Picture this: you’re in your hometown of Miramichi, New Brunswick, looking for clay along the downtown shore when you come across a gold mine. You take your shovel and bucket and start digging it up for your latest series of pieces. After it’s processed, filtered and shaped, it’s ready to go into the kiln.
But the kiln – it’s too hot for your piece – and it starts melting and falling over.
That’s what happened to potter Matt Cripps, ceramics coordinator at AX: The Arts and Culture Centre of Sussex, with one of the five pieces from his creation 5 Crackling Vases. While the Miramichi vase didn’t survive the firing, the other four did, and have become Matt’s latest series to admire.
Matt said the difference between using clay you harvest and clay you buy, is there’s no instructions telling you how to use the clay that comes from the ground.
“When I buy a white clay from a pottery supply house, I know exactly what it is, I know exactly what temperature it can handle, it’s always going to be the exact same. But when you go and dig clay, you’re just pulling it out of the ground. The ground doesn’t care what you’re going to do with it, it’s just there. . .it’s not in a box that says ‘it will last up to this temperature.’”
The idea for 5 Crackling Vases came from Matt wanting to experiment with different kinds of clay. Each vase is unique in its own way. Despite being shaped using the same method, each one took its own form because of the different clay used.
The five clays used were: red clay from Miramichi, porcelain from Sussex, white generic clay that he bought, and two specialty clays, a blue porcelain and a black ice porcelain.
Matt said the Miramichi piece did what’s called “slumping.” It didn’t like the hot temperature it was cooking at and started to droop and melt.
But Matt’s other four pieces turned out perfect. The one made with blue porcelain was sold before it was even finished.
Each piece was rolled out of a big rectangle slab of clay that was formed around a core shape and flipped upright. It was a whole different process than what he’s used to.
“That’s why they have a very organic form. I was going for a natural form because they weren’t made on a wheel, they were made to look like they’re kind of just crawling out of the ground.”
The 5 Crackling Vases were finished with a clear glaze rather than the crawling glaze he usually uses, in order to showcase the different clay colours. The clear glaze created thin crackles on the vases, so it still relates to Matt’s style, it’s just more subdued.
Matt has had a growing interest for natural materials specifically from New Brunswick over the past few years. Elizabeth Demerson, the coordinating instructor for ceramics at the New Brunswick College of Craft and Design, sparked the curiosity.
“I followed what she was doing, and I’m kind of doing my own research now.”
Matt stumbled upon the Miramichi clay one day while walking along the shore in the city on the Chatham side.
“I was walking and all of a sudden when I stepped, it kind of squished a little more, and sunk a little more because it’s a little softer. And I kind of like stepped back for a second and I was like ‘Oh, I wonder’. . .and I started digging and found out it was clay.”
When Matt tells people he harvests clay, they think it’s great because it doesn’t cost anything. But Matt says many people don’t harvest their own, or don’t think it’s worth it, because it takes a lot of time to find the clay, dig it, lug it back to a vehicle, studio and then process it.
“It is free, technically, but the amount of work that goes into it is meticulously more.”
Three of the crackling vases, the white, brown, and black one, are all currently available for sale at Art400 in St. Andrews for $275 each.
‘The Stars Aligned’
Matt says both his university and college experience contributed to where he is today.
After obtaining a fine arts degree from St. Thomas University, he started working at Gallery 78 where his interest in pottery began. He went on to study at NBCCD and completed a two-year diploma in ceramics before continuing on to complete their Advanced Studio Practice program.
In May, all the hard work paid off. He got a new job as the ceramics coordinator at the AX: The Arts and Culture Centre of Sussex. Matt also just won the BMO 1st Art! award.
“When I graduated university, it gave me the confidence that I could kind of do anything, but I didn’t know what anything was going to be. And then when I graduated from the college, I was like, ‘Okay, this is something I can do’. . .and I was pretty successful in just my first two years of baking and selling pottery. . .then this position that opened up here at AX was just kind of like, you know the stars kind of aligned with that one. It’s the perfect opportunity for me.”
Matt was excited move someplace small again like his hometown of Miramichi.
“I’m really liking Sussex. . .It’s small, there’s a lot of artists in the community. . .It’s like the arts and culture hub of Sussex.”
Matt is in the brand-new ceramic studio on the second floor of the building.
As the ceramics coordinator, he will be hosting and running workshops. He held their first ceramics workshop mid September. To learn about their next workshop, Handbuilt Pottery for Beginners II, go here. AX is also seeking applications for their AX Emerging Artist Ceramics Program.