Architecture and abstract painting might not be the first thing you may think of when envisioning a coffee cup. When you see Andrew Avakian's terra cotta cups, boxes and vases, those influences are clear and enticing.
Avakian, who's finishing a two-year residency at the Clay Studio of Missoula, named his final show there "Shapes." He said the work represents a steady progression of his ideas and "building on experience with the forms and colors from one series to another."
While cups may seem natural to make on a pottery wheel, Avakian builds his vessels by hand with terra cotta. He used to throw his work on the wheel, and altered it by cutting it up and then re-assembling it into new forms. After a time, he realized he was creating too much work for himself, and he skipped the wheel entirely.
His mentors at the University of Florida, where he was doing a post-baccalaureate study, suggested he try paper templates. He can roll out slabs of clay after it's hardened to the consistency of leather and then cut out shapes and assemble them. (He's been at it long enough now that he doesn't need the templates.)
Avakian, who studied printmaking as well, found the new method liberating.
"As someone who did a lot of 2-D work before coming to ceramics, it was nice to be able to use some of that drawing ability, and directly have drawings that turn into shapes that I'm using for the pots," he said.
He has looked to architecture, whether contemporary or historical, and would go the library to find source material. He was particularly drawn to "universal shapes and symbols," such as arches, columns, windows and doors, that cross time periods.
Previously, it was an interest that didn't have much application in his art. The templates fixed that.
The columns have made their way into dual-purpose vessels: an arch that can be used as a salt or pepper shaker. Some have a smaller column that fits snugly underneath, an allusion to a door. In others, the second piece is joined to the arch and accompanied with a column that could act as a small vase.
The arch is repeated over and over in the physical forms and the surface decorations. The latter are another reason Avakian's work stands out.
He's spent the past five years exploring geometric patterns with surprising color combinations.
"Even though the work looks very different from a lot of typical ceramics, I'm not trying to break these historical ways of painting and decorating pottery," he said. Instead, he's trying to find ways of "using color to accentuate form and separate elements."
He's influenced by abstract painters like Josef Albers, the Bauhaus teacher who was famous for his "Homage to the Square" paintings, in which he used that minimal shape to explore the way colors interact and how they can appear more vibrant or muted depending on the colors around them.
Avakian also admires Frank Stella, who's explored color and geometry in eye-catching ways throughout his long and influential career.
"The magic of some of those works is the way that colors sit next to each other or play off each other, and what they do emotionally to people when they see something like that," he said. He said the right combination can produce a feeling of calm, for instance.
He said he studies paintings for color interplay, and sometimes borrows outright. No matter what, it requires some intuition to find combinations like pink, blue and brown. He's heightened the contrast by using large areas of a dark color accented by a small area of a brighter one. He might pair some burgundy, purple, black and white with a section of yellow that pops, he said. He's experimented with laying a glaze on top that might darken that yellow into a green.
Some of his surfaces are smooth, the way you'd expect. In others, he uses a tool to scratch parallel lines into the surface. By layering color and then sand-blasting, it creates an effect that makes them look much older than they are. The process is detailed enough that he wrote a six-page article with photographs explaining it step by step for the national Ceramics Monthly magazine last year.
He tries to use patterns that emphasize the forms. For instance, each of the four sides of his cups has a V-shaped lip that's designed to prevent liquid from dribbling out of the corners when you take a sip. For the surface decoration, he imitated that "V" with a repeated chevron shape.
He enjoys pushing into unusual shapes, but doesn't go too far with these.
"With a cup, you can't play with that too much if you want somebody to use it," he said.
He saves the boundary-pushing for other vessels. A bowl might have five sides. Another might boast large, uneven and asymmetrical shapes forming the rim, resembling a bowl you'd see in a cubist painting. He makes boxes whose surfaces have hand-carved square shapes. His vases have curving, yet long rectangular sides, with rectangular painted decorations that make them look narrower than they are.
Some of these vases are inspired by a historical Chinese vessel, with a bulbous base and a long, narrow neck.
While Avakian's exhibition marks the end of his residency, he's planning on staying in Missoula. His wife, Donna Flannery, is a ceramic artist and a studio manager at the Clay Studio. He's moving into a new studio space in the Brunswick Building on Railroad Street.
Like many artists, he sells his work in town (at the Radius Gallery), and ships to galleries in Portland, Seattle, Minneapolis and in Greensboro, South Carolina, and Durham, North Carolina, the area of the country where he grew up.
He plans on gradually experimenting in the direction that he took up about five years ago. After 12 months or so, it began to bear fruit, in the form of the vessels themselves and the interest from galleries and buyers.
"I started to make the pots that were in my head, that I'd been drawing but having a hard time achieving," he said.