Intentional Serendipity, Ceramics Monthly November 2001

by Scott Reuscher

Massachusetts potter Judy Motzkin might be talking about people, individual people, when she says that each pot she throws in her Cambridge studio is entitled to "a life of its own." It is apparent that she believes the formation of character in clay is a mixture of nature and nurture, just as it is in people.
The identity of a thrown pot or a grown person is "consequence of complex conditions," she says. All that the artistic catalyst can do is encourage lucky accidents to happen. It's almost a matter of intentional serendipity.
"When it's been thrown but not yet fired, a single pot fresh off the wheel is pretty much indistinguishable" from its peers. It develops its own idiosyncratic personality during the firing in her kiln on Cape Cod.
"In the firing," Motzkin explains, "I can control three things: time, temperature and atmosphere." She will nest the pots in combustible materials, then raise the temperature and control the oxygen levels in the kiln as she desires. By the same token, she can direct the diets of her children, clothe and shelter them, and stimulate their intellectual development--but the type of clay they're made of is going to come into play.
Alone in the studio, Motzkin wedges the smooth white clay, then stands to throw at her foot-pedaled wheel. She first pulls a cylinder, then expands it into a spherical form that appears full and floating. She often lets larger forms set up before continuing to defy gravity, sometimes refining a single form over a period of days.
"Lifting from a base that is substantial enough to allow it to stand balanced, the form grows full with air," she explains. "There is a Chinese word, qi, which is translated as life-breath or spirit. It is this spirit that I hope to capture in these vessels."
Once the shape is complete, the surface of the vessel (or the sculptural object, as the case may be more recently) is "earth-sealed" with terra sigillata, and burnished. She takes as much pleasure in the mental image of the flat particles of clay aligning under the pressure of cloth and stiffened finger as she does in the smooth, glossy results. It's the beginning of a new piece, made by a processq still fresh to Motzkin after 15 years.
She remembers a time back in the 1980s, when her pots were completed by salt glazing. "Now I flame-paint," she says. "I feed propane to the fire, and the flames apply their own glaze."
Somewhere between growing up in the counter-cultured, art-drenched hills near Woodstock, New York, and going to school not all that far away at Cornell University in Ithaca, Motzkin started making glazed pottery--pots straight out of Brueghel paintings.
Her current work remains true to those functional roots, but she broke away from glazed, high-fired porcelain and stoneware after a visit to Mexico in 1980. "At * a potter's shop in Oaxaca," she remembers, "I chose the mistake. The first thing that caught my eye, the first thing I reached for, was a flawed piece of Coyotepec blackware. It had a white flash on the side where the fire had been hot or the piece exposed. That's the one that attracted me.!"
Soon, she discovered she could make multiple variations of flashmarked pots in a brick "pit" kiln. Reasoning that if she "made it hotter, I could get more variety," she then began experimenting with saggar firing in a fuel-burning kiln.
With saggar firing, she has found her voice--and has been using it to speak in suggestive, allusive terms about natural beauty, to express her reverence for mystery and her love of the "irregular," to take risks and to stimulate change. For the past few years, she has been speaking a language with more clearly symbolic terms as well.
She wants the pots "to be like spiritual food for others," she says, "meditative pieces you'd want to spend time with." However, her newer sculptural works--in part borne from recent experiments in printmaking, metalsmithing and painting, in part from an urge to pay homage to the dead--are mixed-media, box-framed assemblages of handmade teacups, sea stones and bones.
In one compartment, there might be a haunting little ceramic head, a hapless and inconsolable sadness in its hollow eyes, while an attenuated, handled teapot, "representing shared company," may occupy another. A top corner compartment might hold a cairn of flat, hand-shaped skipping stones, while down in the bottom corner, a cairn of clay bones stirs the imagination. They look like "real" bones from the crematorium, "real" stones from the river and, yes, "real" teacups from Asia; yet it isn't surprising to learn from such a lover of creative labor that the elegiac assemblages are comprised of "formed" rather than "found" objects. Their frames are among the few found objects involved: antique sewing-machine drawers, Victorian writing boxes, telescope boxes and artists' boxes.
