The landscapes of Utah and Montana are visible in Scott McClellan's pots, jars and platters. The surfaces, fired in a kiln, show the directions where heat raked the clay, or flecks of ash or feldspar indented small dots, sometimes ringed by halos. The clay itself was pulled from the Nine Mile Road area, deposited there by cycles of flooding from Glacial Lake Missoula. Some of his forms, like the rough-looking sculptural slabs or the rugged edges of the platters, are a philosophical homage to the desert landscape.
The Logan native said he wants them to capture some of the particular feeling of smallness you have in national park like Canyonlands or Zion, where minerals, that "underappreciated dirt beneath our feet, can be the most intimidating or overwhelmingly beautiful thing" in another form.
McClellan is finishing a two-year residency at the Clay Studio of Missoula. For his "exit" show, "Rhythmite," he's displaying pottery made with native clay from the area, specifically out on Nine Mile.
Many ceramicists use native clay for their own reasons, he said. It's a romantic idea, or saves money, or captures a part of their own environment. He likes the idea that hearkens back to "a more archaic time," and enjoys the research — "that kind of relationship with finding a pocket of clay, and learning about it, and how it's there," he said.
Native clay isn't as simple to work with as manufactured clay, according to Shalene Valenzuela, the director of the Clay Studio. It requires "a lot of testing and trial and error. The forms he makes really resonate with the origins of these materials he is working with."
Some people use nothing but native clay, but McClellan digs it out and mixes it with manufactured clay and wood ash. Nevertheless, the results can vary, and this latest work has a palette of earthy greens, yellows and browns.
He spoke with a geologist at the University of Montana who gave him background on Glacial Lake Missoula's floods, starting 13,000 years ago, and how they created the two different-colored layers of clay he found out at Nine Mile.
"These layers of clay are called rhythmites, referring to layers of strata that built up in rhythmic patterns. The floods dropped an iron-rich clay while the shorelines washed up a more pure white clay. These strata provided evidence of the number of floods and time between each breaking of the dam," he writes in his artist statement.
Flooding, rocks, geological processes. None of it brings to mind cliches about the serenity of nature. Likewise, McClellan wants his finished pieces to appear somewhat unrefined and slightly rough, since he'd like "clay to look like clay."
"I'd rather take something kind of rugged and let it have the expressive qualities that're within the material rather than kind of manipulate it to hide those, or make it something else," he said.
His large jars have a classic, elegant form, but he deliberately molds some irregularities in their curves. The rims are uneven on purpose, too, with a wrinkled lip, but in a way that feels natural.
Many of these pieces are decorated with loose black brush lines that are inspired more by the cryptic, bold lines of abstract expressionists like Franz Kline or Robert Motherwell than the precision of traditional calligraphy. (The kiln isn't easy on brushwork, either. He needs to make sure they face away from the heat source in the kiln or else they will be "obliterated," he said.)
He hopes the marks are another form of balance between a brute look and elegance.
Some of the plates bear decorative marks from the flames. He thinks of the composition as having three parts. First, the way the clay was thrown. Second, whatever marks he makes, sometimes in black liquid clay. Third, marks from the wadding. This is the clay is used during the firing to keep a piece from melting and sticking to the shelves in the kiln. McClellan arranges his plates with circular patterns of wadding that, when removed, leave light-colored circular forms and a flowing pattern of color that records the fire's path across the plate. (When thinking of where to place his work in the kiln, he considers the direction of the heat. "If this is the source of the flame — like if it was just spraying water — would this get wet?" he said.)
The surfaces, which look blasted and worn, are probably a subconscious homage not only to landscapes but antiquities. When he was studying for his MFA at the University of Missouri, he would go to the big museums in St. Louis and Kansas City, and was drawn to the artifacts collections.
"The patina that they've gotten from being so old makes them more beautiful to me," he said.
The sculptural slabs look particularly brutal, as though they might be made from petrified wood or stone from a burned site. He doesn't think of them as having any particular function, but some people have used them as serving trays. Pointing one of its edges, he said, "to me, this kind of looks like a cliff face."