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Chris Clay  

ceramics, U.S.A.

Chris Clay (left)
and Suzette Nyokka.

I love working with clay. The desire I have to work with clay came to me while attending a Native American sweat lodge in New Mexico, in 1986 run by Felipe Ortiz. In the sweat, I sat next to the water container. It was beautiful, with a perfectly round mouth. Its curved body had a luminous, golden sheen. The longer I sat next to it, the more its beauty captivated me.
After the sweat, I found out that Felipe made it. Not only that, but I also learned he taught free pottery classes at the Museum of Indian Arts in Santa Fe, which he invited me to attend! In that class, I learned how to coil and shape, sand and burnish pots made of the golden colored clay containing mica (which gives the clay heat conducting properties, making it useful for cooking). Much to my delight, I discovered that as I worked on these pots their form, texture and design would come right out of my hands' intuitive certainty. I learned to follow Felipe's instructions exactly, to be thankful and to pray before the pit firing, which was the final test of the pots' integrity and strength.

I moved to California in 1989 and formed a successful business partnership with a friend, Suzette Nyokka. Suzette, a basketmaker, had the idea of combining ceramics and basketry to make art pieces to sell. I changed to using raku as a technique because sanding and burnishing the pottery was a time consuming business.

Raku is a low fire technique where a glazed pot is heated fairly quickly (45 minutes) in a kiln until the glaze is molten and shiny. Then it is taken out with long tongs, put in a hole in the ground with combustible materials and covered so that it becomes intensely smoked in a reducing atmosphere (where there isn't much oxygen) for 20-30 minutes. The moment of truth comes when the lid comes off of the hole and the pot is revealed. There are interesting crackles, iridescent metallic shines, deep rich black surfaces and other effects from the smoking that are wonderful to behold. Either that, or the pot has blown up or is a crackle-less, or a dull gray nothing. That is the beauty and the frustration of raku pottery.

In the beginning, Suzette and I sat down and sketched out designs together. I would also give her pottery that had come through my experimentation.
I loved these early collaborative pieces, so innocent and freely made. They were not technically excellent but they had a special spirit about them.

Splendor and Beauty [Esplendor y belleza], cerámica de Chris Clay, labor de cestería de Suzette Nyokka.

I had a bowl that I refused to give up on even though it was a little lopsided. I cut an undulating edge around the top so that no one could notice the uneveness of the pot , put holes in for the attachment of the basketry and fired it up. This became a very popular item that we called The Aurora. The first legged piece we made was featured on the front of the prestigious American Craft Association's Baltimore whole sale show brochure. Because of the ever changing nature of the raku technique, it can be tricky duplicating pieces. Once I had a series of orders for just such a lidded piece that I had to cancel because I couldn't duplicate the unusual separation of the colorants and the glaze that had occurred. Much as I tried, I couldn't duplicate it again. As I have become more production oriented, this free form experimentation has given way to more thoughtful planning.

I am inspired by Nature and her exquisite completeness. I feel so satisfied and delicately enlivened by the beauty of the ocean patterned colors, of the mountains´ rarified air and clouds, of the tiny lichens so intrinsically ordered. I try to mirror the natural beauties of life through my glazes and my shapes.

I am inspired by the clay and the fire. The fire and the clay sometimes reveal secrets to me. When I am working, I feel sure that the clay is teaching me its language. My greatest successes come when I listen very carefully to it. I also learn from other artists' work...

While it is a challenge to have an art business: developing the prototypes to sell, getting and filling orders, and maintaining quality and consistency, Suzette and I have been able to create art pieces that are more than they would have been, had we been working on our own. Collaboration has had its problems: time factors, the travelling distance (we live 4 hours apart), individual use of the designs we worked on together and changing artistic directions. So, the really successful part of our business has been that we have remained best friends!

...I work with Bahá´í youth workshops sometimes, though the youths  enthusiasm for the projects seems to ebb and flow. I did a fireside where everyone from 3 to 96 created candle holders out of clay. We then put candles in the wet candle holders and everyone lit them, honoring the light of God in our lives and hearts. The process of creation is important to me because my spirit craves to find expression and to feel the presence of the Unknowable One guiding my hands and my ideas. When one door in my life has been closed to me, the act of creation has opened others. It helps me to continuously renew my hope and love for this life. When tragedy brings me to my knees, creating has helped me to come to terms with it.

I do not consider myself an artist in the traditional sense of the word. I don't tell people I am an artist. I try to convey to others the truth that everyone needs to enjoy artistic (and musical) expression, in varying forms of competency, so that they can expand their perceptions, enjoy life and have new horizons to behold. This is one of the reasons I think the arts are so important in the Bahá´í Faith. Anyway, I have yet to meet someone who didn't enjoy the process of creating, once they get past their inhibitions about it! Especially working with clay.

Excerpts from Arts Dialogue, March 1999, pages 7 - 8.

Contact Chris Clay at: iet(at)

242 Pitt Ave, Sebastopol, Calilfornia 95472 USA

  • Illustration: Cell of Akka, Arts Dialogue, June 1999
  • Artist Profile: Arts Dialogue, March 1999
  • Illustration: Ceramic, Arts Dialogue, June 1995

The Cell of Akka,
ceramic by Chris Clay,
basketry by Suzette Nyokka, U.S.A.

Arts Dialogue, Dintel 20, NL 7333 MC, Apeldoorn, The Netherlands