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UND artist-in-residence Shawn O'Connor's recent projects include large cereamic pots inspired by a trip to China.
Photo by Darren Gibbins, special to the Herald
UND artist-in-residence Shawn O'Connor's recent projects include large cereamic pots inspired by a trip to China. Photo by Darren Gibbins, special to the Herald

UND artist in residence talks his process, background

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accent Grand Forks, 58203

Grand Forks North Dakota 375 2nd Ave. N. 58203

Tucked away in the farthest corner of the Hughes Fine Arts Center at UND, Shawn O’Connor sat at the smaller of two pottery wheels in his spacious studio. Working to mold the wet clay, O’Connor threw one of six plates for a commissioned dinner set as the wheel spun quickly in front of him. The other plates, along with six small cups, lay drying on the counter next to him.

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At the same time in another room, some of his artwork was on the next step of the process in the electric kiln.

“Once all the water is evaporated from the throwing piece, it’s dry, but it’s still clay, it’s not ceramic,” he said. “So, we bisque it and that is a low firing, which turns it from clay into ceramic.”

The step takes about 24 hours, but O’Connor said it’s like an easy bake oven. He can put the work in, push the buttons and walk away, which allows him to continue throwing more pieces.

As the artist-in-residence at UND, O’Connor — a native of Minot, Maine — has been teaching a beginning ceramics class and spending the rest of his time throwing and firing new ceramic pieces in his studio. For the past month, he’s spent more than 60 hours a week, completing pieces for his end-of-the-year show. Next week, his exhibition, New Directions, will open at the Hughes Fine Arts Center. The exhibition will run from Monday May 12 to May 23, with an opening reception from 4:30 to 7 p.m. Thursday. May 15.

‘Limitless’ potential

O’Connor said he was interested in art from a very young age; drawing and painting always came very easily for him.

“I was fortunate to have a great art teacher who encouraged me, and parents that were very supportive,” he said. “(Art) was always what I was best at, so when I graduated high school, I went to college for art education.”

He attended the University of Southern Maine and quickly realized that he was more passionate about creating than teaching, so he switched his degree to studio arts.

During his third year of school, he took his first ceramics class and fell in love with the medium.

“(Clay) as a material, the potential is limitless,” he said. “It is so malleable that anything you could dream up you could sculpt.”

He also enjoyed the scientific side to the craft as well — mixing glazes from raw materials and designing kilns.

“There are always more aspects and techniques you can discover and learn about that I never see myself getting bored or running out of ideas,” he said.

Utilitarian focus

Today, O’Connor focuses mostly on utilitarian artwork — mainly plates, mugs and bowls, which are stacked and stored in a large green cabinet in the studio.

“Since everyone has this basic need to consume sustenance … anyone can identify with a plate,” O’Connor said.

He decided to focus on utilitarian artwork so his work could be accessible to everyone no matter their race, religion, age or culture, he said. The work is also a result of his practical nature and his desire to create things that have use.

His hope is that the buyers of his work will use them on a daily basis, rather than display them on a shelf.

But, that doesn’t mean his work isn’t art. The making of the pieces is a long, complex process, which starts with throwing the pieces on the wheel. Then, the pieces must dry, which takes anywhere from a day to a month, depending on the size. Once they are dry, the pieces are fired at a low temperature in an electric kiln. Then, they must dry again before being fired in a wood kiln.

Wood-firing

And, O’Connor accumulates many pieces of work before wood firing. The kiln holds about 33 cubic feet of work, which is a lot considering the small size of most of O’Connor’s pieces. He said he always tries to make extra because fitting the pieces in the kiln is like putting a puzzle together. He tries to fit as much as possible.

Which makes sense because the process requires 28 hours of constant attention.

“Once you start with wood, someone has to physically be there the whole time, actually putting more fuel in,” he said. “So, it’s a pretty labor-intensive process.”

O’Connor could use an electric kiln to simplify and speed up the process, but he said he enjoys the wood firing.

And the process has some connection to his upbringing.

 “I grew up in Maine in this really old farm house, and we heated with wood exclusively, including our hot water,” he said. “So, preparing wood and hauling and stacking and feeding the fire early in the morning is just ingrained in me from when I was tiny.”

He said the process of wood firing feels natural to him, plus it allows him to get the desired look for his artwork.

“The surface that you get out of it is so rich,” he said.

Mark making techniques

But, O’Connor isn’t satisfied with standard wood firing. He is constantly experimenting with new processes to create different markings on his work.

“During my graduate defense, one of my committee members was like, ‘What are you adding to the vocabulary of wood firing,’ and I didn’t really have a good answer,” he said.

So, O’Connor started searching for something to add to the conversation. During his research, he was inspired by an old Chinese process.

He discovered that the beautiful blue and white porcelain vases made in China were fired in a wood kiln. But, to keep them pristine and not covered in the byproduct that comes from the wood firing, they used a saggar, which is a protective fireclay box.

“It’s like a pot within a pot,” he said. He now uses the same concept to create dark marks on his work.

He places a piece of charcoal into a miniature saggar, which he then sets the cup on inside the kiln.

“The charcoal burns, releasing the carbon and the carbon penetrates the clay surface, and as the clay turns into ceramic, the color gets sealed in there,” he said.

He’s also experimented with another technique he’s dubbed “flame deflectors.”

“I’d build a wall of clay in front of (the cup) with a bunch of holes in it, so as the flame moved through it would go through the holes and basically make polka dots on the cup,” he said.

Inspiration from China

O’Connor has also been tackling a new subject matter during his time at UND — large decorative pots that stand about three feet high.

The pots were inspired by his trip to China as a guest artist for Western Virginia University in 2012.

“I got to go to this big vase factory, so there’s thousands of vases that are six feet tall and you just walk through them,” he said. “I was just really taken aback by that, so ever since then I’ve been thinking about doing this larger work.”

The large studio space at UND gave him the perfect opportunity to finally experiment with this new project. But, the process hasn’t been easy. He started creating the large pots at the beginning of the school year, and just three weeks before his exhibition, he still had nothing to show for his hard work. He had made seven pots, all of which had cracked either in the drying process or during the wood firing.

The large pieces each took about a week to throw and require one month drying time.

“There’s a lot of time invested to not have a single one finished yet,” he said in late April.

 He’s used to having all of his work for exhibitions done a month of ahead of time, so the close call had him stressing out.

But, when he fired the pieces in the gas kiln Monday the maroon and dark purple pots with glazed accents survived without a single crack. They’ll be included in the exhibition with several of O’Connor’s smaller utilitarian ceramics.

O’Connor said it was a little bit down to the wire since the show opens Monday, but he said opening the kiln can be like Christmas morning if a piece of work turns out.

“I was pretty happy that they were intact.” 

If you go:

  •  What: UND artist in residence Shawn O’Connor’s New Directions exhibition.
  •  When: Monday through May 23, with opening reception 4:30 to 7 p.m. Thursday.
  •  Where: Hughes Fine Arts Center, 3350 Campus Road, Grand Forks.
  •  Cost: Free.
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