The Blog

Portraits and ponderings from the writing desk of Jill Foote-Hutton.

Matt Wilt @ Red Lodge Clay Center Studio


Halloween weekend was the scene of another free demonstration workshop at Red Lodge Clay Center. Matt Wilt greeted his audience with informative candor, happy to put his knowledge and experience behind the mission of sharing the importance of art in everyday life. The audience came from as far as North Dakota to share in the experience and, like most ceramic demonstrations, more than technique was shared in the conversations surrounding the demonstration.

It is easy to see the connectivity between individual artists in ceramics. How does one get past the insular nature of academic circles? How does one expand an audience base without alienating current clientele? It is a difficult question, but perhaps it is an insignificant question. Wilt is earnest and thorough, proof that working artists are not all irrational ghosts of Pollock. The very tone of his voice resonates with the integrity found in his work. It is reassuring.

"It only took a hundred years to get over the urinal in the gallery," Wilt quips. Workshops are great for delivering jewels like this. It is a sentiment which unintentionally and unknowingly may liberate someone in the observant audience.

The intense silence of certain moments in workshops is soothing. The demonstrator is focused. The audience is rapt. The electricity of the studio hums. Cameras click. It's a wonder anyone breaks the silence to ask a question. "My inclination prior to graduate school was to rough something in and not pay attention to minute details, but now it is almost pavlovian to slow down and refine the objects I'm making."

“Matt can you talk about your accident rate?” finally breaks the spell.

“I can but I'd rather not,” Matt replies with a smile.

The inquiry turned in to another opportunity to let everyone know that we all have to deal with failure. Wilt says he has about 60%success rate, but it always comes back to repetition of tasks and forms. Teapots now have a higher success rate, but when he pushes the material the success number lowers. The pithy query opened the conversation up to the hard truth we must all face: sometimes it's easier to start over.

Turns out the question came from the contrast observed between Voulkos and Wilt. The latter worked embracing the frailty of the material, accepting cracking as part of the aesthetics of the process. Wilt acknowledges he enjoys looking at work that successfully showcases such frailties, but cannot embrace those things in his own aesthetic. Instead he has embraced the sometimes-necessary use of epoxy, becoming familiar enough with the adhesive to hide it. All the while he admires Arthur Gonzales’ ability to hide nothing.

A nugget of wisdom repeatedly bubbling to the top of Wilt’s conversation was to reinforce "the devil is in the details". He encouraged the audience to consider--if, as makers, we will pay enough attention to the technical details the bigger picture will take care of itself.

When asked about who he looked to for inspiration he listed Chris Staley and Arthur Gonzales among the living. However, it was when he talked about visiting Hans Coper's collection that he revealed the romantic conversation so many makers have with objects of hallowed stature. The audience had a chance to peek at reality coming face-to-face with distant perceptions of our imaginings. Wilt talked of seeing objects he perceived as large being intimate and the assumed intimate forms swelling with grand volume. But perhaps most significant, was his assumption that the work would be light and effortlessly thrown. The reality of Coper’s objects was massiveness in energy and form. Wilt still marveled, "They felt just like they looked."

Recognition of the magic in formal work is part of the sublime experience any maker or patron pursues. There was indeed attention to details, a trait Wilt consistently seeks in his own practice, but the details he described were not solely clinical. Visceral rendering where technique and academic considerations are absorbed and forgotten is where form comes to life.

Toward the end of the demonstration Tom Bartel, a current short-term resident at Red Lodge Clay Center, and Wilt began to discuss the take away benefits of working in the constraints workshops provide. It seems the compression of time encourages risks and has opened both makers up to new discoveries. Wilt gave a nod to Tom Waits and his work in the eighties, acknowledging that now in 2011 even Waits experiments have been come formulaic. It is a constant dance, to evade formula and somehow heartening to hear makers near the top of the field struggle with a trial familiar to many. It would be nice to hear more of this conversation, simply because so often the old boys club seems comfortable at best, complacent at worst. What do we have to install in our creative practice to keep us going back to square one, to that place of discovery?