A Studio Visit with Jennifer McCurdy

Jennifer McCurdy in her Vineyard Haven studio
Porcelain, light, and Mandelbrot sets

    You might be tempted to describe ceramicist Jennifer McCurdy as an architect. Her work requires both engineering and artistic skills, and is very much reliant on the physical properties of her materials. During a recent visit to Ms. McCurdy’s home, off Lagoon Pond Road in Vineyard Haven, I found the artist eager to talk about her work, and happy to offer a demonstration.

Ms. McCurdy’s pieces have a left brain/right brain appeal. It’s no accident: Each creation is the result of the confluence of mathematics, natural science, and artistic and design sensibility; her work is very much reliant on the physical properties of her materials. Through a painstaking multi-step process, she creates intricate, curvilinear works in porcelain that interpret forms in nature — curving leaves, flowing seaweed, fish scales, coral structures, voluptuous blooming flowers — rendered in translucent unglazed white porcelain, with highly evocative names: “Butterfly Tsunami Vessel,” “Costa Rica Egg,” “Gilded Wind Nest,” “Water Lily.” It’s nature reinterpreted as a paean to form and flow.

Jennifer McCurdy with a finished piece

Jennifer McCurdy with a finished piece

The studio in the basement looks a bit like a laboratory — not surprising, given Ms. McCurdy’s fascination with the chemical, as well as engineering, aspects of her chosen medium.

Ms. McCurdy tells me about her influences, and shows me two books. Fractals, by John Briggs, deals with a highly complex area of mathematics. A fractal is a “natural phenomenon or a mathematical set that exhibits a repeating pattern,” and it remains the same no matter what the scale is. Ms. McCurdy refers to fractals as “the patterns of chaos.” She goes on to talk about things like Mandelbrot sets and Julia sets — terms you might recall from advanced math courses, but might have a hard time actually explaining.

“There’s a lot of science,” she says of ceramic work. “With clay, you’re dealing with your physical forces a lot. How to fire and build kilns, as well as the various forms. It’s got everything in it. It’s a discipline.”

The other book she shows me, Art Forms in Nature: The Prints of Ernst Haeckl, features the 19th century naturalist/biologist/artist’s very detailed scientific studies of plant and animal life. The colorful prints are clearly the work of someone with reverence for the beauty to be found in the natural world, from the tiniest microscopic organisms to highly developed marine creatures and reptiles.

Along with a wheel and a kiln (she recently replaced both with newer, more advanced models), the studio is more or less dominated by a large, complex-looking stainless steel machine with various lights and buttons. It wouldn’t look out of place in a hospital or research lab. But its function is fairly simple. The pug mill, as the machine is called, mixes clay to the right proportion of liquid, so as to transform it into the perfect malleable form.

McCurdy shaping a vessel.

McCurdy shaping a vessel.

The play of light is an important facet of Ms. McCurdy’s work. She holds a piece up to show how the translucence affects the look. Some works are gilded on the inside, to grab the light and provide a glittering contrast. Ms. McCurdy’s husband, Tom McCurdy of McCurdy Motorcars, who once worked as a sign painter, does the gilding.

With her early works, the artist discovered the shapes that still appeal to her today —– globes and bellied-out vases with narrow bases and slender tops. As she progressed, Ms. McCurdy started playing with decoration —– carving and sculpting out highly involved patterns, and from a digital slideshow of decades of work shown at galleries and high-end craft fairs around the country, I could see the evolution, and a combination of traditional ethnic and natural designs emerging.

Ms. McCurdy is working exclusively in porcelain these days — forgoing glazing for a monochromatic look that works well with her intricate cut-through designs. “It took me letting go of the glaze to start to really integrate the form,” she says. “Porcelain has a unique property. It’s nonporous. It changes molecularly first, and becomes translucent and hard. I was really enjoying the light and shadows when I first started experimenting with porcelain.”

While she works, she explains things like molecular structure and plasticity of clay to me. Taking the tube-shaped mass of clay from the pug mill, she pounds it on a table to form a sort of cone shape. Once on the wheel, the clay begins to take on a form. As Ms. McCurdy presses down on the clay to shape it, she describes the process as similar to isometrics. “I want to center myself. I’m using my weight — my bones — to act as steadiers.

“The thrown form is the most important thing for me. Everything else springs from that. Hopefully you find your own voice, but no amount of altering and carving will make a good form from one that’s not well designed.”

McCurdy at work at the wheel.

McCurdy at work at the wheel.

The throwing process is long and involved. As the vessel takes shape, Ms. McCurdy is constantly working it inside and out — pulling, shaping, scraping out excess clay, smoothing out finger marks, and adding water. “People say porcelain is so hard to throw,” she says. “It absorbs water faster than stoneware. This is a very good technique for porcelain. It’s actually good for all clay. It’s a slow technique. If you were a production potter, you would never do this. It takes too much time.”

But time is key in strengthening the structure. So is the next phase of the process. Ms. McCurdy takes the thrown piece and starts pressing a series of curving lines into the body, turning the vessel as she goes. “Every time you put a curve in something, it makes it stronger,” she says. “That’s a matter of structure, and how nature makes things harder too.”

She builds up the curved ridges slowly by going over each indentation multiple times, until there are deep folds in the clay. Eventually it’s ready to carve. First marking lines in pencil along the curves, Ms. McCurdy then takes an X-Acto knife (she goes through hundreds), and with skilled precision quickly cuts identical leaf-shaped pieces along the curve line. She must work quickly, before the piece dries. After all the cuts are completed, she pops the incised pieces out, and what remains is a wonderful lace-like patterned vase, ready for firing.

Internationally renowned architect Frank Gehry was once quoted as saying, “I would like to make a building as intellectually driven as it is sculptural, and as positive as it would be acceptable to hope.” On a much smaller scale, Ms. McCurdy manages to achieve these goals with every piece she creates.

Carefully cutting out leaf-shaped pieces from the porcelain.

Carefully cutting out leaf-shaped pieces from the porcelain.

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