Maine Potter Tim Christiansen Looks to the Future
Using the technique of sgraffito, Christiansen creates black and white vessels meant to stand the test of time.
Not every artist has an origin story, but Tim Christensen does. The year was 1998, and the former poetry major had just been laid off from his job selling law textbooks. “I knew I wasn’t cut out for the corporate life,” he says. “So I took my severance package and white cedar canoe, tent, and fly rod, and I went down to live in the Florida Keys.” He wanted to remake himself, to reconsider his path and his purpose. After about a month—“It took that long to shake off that life,” he says—he woke up one morning and paddled out to sea. As he floated above schools of fish, under eagles swooping overhead, he witnessed something profound: a mother dolphin bringing her newborn up for air. “It was like I knew, at that moment, why I came out here. If I can know that, I can make this decision.” So he did. He decided to become a potter.
Christensen is a storyteller, and storytellers tend to both simplify and amplify things. (I should know.) But among the beautiful details of this aquatic memory, there lies nestled a simple truth: in order to live our best lives, we have to take time to reflect on what we want and who we are. In Florida Christensen realized that he is someone who loves to work with his body, so he needed to do something physical. He also loves art, history, and science, so he chose a medium that would allow him to create long-lasting works with a variety of uses. Finally, he’s a person who likes a challenge, so he picked a trade that was unfamiliar. “I had never done it before, but it made sense to me,” he says. “I’m supposed to be a potter.”
It has been decades since that first paddle, and Christensen still believes he’s meant to make pots, but his direction has changed slightly over the years. “I spent the first five years making functional pots,” he says. “It never occurred to me that it wouldn’t work out, but even though I had met many of my own requirements, I felt like I wasn’t using my voice.” What was missing was a sense of coherent narrative. He wanted his art to be clear enough that an alien could come to earth and immediately understand it. “I didn’t see anyone else recording our world in a way that would be accessible and readable and survivable for another 100 years,” he says. “I realized I had a voice, and I knew what I wanted to say. For me, it’s all about the human interaction with nature.”
Enter: sgraffito. According to Christensen, he discovered the black and white technique almost by accident, although the practice (from the Italian for “scratched glass”) dates back hundreds of years. This was another revelation, that he could draw on white clay covered in black slip. “It was a weird miracle that I knew how to do it,” he says. The form works well for him. For the past two decades, he has been making wood-fired porcelain in this stark, monochromatic palette. The pieces are functional in theory, but most of his buyers don’t use his cups or vases. “If you spend $200 on a cup, you’re probably not going to get it anywhere near a sink,” he says. While he has created purely sculptural pieces, much of his work employs familiar forms from the potter’s canon (think broad shallow bowls, bottle vases, squat Japanese teacups). Some pieces feature images of the human world—drum sets and fishermen and sunglass-wearing male figures—but my favorites are the pieces that betray little of their contemporary origins. I like the bulbous vessels that dance with animal life. Some show squid below undulating waves, while others feature big-eyed birds or herds of running elk. Here, I can hear Christensen’s voice most clearly.
But what is he trying to say? It’s a question I often ask artists, even though they’re not always the best people to answer it. Christensen, however, has had practice. In addition to making his pottery, he also works as a teacher and mentor, and he has lectured at ceramics programs around the world. “For most of human history, this knowledge was handed down from person to person,” he explains. Potters learned from each other; they didn’t use YouTube videos or books. In fact, Christensen argues, pottery was the first book. He points out that pottery shards account for much of our archaeological record. We know what we know about ancient humans because we can read the images on their urns and their tiles. We can recognize the living creatures and the scenery, and from these images we can understand a little of what they cared about, and how they lived.
For Christensen, his art isn’t just making porcelain pots, and his mentorship isn’t just a relationship formed with a younger potter. These things are part of the greater whole. He has arranged his life so that he can spend time sitting in a boat perched between ocean and sky (sometimes he’s in a container ship, sometimes he’s kayaking around South America) and with his hands in the clay, firing pots in Maine. He wants to be in regular, physical contact with the elements. He also wants to make pieces that will outlast his body, ideally by centuries. His art is a form of communicating with future generations. “I think of the people who buy my pieces as their stewards,” he says. “With a pot, you don’t want it to break on your watch. They can last for thousands of years. A certain percentage of my work will.”
This is Christensen’s “keystone.” He says, “I’m chemically bonding my etchings of my observations of the world in this universal visual language. You don’t even need to be a human to understand it. You have to have an eyeball and the ability to think abstractly.” Someday, maybe another life-form will find one of his pots, and maybe they’ll hear his voice. Maybe they’ll learn about stingrays and an ancient type of being that populated the earth. Maybe his art will tell them something beautiful.