Wicked Meltability: A conversation with Jonathan Mess

This interview took place on October 25, 2015 via Skype. It was transcribed by Heather Wang and edited for print by Elenor Wilson.

EW: Would you give us a little bit of background on you, where you live, who you are, and what you do, including teaching?

Jonathan, Josie, and Kate Mess outside their home in Midcoast Maine. Photograph by Erin Little, May 2015.JM: Sure. My name is Jonathan Mess. I live in Jefferson, Maine, with my wife, Kate, who is a metalsmith and graphic designer, and our sweet little daughter, Josie, who is one-and-a-half years old. We’ve lived here for four or five years, and I’ve lived in Maine for about fifteen years. I originally came to Maine for a high school teaching job in 2000 and just sort of fell in love with it. I ended up going back to grad school in 2006 at SUNY [State University of New York] New Paltz, and that’s where I met Kate and convinced her to move back with me to Maine. She’s from Wisconsin—you can only convince a Wisconsin girl to move more north. I got a job in Portland, lived there for a couple years, and then moved up here to the mid-coast, where I now work at Lincoln Academy. I have all the local students, the children of lobstermen, farmers, fishermen, doctors and lawyers and gas station owners, and there are also eighty international residential students from all over the world. So we’ve got some nice diversity for being in the central coast of Maine.

Kate and I own a house, an old barn that’s been renovated, with a studio in the basement. We’ve been here for about five years. We love it here. It’s got a lot going on, naturewise, and for being in rural Maine, because it’s the coast, there are a lot of great restaurants in any direction, and great, interesting people, and the ocean and mountains, and the seasons change. We’re less than an hour from Portland, Maine, and three hours from Boston. So we feel really lucky to be in a wilderness area, with ocean and mountains, but have connections to the rest of the world. It’s motivating to have all that and still have a rugged, rural lifestyle.

EW: You said that you renovated an old barn for your studios?

JM: Yeah. We did not renovate this barn. We are really lucky to have ended up buying the property after a couple artists had lived in here. Someone was using it at some point as a ceramics studio, at some point as a wood shop, and a variety of other things. It has a concrete floor, and there’s plenty of room; it’s divided nicely. We split the basement. I mean, admittedly, I get more than her, but thank God I married a metalsmith. She can fit her life’s work in, like, two shoeboxes, and mine can fit in two, like, trucks, 18-wheelers. [laughs] So we split it, but I probably – definitely have more than her.

This year, I was awarded the Maine Arts Commission Craft Fellowship of 2015, which came with a monetary award. A lot of that money I’ve used to fix up the studio. We have built part of it as a gallery and added lighting. We bought some lighting equipment so that we can set up and tear down to photograph pretty easily, which has been a savior. We started off photographing outside on gray days, then relied on light coming in the window. Finally we were, like, “What? This is crazy.” We’ve got a nice photography setup now, and a nice showing setup. and a nice workspace.

I do make work in my studio occasionally, but mostly I make work other places and, more specifically, I make work outdoors in spaces where I can get really dirty and rough and raw and spill and pour, and ventilation is not an issue.

EW: Do you mean outside your studio, or actually other locations?

JM: For example, at Watershed [Center for the Ceramic Arts, in Newcastle], I worked down in that very bottom basement. I have worked outside my basement doors. Our studio is my round two or three when I work in there. After things are fired, I bring them back there, and I repair, I cut them on diamond wet saws. I’ll work a little more site-specifically and seasonally, outside. Because, as you know, my work can get very dirty – it’s just very, very dirty. [laughs]

EW: I’m familiar with your work and that process, but for our readers, will you take us through your process from the beginning to the end of one work cycle, or one piece?

JM: From the beginning, I figured out a. I don’t want to pay for anything, and b. there’s so much waste everywhere. I feel bad opening up a new bag of Neph Sy or something that was shipped here from California, or wherever. There’s so much waste, not only in industry, but in art school. One art school. The high school I work at. Imagine all the high schools in the area or just five colleges around me. So, I’ve sort of made my connections at this point, and seasonally or annually, I go get their waste.

People are just calling me and bringing it to me now. Local potters are, like, “Oh, you’re Jonathan Mess. You’re the guy that takes that stuff. Oh, I’ve got a basement full of this stuff. It’s been down there since the eighties. I’d love to just drop it off.” They drop off stuff, and I take almost everything. I sort of categorize it, or I start to categorize it: low-fire, high-fire, red, white, really white, dark chocolate – you know, claywise. And then the mystery stuff, I test all that.

