Indiana University Research & Creative Activity

Visual Arts

Volume XXVII Number 2
Spring 2005

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Malcolm Mobutu Smith
Malcolm Mobutu Smith
Photo © Tyagan Miller

Mystic Cloud #3 by Malcolm Mobutu Smith
Photo courtesy Malcolm Mobutu Smith

Voices of Clay

by Leora Baude

As anyone who has ever chipped a mug in the dishwater can attest, ceramics constitute a highly destructible medium. Yet, mysteriously enough,fragile bits of what is essentially hardened dirt—thrown away, stomped on, buried—have survived millennia to become virtually the only record we have of bygone civilizations.

Even more mysteriously, this completely static material becomes a record of processes, of actions. A clay pot can tell what patch of earth was used to make it, what tools forged it, when it was abandoned—and a lot about the mind of the maker.

When Malcolm Mobutu Smith talks about his work, the subject of energy is much on his mind—the physical energy that throwing pots and teaching students demands, the sources of his own creative energy, and above all, the energy “embedded” in the ceramics he makes.

You can appreciate this quality best when you see Smith’s pots en masse. In his studio, they are arrayed casually on shelves in varying states of completion. Many of the pieces are grouped together into families that may vary in size or motif but are recognizably related to each other in their shapes and distinguishing features.

There is an unglazed set of bleached-looking bisqueware that Smith is pondering, looking for areas he may or may not leave bare. “I’m waiting for my next inspiration,” says the assistant professor of ceramics at Indiana University Bloomington. Meanwhile, in their bone-like austerity, Smith sees formal statements of material and shape.

In another grouping of smallish pieces, Smith has used hand-building to fuse the structure of a stylized cloud with the form of a cup thrown on the wheel. Much of the vessel is left bare to show evidence of the process. “Some pieces start out on the wheel and then get ‘deformed,’ or altered and manipulated afterward,” he says. “Information gets embedded in the pieces from this process that gives a history to the work.”

In fact, what becomes clear is that Smith is working on how he makes his art every bit as much as on what he makes. His pots are attractive objects in themselves, interesting to look at and think about for many reasons. It would be a pleasure to have any one of them sitting on a table in the living room. But what makes them truly revelatory is how they manage, as objects frozen in space, to speak about fleeting moments in time. Rich in references to other eras, Smith’s pieces play with historically significant forms as they also expose the creative process that formed them, moment by moment.

Smith explains he is drawing out a quality inherent in his material. “Ceramics is a very process-driven medium,” he says. At its worst, ceramics can become a performance, devolving into a mimetic exercise, but at its best it allows for “boundless freedom to make good choices,” says Smith.

With clay, the process in question is necessarily a protracted one. After a piece is shaped, it must be dried, fired, and glazed, all of which can stretch out over weeks or longer. Any act of artistic creation offers many opportunities for frustration, despair, and failure—if your medium is clay, the immediate moment of creation is constantly put on pause, making you wait long stretches while the clay does its own thing. A significant part of the ceramist’s task is to come up with a strategy for returning fresh, time after time, to that moment.

Smith identifies music as the key to his approach. “I always listen to music when I work,” he says. “Music is a pulse that allows for immediate invention.”

Jazz, with its improvisational quality, is especially inspiring to Smith, who says some of the artists he listens to in the studio include Al Jarreau, Nina Simone, Django Reinhardt, and Rahsaan Roland Kirk. “They seem like they’re having moments of instant discovery, making instant choices,” he says. “It’s very magical; I want to ride with that.” Smith also uses music—jazz and hip-hop, especially—and poetry to stay connected with what’s going on outside the studio, and the academy, walls. “My pots are sucking up what my culture is, playing with it,” he says.

When he speaks about his work, Smith makes reference not only to jazz and hip-hop, but also to world culture, urban culture, history, modernism, and postmodernism. But how do such big ideas and far-flung references work their way from the brain of the artist through his fingertips into a piece of work that sits in a gallery or on a collector’s shelf? What does it mean for a pot to be “about” anything?

The notion of “reading” objects, of treating shape and color and design as text, might seem overly academic for the art studio, but it is exactly the right approach to ceramics, which Smith says have always been used to encode information.

“Clay is one of the oldest mediums. It’s developed a canon of forms and shapes that endlessly repeat through cultures and time,” he says. “Fecund shapes of water storage jars seen in China, Africa, the Near East, and the Americas have an intrinsic relationship between the body and the pot. They come out of function and out of basic symbolism. These pot forms are functional, decorative, and affirm life.”

Smith explains that the shape of a vessel might arise out of its original purpose, as with round storage jars with sharply constricted necks that could be dug into the earth to keep large quantities of liquid cool. Likewise, by decorating vessels with distinctive colors and patterns, vessel owners could distinguish different contents and the pots of others as well as make their own vessels easy to locate in the earth. Some early pots imitate natural sources of nourishment—udders and bellies, for instance, or chevron and meander designs, the basic symbols of earth and water. “I choose certain silhouettes as a starting point of invention,” Smith says.

