Conversations in Clay

Honoring the earth with artist Paula Shalan
Artist Seed Three

Shalan’s pottery is not traditionally functional. “But it does have a function,” she says. “Beauty. Beauty has always played a valuable, functional role in peoples’ lives.” | Photos by John Polak

There is an elemental calm to Paula Shalan’s ceramic artwork. Each piece is an invitation to slow down and consider its varied textures, and to reflect on the beauty of the ecosystems that inspired them.

Shalan’s organic forms have evolved through years of experimentation with clay and a lifetime of observation. Every vessel and seedpod honors the natural world. “I take the same walks over and over again because, every time, I’ll notice something new,” says Shalan. “There is decay, but it doesn’t make it less beautiful. It makes it more beautiful.”

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Growing up, Shalan spent all her time outdoors. It’s fitting that clay is her medium.

Woodpecker holes in bark might inform holes she pokes through clay with a paintbrush. The leafy border of a reflective pond might inspire contrast- ing textures or colors on a vase. She collects these minute details until they are ready to find their way into her process. “I’m not interested in replicating nature,” she says. “I take in information and, in an organic way, it reaches the clay.” She calls this a “vocabulary” of textures and techniques.

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“I invite everyone to touch the pieces,” says Shalan. “Sometimes they drop them, but it’s worth it because my pieces are equally about touch as sight. It’s the material of the earth. It’s clay, water, fire and air; that’s it.”

Shalan began constructing this vocabulary as an undergrad at Sarah Lawrence College in the 1980s. There, she first incorporated natural textures into her works, rolling leaves across the clay. After college, she spent years raising her children and teaching, developing her ceramic work on the side. In 2001 she began showing in galleries, and by 2009 her focus had shifted to her artwork. The whole time, she distilled and clarified her process to what it is today.

Now based in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, she has a well-established visual language to draw on. She smoke-fires all her work, lending her pieces their grays and deep blacks. With the creative use of combustibles, a reusable foil saggar and varying types of clay, Shalan achieves a high level of control over color.

Artist Seed Yellow

“Clay is tactile, malleable. Instead of a brush between me and a canvas, I’m directly shaping the material. That’s why I love clay so much, the same way that I loved digging in the dirt as a kid.”

Through all this refinement of technique, she never loses sight of the clay itself. “I always pay attention to what the clay is doing as I’m forming it,” she says. “I’m always noticing, paying attention. The clay is part of the conversation, not just me talking by myself.” This conversation is not only with the medium but also with the earth: Shalan uses locally sourced clay and recycles wood shavings from a furniture maker to use as fuel. In 2016 she received the national Honoring the Future Sustainability Award, given to artists whose work educates the public about the environment.

Shalan’s seedpods are the latest development in her oeuvre, and, like all aspects of her work, they grew organically. She collects real seedpods. “My kids don’t give me jewelry,” she says, “they give me seedpods. I’ve always been fascinated by them.”

Artist Seed Tray

Shalan’s “Specimen Trays” speak to the purpose of environmental education in her artwork. They evoke a marriage between science and the arts, emphasizing the importance of both. “They’re supposed to replicate botanist specimen trays,” she says, “but they’re totally fictitious, of course.”

When the Massoni Art Gallery in Chestertown, Maryland, invited her to participate in a tree-themed art show, Shalan was already thinking about trees as subject matter. After some exploration, she arrived at the seedpods. “They have all the qualities of ‘tree’ in them,” she says. She made over 40 pieces, ranging from two inches in diameter to several feet.

For the show, she spread them over a shelf, strewn as if lying on the forest floor. Their different shapes, sizes, textures and colors reference the biodiversity essential to a forest’s health. More importantly, though, they are a call to appreciate the natural world that inspired their detailed imperfections.

Categories: Artists & Artisans