EW: How do you test it?

JM: I’ll make little pinch pot canoes. I’ll spend a day and make, like, 200 of them. I’ll do three little canoes for each color, one at 04, one at 6, and one at 10, and just see where they are. And then immediately you find out, oh, that’s low-fire, or that’s definitely high-fire, or I have no idea what that is, it’s just weird!

Also, I will separate by texture, like chunky, glossy, and then color, grays and blacks and browns. All of a sudden I’ll get some bright yellows and greens and oranges and purples, too. I sort in five-gallon buckets. It’s a rainbow circle all around me of particle size and chunk and light and dark . . . Meltability – that’s the most important thing. As I’m making, I’m thinking, okay, I did a layer or two of this kind of dry stuff, so I’ve got to get some gloss in there too, to hold it all together. I vary as I go.Jonathan Mess. Reclaim No. 26: Eastern and Western Cross Sections, 2015. Various reclaimed ceramic materials, solid cast and cut. 5.5 x 10 x 6 in. (left), 5.5 x 11 x 4.5 in. (right). Photo by Kate Mess.

EW: You get these donations, and a lot of times they’re slop buckets full of everything. How is it that you manage to get enough color, not just brown?

JM: Right. I will get lucky scores. I’ve got a whole five-gallon bucket of this crazy, bright chartreuse. So in my last work cycle, it was strong chartreuse everywhere.

I’ll get my light, like porcelain, and really bright stoneware mixed together, and that’s my white. I will take that and mix it up into a slop or a slurry, and that’s my base. Then I will add everything, from the random mixes to stains: that’s how I get the brighter colors. I like peacock blue and bright red or – I fill out my rainbow there. ’Cause you’re right, when you get a lot of free stuff, you end up with a lot of brown and gray and white and cream.

EW: Do you ever get too much stuff?

JM: Sure. People drop stuff off at my school a lot. And at school, we fire cone 6. I will just test it there, then put it into the cycle of high school glazes. I have a glaze there that we call Number 3 ’cause it came in a bucket that had a number three on it. And it kind of looks like a shino that somebody mixed something weird into, but it’s a really cool glaze for the students if they want to make a desert-feel, or a dry, sandy brown. Or, I might add some Gerstley Borate and make sure it’s a little glossier, or whatever, so it melts pretty good, and I’ll add it right into my high school teaching palette.

Right now, I kinda have too much going on at school. In my basement, I’ve got too much. And I have stash spots around, including at Watershed. I’m very fortunate to live near there. It has a backlog from thirty-plus years of people working there. For example, Sally shows up from California and makes pots and mixes a purple glaze and paints her ten pots purple, then realizes she mixed up enough glaze for 500 pots, and she’s flying out back home tomorrow. So she writes “purple” on a bucket and puts it in the corner. Years later, there’s, I don’t know, a couple hundred of those buckets, and it’s everything. I tested a ton of that, and that’s my local big stash that I know I can go to. The Watershed folks are very friendly and accepting of me coming and going as I please, anytime I want. I’ve got test tiles of probably seventy of those buckets there right now that I can go to when I need them.

But yeah, I’ve got too much stuff. I’m saying no and avoiding calls right now. [laughs]

EW: Is there any education going on – by you or others – to encourage studios or schools to recycle it themselves rather than just dropping it off for you?

JM: The whole process is education. Part of my process is based on the fact that there’s so much waste in this world. Part of my content – unwritten, I suppose – is about using something that’s forgotten about or considered refuse or junk. It’s not always easy. It’s very physical. But I educate everyone I can about not just throwing that in the dumpster, because it will leach into the water table.

It’s illegal, I think, in most places, and especially if it has any kind of metals in it. A lot of places use slag pots: a huge, deep bowl that they pour all their waste crud into, then fire really slowly until it’s hardened enough, vitrified enough, that they can legally toss that in the dumpster. But that’s a lot of energy and effort for somewhere like a college with a high turnover of students every semester, where the staff isn’t paid enough or even aware of what’s going on with all the leftover stuff or the question-mark buckets.

