I am honored to announce that Matt Repsher is the Potter of the Month for May! Matt’s pots incorporate strong, architectural forms with soft, velvety surfaces. His repetitive carving and surface details capture the rhythm of his process beautifully. Matt’s work is quiet and striking, honest and innovative.
Matt and I both attended Indiana University (although we missed each other by a summer). However, Matt and my husband went through graduate school together so my husband and I feel fortunate to have some of Matt’s work in our home. There was something about Matt’s voice in clay that I found inspiring from the beginning. His work reminds me of the craft of a fine furniture maker…the joints, edges, finishes and negative spaces are as thoughtful and as beautiful as the form itself.
Enjoy the interview!
How did you first get involved in ceramics? Can you briefly describe your background and education? I became involved through growing up around my Dad’s pots. I sort of got into it through osmosis. I applied to college thinking I would go into forestry management but switched to art before I started my first semester at Penn State. I finished there and went off to graduate school at Indiana University.
How do you feel that your formal education (undergraduate- graduate school) prepared you for your career in ceramics? At Penn State and Indiana I was surrounded by a lot of talented, thoughtful artists and educators. When immersed in such environments where people are doing such good work the bar is high and I wanted to be a participant and collaborator in that energy.
School also had that constant question of Why? What are your ideas? Why are you doing what you are doing? I had difficulty voicing that in school but now see its advantage in two ways. First, maintaining the practice of questioning has helped me look inward for answers instead of externally which I feel has resulted in my work being truly my own. Second, people want to know the history and providing them with a cohesive story about how I have come to make what I make has helped people relate to my work.
You took a break from focusing on pottery during graduate school. How did your exploration in graduate school help to inform the work you’re making now? I went into graduate school with an idea of leaving wheelthrowing behind. In undergrad I steadily moved from fully wheelthrown pots to thrown-and-altered to throwing cylinders and cutting them up into slabs. That led to fully handbuilding which was completely freeing.
I did move into making sculpture in graduate school but I never felt I truly cut ties with vessels. The work I was making relied heavily on a relationship between wood and clay. I saw the wood forms I was using as the vessel and foundation of what I produced in clay. In hindsight the whole process of graduate school was an exploration in structures. What it is to build things. Patterns, Repetition.
Graduate school also helped me move through a lot of ideas in a brief span of time. Being able to find the things that were truly worth pursuing was most helpful.
You’ve lived in the Southwest for over 10 years now. In the past, many artists who have migrated to that part of the country have found that the desert landscape has had a huge impact on their work (Georgia O’Keeffe is someone who comes to the front of my mind). After growing up in central Pennsylvania, how has the move to the Southwest affected your work? What about your upbringing in the mid-Atlantic remains a constant influence? The forest is a constant influence. It is very grounding for me to get into the woods. The Southwest is all about color. The blue of the sky and how it interacts with everything else. Pastels seem pretty big. I think most of all is the layering of color and the atmosphere of color in the Southwest. I would not be doing color like I have been without being here. I am always blown away on the days when I feel like I am walking through pink air. That’s what it looks like. Pink air. It is pretty terrific.
So I try to bring the atmosphere of color into the painting I do on the pots. I layer colored slips under and over a white base and use the red clay as a background that burns through the slips. I like the softness and depth all that layering produces.
Your father is a potter in central Pennsylvania. Last summer the two of you spent time together making pots and firing the wood kiln you built on the family property. The work you both made culminated in an exhibition at Santa Fe Clay. Can you talk a little about the experience and how it has impacted the work you are currently making? My dad has been getting back into pots. He retired as a builder and has been making pots again. He is a skilled potter and loves salt firing. We spent one month together this past summer making pots and firing the salt chamber of our wood kiln. It was a big deal for both of us. I was excited to see him making pots again and we had a successful firing. It was all fun for my dad but I had a bit of stress around the outcome. Santa Fe Clay had generously committed to have a show featuring the two of us knowing we would be putting most of our eggs into one basket, or kiln load. We had not fired the salt chamber in some time and it needed to come out. Fortunately it did. Even better was, after I came back to Santa Fe, he made another round of work and fired the kiln with a neighbor. The opening for that show was the best. I really enjoyed seeing my dad receiving such a positive response to his pots. He nearly sold out opening night.
