Written by Brett Levine
Photo by Jerry Siegel
Being economical can often be good advice, but for Branan Mercer, economy is a matter of necessity. “I probably only have six hours of studio time a week,” he explains, “so when I am working, I have to focus on consistent forms and a series of hand mixed glazes that I understand better every time.” He is, of course, being modest, for if Mercer’s works are characterized by anything, it is refined restraint. What emerges is in fact ambiguous, or rather, multifunctional. “I just call these vessels,” he says, “because you can put anything in a vessel.”
“These” are low-set ceramic vessels. You could call them cups. Each is set on an elegant foot that occupies the center third of the base. The piece, though round, is essentially a visual square, and Mercer has spent a great deal of time refining this repeating shape to arrive here. “I studied ceramics at Auburn, and then did a residency in Florida before managing The Kiln Studio in Fairhope,” he shares. All the while, Mercer was interrogating form in ceramics, focusing on what seemed to be a rather simple idea: “I wanted to make something that was easy to grasp and felt good in the hand. I wanted it to be functional, but most of all, I wanted it to be welcoming,” he says.
This sense of welcoming permeates every vessel Mercer now makes. He arrived at the juxtaposition of matte and gloss and of light and dark after a period of working almost exclusively without color. “I was exploring form far more than color, so every piece I made was white. I was interested in sanding pieces and how manipulating the surfaces themselves changed their appearance. But it wasn’t until I began to make these that I really began to explore the juxtaposition of colors,” he explains. What characterizes a Mercer vessel is the unique way in which he handles the glazes. Through persistent experimentation—“every kiln is different of course”—Mercer has developed a consistent technique for drip overglazes that give each piece unique movement and characteristics.
For a better understanding of his development, take a few minutes to visit @brananmercer, his Instagram. There, in a decidedly forthright exchange about the practice of ceramics, Mercer shares his ideas, techniques, experimentations in the medium, and various approaches to art. What makes this so interesting is how generous he is about it all, freely doling out his approaches to all who ask. This sense of community is common within ceramics, but Mercer is at the fore. Having refined his practice—at the moment he is literally exploring a single form and considering how he can extend and expand this idea—his work now sits at an unusual intersection of production pottery and artistic experimentation. Mercer acknowledges the conundrum. “One of the discussions I have been having lately is how to break into the market outside the ceramics community,” he says. “Instagram is a fantastic and immediate way to reach an expanding market, but there has to be a more sustained approach than that.” The problem, as he sees it, is the ever-present inverse ratio between the time to experiment in the studio and the time to meet his artistic commitments. “I was completing works for two galleries recently,” he says, “ and it was literally a matter of being in the studio until it was done. There are times when you do a lot of experimentation, but really don’t make much work, and times when you are only focused on making work and wish you had more time to experiment.” For now, unique juxtapositions of color and texture will distinguish each vessel that Branan Mercer throws. Call it a cup, a glass, a mug. Call it whatever. Fill it with coffee, tea, beer, water, or flowers. What is important is not what you call it, or what is inside it. What is important is how it feels in your hands—the smooth texture of the glaze, the cool ceramic that warms to your touch, the sound of fired ceramics. What matters most is how it looks, and how it makes you feel. Merceramics: On the work it may seem like it is just an “M.” But in your hand, it is so much more.