I will take this stuff, but a lot of times I can’t, so I educate people on how to get rid of it. We have conversations about what goes down the drain and how you can wash your hands into a five-gallon bucket with holes poked or drilled through the sides [so that the solids settle to the bottom, and the clean water runs off]. That’s just one way, you can save it in a lot of different ways.

EW: What about your high school classroom? What do your students think about your recycling, and does it affect their artwork or consciousness about waste?

JM: Even twenty years ago, when I was first thinking about being a teacher, when I was their age, I just walked right in and used stuff. I didn’t really think about it. It’s a process of learning, and thinking about where your waste and your water goes when you flush the toilet or turn on the faucet.

The students know that I don’t waste anything. I’ve got a system. And when I’ve got a kid who got a detention or someone who is claiming to be finished with a project early, I say, “Well, here’re your options: You can keep working on it, or you can help me reclaim this clay.” And you’d be surprised, a lot of these kids would just rather pound on and crush clay for twenty minutes. I’m like, all right, man. I need you in my life. You have a place.

By engaging them in the process, I’m educating. Nothing gets wasted, and this is how we do it and how we break it down: We add the water. It sits for a month or a week, or whatever, then we siphon off the top, and we dig it out, put it on the big plaster table. And then we flip that the next day. At school, I don’t have a tech. It’s either me, or I get my kids involved. And just by nature of who I am, I’m preaching to them the whole time: If you’re gonna do a black wash mason stain on something, I’ve got these old photography trays that you put under the sink. And you wash it off into that, then you mix that up and pour it back into the five-gallon bucket that has all the dark mason stain.

I never did that in high school, and most colleges don’t even do that, let alone enforce it. So I’d like to think I am educating them on waste and materials. And it’s not just, “Oh, don’t put your plastic bottle in the trash can.” We’re thinking about everything and recycling the materials we use. Nothing’s gonna go to waste.

EW: So I want to go back to your personal studio practice. After you create your palette, what are your forms and how do you build them?

JM: I’ve gone through a few different series using just cardboard boxes straight out of the dumpster. Sometimes I’ll modify a box somehow, cut it up or sort of squeeze it back and change the shape a little bit. I have found that I need to fortify the boxes, because I pour wet material in, so I use packaging tape to cover the seams, put one side against a wall, a two-by- four on another side, and a hay bale on the other. That’s a big part of the process: building the exterior of the forms and then making sure that they’re all sturdy around the outside edges so they don’t burst, or give, or lean over, or pop, or fall apart. But sometimes it’s exciting if they do.

Jonathan Mess. Reclaim No.9, 2014. Various reclaimed ceramic materials, solid cast. 16 x 11 x 10 in. Photo by Kate Mess.I usually have up to 75 different forms ready to go. And some of them are even box lids that are flat, that I have not modified; those become like tiles. So I’ve got all these slips, – some colored, some chunky – that I’ve got in a pourable form. Then I start to pour. The bottom layer will be the top, possibly, so I’ll do something that’s not gonna be too runny and build it up from there. Then I’ll walk away from it for a couple days.

I go into my art-making zone, where it’s a little bit chaotic and haphazard and expressive, and I’m grabbing some yellows and greens and sprinkling some dry material over here and I’m splatting and I’m pouring and I’m painting and I’m stepping back. And at the point where I have to stop because they’re getting a little full, and I don’t want to overdo it, I walk away. I put fans on or– it depends on the weather – I’ll try to get them a little bit drier, come back, and repeat.

I also think about variety, like wet, dry, chunky. I’ll roll out big slabs and basically paint those with lots of slips, then roll them up, sushi-style, cut them up, and throw those in. I’m thinking about the composition. It’s a bizarre way to think maybe, but I’m kind of thinking more like a sushi chef or someone making a terrine. I’m thinking, “Okay, when I cut this, it’s gonna look like this.”

EW: And when you’re talking about cutting, what do you mean by that?

JM: I have found that my cleanest cut comes after the work has been bisque-fired. Sometimes I will take it to a super-industrial stonecutting facility. Around here we have a place called J. C. Stone, in Jefferson, Maine. And they cut, like, slabs of marble for the White House steps, you know what I mean? They’re dealing with big stuff, and they’ve got saws in there that could cut a Volkswagen bus in half. So my twenty- by eighteen-inch–solid piece of ceramics is nothing to them.

