Joel Shaw

studioCeramics Setting Sail

Written by Brett Levine    

Photo by Jerry Siegel


For ceramicist Joel Shaw, form truly does follow function. “I am fascinated by the aesthetics of ceramics, but I always begin from a functional perspective,” he explains, sitting in front of a large sideboard containing a diverse selection of recently completed pieces. Shaw began working with ceramics in high school, and a university diversion into accounting did not deter him from his commitment to working with clay. When the opportunity presented itself, he returned to his studio practice.

“Although I had a large amount of personal studio time at Samford University, I wasn’t sure where to work after I graduated,” he says. “That’s when I discovered Red Dot Gallery in Homewood, and it seemed like the logical step to take.” After seeing his commitment, gallery owner Scott Bennett made the studios available on a more open basis. “I’ve been extremely fortunate at Red Dot Gallery,” Shaw says. Not only has it allowed him to meet other artists, but an unexpected benefit came when Bennett allowed him to oversee a few of his classes when he is away. “I noticed there was an extraordinary amount of clay that students threw out,” Shaw says. Bennett had a system to reclaiming it, so Shaw asked if he could help with the process and use some of these materials. Now this waste is the sole source of his materials, with an unexpected result. “My wife and I are in the process of adopting a child, and I realized that simply through recycling, I can salvage hundreds of pounds of clay over several months. I can have something to work with,  create something new, and invest my time while saving money and reducing waste,” he says. The result is something truly beautiful.

Shaw focuses mostly on tableware. “I try to make pieces that feel unique and timeless,” he says. “I want my pieces to feel comfortable being used and feel comfortable sitting in the background.” This love of subtlety and simplicity led him to limit both his materials and his palette. Not only does he use only reclaimed clay, but at first, he used only three glazes, combining and layering them to achieve a variety of colors and effects. “My first glazes were literally a soft red, a soft yellow, and a soft blue. Every other color, texture and hue I achieved was simply achieved by mixing the colors, the clay itself, and the reactions of the glazes and the clay in the kiln,” he explains. “I did add a few additional colors, including an off white, which is really subtle, and a celadon green, as well as a dark black.” These six colors combine to create a soft-yet-earthy palette that characterizes the Eugene Sailor Ceramics Collection.

And who is Eugene Sailor? “That is a really good question,” Shaw says with a smile. “My grandfather was named Gene, and when I was a child, he was restoring a sailboat in his front yard for several years. He sailed that boat until four years ago, and for me, it always represented a level of craftsmanship that I should aspire to. I think that one of the reasons I really love ceramics is that it allows me to get in touch with the process of hand making; just like woodworking does, I focus on functional objects, even though I love conceptual pieces, because people respond very favorably to something they understand and something they can use. Pottery itself is incredibly imaginative, and it allows me to create whatever I want. At the same time, on a production level, I am not trying to reinvent the pitcher or the bowl. I want both to be used, and if someone breaks one, I don’t want it to be such a huge loss. I want it to be all about function.”

Shaw never loses sight of the wonders of ceramics or of the many opportunities he has within the ceramics community. Whether he is firing an experimental work in the large anagama kiln at the University of Montevallo, as he hopes to do so again this spring; testing a new glaze combination for a production piece; working on a spreadsheet that he uses to record the characteristics of each piece he makes so he can reproduce it; or enhancing his website to increase his business, Joel Shaw is truly the face of the new craft movement and the new ceramics. He is sailing forward, elbow deep in a bucket full of clay slop and water, salvaging materials, drying them out, reprocessing them, recycling them, making them good, and making them new.

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