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Ceramic artist Casey Zablocki says working in only black with his exhibition, “Accessories,” currently showing at the Clay Studio of Missoula, gave him a chance to explore form and negative space in a way he hasn’t previously.

The gallery of the Clay Studio of Missoula is furnished with items that look ancient, as though they were carved from stone and are slowly being reclaimed by the Earth.

In one corner, a black, seemingly carved chair appears to be losing parts of its legs and back.

In another, pitch-dark sculptural forms like blocks and handles rise out of a mass of unformed black stoneware.

Working a line between those raw shapes and starker lines is one aspect of ceramic artist Casey Zablocki's exhibition "Accessories, Series 1."

"You need a balance," he said. "If it's all rough or all sharp, it's not as intriguing. It doesn't bring you into a conversation of sorts with the work."

The sheer size and color trick the eye – they appear to be heavier than they are, another effect he's going after.

"It's good because it keeps people engaged with the work and thinking about the work and maybe process, too," he said.

He started building the chair by hand from stoneware, first upside-down.

"Then when it gets hard enough, I'll flip it and build the top section of it," said Zablocki, who works from sketches but doesn't use much in the way of measurements.

"Things start to settle and give it a lively character or a human characteristic," he said.

The legs resemble the motion of a human in mid-stride. A large chunk at the top of the seat back is missing, but balanced by another on the sitter's right.

Many parts of what appears to be a solid mass are hollow, with internal supports to keep it upright.

"You have to have structure. You have to build it so it stands. And as it gets heavy – that's almost 200 pounds – you have to support that weight," he said.

He built a finished form before giving it an aged look via a process of removal.

"Everything's built as a complete structure, and then I go back in and take chunks out," he said.

"I like to have a finished form and have an idea of what it looks like. Once it's built, it has a presence, and then I like to go back in and take it out – all the chunks and stuff like that."

"Casey has taken full advantage of the facilities and equipment available to him," Clay Studio executive director Shalene Valenzuela wrote in an email. "He has taken risks by experimenting with large-scale forms that were way beyond the scope of work he had made prior to his time at the Clay Studio."

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When he first arrived in Missoula two years ago, he was experimenting with raw clay forms straight from the mixer, but found it a little incomplete.

"There wasn't balance," he said. "I wasn't quite happy. It never looked quite finished."

He began introducing architectural-like elements: curved forms and sharp edges somewhat pulled from 1970s Soviet Brutalist buildings.

He prefers the hand-building coil method – employing strips of clay to incrementally build forms instead of spinning them on the wheel.

It also fits with the larger scales he wants. "It gives me the option, I can build 30 feet high."

He also worked with a local furniture maker on ceramic, wood-fired furniture pieces: table rings that were 45 inches around, 3 inches thick and 18 inches tall; and pillars and tabletops.

The sculptural approach to furniture played into his thinking for "Accessories."

He admires Richard Serra, both the massive steel sculptures and his minimalist sketches, which can be as sparse as a black circle on paper.

He's amazed that Serra can be satisfied with something so simple in the midst of complicated lives.

"(There's) something beautiful about that to me," he said.

***

Two paintings accompany the ceramics in "Accessories." One of the black-and-white paintings signals another of his influences, Franz Kline.

One is an expressionist rendering of the ceramics: Two large vessels arranged on an two-part shelf. (They were originally designed as a functioning sink, but his deadline impeded that idea.)

The paintings use elements from both of his jobs, such as flour from his baking gig at Le Petite Outre and black iron oxide from his ceramic work.

"It gives a nice crackly effect and it represents what I do. I bake bread and make clay projects," he said.

"Accessories" is Zablocki's final show as his two-year wood-fire residency at the Clay Studio comes to an end. Resident artists at the nonprofit always put on an "exit show" at the end of their time.

While these pieces are gas-fired stoneware, Zablocki was accepted at the studio as its wood-fire resident.

"Our community has gotten to know him as our wood-fire resident, and he is confident in using that process. In his exit show, he wanted to take a risk and highlight some of the concepts he is working on in regards to form and scale," Valenzuela wrote.

As part of his residency, Zablocki has fired the kiln five or six times.

"Wood-firing is a huge process. You gotta clean the kiln, clean the shelves, prep the wood, load the kiln. The kiln takes two to three days to load. You have 800 to 1,500 pots in there. It's crazy. Then fire it for six to 10 days, then wait 10 days and load it again," he said.

The anagama wood kiln is about 8 feet wide, 5 feet tall and 22 feet long, and when it's firing there are people there 24 hours a day feeding it a cord of wood to keep it going.

"(There's) usually anywhere from a class of 12 to 17, and then another 10 to 15 from the community who come hang out and fire with us," he said. "It's a big operation."

His interest in wood firing was originally driven by the look.

"Wood firing is just a way to get the surface that I wanted on my pots. I'm not a purist toward any way of firing."

"If it relates to my work and can make my work work, then I'll do it."

He also makes traditional Japanese and Korean-style pots, and over the last few years learned ways to get bold reds and browns by altering his process slightly, but never uses glazes.

"It's like making bread. You gotta try different ingredients. Different amounts of yeast, fermentation and all this different stuff to get the bread that you want," he said.

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Zablocki plans to stay in Missoula now that his residency is over.

"There's a ton going on in ceramics in Missoula and Montana in general," he said.

"It's great to have this community of ceramic artists," he said, noting the good exchange of ideas and critiquing. "Even though it's subtle sometimes, it's there."

He wants to continue making the larger forms, and is looking for a larger "warehouse-type situation" so he can go even bigger.

He'd like to build more chairs and tables. Maybe, he said, an entire dining room set or a whole living room.

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