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Portrait of an Artist: Michelle Erickson

Michelle Erickson collects artifacts on the bank of the Thames River in London for use in her work.
Michelle Erickson collects artifacts on the bank of the Thames River in London for use in her work.
By Lulu H. Kirk, Contributing Writer

What does a squirrel holding a grenade have in common with a beautiful, seashell-shaped agate teapot? Both are subjects of ceramic pieces crafted by Michelle Erickson, a renowned artist whose work combines historical ceramic techniques with modern themes.

While most of her work is original, Erickson has over 20 years of experience working with 17th- and 18th-century reproduction pottery. Her reproductions and contemporary pieces have won critical acclaim across the globe. Erickson, who recently returned from a three-month artist residency at The Victoria and Albert Museum in London, will be teaching a Visiting Artist Workshop through the Office of Fine Arts at Harvard  on Feb 28.

The Harvard Crimson: How would you describe your style of ceramic work?

Michelle Erickson: I use a lot of…references from ceramic history—both lost ceramic arts that have been rediscovered and techniques I looked into, and also the context of that history, of the social or political or environmental context of that history [as a way] to describe 21st century issues. So, I would say my work is narrative. It uses history as a way of looking at our present human condition.

THC: You are known for your work with both recreations of older pottery styles and contemporary pieces. How are the two creative processes different, and which do you find more rewarding?

ME: For me, the two processes are totally integrated, so I don’t make that distinction. A lot of the work that I do in recreating is trying to rediscover a technique that was used to originally make a piece...and then I tend to use a lot of those techniques sometimes in a very different way in my contemporary work than in the recreated object.… Both processes are so integrated into each other.

THC: You’ve worked with a variety of different historical ceramic traditions during the course of your career. Do you have a favorite?

ME: I think one of my favorite types of ceramic techniques to work in is slipware, which is almost the antithesis of the blue and white pottery manipulates liquid clays in different ways. Slipware is sort of one end of the spectrum and blue and white porcelain is the other, and I really like both of those two extremes.

THC: You do a lot of work with clays you find yourself instead of simply buying commercial clay. How does that play into your work?

ME: I certainly do use commercial clays, but I can’t just use any clay for a lot of the things that I do. I really have to find the right clays. I like to get clays right from the ground and use them in different ways, and sometimes they are very unusable. They’re not necessarily predictable or dependable, and they might not do the kind of things you want them to. But I find that I like to have the material and the symbolism of clays from different areas.... I don’t really have an agenda with indigenous clays: I just like to explore them and see where they lead.

THC: What do you hope to gain from the experience of teaching a workshop at Harvard?

ME: I always learn when I’m trying to teach or illustrate things that have become kind of second nature to my own practice. When you have to get outside of yourself and bring that material to an audience who may or may not have any knowledge of it, it really forces you to look at and describe your work in ways that you may not do when you’re just working on your own.

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