“I will not succumb to you,” Alex Miller informs a 4-pound brick of black porcelain clay, leaning the entirety of his 6-foot-4, 300-pound frame onto an emerging phallus of cassius basaltic.
The 30-year-old says he’s a much better potter now that he does Hatha yoga. In particular, his posture has improved and he can “better understand how things feel.” Also, he claims, being more centered allows him to more effectively center the piece of clay on the wheel. That part of the process — getting it perfectly round — is the most challenging, he tells me, because it requires strong hands and an aggressive mind. “I like to think of it as a heated discussion,” he says. “When you’re working with clay, everything you do stays impressed upon it, so you have to speak to it — and listen when it responds.”
Miller’s one-room artist’s studio, which isn’t much bigger than a janitor’s closet, is tucked in the corner of a bucolic backyard garden in Highland Park, the hipster enclave seven miles northeast of Downtown L.A. Dozens of black porcelain plates for an interior designer rest on a table just outside the studio; every so often Miller sneaks a peek at them. “I have to dry these over two weeks — evenly and slowly, so they won’t crack — and there can’t be any bubbles or the plate will explode.” Similarly charged is the name of Miller’s ceramics line, “Male Glaze,” an obvious play on the “male gaze,” or how women have typically been depicted as objects of pleasure in a (straight) male-dominated world. (For every piece of art sold, a portion of the proceeds benefit victims of sexual assault.)
After momentarily catching his pinky on the clay, Miller instinctively adds a few drops of water. But not too much, he cautions, or the future cereal bowl might wobble and fly off the wheel completely. Most people use tools to trim the edges, Miller explains, but he prefers a handmade finish, lest there be any doubt that an actual human made it. “You can find the machine-thrown stuff at Ikea,” he says. (Unlike the box of hand-rolled porcelain one-hitter “chillums” sitting besides the wheel, one of which he offers me gratis.)
Miller says he and his fellow millennials want things that are unique. For example, he says he loves playing an Elton John song for a date who’s never heard it — and then serving him breakfast the next morning in a one-of-a-kind bowl. “Have I used throwing tutorials to try to bone some guys? Of course. I’m a pro, so my muscle memory can physically guide their hands along the clay while applying subtle tension. After a few minutes, I’ll whisper, ‘Wow, look what you made.’ Yes, it works.”
His game has a name — sensate focusing, a sex therapy technique developed by William Masters and Virginia Johnson in the 1960s that emphasized touch as a mindful way of building a more fulfilling and intimate relationship. “Because breasts and genitals are off limits for the first few sessions of sensate touch exercises,” sex educator Sunny Rodgers explains, “it becomes incredibly sexy since people automatically focus on what they can’t have.” As for the clay itself: “When it’s elongated, the undulation is much like the spasms of an orgasm.” Not to mention, she adds, the sudden spurts of warm water and creamy clay that shoot across arms and faces are more or less like cum.
Here, of course, I’d be remiss not to mention Ghost — the pottery scene of which is “without a doubt one of the most sensual and romantic scenes in the entire history of film,” says Pamela Jaye Smith, author of Romantic Comedies: These Films CAN Save Your Love Life. Swayze agreed, saying it was the sexiest thing he’d ever done on camera (and that’s coming from the guy who took Baby out of the corner). Besides the glistening tower of clay between Demi Moore’s legs, Smith says much of the sex appeal in the scene is drawn from the fact that they’re creating something together. “Isn’t that what romance is all about?” she asks. “Bringing two formerly separate things together to create something new — be it the relationship or even a new human. How marvelous if one’s work in ceramics not only calms but also uplifts, enlightens and connects you to the deepest and highest aspects of life itself… as well as love.”
Perhaps that pursuit of enlightenment explains why clay is so hot these days. Small-batch ceramics are everywhere, replacing Edison bulbs and furniture made from reclaimed wood as the accessory du jour. Though if you ask Katy Schimert, head of the ceramics department at Rhode Island School of Design, the trend has more to do with the farm-to-table movement and the contemporary obsession with knowing the origin of everything we put into our mouths, which extends to the vessels that bring food and drink to our lips. “People getting into ceramics are much more interested in the science of clay and seem more serious than they were in the past, with many students coming over from architecture and industrial design,” she says, adding that ceramic majors at RISD jumped 50 percent in 2015 and all non-major classes continue to have long wait lists.
Miller says the current spate of ambitious young ceramacists is reminiscent of Peter Voulkos and the West Coast Ceramicists of the 1950s, a rebellious gang of student potters in L.A. (and later, Berkeley.) “Calling Peter Voulkos a ceramist is a bit like calling Jimi Hendrix a guitarist,” his obituary read. “The charismatic, rebellious sculptor and teacher was a genuine rock star of his medium, a trained potter who went on to violate every rule of pot-making.”