I also use everything from chainsaws to diamond-blade saws, and circular saws to block saws, which can cut up to six inches at one time, so if I flip it, I can get a one-foot cut. I’ll rent that and bring it home for two days, go into the cutting zone, and cut as much as I can. Then I go back and put a little something glossy on them and stick them back in the kiln for the second firing, where I can take them really hot, where they melt and ooze, or I can just solidify them so they stay pretty stable.

EW: Speaking of that, what about eutectic disasters? What kind of kilns do you use, and how do you manage not to have kiln damage every time you fire?

JM: Well, I’ve a had a couple pretty bad disasters. But luckily, I’ve learned how to fix some kilns before, as you might recall, at New Paltz.

EW: No, I don’t recall! Do you want to tell –

JM: Oh, really?

EW: I’m kidding. I totally remember.

JM: [laughs] Yeah, the one that leaned into the – I still have that piece. It leaned into the electric elements as I fired it, and melted to them inside. We had to chisel it out. And it still has the coils inside the piece. I need to have a show that’s called “Oops” or “Mess-ups” or “Beautiful Accidents.”

EW: I like “Mess-ups,” for the obvious reason.

JM: Right, right. “Beautiful Mess-ups.” Watershed has this kiln that, for about seven years, they’ve been saying, “Oh, we’re gonna tear this thing down.” I’m like, “I’ll use it one last year.” So if I screw it up, there’s no foul. It’s that car kiln that’s outside where the old – as you drive into the shop, on the left.

EW: It’s before you actually get to the building, it’s on the left there. Yeah, I was there this summer… 

JM: That’s my local secret. I’ve been using that kiln. It fires wicked uneven. It’s really hot on the top and cold on the bottom, so in one firing I’ll get really melted, oozy, sketchily almost falling over. I keep an eye on it while it’s firing. I’ve learned to push things and know when to call it. I’m a little bit crazy enough that if I see something’s melted, and I’m like, “Oh, shit, I’ve gone too far,” I’ll literally crash-cool it for 500 degrees and make sure it’s not gonna get any hotter. It’s a kiln that can handle that. They don’t care about it.

My next thing to do, is, “Oh, you’re gonna tear apart your kiln? Can I use this one more time?” [laughing] And I’m just gonna crank it, crush it, melt it. And if that ever fails me, I’ll just build my own schwaggy, crappy kiln. That’s the beauty of working this way: it doesn’t have to be really accurate firing. And the kiln doesn’t have to be expensive or ridiculous. I mean, I could build something really rudimentary and basic. As long as I can get the materials to a meltable temperature and throw a couple more burners in each side and crank that thing up, ’cause they’re already bisqued.

EW: What kind of conversations do you have with people about your finished work?

JM: I feel like I’m transforming the materials. A lot of people don’t know that my work is clay and glaze when they first see it. I also feel, in the clay world, I get a lot of people who don’t really know what to do with my work because it’s not like anything they’ve ever seen, or it’s not representative of the way they think about clay. Usually, clay is formed into some recognizable object. And I also think that the fine art people, who can be semisnobby about clay or put it in a different category, are always shocked to find out that I’m using a “craft” material. I like blending in between those two lines. The craft people aren’t sure what to do with me, and the fine art people aren’t sure what to do with me, but I think I’m somewhere in the middle and probably closer to the art material – you know; whatever.

I’m a process artist, and I’m a painter. I go in, I get my materials ready, and I paint for like three or four hours with this stuff. And I’m thinking about it almost like paint, like a wet material that I’m layering up. I’m dealing with the elements of nature as well: Is it gonna rain tomorrow? Or, we’re in a drought. Things are drying really, really fast. Or, I want to make sure the sunshine does or doesn’t hit these today. I cover them to hold in the moisture or open them up to let the moisture out. If I dry them really fast, I’ll get exterior cracks. If I dry them slowly, they’ll stay together more. It is always fascinating when people immediately see geology in my work because what I do is sort of reverse-geology.

EW: Is part of your intent to create an awareness of materials, waste, resources, geology, or recycling?

JM: Well, it’s a hard question to answer, because there’s a tenfold answer to that question. Part of me says, yes, of course! I’m a teacher. I’m an educator. You get me going, and I’m gonna tell some random person who has never even thrown on a wheel all about how to recycle clay, and they’re like, whoa. Or how we’re trying to save this stuff from the dumpster, like I’m some savior of the world.

