Interview with Art Makers

It has been awhile since I posted about whats been going on here in Bat Cave. I had a lovely interview with Sara McDonnell from Art Makers. She has a great why of drawing out things I never thought to share or talk about. As a dyslexic it’s often hard for me to actually get words own on paper (or screen). Sara’s interview is a great reference to the start of my career. Click the link below to visit the article.




May 2017 Newsletter
Interview with Michael Sherrill

Welcome to the Art Makers Newsletter featuring the work of a new artist each month. Our mission is connecting contemporary makers with architects, interior designers and individuals by placing original handmade objects into interior and exterior spaces.  These makers have translated design ideas to an executed visual form in glass, ceramic, wood, paper, iron and textiles.  I think you will find these examples of their work as inspiring, poetic and beautiful as I do and will want to own one of these unique masterful pieces.  I welcome your feedback and contact.

Sara McDonnell

This month I spoke to Michael Sherrill a material based artist in clay, metal and glass who lives with his wife Margery in the mountains of North Carolina.

Art Makers:  I know you have been inspired by a variety of mediums –  folk pottery, glass and iron.  Can you tell us about that?

Michael Sherrill:  I grew up watching things being made! My father was an inventor and a  problem solver. I always say that I never saw him happier than when he had a problem to solve. He often had what my mother referred to as “brainstorms”. These were the times when we kids had to be quiet in the house as he was thinking on a problem, or how to build something. I have to mention my half-brother, Bix, who was an artist and would draw, paint and entertain me and my sister.  We were mesmerized as we watched him draw imaginary worlds with a pencil on a piece of paper.

In my youth I made things out of wood and metal and leather.  I wanted to make stuff out of almost any material I could get my hands on – but clay was the material that most resembled the way my mind works. What I mean is that in my mind I am always manipulating objects; mentally turning them around and considering how the change would effect the object.  As a material, clay allows me to manipulate it into whatever shape I desire.  It’s malleability makes the possibilities endless. Glass and metal have this similar malleable characteristic and I believe it is why I’ve been drawn to work with them as well.

Whenever possible, I was auditing the clay makers in my community. Of special interest were the traditional potters in my area.  I loved to visit them and hear their stories and see their workplaces.  I feel like the clay tradition in NC is a part of my DNA.

Art Makers:  Don Reitz the great and internationally renowned midcentury ceramicist who expanded the medium to include huge, intellectually provocative works of abstract art, was an important influence on your work.  Reitz was a loner in the studio and said for him it was a personal and private space.  You also work alone.  Is there a parallel for you?

Michael Sherrill:  I had the pleasure of getting to know Don Reitz a little bit.  There are two men in the ceramic world that I’ve met who remind me of my father:  Don Reitz and Paul Soldner.  Each of these men were great showmen – they knew how to hold and enthrall an audience with their making.  Don’s influence on me was that he worked with salt glaze and he attacked the clay with vigor.  My guess is that in the solitude of his studio he enjoyed the making of his work. Most of my early career was spent in a similar manner of working through the creative process, trying to find my voice. I am mostly self taught, with a limited exposure to college. My real education began in those quiet times alone in the studio. My studio life now is much busier with more people involved in the process. Often it is an effort to find a quiet moment (or afternoon) to sort out my art work. Years ago I took a sabbatical at the LH Project in Joseph, Oregon. I was in the studio for a full month by myself.  Being there reminded me of the early half of my career when I worked in solitude. I’m now taking steps to re-establish more of that quiet and with less interruptions.
Art Makers:  By the 1990’s craft was in museums and markets were established along with new technology and masterful techniques.  Some of your earlier pieces  I have seen are rooted in functionality but in the 1990s you began using brilliant colors and vertically stretching, pushing and prodding the surface of the clay into sculptural forms and now you have created an extruder that pulls tapered, long spouts of color and manipulates forms.  Talk a little about that journey from utility to sculpture that is providing amazing possibilities of your work’s compass in space as you were labeled as one of the “Young Masters” along with Dante Marioni, Dan Clayman, Albert Paley, Dorothy Gill Barnes, Nick Cave, Jenna Goldberg, Bob Troutman, Stoney Lamar and others.

Michael Sherrill: 
From the beginning I’ve considered my work to be about a journey. I came to a place where I felt like I had developed enough skill to make beautiful pots, large and small. I understood then that these pots could convey and communicate through their shaped form and color ideas and relate to people with a subtle language. A natural transition began when I started to “speak” less as a vessel/pottery maker and more as a sculptor.  I wanted to work in a way that allowed me to talk to a broader audience; that is, for my work to  communicate with those that did not “read” an object in the language of a potter.

