10 Questions With… Casey Zablocki
Artist and designer Casey Zablocki’s journey into crafting his own lexicon with stoneware is as fiery as his wood-fueled kiln. Working from a 1,800-square-foot studio with 12-foot-high ceilings in Missoula, Montana, the 40-year-old sculpts forms that are mysterious about their age, resonance, use, and even material. In fact, Zablocki’s goal is to expand the notion of function, particularly within today’s constantly expanding pool of optic abundance. “I think of function in a few different ways—you can drink from an object or sit on it but function can also be an attraction for viewing; seeing the beauty and the energy is also a function,” he tells Interior Design.
This philosophy is evident in his first solo New York exhibition at Guild Gallery, titled “Modern Relics.” On display are 67 stoneware pieces, made over the last decade, that vary in scale yet unite in their laborious and performative origins of extreme heat. Tactility is captured in the artist’s robust objects that reach as high as nine-feet-tall, giving the works an anthropomorphic quality. “The way glazes drip down through in my work is like water running down a mountainside,” he adds. Montana’s rivers and mountains surround Zablocki’s studio as well as aspen trees and broken sculptures spread outside. In New York, Guild Gallery’s scale echoes Zablocki’s studio with a similar open plan and identical pedestals to showcase his vessels, stools, chairs, and sculptures.
Zablocki shares insights on his craft as well as his solo show, which runs through November 26, 2022.
Interior Design: Tell us about working with an ancient anagama kiln, which works differently than a wood-fueled kiln, from your first trial to how you’ve developed a relationship with the enduring process?
Casey Zablocki: The relationship is intense. With a wood-fueled kiln, I have to fire for about eight days, 24 hours a day, non stop. We use about 10 cords of wood in two different types, fir wood and cottonwood, which both give different effects. Cotton is high in potassium, which is ideal for glazing. In Montana, we don’t have hardwoods and I have to use what’s native to the land. Fir is a little denser, ideal for coal beds. I have a crew of around 14 people to fire with, and we fly around the clock. In anagama, the fire is in front of the kiln and the chimney pulls the flame and ash through, causing that ash land on top of my work to create the glaze from melting at high temperature. I control the atmosphere on the way up, so I tend to fire in a neutral carbon atmosphere on the way up and cold for two and a half days at around 200 to 250 degrees. In that stage, I start melting the ash in the work.
ID: You commit to a physical affair, almost like a ritual. Could you walk us through the basic elements?
CZ: I use a big shovel to push coals on there to create different effects and variations in color. This process is similar to painting, but I don’t have control, except some of the atmosphere. I have to let go and let the kiln do its work. I cool the kiln in a neutral carbon-filled atmosphere to down to about 1600 degrees. As I cool the kiln, I build crystals on top of the glaze. Instead of a clear shining glaze, I have a matte glaze with crystals, which also adds a layer of surface and color to my work. I never really know what’s going on inside the kiln, or what’s going to come out until we open the kiln and hope that it cooperates with me. Think of a little dance or a relationship in which both parties have to trust each other. There is also listening, certain sounds that come from the kiln as well as certain smells that tell me what’s happening inside. If you’re not smelling any carbon, you’re probably burning pretty clean, but if you smell carbon, it is dirt and you’re in a carbon-filled atmosphere. When you throw wood in the kiln when it’s really hot and firing really nice, it sounds like you’re throwing wood onto glass with a melody to it. The relationship is always changing, depending on the mountainside where the wood comes from, as well as the people I fire with, or the surrounding climate.
ID: How about the work’s timeless effect? The stoneware sculptures look archaic, even excavated from another era, but also contemporary and sleek.
CZ: I take inspiration from the modern world we live in but also sculpt and fire with traditions in mind. I try to add effects of being buried, sunken, even destroyed through sculpting, aging, and firing processes. Sculpting helps to create a sense of past, aging beauty in this modern world where we want things to stay new and young forever. However, as we grow we become like sculptures: things happen to us good or bad, trauma or happiness, and I see similarly for my work.
ID: How about scale as a tool to communicate with the viewer?