The canonical shapes that especially attract Smith include the low-bodied, long-necked malletware vase from China, a country with a “long history of sophisticated ceramic wares using very sharp, clear silhouettes, graceful and very formal,” he says. Instead of emphasizing its formal qualities, Smith has created a series based on the malletware vase that have a “ritualistic appearance influenced by an African aesthetic.” Gourd-like, they rest on separate bases and are decorated with curved protuberances that convey the idea of repetition, or “pulse.”

Another pot form Smith returns to is the Mayan codex vase, traditionally made of red clay and decorated with hieroglyphics of important events. He describes these as “cylindrical historical documents.” In his own twist on hieroglyphics, Smith builds codex vessels and embellishes them with motifs based on graffiti, the blues and whites of Chinese ceramics, and pure surface abstractions. The result, he says, is “information in two registers.” The vessel form itself, with its encoded allusion to the civilization of the Maya and their methods of chronicling their history, becomes a comment on the role of graffiti and imagery ensconced on pottery.

This artistic dialogue, where one element of a pot is in counterpoint to another, is characteristic of Smith’s work. Piece after piece sets up opposing elements—high and low art, past and present, function and decoration, China and Africa, two dimensions and three—and brings them into relation with each other.

One particularly vocal series, for example, consists of vessels about two feet, whose shapes are based on the stylized, billowy cloud motifs common in Chinese painting and textiles. Built off of mold forms, these pieces don’t sit flat; instead, they seem to rise up and float off the surface of the table. On one side, their undulations are alternately masked and emphasized with painted curls in shades of blue and white that refer to Smith’s classical Chinese sources. On the other side, the designs are obscured by wavy cloud and starburst patterns of street graffiti.

Playful and witty—the surprise of the way they relate graffiti to Chinese art hits you like the punch line of a joke—these pieces seem also to be carrying on several conversations at once: between the functional vessel form and the highly decorative exterior, between the exotic and the indigenous, between the sanctioned and the subversive.

And all along, they are clay pots, earthy, graspable—and a little bit mysterious.

It is no accident that graffiti recurs so often as a motif in Smith’s work. He practiced graffiti art himself—on buildings, not vases—until he was 20. Originally, he had wanted to be a comic book artist. One way or another, though, he knew he’d be making art. In Smith’s case, it was the family business. Both of his parents trained as artists. His mother has worked as a medical illustrator and commercial artist. His father, a sculptor, has worked as a designer and draftsman.

“I always had access to art supplies,” says Smith, who spent a lot of time as a child looking over his mother’s shoulder, experiencing an artist’s working life. He remembers vividly the moment when he first set his sights on the possibility of working with clay. When he was five or six, visiting a gallery at Michigan State University, he was struck by an exhibit of pots and vessels displayed just at his child’s-eye level. “I could see the human hand in them, and I made an immediate connection: I could do these,” he says. “That idea simmered in the background all my young life.”

In high school, an extraordinary arts curriculum offered him the chance to study ceramics under a teacher named Paul Bernhardt, who held a degree from the ceramics program at Alfred University, consistently rated the best in the country. “I made a decision then what I was going to be,” says Smith. “I never wavered from my intention to teach.”

Smith began his undergraduate studies at the Kansas City Art Institute, finishing at Penn State, then followed in Bernhardt’s footsteps, earning a Master of Fine Arts in ceramics from Alfred University. He joined the faculty at IU Bloomington in 2001.

“Being at a research institution is a wonderful opportunity,” says Smith. “The tenure track for artists is all about exhibitions, production of work, developing a national and international reputation. You need exposure of your work in mainline galleries and juried exhibitions and reviews. You must always be working, always be showing.”

In fall 2004, Smith had pieces on display in invitational international group shows at the FuLe ceramics museum in Beijing, at the Rocky Mount Art Center in North Carolina, and in a two-year traveling exhibition, Shades of Clay: A Multi-Cultural Look at Contemporary Clay. Last spring, he helped stage a large ceramics conference at IU in conjunction with the 2004 conference of the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts, held in Indianapolis.

Of course, the other chief component of the working life of an artist in the academy is teaching, a different proposition when it comes to studio art. Smith describes himself as “teaching people how to navigate seeing and making decisions that lead to genuine unique observations about the world and themselves.” He starts students off with wordplay, tactile play, and very open-ended assignments such as, “What can you do with 3 1/2 lbs. of clay?”

In many ways, Smith says, he and his students are wrestling with the same questions. With his greater experience and technique, he aims to show his students by example how to break through the barriers that prevent them from fully engaging with the clay.

“It’s an unusual kind of classroom,” he says. “There is a fair amount of performance involved. I get very physical, move around a lot, close my eyes, open my eyes, stand on top of a table, change perspective, get a different orientation.”

Whether he is working one-on-one with B.F.A. students or teaching an introductory class, Smith says his goals are to “get students excited about the medium” and “open up the personal power of the individual, so they see what they can make by, for, and of themselves.

“My work is all about celebrating the power of personal responsibility,” Smith says. “It’s a celebration of the hand in the work. I don’t try to mask the production. I intentionally leave the clay raw, to let the material have a voice. I hope the work speaks about personal power.

“The medium is always in process, always with something to discover around the next bend,” he says. “I can’t think of anything better to do.”

Leora Baude is a freelance writer and editor living in Bloomington, Ind.