Talking about the magic of clay with CAW member Terri Maloney-Houston

Terri (5)Catching up with Terri Maloney-Houston in the studio involved a lot of keeping up. She was hard at work throwing porcelain in preparation for the upcoming fundraiser Empty Bowls. Trained as a potter, she continues to push the limits of clay; making large-scale installations comprised of a multitude of fragile leaves. After seeing images of her most recent work in Grand Rapids, Michigan, I was compelled to find out more. It was wonderful to hear about the path that led her to Art Prize.

How did you get started with ceramics?
I took classes at community recreation centers and I loved it. I made a clay elephant and I glazed it gray. I pulled the trunk like a handle on a mug. It was fun. I had some ceramics classes in high school as well.

When you were studying ceramics at Ohio State University you were mostly making functional work. Why?

At the time it was just popular. It was a challenge and it took time. I started down that path and I wanted to master it, so I didn’t diverge too much. No one in my family is an artist and I probably got some feedback that I should do something practical. So I thought at the time, at least if I am making functional work, I could probably sell it. That was probably a big part of it.

When did you make the switch from functional to sculptural?

About six years ago, a friend of mine was creating an exhibition called All The Pretty Trees. At the time, I had been doing some texture work with clay. I had been pressing leaves into clay and then cutting them out. It was satisfying and enjoyable and I could arrange them in different ways. So I thought I could make a piece for her show out of these leaves and it could be sculptural. It was a response to a call for entries that made me think outside of my comfort zone.

What kind of leaves do you use to imprint the clay? 

My cousin who is closest in age to me is the director of the arboretum at OSU. She was very concerned about the Emerald Ash Borer and the effect that [the beetle] has had on the Ash tree population in the United States. Hearing that concern from her brought about the whole idea of using the ash leaves to imprint the clay. Originally, I started out with hydrangea leaves, but I thought the leaf that I chose should have some particular meaning. I started hearing about the killing of the ash trees by this bug and I also started looking into folklore and mythology around trees. Looking at those things made me choose the ash leaf for the last few years.

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What is ArtPrize? How did you get involved? 

It is a radically different kind of exhibition held in Grand Rapids, Michigan. It self-curated. The artists who want to participate post images of their work and the venues post images of their space. Then you try to make a match. The other thing that makes it different is the quantity of work. There are close to 1,500 pieces on view in Grand Rapids right now. There is art throughout the whole city inside and outside: in museums, in bars, in parks. The event attracts about 400,000 visitors. There are two components for judging the work. The public votes on their favorites. They also have a prestigious jury that selects a short list and awards prizes. It all happens in three weeks each fall. I became interested in submitting a piece to challenge myself to work on a larger scale and to show outside of Columbus.

Describe the piece that you submitted for ArtPrize.

I fabricated approximately 8,000 porcelain leaf shapes that were made by impressing the leaves of an ash tree onto clay and then cutting out each one. After drying them, smoothing the edges, and firing, I added them to additional leaves from a prior project. I had over 10,000 pieces that I used to build three, six-foot circles of leaves on a grassy area behind the Grand Rapids Public Museum. It was a beautiful manicured lawn with three circles of pure white, porcelain leaves. I don’t want to fail to mention that I received a materials grant from GCAC for the project, which was a huge help! It helped cover some of the material expenses.

What was the significance of the circle configuration of your work?

I started with the idea of having at least three circles, and three circles used up all of my leaves. The leaves were piled four or five inches high, one leaf on top of the other. I was thinking about earthworks and mound builders, as well as rock piles that hikers make that show direction. The circle is also symbolic of death and rebirth. All of these ash trees are dying and we are sad about that and it is terrible, but something else will grow there. It is a memorial on the one hand and on the other it is a calming and peaceful image.

You began working with clay as a child in a recreation center and have spent many years teaching for Columbus Parks and Recreation art program. Talk about a full circle! What have you learned from teaching ceramics?

Clay is magic stuff. People love it! They love to touch it and make little things. They love that whatever they make and fire is going to last. I don’t have to do a whole lot of teaching when I put out the clay. I have to show a few technical things and maybe throw out some ideas, but people take it and go with it. The material itself is very engaging. People like to make things. It makes them happy.

The above photographs were taken of Terri’s most recent installation, Leaf Rings, in conjunction with ArtPrize in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

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