Celebrating Ceramics


Photography Scott Dorrance

Six artists answer the call of poetry

Paul R. Heroux A native of New Hampshire, Paul Heroux says it was actually the time he spent in Maine that gave him direction as an artist


In 1969, on a summer break from college, Heroux worked for two months as an assistant at the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts in Deer Isle. “The teachers were all studio potters,” he remembers, “and that pointed me in the direction of setting up my own shop.” Yet even in the early 1970s, the costs associated with maintaining a pottery studio in Boston proved to be a challenge, and in 1973 moved his shop to Maine. Today, he continues in the tradition of studio potters before him, working every piece himself from start to finish. In addition, Heroux teaches ceramics courses in sculpting, vessel making, and the figure at Bates College.

Heroux throws the majority of his sculptural pieces on a potting wheel, and then manipulates them by hand to create flowing shapes. He works in cycles, often spending a month or two just creating forms, then another month or two painting on glaze and finishing the pieces. Heroux, who began his art studies as a painter, says he strives to keep his clay forms simple so that they can act as something of a canvas for the layers of glaze he adds.

Heroux says he does not consider what Asian-influenced images will appear on his vessels when he is creating the blank form—the two phases, he says, are separate. He trusts that the form will inspire the images. “When I was a painter,” he says, “there was a lot of sitting around, thinking about what to do. But in ceramics, there is always something happening—there’s a lot of energy in the process.”

Education: Heroux received his master’s degree in fine arts from the School of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

To view more work by Heroux: The Goldberg Heroux Pottery in Brooksville and the Howard Yezerski Gallery in Boston


Mark Johnson

There are many layers to Mark Johnson’s vases, and it’s not just the layers of glaze and texture. Johnson’s work is layered with numerous influences from painting, sculpture, and even architecture. “There is a figurative aspect to my vases, a curve jutting out like a women’s hip,” he says, “and there is also something about how the pitch of a pot’s edge looks like the pitch of a roof.”

Johnson, a native of Ohio who moved to Maine 20 years ago to take a teaching position at the Maine College of Art (MECA), approaches each of his pieces not only as a ceramicist but also with the knowledge he has accumulated from working in other mediums, including drawing and sculpture. “I started out in photography,” he says, “so I’ve learned to look very carefully at the nuances of my work.

Johnson accomplishes his rich, nuanced finishes by firing them in a soda kiln. “There’s an atmospheric quality to what happens in a soda kiln,” Johnson says, and the results give his vases a naturally weathered look. “You work with process a lot in the ceramic medium,” Johnson says, “tweaking things here and there and seeing if the outcome surprises you.”

The soda kiln certainly increases the chance that Johnson will be surprised after a firing. Like his wife, Lucy Breslin, who is also a ceramicist and professor at MECA, Johnson not only accepts but embraces the possibility of the unexpected during the process of firing his work. The Japanese call this artistic embrace of the imperfect, impermanent, and unconventional “wabi-sabi.”

“Sometimes,” Johnson admits, “the ‘mistakes’ actually make things better.”

Education: Johnson studied ceramics at Kent State University, where he earned both a bachelor’s and a master’s of fine arts.

To view more work by Johnson: The Clay Studio in Philadelphia


craft_breslin.jpgLucy Breslin

In the mid-1980s, Lucy Breslin had to leave the country to find validation for what she instinctively felt was missing in her ceramics: color.

A native of Pennsylvania, Breslin moved to Maine 20 years ago to teach ceramics at the Maine College of Art; her husband, the artist Mark Johnson, is also a professor at MECA. It was after arriving in Maine that Breslin began to create the brilliantly colored and energetic ceramic pieces for which she is known today.

In the 1970s and early 1980s, the American ceramic scene was dominated by minimalist, earth-toned ceramics. But Breslin yearned for something brighter and more baroque. “I wanted to get festivity and celebration into my work,” she says. While on a Fulbright Fellowship to Spain in 1985, Breslin discovered troves of dazzlingly decorative pottery. The experience solidified her belief that there was a place for colorful ornamental ceramics in contemporary art.

“My work is still rooted in nature,” Breslin says, “but it takes things to another place. Nature isn’t just about browns and greens.” You need look no further than a flower garden, she says, to see the interplay of vivid colors in nature.

Oddly enough, though Breslin relishes bright color she has also chosen to work in a medium in which color can be deceptive. Unlike oil painters, who know exactly what they are getting when they stab their brush into a glob of paint, a ceramicist works with muted, milky glazes that don’t reveal their true color until after they have been fired in a kiln. In addition, the temperature of the kiln and length of firing can have subtle affects on the outcome. “I tell my students,” Breslin says with a sheepish grin, “that if you don’t have some gamble in your blood, you shouldn’t be in ceramics.”

Education: Breslin received her bachelor’s degree from Pennsylvania State University and a master’s of fine arts from Kent State University.


Sharon Townshend

Nature is perhaps the single most defining thread that runs through the work of artist Sharon Townshend. “For years, I didn’t even know there was a coast of Maine!” Townshend laughs as she describes her childhood summers spent tramping through the deep woods of Western Maine. In 1970, she decided to make the state her home.

