills involved at all, pure expression. Conversely, some great craft objects can have no expression or feeling, all technique and technical prowess. But isn’t it so exciting when the two merge and balance – heartfelt expression with beautiful execution of the hands? They are two sides of the same coin, and historically the “difference” was inseparable – they were either one and the same, or you couldn’t have one without the other. John Barth said “In art as in lovemaking, heartfelt ineptitude has its appeal and so does heartless skill, but what you want is passionate virtuosity.”
Tell us about your favorite artist or artists that inspires you.
That’s a long list! I’ve had a lot of great teachers whose shoulders I stand on every day. Chris Staley, David Dontigny, Berry Matthews and Brent Oglesbee were my undergraduate professors, and I still love seeing their work. My graduate school professors Brad Schwieger, Chuck McWeeny and Joe Bova have had a big influence on me. The list of clay artists is really long: Hans Coper, Ken Price, Paula Winokur, Magdalene Odundo, Tim Mather, Susan Harris, Michael Simon, Don Pilcher, Paul Dresang, Adrian Saxe, Byron Temple, Dan Anderson, Walter Keeler, Ron Nagle, Melody Ellis (my wife), Daisy Youngblood, Lisa Clague… I could go on! Historical clay is simply jaw dropping: the terracotta army of Emperor Qin Shi Huang, Mimbres burial bowls, Jomon flame/wave pots, Moche stirrup vessels…. Again, I could go on…
People outside of ceramics include Julie Speed, Francis Bacon, all of the Dadaists, Rebecca Horn, Joseph Cornell, Otto Dix…Another long list. The people who I teach with in the Art Department at Skidmore College inspire me daily, and I’m blown away by their work.
Anything else you would like to add?
Thanks for inviting me to do this, and including my work at Contemporary Craft!