Moye Thompson Interview

– Westside Magazine –

Artist: Moye Thompson
Style: Ceramist / Potter

How did you decide to make a career in ceramics?
It all started when I was nine and lost on a school field trip in Atlanta. My third-grade class was visiting a local college, where, frantic to find my lost group, I stumbled into a pottery studio and saw a woman turn a homely ball of clay into a big, beautiful bowl. That was it. I begged my parents to buy me a toy wheel (cheap and useless), then waited and waited and waited for tenth grade, when I could drop Latin and take pottery. One precious bowl managed to survive a brutal end-of-term clay fight. Then it was back to the serious business of getting into Harvard, finding jobs in Egypt, Washington, and, finally, New York. I was working at the Metropolitan Museum when a kind and generous boyfriend, who had heard me speak of that pottery class long ago, gave me lessons as a birthday gift. Boom. I was hooked, the first one waiting at the studio door every Saturday morning, and the last one they kicked out every Sunday night. Two years later, I was teaching my own class in the evening. There was still my day job of course (as a magazine writer and editor by then), but, more and more, ceramics became my life. Eventually, faced with a promotion and the prospect of ever more budget meetings and “action plans,” I quit the day job, bought the studio, and never looked back. But I did look west. Turns out my husband and entire sun- kissed future were in Santa Monica, just a blind date away.

Where do you find inspiration?
In the early days, inspiration really came from within, just a desire to make things, like a little kid who loves to paint and draw for the pure joy of it. Over the years, especially since having children of my own, I’ve grown much more sensitive to beauty in all forms around me, finding inspiration everywhere. Really, everywhere. A broken twig on the sidewalk, a beautifully crafted fence, a strikingly cool menu can all spark ideas that eventually find their way into my work, sometimes in the form of real twigs, pebbles, and paper. Recently my husband and I saw Moisés Kaufman’s play 33 Variations at the Ahmanson Theater, which captured so much of what I’ve been feeling these days. “Look! Listen! Breathe!” I tell my children -- there is beauty everywhere if you stop to notice it, even in the seemingly ordinary. At its core, Kaufman’s play is about Beethoven’s ability to find ongoing inspiration in a single unremarkable waltz, taking elements of the piece and spinningout variation after variation over the years. That’s what any artist does: Spin the same old, ordinary elements (notes, words, paint, clay) into something subtly or utterly new, again and again. Once in a blue moon something extraordinary comes of the effort, but the effort alone is a thing to behold. Especially if it’s Beethoven.

What are some challenges you face in your creative career?
Commerce. I’m terrible at putting prices on my work and going out into the world to sell it. I’d much rather hide in my studio all day every day making things. In fact, if people didn’t come knocking on my door (or emailing me from stores or magazines), I’d never sell anything. Don’t get me wrong. I love that my work is out in the world. For me, though, the process of creating has nothing to do with money. How do you put a dollar value on your time? On your children? It’s embarrassing. Even typing this makes me anxious.

Is there a person you credit as your mentor? How has this person inspired/encouraged you?
Hardly a day passes that I don’t think of my first pottery teacher in New York, Martina D’Alton. She is not a famous potter, but one in a long line of dedicated artists and teachers who have passed along this ancient tradition through the centuries with unfailing patience and encouragement. Her love of clay inspired my own, and she is, in some way, part of everything I do.

Do you have a muse?
Can I call clay, the material itself, my muse? I love the feel of it, the damp, mossy smell of it, and the way heat magically transforms it from something soft and pliable into a material as hard and permanent as stone — sometimes broken stone, but there’s beauty even in weather-worn shards. In fact, I’ve come to understand over the years that imperfections make a piece more beautiful, not less. It’s what the Japanese call “wabi-sabi,” which celebrates the chips and cracks and all the other marks that time, weather, and loving use (or an imperfect potter) leave behind — that lifts something from merely “pretty” into the realm of beautiful.

Can you describe your process?
I work alone in my studio (unless you count that gentle creature on the dog bed who shares his quiet optimism day in day out), sometimes working on the wheel, sometimes building by hand. But whatever I make, I’m careful to let it dry completely (“bone dry” as we potters say) before I put it in the kiln. Otherwise, as the temperature rises, the moisture turns into a powerful steam, which will force its way out of the clay, fast and furiously. For all my talk about the beauty of flaws, I’d rather pieces not explode. The first firing (the “bisque” firing) is a slow, steady rise to 1888 degrees over approximately 13 hours. I then glaze the bisqueware, usually by dipping it into large buckets of glaze, sometimes adding stripes with a little rubber squirt-bulb. The second firing is generally faster (about eight hours) and hotter — up to around 2200 degrees. Then comes the final wait. Another 8 hours. Maybe 9. Or 10. It’s hard to wait, even for a potter to finish a paragraph, as you see. But the first thing any potter must learn is patience. So I wait, until the kiln is cool enough to unload. If I’m lucky, there may be something beautiful inside.

How has pursuing your art enriched your life?
For me, nothing matches the exhilaration of creating something — especially something that’s likely to survive long after I’ve turned to dust. I enjoy the sheer physicality of the work, using my hands, my arms, my shoulders. At the end of a long day in the studio, I have shelves full of new pieces and muscles so wonderfully achy it’s hard to sleep at night. Then there are the books, a side benefit of studio life. In a good week I can listen to a 17-CD biography of Marie Antoinette and David Mitchell’s latest novel. In a great week, add Dubliners. I’d be a lonely artist without my public library (and Ruskin, my loyal mutt).

How does your art enrich others? Or how do you hope it will?
I’d like to say that outside applause means nothing to me. But, honestly, if everyone found my work hideous, I’d have sold my wheel long ago and crawled under a rock. Then eventually applied to medical school. As it is, I keep filling my shelves, and other people keep un-filling them, finding just the right piece for a spot in their own home or a friend’s, some thousands of miles from Santa Monica Canyon. Years later those pieces are still out there, quietly animating a space or holding a salad, part of another family’s life. What more could I hope for my work?