Ceramicist Paula Shalan

Paula Shalan’s hand-built ceramic pieces reflect her fascination with ancient objects and with the imperfect beauty of nature.

Text by Nathaniel ReadePhotography by John Polak

When Paula Shalan was working on her master’s degree at the Art Institute of Chicago, she found herself preferring to spend time not in the museum of art, but in the museum of natural history. She filled her notebooks with sketches of African baskets and Mimbres pots, and slowly realized that, while she may be a modern person making fine art, she is drawn primarily to things that are ancient and come from the earth. So it makes perfect sense that today she works quite literally with the earth, and the ancient tradition of clay.

Shalan grew up in the Boston suburb of Milton. There’s nothing suburban, however, about her approach to art. That’s because she lived on thirteen acres of fields and woods, and spent her days touching and observing the dirt, rocks, and trees around her.

“I was a quiet, almost nonspeaking child,” she says. “I had dyslexia issues and struggled to express myself verbally. I think one of the reasons I’m drawn to art is that I can express myself without using words. I was always extremely visually oriented and tactile. I loved the look and feel of bark, leaves, and mud.”

Today Shalan works out of a small studio behind her house in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, with two walls of windows that look out on fields and streams. The shelves are filled with beautiful works of ceramic art, but also with boxes of natural objects: polished stones, coral, bones.

The space is white, bright, and remarkably clean for a ceramic studio, and she wears not a clay-stained smock but a clean red sweater—one advantage to not using a wheel. She forms her pieces entirely by hand, using the same low-tech methods as potters did thousands of years ago. A big, wide bowl seems as perfectly round as if it were turned on a wheel, but she pinched it together with wide coils.

Shalan works this way because she prefers the traditional methods and loves the feel of clay. “It’s this soft, mushy material,” she says while rolling out a slab, “that will take any impression, right down to your fingerprints—but then it becomes rock hard.” As she impresses dots into the clay with the end of a paintbrush, she takes almost giddy pleasure when the clay “pillows up” around the indentations. These lines of dots are inspired by the holes drilled by woodpeckers. The geometric and concentric patterns she incises inside her bowls sometimes harken back to Australian Aboriginal art. She loves that there’s often nothing between her hands and the clay. Working the earth, she says, is “grounding and deeply peaceful.”

This slab will become a cylindrical vessel, one of a group, inspired by the contrasting white and black, smooth and coarse surfaces of a stand of birch trees she’d admired in Maine. Just as it’s hard to find straight lines or right angles in nature, you won’t find them in Shalan’s work. She likes the Japanese, nature-based notion of wabi-sabi, which respects the minor imperfections in materials. “I design in subtle curves or undulations in my work,” she says, “to create a feeling of softness or movement.”

A major feature of her work is the shiny black surfaces that look glazed but are actually created with a technique used for thousands of years by Pueblo potters. She carefully sands a piece, coats it with a slip of fine clay particles called terra sigillata, and polishes it to a sheen. She wraps it in newspaper and tinfoil, “like a baked potato,” sets it among wood shavings in a fire box behind her studio, and lets it burn and smolder for about a day. This carbonizes the surface of the clay into a rich, glossy black.

Shalan’s works are inspired by ancient people, materials, and methods, but they are not reproductions in any sense. She takes in what she calls “visual data” from the past and the present and synthesizes it into something that is ancient and modern, emotional and peaceful.

“I get some of my greatest pleasure from the beauty I see in nature and ancient objects,” she says. “I try to bring that to my pieces so that other people can feel it, too. I want to honor the beauty in our world, and this material we dig from the earth.”

To see more of Paula Shalan’s work, visit paulashalan.com.

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