Accidental Teapots

There are teapots and there are teapots. There are the sleek stainless steel teapots designed for Italian manufacturer Alessi by architect Michael Graves and popularized by Target -- teapots that are both beautiful and functional. Then there are porcelain teapots that inspire the devotion of collectors, ranging from classic British and Chinese designs to doll-sized miniatures and kitschy novelty items.

And then there are the ceramic teapots of Evan Jones, whose Gallery 302/Evan Jones Studios opened in Dania Beach in April. Some of Jones' teapots are small enough that you could actually use them, although you probably wouldn't want to. But he specializes in what he calls "colossal teapots," which certainly live up to their name. They were what first struck me when I walked into his gallery, which adjoins a studio that includes working space for Jones and other artists (so far, there's one other resident potter) and classroom space for beginner, intermediate, and advanced students (so far, there are more than two dozen).

Then again, how can you not notice teapots that are, say, four feet high by three feet in diameter? According to Jones' associate Robert Fox, there were no examples of the most colossal of the colossal on display when I visited -- all were either en route to other galleries or had been sold. Fox assured me that more would be in the works when Jones returns from a trip.

So how does one make a 56-inch teapot? Or a teapot with a capacity of 20 gallons? Painstakingly, it turns out. It's not feasible to use a mold for such a monster, so Jones works in segments that can weigh 30 or more pounds each. For the segments to fit together as seamlessly as they do requires detailed preparatory sketches and precise mathematical calculations. The individual segments are thrown to these specifications on the potter's wheel.

As for the handles, beyond a certain point it became impractical to work with clay on such a scale. Jones' solution was to turn to strands of malleable copper tubing, which are hand-twisted into great graceful arcs that suggest bamboo or some other natural fiber. Some of these are eight feet or more in length.

For firing his larger pieces, Jones uses a huge, custom-made gas kiln that resembles some sort of deranged barbecue pit. It's in the studio part of the complex that takes up about two-thirds of the 6,000 square feet and also includes half a dozen electric kilns. The gas kiln has a capacity of 65 cubic feet and can generate temperatures of up to 2,400 degrees. Fox launches into an impressive explanation to distinguish between gas and electric kilns, tossing off terms like "controlled oxidation," "carbon trapping," and "Shino glazes."

Ceramics has a language all its own, I discovered, although when I set out to give myself a crash course in it later, my eyes became as glazed as one of Jones' teapots. I even use the term ceramics with some trepidation. One definition I ran across says the word "has come to signify the slip casting industry that uses talc-ball clay slurries to cast ware for firing at low temperatures." (As distinct from pottery, which refers to... oh, never mind.) The gist of it, as best I can tell, seems to be that it's possible to restrict the oxygen supply in the early stages of firing in a gas kiln, so that carbon (or soot) builds up on the surface of the clay and leaves a residue that's trapped in the glaze.

Never mind, indeed. The details of the process may be fascinating, but the results are of even greater interest. The carbon trapping creates variegated patterns in shades of black and gray in the glazes, and there's infinite variety in their irregularity. Two roughly identical pieces with the same glaze fired side by side will likely yield ceramics with dramatically different patterns. The element of chance in this work probably generates both exhilaration and frustration for the artist, whose calculated control of the process of creation is subject to these many variables. There will inevitably be duds, but there will also be the happy accidents that are so often the stuff of art.

Jones seems to have embraced this unpredictability wholeheartedly, incorporating it into the rigor and discipline of his work. Not to downplay the grandeur of his forms, but his highly varied finishes are his real glory. Along with the glazes, which he mixes himself, he works metallic leaf accents into some of his pieces. The coarse, mottled surfaces of small vases in stoneware and porcelain, for example, might be subtly set off by a band or rim of 22-karat gold. Other embellishments include bas relief and metal bolts and collars.

Vases and other forms are as much in evidence at Gallery 302 as the showier teapots. Jones has a wonderful feel for wide bowls with low depths to embody openness, sometimes with lines deeply etched into their exteriors to contrast with the smooth expanses of their interiors. Platters become palettes for the expressive effects of his glazes. Much if not most of what Jones does cries out to be touched, and so I was relieved to learn that it's OK to run your fingers over the textured surfaces.

Soon after entering the gallery, I jotted in my notes that there's a "very Zen feel to the place." The large, softly lit space, dotted with ceramics of many sizes on the rough floors and on simply finished wooden blocks, is immediately calming. A few vases and urns of various sizes hold bromeliads, orchids, and, in one case, a dramatic arrangement of big, dried bamboo stalks.

It came as no great surprise, then, to learn that Jones is steeped in Eastern philosophy and religion and spent seven years living in what his bio characterizes as "a meditation community." The teapot, after all, is of great ceremonial significance in many Asian cultures. And some of the promotional materials on display in the gallery -- including a cover story in the November 2004 issue of Ceramics Monthly magazine -- feature Jones' teapots as photographed at the Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens in Delray Beach, a perfect place for capturing these embodiments of serenity on film.

And like many a pilgrim, Jones came to his calling by way of a circuitous route. He got his bachelor's degree in ceramics in 1976 from Juniata College in Huntingdon, Pennsylvania, where his mentor was artist and poet Jack Troy, and went on to an apprenticeship with Vernon Owens at Jugtown Pottery in Seagrove, North Carolina.

But the immersion in meditation coincided with a loss of interest in ceramics for Jones. Instead, he turned to painting -- not canvases but buildings. By the mid-1980s, he had married and gone into business in Miami as a gilder and faux finisher, and his former interest in clay gradually resurfaced. He kept to himself, however -- the artist as ascetic -- and spent six years exploring his medium before he felt comfortable showing the work.

As evidenced by the items on display at Gallery 302, Jones' artistic journey has been enormously fruitful, and his side trips into gilding, faux finishing, and painting buildings have made invaluable contributions to his aesthetic. With the exception of a handful of pieces that are decorative in the most pedestrian sense of the word, his work is far from ordinary. Ceramics always navigate that murky region where functional crafts and fine art mingle. Jones has steered a course that consistently hews toward the latter.

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Michael Mills