I often say that I started out as an honest potter and became a dishonest artist. Let me explain what I mean.  As an artist I’m no longer held to the conventions of how most potters approach clay.  I’m using trickery to convey truth. The trickery is like a novelist who uses fiction in a story to convey a powerful truth.  I’m not trying to make sculptures that recreate nature.  I’m making an object that people find approachable, relatable or familiar.   Behind the familiarity  of the object is a truth about the human condition.  When I was making pots my intent was to create an object that was made of simple material, honest to itself.  I said often that I wanted to make things that my neighbors could have access to and could enjoy and feel a connection with and on the other hand that same piece would be able to reach out and connect to the bigger art world: the critic, the curator or the collector. In the midst of all this new change in my work I was frequently shown at SOFA New York and Chicago and the Smithsonian Craft Show. I saw some incredible work there. I met the collectors who appreciated the use of material in what I call material based art or Artcraft. These experiences greatly expanded my personal vision of where I wanted my work to be. This change took my work to new places.

And yes, I’m honored to be among those mentioned above. I’m fortunate to call many of those people acquaintances or friends and admire so much of what they do.

Art Makers:  Each of your pieces have such a distinctive voice  – some incorporate flame worked Italian moretti glass, bronze and porcelain.  Years ago when I first admired your work I had no idea that you were a master maker in all these fields – I just assumed a collaboration with other artists  but you were the “Oz behind all the screens.”  The porcelain involves a process of layering and abrading the colors plus many firings in the kiln.  The forged and precise composition of constructed metal work in the energetic outline for leaves, petals, tendrils and thorns that are so balanced and seem to be actually growing.  And the glass captures the shadow and light and is beautifully translucent with stunning depth and sophistication.  What is your thought process to offer these alternatives to contemporary sculpture?

Michael Sherrill:  The use of these materials and the skill to work with clay, metal and glass comes from the place of seeing something in my mind’s eye and desiring to create it. Because I am no longer held captive by a single discipline I feel liberated to use multiple materials in the right place and the right application.  For instance, porcelain has a beautiful skin- it is able to say so many things, it is a world in itself.  Porcelain has certain qualities and limitations and the same can be said for metal and glass.  I want a unity in my art, a oneness.  When the viewer looks at one of my pieces I want them to see the object first, before they consider the subtext of the materials.  I believe that a material and the way it is used is a language in itself.

I grew up listening to the Beatles and other bands of my youth. Their mysterious lyrics could be many things to many people and maybe even a different thing to the artist. There is a way of being simple and direct but yet just under the surface there is more to be discovered.  I believe that’s tucked into my aesthetic.

Art Makers:  In addition to being a great educator and innovator, it seems to me that you have the special trait of being passionately curious.  I have taken a sentence from your “Artist Statement” which reads “My desire is to create something that might bring the observer to this same place of wonder.  For me to respond to a stimulant and then to make it work is one thing, but it is another for that work to make the next step and draw a likewise response from the viewer.”   I know you say that the environment outside your studio offers discoveries and epiphanies.  Is this where  your ideas come from?  Was your father, a self-taught inventor who patented industrial processes and created machines, the inception of your curiosity?

Michael Sherrill:  I’ve been in my present studio for 20 years now. My previous studios were located in pleasant spots but neither of them had windows that allowed me to see outside much.  Those studios were essentially “internal” spaces; everything happened inside the studio.  At the same time, my work was talking about itself. I was still making pots that were looking inward or still talking about clay and pottery.  

Twenty years ago I intentionally built a space that would be open visually (through windows) and literally (through a large roll-up door) to the outside world. I wanted to respond to the conversation that I felt calling to me from the natural world.  I want to create objects that I hope are a soulful and distilled response to natural creation.

It’s no secret that I have had the gift of a learning disability all of my life. This gift is commonly called dyslexia; I like to say that I am “visually dominant”.  My father was a natural problem solver and inventor and was gifted mechanically.  He may have also suffered from the same “gift” of dyslexia.  He told me that he walked in the front door of his third grade classroom, walked straight through and out the back door.  He said that he never looked back. I would watch as my father thought through a problem.  When he resolved the problem in his mind then he would go out and turn the idea into a physical object.  I don’t know if it is genetic, or if it was his example, but my father gave me a love for work and for problem solving.  I know that my sense of discovery and my desire to understand what is hidden are powerful forces that drive me to respond and create and make objects that I hope reveal those hidden mysteries. 

Art Makers:  My observation is that you have retained a ceramics identity while finding success in the large scale design world.  Tell us about your large-scale sculpture.

Michael Sherrill:  The core of what I do is that I make shapes.  Be it small or be it large, I probably spend too much time thinking about space and the way things relate to each other.  I’ve designed and built buildings.  I love architecture and design and I often think that I could have followed that field of interest.  Because of my interest in architecture it’s easy for me to visualize large scale work in public places.  Large scale work also presents a myriad of challenges that stretch me.

Art Makers:  Your methods and ideas have opened up possibilities for ceramics.  You are also a special part of the Penland School of Crafts, the Southern Highland Handicraft Guild and the Center of Craft, Creativity & Design.  Have these organizations inspired your fearless experimentation?

