Surrendering to Nature
On every level, Michelle Dziak’s work with clay honors its origins. An intimate relationship to the Earth is present in her hand building process, her forms and textures, and her preferred finishing technique: wood firing. As an active, joyous participant in the wood firing community, Dziak celebrates ceramics as it relates to people. She views her art as an homage to human history and as a mode of connecting with ourselves through the Earth.
Dziak met clay at a young age, from kindergarten hand molds with puddles of glaze in the crevices, to making pinch pots from clay dug out of the backyard. It’s a practice she continues today. She collaborates with a local fellowship of potters who make clays and glazes from materials found on Patsiliga Plantation in Talbot County, Georgia. The property also houses a wood firing kiln. For her own work, she sometimes digs up clay from the sandy creek bed on her own land. She then modifies the earth-dug clay with commercial clays that can offer plasticity and help the material withstand the firing process. Other times, she likes to discover new types of clay and “learn their language.”
Each piece represents a conversation between artist and medium. “It’s kind of an adventure, kind of a puzzle, and kind of a dialogue,” Dziak says, when talking about what draws her to ceramics. She may approach a piece with her own idea to communicate, but the clay often takes her in it’s own direction. “I do not necessarily feel responsible for what ends up happening,” she says serenely. “I’ll push those edges quite far.”
Dziak delights in the adventure of exploration. Different types of clay offer unique experiences in texture and form. The end result is heavily informed by how the clay behaves in her hands. Her larger work tends to require grittier clay, with “more tooth and heft” to keep it’s shape. The process can be slow but Dziak is invested in where the clay takes her. “Remaining true to itself always wins,” she says. “It has to. I lose control on that.”
Dziak interacts with the clay via hand building. Instead of using a potter’s wheel, Dziak cradles pieces in her lap, using a paddle and anvil method informed by Southeast Asian ceramic traditions. The clay is compressed from the outside and stretched on the inside,
which allows the material to become more moldable and provides a distinctive texture similar to burnished pottery found in some Native American traditions.
She finds the intimacy in hand building much more satisfying, and views the wheel more of a interrupter. In her opinion, “the more direct the connection, the better.” The shape of her pieces, taking cues from human forms, reference that essential interaction with the body.
At the same time, Dziak’s larger forms tend to mimic nature. “It’s not a very literal translation,” she says. “It’s often the elements of things that I find moving on a deep, deep level.” She draws attention to natural aspects that are often overlooked, such as a seed. To Dziak, those little elements taken for granted deserve our respect.
Dziak’s incredible finishes are also rooted in nature. “Sometimes, after I’ve built the piece, it’s so simple and dirt beautiful that to do anything else to it makes me a little sad,” she admits with a laugh. But firing is a necessary part of finishing pottery. Sometimes she uses traditional Japanese glazes, such as celadon and tenmoku. Most of the time, she forgoes the typical glaze application and allows the wood fired ash to mark the piece.
“I am personally after catching the energy from fire and the wood as much as possible. The atmosphere in the kiln– I want it to affect my work hugely.”
Dziak thinks about where the flame will interact with her pieces in the kiln. “It creates entirely unique things every time,” she says. The fire might touch one side more than the other, or treat the surface in a specific way based on the temperature variations.
“I am more after something that a volcano could have spit out. Or that was under the compression of the earth for so long that there was no other option than to make those patterns and swirls. It’s allowing the fire to dictate. I don’t have to control it.”
Dziak finds that unexpected results often become some of her favorite aspects of a piece. She describes it as “finding that edge between getting yourself out of the way and making some decisions of insight.” Surfaces become opportunities to allow materials and medium to speak through the artist.
Dziak gives herself over to the process as much as she enjoys what goes into it. “Wood firing is a magical thing altogether. I would even enjoy doing it if I didn’t have a piece in the kiln.” Building, firing, and maintaining the wood fire in a kiln that burns for close to a week takes a massive group effort. It also becomes an opportunity for other potters to
share their knowledge, experiment, or learn something new. She characterizes the wood firing community as generous and welcoming.
“Everybody else’s energy, and stories, and backgrounds– a confluence of energies– all together working for one purpose feels so enriching. In our society we kind of lack that, and it feeds that so beautifully. You get this high off of putting that much energy and flow into something. That’s my sweet spot.”
The utility of ceramics also informs her work. Influenced by the cultural practices around pottery making, Dziak observes those traditions while developing a style informed by her experience. She talks about visiting a region of Nepal known for making pottery, and how the introduction of concrete fundamentally changed the way their pottery was designed and used. Being set in the earth, their pottery functioned perfectly well with a round bottom, until it needed a flat bottom to be utilized on concrete.
“Our human history has ceramics formed for a lot of needs. To hold water, to make alcohol, to store grain, to drink from. So that vocabulary, that palette of history is naturally going to be a confluence of nature and human history. It seamlessly comes together, I find, when you are in that dialogue. I work to mimic nature, of course, but those cultural, time-established, utilitarian influences definitely have a strong voice in that. So finding that middle playground– it evolves from that.”
While thinking deeply about functionality, Dziak sees ceramics as a way for humans to get in touch themselves. For her, ceramics is the ultimate meditation on the “basic properties” of humanity. In terms of chemical elements, humans are made of the same materials contained within Earth. Working on a mound of clay is a way of accessing and releasing energy. “There is no other way of connecting so intensely that I have found,” she says.
“I wish everyone were allowed the experience of being able to set themselves aside and have a ball of clay. And pinch on it. And take it to a place that follows your fancy. And let it feed you. It’s nourishing.”
Dziak’s understanding of art is simple but profound. She describes it as “being very perceptive to the moment in your hands.” At the same time, she finds immense value in relinquishing control over every outcome. On wood firing, she says, “stack the deck so that when it falls, it falls in a beautiful way. Things are gonna go wrong and hopefully beautifully so.”