Voulkos and his disciples — including John Mason, Billy Al Bengston, Michael Frimkess, Mac McClain, Jerry Rothman, Paul Soldner, Henry Takemoto, James Melchert and Ron Nagle — came to be known as the Abstract Expressionist Ceramicists. Rather than being colorful, polished and minimal like their predecessors, the Abstract Expressionist Ceramicists work was rough and — like Miller’s — unapologetically handmade.
That said, not all modern male ceramicists have been similarly inspired by their alpha-potter forebears. William Luz, for example, a 33-year-old ceramicist in London, rolls his eyes at Voulkos and his Abstract Expressionists thugs, who he says took a “hyper-macho approach” to the material. “There’s an ugly desire to ‘go big or go home,’” he says. “I prefer a more sensitive approach that you see in many female ceramicists like Betty Woodman, Mary Heilmann, Alison Britton and Shio Kusaka and male ceramicists like Ken Price and Peter Shire — a gentle prodding at the material, rather than an attempt to prove something.”
Back on this side of the pond, the majority of students in an L.A. adult pottery class I attend on a recent Saturday are indeed men. One of them, Addison Smyth, tells me he got into ceramics earlier this year after watching people throw on Instagram for hours. As a product designer, the 27-year-old says most of the work he does requires input from others, can take a long time and only exists digitally. “Ceramics is so instant,” he explains. “The clay does exactly what you tell it to — even inadvertently — and there’s an instant creative gratification to it.” He says he always begins by making something for himself, but often gives the pieces away. “Trying to make something while thinking too much about what someone else might like reminds me of my job, so it hasn’t been my initial intention to make something for anyone but myself.”
Another student, 27-year-old Jake Ashford, explains that it’s his first time behind the potter’s wheel. “Physical labor is a healthy part of life,” he says. “If I can work with my hands and bring a mug home to drink my coffee out of too? Even cooler.” Ashford tagged along with his friend Mike, a 29-year-old pottery regular. “I’ve been dealing with some shit so Mike suggested doing some ceramics to decompress and distract myself.”
Likewise, whether strung out by politics, thorny relationships or too much digital activity, everyone I spoke with hinted at the therapeutic benefits of the potter’s wheel. It’s no wonder, then, that ceramics have been used to treat veterans suffering from PTSD since World War II. “There’s something pretty special about repeating an act that’s been performed fairly unchanged for thousands of years,” says Lutz.
Adds Rodgers, “Ceramics are an excellent way to connect with earth. Grounding is an ancient activity that has its roots in traditions, cultures and spirituality all over the globe, and through ceramics, it’s a way to escape the constant influx of electromagnetic radiation from computers, cell phones and WiFi.”
Clay has long been used as a medium for sculptures: prehistoric figurines, Japanese Haniwa, Greek vases, etc. But for whatever reason, ceramics was shunned as a medium for sculpture during much of the last few centuries. It was considered a craft, and as a craft, it was deemed inferior to fine art. That explains why my friend Tim Roscoe is mildly insulted when I ask him to contribute to this story. “I’m a sculptor, not a ceramicist,” he corrects — and then immediately apologizes. “I don’t know why I feel the need to make the distinction. Every once in awhile someone who has half-heard that I sculpt asks me to make a bowl, or a vase, or a mug with their name on it, and I’ll hear myself basically mansplaining, ‘Ceramicists do crafts. Sculptors make art.’ Which is an obnoxious thing to say, and probably not even accurate.”
Roscoe notes that many great sculptors are women, but the fact remains that for centuries, females were systematically excluded from fine art, largely because they pursued “decorative arts” — i.e., textiles and ceramics.
Craft or artform, Miller doesn’t care. In addition to being an accomplished artist and entrepreneur, he effortlessly transitions into the role of patient teacher when I ask to try my hand at throwing. As he guides me, my mind momentarily drifts from the wheel into a reverie of throwing beside a shirtless Voulkos and his rebellious gang of 1950s potting pupils. And miraculously, after 20 minutes of following Miller’s instruction — minus the guided “muscle memory” lesson, of course — I’ve actually created something from mush. Perhaps an ashtray or a Mother’s Day present, I figure, thrilled to have found a new artisanal hobby.
That’s when an errant digit hooks the rim, and in an instant, my masterpiece collapses into a revolving pile of mud. It’s humbling, but Miller smiles as he shuts down the wheel. I’ve destroyed my first pot, but this, he assures me, deserves congratulating. After all, you have to make something to break it.