Motor oil, polish cleaner, insect repellent, batteries.
If these labels are on a mug or flask, it’s normally a sign that you wouldn’t want to drink out of them. Yet there they are on shelves in the Radius Gallery's Ceramics Invitational show, alongside graphics for defunct breweries like Burgermeister or Blatz.
Mitchell Spain, a ceramic artist from Des Moines, Iowa, forages vintage labels from the Internet or books and catalogs to find these labels for his functional mugs, flasks and shot glasses. The edges are worn, and the corners faux-rusted, but they're food-safe. The old labels, meanwhile, spur associations and memories.
"I get really, really emotional responses from a lot of people," he said in a phone interview. Maybe their grandfather owned a Shell gas station, or their father used to drink a certain type of beer.
Spain grew up in rural Iowa in a family full of artists. His father makes furniture out of wood from old barns and metal from aged farm equipment, and remodels businesses in the same style.
"He specializes in that old, rustic farmhouse look before it was cool," Spain said.
The labels might have significance to a particular show: If he's going to Minneapolis, he might make some Grain Belt beer cans. Many, particularly the aerosols, insect repellent, antifreeze and oil, are subtle pieces of satire about the environment and consumption. They are, after all, functional vessels from which people will consume things. The visual element of someone using them is funny, too.
"You'd get a weird look from drinking out of an oil can, but it's also about, like, you should feel weird about these resources that were used to create this original piece," he said.
After finding a label and re-building it in Adobe Photoshop or Illustrator, he prints them out a ceramic decal printer ("essentially like a printed glaze") that's applied to an already glazed surface and refired.
The caps on the flasks are an innovation of his own. When he was an undergraduate, he started making flasks with corks and mentioned that it would be handy to have threaded caps. He was told that it's not possible with clay. Among other things, the material could warp and they'd no longer join properly. He'd seen much older, simple, single-thread jar caps, but nothing more complicated.
When he got to graduate school at the University of Kansas, he spent several months developing his process through slip-casting, a molding process with liquid clay. (Think of the industrial molding for porcelain sinks, for instance.)
Enough people have asked him about it that was invited to share it at the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts conference and he's writing a long how-to guide.
"I want to see what other people can do with it and take it to other places in their own work," he said.
However, he's keeping his recipe for that rust glaze a secret for now.
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It's the Radius' fourth annual Ceramics Invitational, drawing on 11 artists from Missoula and farther afield.
Co-owner Lisa Simon said they look for a variety of art that will raise questions about how an artist made something and get them thinking about process and creativity. Hence the inclusion of Spain, who joins artists working in functional and sculptural modes.
Richard Notkin, a well-established Montana artist now living in Washington, will raise plenty of process and broader questions when you see two of his pieces, "Profilo Continuo del Trumpolini," busts with shiny surfaces that resemble a still photograph of a sculpture being rotated in place at high speed.
It's based on the Italian futurist Renato Giuseppe Bertelli's 1933 bust, "Continuous Profile (Head of Mussolini)". Notkin's inspiration was a 2016 incident in which President Trump retweeted a quote from Mussolini, "It it is better to live one day as a lion than 100 years as a sheep," which caused a stir of criticism as the Italian dictator was a fascist against whom the U.S. fought in World War II.
If you shine a smartphone flashlight on the piece, it will cast a shadow on the wall that somehow resembles Trump even further. The gallery is showing two of them, and both have sold already.
The functional works raise questions, too. Kevin Silkwood, the executive director of Clay Works! in the Bitterroot, a ceramics cooperative in Hamilton, contributed gorgeous pots using raku firing techniques that resulted in glossy marbled surfaces. How did he get those crackling lines on one pot? By applying horsehairs to the surface, he said.
Cary Weigand's myth-like sculptures come alive because of the detail in the clothing on her figure: she flattens clay into thin sheets and drapes it on her figures, adding more detail to contemplate as you ponder the narratives.
Where did Nick DeVries of Minnesota come up with the combination of sharp yet welcoming lines and a palette of deep green and brown? He bases his functional cups and vases on experiences in the forest, thinking about both the feeling and the color.
University of Montana professor Trey Hill's sculptures are slip-cast, or molded, based on rebar and horns and antlers that leave some people convinced he's using real bones, Simon said.
One artist's work raises more questions about meaning than process.
Jill Oberman, the executive director of the Red Lodge Clay Center, started a new body of work called "Saudades." Per her artist statement, it's "an untranslatable Portuguese term that refers to a melancholic longing or yearning."
The work itself are sculptures of houses, that are flattened in perspective so they seem dreamlike, more like a memory of a house than a real one, Simon said.