Newbury Street, Boston, MA
February – March 2017
My first encounter with Mark Hewitt was at a conference on wood firing that took place in Iowa three decades ago. At the time, wood firing was an exotic and exciting practice with only a couple dozen active kilns in the country and a few wood kilns in academic programs. (My, how times have changed.) Mark was on panel about aesthetics. A question came from the audience: “To what extent is the success of a pot due to its firing?” There was a pause; none of the august panelists on stage seemed eager to untangle this knot. Finally, Mark gave a kind of exasperated sigh, stared directly at the questioner, and said firmly, “The clay is 100 percent, the forming is 100 percent, the decoration is 100 percent, and the firing is 100 percent.” There was no further discussion on the matter. As I have come to know Mark as a colleague and friend over the years, I have often thought about that question and his answer. What makes a successful pot? Everything.
Hewitt produces non-stop, making purposeful and accessible wares that take this high standard as the ground. With the energy, passion, and intention he brings to each pot he makes, to speak of 400 percent seems fitting. The work in this exhibition is a snapshot of a mature Mark Hewitt, 33 years on and thousands of pots thrown and fired in his home studio in Pittsboro, North Carolina. The finely potted clay walls and breathy volumes of these pots testify to the extreme wheel skills that Mark has honed over the years. Most have rich, flowing, salty, ashy surfaces and a loose decorative approach that plays against the taut consistency of his forms: slip-trailed swags and dots, colored glass runs, incised patterns, and finger wipes that animate symmetrical shapes with a quirky spontaneity. The less predictable and relaxed flesh brings tension and drama to these vessels’ well-structured bones.
Rather than any of the heroically scaled jars he is also known for, Mark includes in this exhibition a group of celadon wares from his newer wood kiln. Here, no tricks of contrast, except for the reveal of raw clay near the foot, these pots are all form and subtle coating of glass: shades of grey, green, and blue. While a few of these have underglaze slip-trailing, or contrasting dots of color, those of pure form and color signal a new and challenging minimal direction for Mark.
Generally, Mark allows himself little formal wobble, except perhaps in his vases, with their slightly wavering vertical lines impressed into the freshly thrown clay. A quartet of weighty trays surprises, then, they seem as primordial canvasses, eschewing the expectation of the “good pot” that Hewitt himself has helped articulate, pushing against the quotidian parameters of his virtuosic practice.
Though he didn’t say this back in Iowa, in addition to the clay, forming, decoration, and firing, the success of a pot depends on the context in which the pot is seen, acquired, and understood. Herein lies, perhaps, another equally elusive 100 percent, for without a supportive audience, no potter can thrive. Just as Mark has mastered the producing of pots, in collaboration with his wife, Carol Peppe Hewitt, he has also put extraordinary energy into fostering his local ceramic community, and he has consistently and eloquently engaged intellectually in the local, national, and international conversation about the meaning of making pottery by hand in a way that is rooted in history and place. Mark’s approach to regionalism—his building of a culture of support for handmade pottery with kiln openings; his connections with local and regional academic institutions and museums; and his training of young, often local potters, has provided a model that has rippled out from Pittsboro, through North Carolina and beyond.
In his crafting of a compelling context in which handmade studio pots are significant and even essential to contemporary life, Mark broke ground and built a foundation on which many of us, and especially our younger colleagues, stand. In his writings and lectures and public persona, he articulates the complex meanings and pleasures of non-academic, functional, accessible pottery, belying what some claimed were increasingly irrelevant practices. His willingness to take on the doubters, often on their own intellectual territory has put wind in the sails of his many fellow voyagers. All of us, whether on parallel or tangential potting trajectories, have been carried forward by his 500-percent life in clay.
Mark Shapiro has made wood-fired pots in Western Massachusetts for the past thirty years and is a frequent workshop leader and panelist. He edited “A Chosen Path: The Ceramic Art of Karen Karnes,” (UNC Press 2010), is a founding member of POW! (Pots on Wheels), and directs Apprenticelines, which seeks to support and expand studio ceramic apprenticeships. His work is included in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, and the Museum of Ceramics at Alfred University in New York.