Some of the intention for me was to get back to where my story began with clay. That starts with my dad’s influence. His pots where my starting point and I used his forms and techniques as a launch pad at the beginning of my undergrad education. I was fortunate to have his work and his stories of making pots. It gave me a solid understanding of the material before I had a lot of experience with it.
In the past couple years I have had the desire to revisit his influence. He makes really nice pots and I wanted to pay homage to his work through my work. I have realized through this process that his influence has a lot to do with aesthetics and the development of a critical eye. That was probably more important than what I learned from him about clay.
In living with your work, there is no mistaking its architectural significance (arch forms, buttresses, oculi, etc). What architectural details (structural or decorative) do you find the most inspiring? Are there specific architects whose work you admire? My dad is an architect, builder, potter, etc. I learned to appreciate architecture through his influence.
I like imagining the structure of architecture. All the stuff happening under the skin of a building. I also enjoy the flow of buildings. How people move through buildings and how line and light move through buildings. The Denver Art Museum is a trippy one to go into. The main space really messes with your depth perception. It is a lot of fun.
It would be apparent in looking at my work that the arch is a favorite of mine. I use it for a couple of reasons. First, it is probably the clearest architectural reference. Second, lots of kiln building has made me appreciate the technical beauty of an arch. Third, the flow of drawing and carving arches into a thrown form is very satisfying.
Renzo Piano is an architect whose work I really enjoy. A lot of what I tune into, structure, repetition, materials, he shows in his buildings.
Why do you choose to make the forms you do? I like clean forms that I expand on with carving and painting. It is sort of like constructing a building. You need a strong, level foundation as a starting point if you want to have a successful outcome.
You recently moved to a new color palette. What prompted the change? I got tired of making a lot of dust. Not to long ago, I did a sort of inlay on the surface of my pots and it required scraping off a lot of slip and clay. It was very nice for creating that depth and layering that I like but dust gets old. Also, a couple of years ago I did a show at Santa Fe Clay using a lot of wood pieces in conjunction with the clay. My inlay palate at the time was pretty dark and the blonde of the wood was light and refreshing. I started using more white slip over the whole surface of my clay pieces after that show. That sort of progression is ideal.
What does a typical workday look like for you? I have no idea. I am trying to get to a point where I have a typical workday.
What is your most valuable studio tool? Why? I like a space that I can feel good in. I really like my studio right now. I share it with my wife, Marian Miller, who is a metalsmith doing jewelry. It is in a loft space and brightly lit during the day. Big dormer windows face north and east so the light is really pleasant. I really feel at ease when I am there. The only thing that is difficult is a flight of steps. I do not suggest having a clay studio on a second floor.
Which marketing venue(s) (website/blog/galleries/studio sales/ etsy/craft fairs/etc.) have you found to be the most lucrative for your work? Are there other methods of marketing that you’re thinking about taking on? I’m probably not the
best person to ask this question. I have been a terrible self promoter. Only since this past Fall have I done anything online with sites like Facebook, Instagram and Etsy. They have been good for me just as ways to interact with people. Otherwise I would just go about my day to day in Santa Fe and not be social. Instagram has been my favorite of the bunch.
Studio sales are great. It helps that our studio is in a good location surrounded by businesses and live/work studios. It also helps that Santa Fe is such a big art town that attracts people interested in such things.
At what point in your career did you make the decision to sell your pots for a living? Could you describe how you came to that decision? When I needed to make some money. I have been working, and continue to work, for other people or institutions. I have slowly let go of certain jobs and that has pushed me into selling more of my work.
To find out more about Matt and his work, please visit these sites:
Facebook: Matt Repsher Ceramics