But those conversations always come up, because as people are like, “What am I looking at?” I tell them how I get my stuff and how that’s important to me. And it’s a little bit personal. I’m an artist who, when I go in, I have the intention, the need to play and experiment and express myself through this material that is clay; that’s my choice right now.  I’ve educated myself enough that if I can do it without having to buy it or by saving something from the landfill, then I think that that’s a valuable part of my process. 

I’m not trying to be some hippie artist-educator, teaching the world how to be more green. I didn’t decide, “I’m going to use recycled materials and become a green artist.” It just naturally became my process, and because of that, I’ve become more aware, and I teach people about it. If I put the label “reclaimed” or “recycled” on it, it’s gonna make people buy it more, and I’d be a fool not to use that. And that’s good marketing, but it’s because of who I am, what I believe in, and how I work.

EW: How does living in Maine and your lifestyle there influence your work?

JM: I’m a very proud Mainah, though not by birth, and I love anything outdoorsy, especially if it involves water. I’ll boat anything. I’ll fish for anything. If there’s an adventure, I want in. We have a huge garden, and I love that connection to nature.There’s both the academic school year and the seasons, winter, spring, summer, fall. To align my working style with them is a challenge and has become part of who I am and who we are, Kate and I, as artists.

Winter is working time. It’s dark in New England. It’s cold. You can really get in the studio and work. Fall is a great time to fire work. Summer is also a great time to work on work, but you’ve got to make sure that you get your play and your outside time on. We try to do as much adventuring as we can and be outside in the summer. So it’s not always easy, because, as a teacher, summer is my time off to recharge, but I also need to get some work done. Balance is the key.

I’ve also learned not to try to make work every day in every season. I’ll go through cycles. I can probably make a big body of work every two to three years, because it takes me two to three years to move my works around into the kiln, to cut them, to refire them, to fix the bottoms. That’s a lot of indoor, winter work. And there’s a lot of waiting. I’ll get into that summer process, where I can go in for an hour or two, take care of things, and then, boom, I’m done. I can’t come back for a few days, because they need to dry up. If I can prepare all the molds and have everything else wet and ready before that, it makes for pretty easy making in the summer when I need to dry things and work outside. Fall becomes firing, and winter becomes fixing.

EW: Do these rhythms, and the seasons, and the ebb and flow of your work cycle and how much time you spend outdoors manifest themselves visually in your work at all?

JM: I didn’t plan that, but I think by just being authentic, and thinking about the process of life, and the layers, and being surrounded by nature and the seasons and the river that rises and comes down or the tide that moves in and out – just in thinking about that and more than occasionally having that in your face or dealing with it, like being stuck in a boat ’cause the tide changed on you – makes you think about how powerful and beautiful – as corny as that sounds – this world is and still can be. It moves me, and I’m very affected by that. And it’s a huge part of my life.

With the help of his assistant, Josie, Jonathan pours slip into a mold in the studio at Lincoln Academy in Newcastle, Maine. 2015. Photo by Kate Mess.One thing I feel I’ve done well is that my work reflects who I am in a lot of ways. And that doesn’t come easy. That’s through a lot of soul-searching and a lot of making. I didn’t just end up there. I made thousands of pieces before my work started to look like it does now. I feel really confident and comfortable in what it is and in my process and in not over-thinking it. And for the first time, that’s what really came through me. And I’m proud of that.

EW: That is inspiring, and a good note to end on. Is there anything else you want to talk about? Maybe you have something coming up?

JM: I’ve got a show at Corey Daniels Gallery right now, in Wells, Maine. It’s the gallery that represents me in Maine. Corey shows a lot of really interesting objects, and I’m proud to be in the lineup.Duane Reed, and I think… let me check with Kate. Kate? She’s putting Josie down. The Duane Reed Gallery show is in December. It’s an invitational, and it’s called CeramATTACK. I also have a few sculptures in Reflection International Ceramics Biennial 2015 right now, curated by Ray Chen, in Falmouth, Maine.

EW: Great, Jonathan.  It was fun to catch up with you, thank you for taking the time to talk with me.

JM: Thanks a lot for the opportunity to catch up and chat about my process, Elenor. Let’s do it again over a beer sometime soon. Like the good ole days.