Ceramist Shawn O’Connor shares historical method

From left to right: Shawn O’Connor stands with Dylan Rohman, a senior ceramics major, Rachel Grover, a senior art education major, and Caitlyn Puchalski, a junior art major, around the kiln last Thursday.
Francis Flisiuk
From left to right: Shawn O’Connor stands with Dylan Rohman, a senior ceramics major, Rachel Grover, a senior art education major, and Caitlyn Puchalski, a junior art major, around the kiln last Thursday.

Posted on March 10, 2014 in Arts & Culture
By masonfriedman

Paper kilns, basically insulated ovens, are an essential part of making ceramics. They dry and harden clay at temperatures greater than 900 °C.
Francis Flisiuk
Paper kilns, basically insulated ovens, are an essential part of making ceramics. They dry and harden clay at temperatures greater than 900 °C.

Last week USM hosted a special guest, alumnus and ceramist Shawn O’Connor.

O’Connor teamed up with the USM Art Department to finish a project with students, the construction and lighting of a one time use paper kiln. The paper kiln was lit Thursday with Brandon Lutterman a professor of ceramics and several USM students in attendance. While at USM, he also acted as a guest lecturer, teaching students about the construction of the kiln and his philosophy of art.

Wood is a solid fuel, he explained, and all fuel needs oxygen to combust. That fuel source leaves behind carbon, which results in a unique surface. In ceramics, that’s called fly ash, that moves through the kiln and sticks to the pottery. Since the kiln is firing at such high temperatures, it creates a natural glaze, he said. That is why none of O’Connor’s pieces are identical.

The coloring and glazing predominantly relies on the motion of the fire and ash as it wafts through the kiln. O’Connor’s most recent trials have been a result of mapping and trying to understand how to manipulate a wood fire kiln.

According to O’Connor, a paper kiln is comprised mostly of slip (a thinner version of clay), chicken wire, combustibles and sticks. These materials create a precarious tepee structure that surrounds the pottery and is lit from the bottom. “It’s a very sort of primitive way to make a kiln that can be done anywhere,” he said.
O’Connor explained that kilns have been used as a method of making clay and pottery for thousands of years. Essentially a thermally insulated oven, a kiln permanently alters the chemical and physical properties of the clay by treating it to very high temperatures.

However, this primitive mode of firing ceramics comes with drawbacks. “I told the students, have very low expectations. This is about gathering information and learning a process, more than anything else. It’s very aggressive. You know, the temperature is going to climb really quickly and then fall quickly, and as stuff burns, things are going to fall down. So, it could be a total disaster, but it will be fun.”

In a modern world full of controlled heat sources, to better understand O’Connor’s choice to utilize a more involved process, such as a wood fire kiln, one must look to his roots. “I’m from a small town called Minot, in Maine. My childhood home was heated by a wood stove. The process of chopping wood and getting up early is natural to me. I’m a very physical person, and the wood fire kiln is physical, you’re there chopping the wood and loading the fire.”

He spoke of ceramics as a philosophy not just an art form.

“A work is not complete until it’s actually used,” he said. He explained that for his Master of Fine Arts thesis at Syracuse University, he made 600 cups, and then he invited people to pour through the cups, touch them and use one throughout the exposition. He qualified that this interaction between the guests and his work is what finished the project.

“It becomes a communal activity, taking the cup. And if the guest liked the cup, they could take it home as a gift. This created a special connection between me and the people attending,” he said.

What pleased him most was that the project still lives on. According to O’Connor, he found one of his pieces behind the bar of a Mexican restaurant. “One of the waitresses puts her tip money in it,” O’Connor said with a smile.

Aileen Andrews, a junior drawing major, attended one of several classes that O’Connor guest lectured last week. “He thinks of how something can function, then improves upon it and makes it aesthetically pleasing,” Andrews said.

A theme that seems to trend through O’Connor’s work is the utilitarian nature of pottery. “I think it’s my practical nature that makes me create functional work. I see all of my work as sculpture. I don’t see a divide between them.”

O’Connor often emphasizes the functionality of his work.“It’s a vehicle to provide the body with sustenance. The idea is to break down all social barriers, race, religion, age and gender.”

This need to connect art with a purpose and rise above modern constructs may shed light on his evolving drive to use more primitive types of kilns. “I designed and built this train-style kiln. I knew nothing about kiln building to begin with, but from failure, you learn a lot.”

O’Connor will be heading back to North Dakota to finish several large urns that will be exhibited this summer in upstate New York.