Michael Sherrill:  All of these organizations have  played an important role in my professional life. It started with the Southern Highland Handicraft Guild when I became a member in 1976, in my early 20’s.  The guild provided me with the  chance to watch and talk to my fellow craftsman. I observed their professionalism as I exhibited alongside them. They modeled how to present yourself to the public and how to connect with folks who came to buy my pots. I also befriended senior guild members. They gave me a sense of guild history, which instilled in me a sense responsibility. They encouraged me to work as a committee member and to do my part to help the guild in anyway that I could. Building on my success at SHHG helped give me courage to reach out beyond my mountains. Little by little I wandered farther from home. My work has taken me to larger circles in the United States and to many countries. The guild gave me a foundation for my life as an artist.

I heard about Penland school when I was a young, new potter.  It sounded like an amazing place and I was determined to find my way there.  I remember walking through the clay studio the first time I visited and watching everyone at work, making pots.  Unfortunately, I didn’t have the resources at that time to go to Penland as a student. Years later I got my turn to go to Penland: I went as an instructor.  Now, I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve taught at Penland.  I do remember what it was like to be strapped for cash and wish I could take a class.  That memory makes it easy for me to be supportive of the work-study program, scholarships and residents program at Penland. I have even been to Penland as a student now, and have also participated in the teacher retreats. I know of no finer place to take classes with great teachers and to be with fellow students and a staff that cares about what they are doing.  Many dear friendships have had their beginnings at Penland. Its a place where people become friends and family. As a matter of fact, I met my wife Margery at Penland 27 years ago when I was teaching.  We had a Penland romance and it stuck!

My friend Stoney Lamar has been a part of the Center for Craft, Creativity & Design from its inception.  Years ago he asked me if I would consider becoming a member of the CCCD board of directors. (Stoney and I had previously served on the Southern Highlands Handcraft board.) Over time, Stoney informed me of all the good work that the CCCD was involved with. The mission of the center is to bring all the stakeholders of the material based culture together. The partners are artists, educators, museums, collectors. And those who just appreciate the craft /art /making culture. The work at the center has been very satisfying to me. I care deeply for the next generation of makers and for these institutions that will support artists in the future. I believe that the CCCD is playing an important pivotal role in this effort. Another way of describing the role of the center is that it is like the  connective tissue that holds the body together.
Art Makers:  You attract the most sophisticated collectors.  Your work is included in such prestigious permanent collections as the Smithsonian Institute’s Renwick Collection in Washington, DC, the Museum of Art and Design in Manhattan, Museum of Glass in Tacoma, Washington, Corning Museum of Glass in Rochester, New York and the Mint Museum in Charlotte, North Carolina and then in 1993 your work was selected for the White House Collection of American Crafts and the Clinton Presidential Library and Museum, Museum of Icheon World Ceramic Center in Korea, North Carolina Governor’s Mansion, Fuller Craft Museum in Massachusetts.  What is next on your list?

Michael Sherrill:  I’m currently preparing new work for a major retrospective to open at the Mint Museum in Charlotte, NC.  The show will travel to three or four other museum venues in the US. 

Art Makers:  Of course we all know that change is constant and with that brings new questions.  What do you feel is the role of craft in contemporary culture?  Is there a complicated relationship between clay and the art world and do you feel that the craft community continues to be devoted to process and material?

Michael Sherrill: The digital revolution has certainly impacted our culture, making things ripe for change.  There is a consequence to the time that one spends seated, in front of a screen.  I think that people are seeking ways to use their whole body in a more physical and present way.  I think that in fact, there is a creative movement rising in response to the digital revolution.  People want to use their whole body to involve themselves in something that they have a passion.  For many of us, its important to connect our head to our hands and this leads us to making things through meaningful experiences. I am encouraged by what I see happening in this surge of “makers” in the craft culture.
The art world has seen extreme changes both good and bad. We all have heard the stories of musicians who have, with the aid of a laptop, produced and published their music from a garage or bedroom and became famous overnight.  It used to be that an artist depended on the representation of a brick and mortar gallery in order to have his work seen and potentially sold.  This is no longer the case. Technology has changed the way that a young artist can introduce themselves to the world.  Studio potter Ayumi Horie is an artist who has been a pioneer in connecting with her audience through technology, social media and digital marketing rather than through traditional paths.

Art Makers:  One thing that I think about is our use of time – we know it is  finite so how shall we spend these precious moments we have.  Makers like you spend immense amounts of time in design and use your stunning talent in the execution of the piece.  What impact has your art made on your life and has it come out of need?  Is it still satisfying for you?

Michael Sherrill:  My father once said to me “Son, work is hard. It makes life easier when you love what you do.” I have been fortunate to make a living while doing what I love.  I hope to continue to create as long as I can. There’s something wonderful about having an idea and bringing that idea into life. The creative life is the only one that I have known. I cannot imagine retirement but I can imagine a little more fishing and spending time with my family. My hope for my children is that they have the opportunity use their talents and to enjoy their life doing what they love to do.

To see more of Michael’s work, please visit his page on our website



April 2019
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