Thursday, August 15, 2013

Pick of the Kiln: The Work of Michael Simon

The Georgia Museum of Art is honored to host the exhibition “Pick of the Kiln: The Work of Michael Simon” through Sept. 8, 2013.

Simon was born and raised in Minnesota, where he attended the University of Minnesota and studied under the nationally acclaimed potter Warren MacKenzie. He left for Georgia in 1970—moving into a pottery commune just outside of Athens called Happy Valley—and received his master of fine arts degree in ceramics from the University of Georgia in 1981.

Simon used a salt kiln to fire his pots, a technique that creates a translucent glaze along the pottery and gives it a varying surface. When the salt is exposed to the high temperatures of the kiln, it releases the gases chlorine and sodium. The sodium is attracted to the clay pottery and bonds to it, making a distinctive and beautiful glaze. One of the amazing things about this technique is that you never know exactly what you are going to get; the gases move around the kiln, and the surface of each pot varies based on how much the piece was exposed to the salt’s gases. The process was exciting for Simon, and he was always eager to see how each load would turn out, saying, “I had a peek hole, and I could tell how the whole kiln load would turn out based on looking at that one pot in front of the hole. . . . I never stopped doing that.” But though this technique remained the same, his art continued subtly to change and grow over the years.

Starting in the mid-1980s, Simon began to keep one pottery piece from every kiln load he fired—saving the pick of the kiln, so to speak. During a tour of the exhibition, Simon spoke about how he chose each pot: “I picked a pot from each kiln load, not necessarily because it was the best, but because I wanted to remember it. . . . It was dynamic.” He might base his choice on the glaze of the pot or a motif that he particularly liked or something else that caught his eye. Though not always the “best,” the pieces were those that most accurately represented his shifting views, influences and interests as an artist. These select pots—the same ones in the exhibition—record Simon’s career as a potter and show the evolution of his art.

Dale Couch, curator of decorative arts at the museum, said, “It provides the opportunity to fathom a leading ceramic artist’s view of his own work as it develops over time. Caroline Maddox (the museum’s director of development and the curator of the exhibition), in collaboration with Michael, has selected a body of work that is metaphorically like an archaeological trench: it simultaneously reveals the chronology of his work and the creative consciousness of the artist. These are brilliant examples of modern craft.”

Simon’s pottery is functional art—pots that can be used and not just admired, though each piece’s beauty is great enough to stand on its own. He says, “I knew that I wanted to make pottery that people could use. . . . There’s something very touching about that.” He made cups, plates, bowls, teapots and the like, but he is most known for his outstanding Persian jars.

Though Simon insists that the motifs and designs on his pottery are only there to complement his ceramic work, each one is gorgeous in its own right. The images seem simple at first, the pots usually decorated with animals or geometric figures, but one immediately notices the fluid elegance of the shape and design; the art is endearing, charming and beautiful. Simon is able to unite form and pattern to create some of the most amazing and striking pottery in the United States, and his love for potting shows in every one of his pieces.

Each pot in the exhibition is a work of art, but the show is not really about the individual pots. The pieces as a whole represent Simon’s career in making pottery and how he and his art have evolved. Simon has said, “Change proceeds slowly and subtly, but the growth carries on and is most satisfying. The real significance of years of potting can be found in the way one pot leads to the next. Slow progress comes into view in the development of the work in total, not in the beauty of any one pot. There is no end.”