CZ: Scale is very important in determining a show’s installation. As I make work, the way they are installed is always at the back of my head. With variety in scale, the viewer can travel throughout the show. In Modern Relics, I have two different kinds of series, one that is in a way quilted-looking and other series with a Brutalist stick sharp edge. The goal is to create a tension and surprise in experience. With larger scale, it is harder to make a strong piece. There is a nine-foot-tall work at this show’s entrance, which I was really worried about at first. Conveying energy for the viewer at that scale is difficult, but eventually a small vase and a large sculpture can and should both achieve that.
ID: Heat is a strong element throughout the process, both as a source of energy and potential for destruction. Could you explain your relationship with heat?
CZ: Heat takes the energy out of me. When firing, we have to keep the kiln door open and by the end, I’m somber. In order to create my surface, I have to get up to 250 degrees and hold that temperature for days. What heat does is disruptive. I have to raise the heat to create the sculptural elements. On the other hand, flame is my paintbrush. I achieve the variations on my surface through flames, so I have a tremendous amount of respect for heat. The feeling of being worn out by heat also brings vulnerability and makes me feel present throughout the process.
ID: How about your idea of collaboration? You work with many people in your studio—how is the distribution of tasks?
CZ: I work solo in my studio right now. My crew comes up to make their own work, but I create my work solo at the moment. After this year, I will start hiring people again. Working with a team creates its own rhythm. I have to sketch everything out and make plans for them to build, and then I sculpt. This process creates opportunities for exploration into other paths. Now though, I have my sketchbook; I start making the work; and that piece leads to another piece. I haven’t been collaborating much since COVID hit. I hunkered down into the studio with 5,000 pounds of clay, and I had fir wood firing already lined up. We fire outside anyway so when COVID first happened, I got a small crew together to fire the kiln. This felt like going back to my old roots.
ID: Could you talk about the alchemist aspect of your practice? Mixing wood, ash, clay, fire, all sounds like an experiment of alchemy as these materials evolve out of your control with their own chemical characteristics?
CZ: Clay at 1,200 degrees is not ceramics yet—at that point, it goes through force inversion and we put it into a reduction. The fires looks for oxygen and starts pulling things out of the clay body to create colors. So I get oranges, whites, and peachy colors. If we don’t fire in the reduction atmosphere but rather an oxidation atmosphere, we tend to have really light whites and lush peaches. I prefer heavier oranges, amber and darker colors in general. Also, in my clay body, I use solar feldspars which flux at lower temperatures. Over the years, I’ve developed probably 30-40 to clay bodies.
A large portion of my work has glaze dripping down. When you hold a high temperature, the ash eats the clay body to get into the surface. If I just shut down, I’d have shiny transparent-looking drips on there. Cooling the kiln creates crystal growths. If I didn’t cool the kiln, you would be seeing a very shiny glaze, but I prefer the darker almost a little pink lavender color.
ID: Could you also talk about committing to abstraction while maintaining a very strong visual impact?
CZ: Carving is almost painting. I make my work as a solid form without any thought of abstraction. I try to give life to my work through human movements—I want my pieces to feel like they’re almost approaching you. I started out as a painter many years ago before I ceramics. I always contemplate ideas of dancing, movement, and brushstrokes, as well as the negative space in in our environment. As I shape my pieces, I always ask myself what they are going to make after? What is this piece in that future; where is it leading? Making these hard lines and cutting the forms out is another transfer of energy: cutting, slashing, pulling, rebuilding and getting movement…
ID: How does Montana’s nature and its relationship to materials influence your work?
CZ: I don’t know what it is but the energy is amazing, maybe the mega volcanoes in Yellowstone. My wife and I were supposed to stay here for two years, which was almost nine years ago. Montana is full of ceramic artists working from the Archie Bray Foundation in Helena, Stumptown Art Studio in Whitefish, and Red Lodge Clay Center’s residency program. Of course, there is a strong reference to nature in my work through mountains.
ID: How do you maneuver around the concept of sculpture while creating utilitarian objects?
CZ: I went into furniture for the idea of creating a relationship with the viewer through form of function. I started out as a potter many years ago, and I always liked the idea of people eating or drinking from my art, because it is a form of relationship. Furniture came out of a search to scale up that relationship. After focusing on just making furniture for a long time, I started feeling that my furniture was getting a little away from sculpture and more into function. Now I see it shifting back more towards the sculptural realm.
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