NORTH EAST — Mike Dawson sees the world in a different context. Everything has a deeper, richer meaning that demands to express itself in other forms. When in the studio, a slab of clay speaks to him about the origin of all life: the ocean. Dawson draws inspiration from natural undersea creatures like sea slugs, nautilus, and his favorite, cuttlefish.
“My process for this work is the physicality and action expressed in the slabs of clay. I see similarities between the slabs and the sculpted pieces. The sculpted pieces are thrown on the wheel, and then there is a lot of pinching involved, as I like to take my time during this process,” said Dawson.
Dawson’s work was a recent installation at the Milburn Stone Gallery on the North East campus of Cecil College in northern Maryland. Entitled “Impetus,” Dawson introduced forms that “spoke to the beauty of potential and the importance of proximity.” These works encouraged the viewer to draw their own conclusion about the importance of closeness and the resulting relationships.
This exhibition, as well as another scheduled for this summer, is currently closed to public viewing due to the recent COVID-19 pandemic.
26-year-old Dawson draws inspiration from artists like Jennifer McCurdy and Kate MacDowell, who specialize in working with porcelain. McCurdy is a potter who carves the pieces she throws, then hangs them upside down during the firing process to organically warp each piece. MacDowell specializes in translucent porcelain, creating a story behind each work. One of her best-known pieces is a pair of lungs that houses a pair of birds inside that can only be revealed by illuminating the piece from behind.
“I like working with porcelain for its qualities that other clay bodies don’t provide. It is translucent, which other clay bodies lack, and this translucence opens a world of possibilities,” said Dawson, who enjoys the challenge of working with a material that shrinks more than other clay bodies, cracks more easily, and dries a lot faster. “I prefer to take my time, but porcelain doesn’t allow it.”
An effect he embraces in his work is the results of the unique atmospheres each kiln has from another. At the Milburn Stone Gallery exhibition, he pointed out four pieces made from the same material but fired using different baking techniques in different kilns. These techniques included using an electric fired kiln, a gas reduction kiln, and a soda fired kiln.
“Different kilns have different atmospheres. This one was soda fired, which gives a glossy look, but the atmosphere of this particular kiln affected the outcome. The kiln is probably 20 years old, and somebody used a lot of cobalt. There is blue on here that shouldn’t be there, which I am fine with as the result, I think is pretty. But that only happened because the atmosphere over time picked up the cobalt in the wall,” said Dawson, who is a 2017 Cecil College Art and Design alumni and 2019 graduate from Salisbury University in Fine Arts with a concentration in Ceramics.
Over time, as the walls in the kiln expand and contract with the heat, it allows elements to seep deeper and deeper into the clay of the wall. When the kiln is hot once more, those trapped elements come back out and settle on the new pieces being fired. There is no way to avoid that from happening, according to Dawson.
Going forward, Dawson will be reviving some of the installations placed on hold due to current events and expanding his skills while pursuing a Master of Fine Arts at University of Delaware.