What Motzkin, an admirer of Mexican blackware, Japanese Tamba and Bizen, and Attic Greek red and black pottery, calls her "palette of accidents" mostly has to do with the firing. "It's kind of a funky hybrid of primitive pit and modified saggar," she explains.
She places bisque-fired pots and sculptural elements inside saggars, nested in and surrounded by dry sawdust, straw and salt-marsh hay. At least one of these combustibles will have been marinated in a copper sulfate, cobalt or salt solution. Sometimes, for poetic effect, she snakes copper wire around and between the nested pieces, letting its winding length rest against the surfaces of all the pots in the saggar in hopes of developing a black streak. It almost always works. There are usually some nice surprises as well--like children who grow up as you thought they would, yet somehow inexplicably better.
For example, a large, rounded pot with a surprisingly narrow base might be tinted near the neck with a deep maroon blush--the result of a copper-drenched bundle of straw. There might be a striking diagonal slash of salmon-pink across the maroon blush--the result, maybe, of a thick bundle of the straw under slightly different pressure burning against the surface of the pot at a slightly different temperature.
Below that blush and around the contour clockwise by an eighth of a turn or so, there might be a smoky blue-gray wash, evoking the foggy mountain view from a Chinese sage's hut in a long scroll painting. (Could it be that Motzkin, who studied Chinese history, language and culture at Cornell, purposely encouraged this allusion here?) Then, another eighth or quarter turn clockwise around the pot, bolting south-by-southwest from the rim before trailing off toward the base, there might be a lightninglike, jagged black mark caused by a copper wire looped around the pot after it had been placed in the saggar. Perhaps the black lightning bisects a grouping of thicker marks, suggestive of Chinese ideograms, from the burning salt-marsh hay. Finally, there's likely to be more black below, because the pot's narrow base was snuggled into fine sawdust to give it some "visual gravity."
Seemingly infinite permutations in color and pattern can come from the flame-painting process. Not every piece will emerge from the kiln with a predictably poetic arrangement of browns and earthy blues; the patterns and hues will vary widely. "I can do the same thing to two pots," says Motzkin, "and they will come out different.
"My firing process has been one of creating accidents, learning, responding. In the beginning, it was random, searching for something. Occasionally, there would be one beautiful piece, enough to keep me going in the effort to influence the unpredictable character of the fire's effect on clay. Over the years, I have developed a palette of colors and patterns through the exploration and exploitation of accidents.
"Responding intuitively to the information revealed through the process, I have developed some control and refinement of the surface. Still, the fire surprises me, sometimes shocks and repeatedly teaches me to let go of expectations. It is this relationship to the fire that inspires me as I paint each piece with my palette of sawdusts and straws, setting circumstances for a wash of smoke and flame."
PHOTO (COLOR): "Josiah," 20 inches (51 centimeters) in height, thrown and altered white earthenware, with burnished terra sigillata, saggar fired. 
PHOTO (COLOR): "A Life of the Heart," 16 inches (41 centimeters) in height, wheel-thrown and handbuilt earthenware, with wood, bronze and oils.

PHOTO (COLOR): "They Gathered and Wept," 48 inches (122 centimeters) in height, handbuilt earthenware, wood and oils.

PHOTO (COLOR): "Roots Deepen, Foundations Settle, Order Is Restored," 38 inches (97 centimeters) in height, thrown and handbuilt earthenware, with silver, bronze and oil on wood.

PHOTO (COLOR): "Vessel," 14 inches (36 centimeters) in height, wheel-thrown earthenware, with terra sigillata, burnished and saggar fired.

PHOTO (COLOR): "Spirit Keeper," 16 inches (41 centimeters) in height, wheel-thrown earthenware, with terra sigillata, burnished and saggar fired, by Judy Motzkin, Cambridge, Massachusetts. 

PHOTO (COLOR): Judy Motzkin in her Cambridge, Massachusetts, studio. 

By Scott Ruescher
Scott Ruescher is a member of the staff of Ed., the alumni magazine of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Scott Ruescher is also a regular contributor to the monthly Boston-based magazine Arts Editor and the publicity coordinator for the Cambridgeport Artists Open Studios.

Source: Ceramics Monthly, November 2001, Vol. 49 Issue 9, p47, 5p