Like many other ceramic artists, Townshend began as a painter but soon grew restless with the limitaions of the medium. “I got frustrated with just creating the impression of 3-D,” she says. While discussing ceramics in the colorful, art-filled home of her Wesleyan professor Mary Risley and Mary’s sculptor husband, John Risley, Townshend says her passion for sculpture, and art in general, grew even more. “I saw what life as an artist looked like,” she remembers, “and it impressed me.” And so she struck out, with a teaching certificate in hand, to find her way as an artist. Since completing her graduate work, Townshend has been continually creating and showing her work, while teaching others to the do the same.

Afer teaching stints at institutions such as Waynflete, the Portland School of Art (now MECA), and Phillips Andover Academy, Townshend and three other artists bought and renovated a studio building in South Portland in 1989. Sawyer Street Studios now rents equipped studio space to ten artists and holds clay classes on a regular basis.

Today, Townshend says, her ceramic sculptures are inspired by the same sort of idle walks through the Maine woods that she took as a child. “I wander through the woods collecting little treasures,” Townshend says, “like sticks with the bark half on and half off.” Many of Townshend’s pieces play up the anthropomorphic quality of trees and what she calls “the sensuality of the juxtaposed textures—the smooth wood inside and the rough, crumbling bark on the outside.”

Education: Townshend earned her bachelor’s of fine arts in painting from Syracuse University in 1965, before going on to receive a master’s degree in ceramics from Wesleyan University in 1967.

To view more work by Townshend: sharontownshend.com, the Gallery on Chase Hill in Kennebunk, the New Era Gallery on Vinalhaven, and the Turtle Gallery on Deer Isle


Melissa Greene

An epiphany. That’s how Melissa Greene describes her realization that a life in ceramics was the only life for her. Greene was just 14 years old and living abroad in Switzerland. One day, while staring at an ivy-covered stone door for a long time, she turned to her mother and said, “I want to be a potter.” From that point on, Greene dedicated herself to the study of ceramics.

“‘Go into the woods!’ my father used to tell us,” says Greene of the summers she spent as a child in the Rangeley Lakes region of Maine. Her father urged the kids to experience nature as he filled their ripening imaginations with fanciful stories about the Native Americans who once lived and hunted in those same woods. Those stories, as well as visits to remote villages in Lapland, Norway, had a deep and lasting impact on Greene’s pottery. In 1991, Greene settled in Maine full-time, taking up residence on Deer Isle with her husband, the metal artist Eric Ziner, and their two sons.

Greene’s ceramic pots and bowls are known for bold imagery that expresses an expansive worldview while paying homage to nature: common themes include myriad flesh-colored female figures shown arm and arm, or animals like trout, bears, loons, and foxes scampering about. While the early roots of Greene’s ceramics were heavily influenced by Native American imagery, Greene says that today the images are wholly hers. “At art shows, people will come up and ask me, ‘What tribe is that bowl from?’” Greene says. “Or they’ll ask, ‘Is that African, or Etruscan, or Egyptian?’” Greene’s smiling response is, “They are everything!” The Smithsonian American Art Museum seems to agree—they currently have one of Greene’s fish-covered pots on display.

Education: Greene earned her bachelor’s degree in visual arts from New England College in 1979, a master’s degree from Wesleyan University in 1987, and undertook additional studies at the Idyllwild School of Music of the Arts and the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts.

To view more work by Greene: melissagreene.com, the Greene-Ziner Gallery on Deer Isle, and the Gifted Hand Gallery in Wellesley


craft_mason.jpgGeorge Mason

Time is a construct,” says artist George Mason. “I have a predisposition within me that is fascinated with time—with time passed, the time ahead, and the temporality of everything.” This enthrallment with time has played a key role in Mason’s ceramics over the years.

Mason grew up in several New England states but spent part of each summer in Maine. He moved to the state in the early 1970s. Over the years, Mason has left Maine several times to teach ceramics at both of his alma maters, Ohio State University and the ITB and IKS universities in Indonesia, but he always comes back. Yet it was a trip that Mason took to Egypt in the early 1980s, while he was teaching at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in Israel, that stimulated his fascination with time, an interest that has carried over into his art.

In what he remembers as a “modest Egyptian temple,” Mason became captivated by wall carvings that had been chipped and obscured thousands of years ago so that they could be carved over again with new reinterpretations of history. “That aspect of revision became important in my work,” Mason says. “It spoke to the impermanence of things.” Today, through a series of glazing and sandblasting techniques, Mason says his large, layered wall plaques are based on this concept.

In addition to his plaques, Mason has completed 32 ceramic commissions (many in terra cotta) for Percent for Art, a state-run program that sets aside one percent of the construction budget for new or renovated state buildings, including public schools, to purchase original art. Noting that many civilizations can be dated by the ceramic shards that archaeologists unearth, Mason takes a certain pride in knowing that every piece of ceramic he creates has the potential to be a “future shard.”

Education: Mason earned his fine arts degree in ceramics from the Cranbrook Academy of Art and the New York College of Ceramics at Alfred University.

To view more work by Mason: georgemasonart.com

Share The Inspiration