An Interview with Michelle Matthews

by Robin Gary

June rings in summer temperatures and our third Texas Clay Arts Association Featured Artist, Houston clay artist, Michelle Matthews. Her artwork is highlighted on her website,, and at the 18 Hands Gallery in Houston. In winter and spring of this year, Michelle’s work was exhibited in four shows in Texas and one in North Carolina. These stellar exhibits included the University of Dallas 2013 Regional Juried Ceramic Competition, Roughneck: A Juried ClayHouston Exhibition at the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft and Organicity, in conjunction with NCECA at Mother Dog Studios.

Working in clay since 1997, Michelle’s work is sculptural with physical textures that invite touching and merit study of shape, surface and the mystery of purpose. I was able to correspond with Michelle during May while she was working on her 100 bowls for Empty Bowls. As a mother who chose to leave a profession for family, I find her discussion inspiring and her work ethic a real motivator.

I see that you finished a BA in 1981. What was the focus of the BA?

I graduated with a dual major in American History and Government with the thought of attending law school. Seeking a change after graduation I moved from NJ to Houston in August of 1981. I began my working career as a paralegal. With the advances in technology, legal documents could be indexed and searched electronically hence the arrival of The Litigation Support Department. Large volumes of documents were now manageable with the ease of a computer. Seems archaic, but I managed that process. I left the law firm to become a fulltime mom in the early 90s.

How did you get started in clay?

Ceramics became my adult activity in 1997, my time away from the kids. I worked in clay, one day a week for 2 hours at a time at Foelber Gallery till I arrived at the Glassell in 2003 where the ceramic studio is open daily. At the Glassell, in addition to clay classes, I began taking the core classes such as drawing, color and design, which I scheduled with mom duties and my bookkeeping business.

What/who inspires you today?

Initially I was inspired by the simple feat of making a clay structure without armatures that remained intact and upright. That first thrown thin slab of soledate clay that remained upright with that graceful curve as it sagged while it was drying, was tantalizing. I am drawn to linear designs, the structural supports of a building, the curve of the line… the visual and functional impact of a line. The reaction of the viewer to the luscious gritty texture wrapped around the lines.

What keeps you in the studio?

I work best with a deadline. Show deadlines keep me in the studio and of course, the love of clay. My commitment to make 100 bowls for Houston Empty Bowls kept me at the wheel for a month. Now I need to concentrate on work for the fall wood firings.

Do you have a daily process?

I wish I had a daily process. My studio is in my house, which gives me 24-hour access when I do get in there. I mix my own clay body from reclaimed clay, ball clay, grog and flux which I prep in 5 gallon buckets. The clay body needs to set-up for the correct consistency. As I construct a sculpture, I am multiprocessing, preparing the next batch of clay, tweaking the structure, adding and deleting clay and starting the next form.

How long will you work on a series?

Several years ago I decided to concentrate on one body of work. Prior to that, I was in multiple directions, going nowhere. I spent a year developing a clay body. I was seeking something textured, strong, with plasticity and lightweight that I could carry. By trial and error I learned how to handle this clay body and how to change the mixture to create the desired results. Then I had to determine the surface treatment and which firing method best suited the clay body. I create a 3-D textured form from a flat form. It is like constructing the framework for a building. The last several weeks my work has taken a new direction, a culmination of Japanese, Danish and American influence, a constant evolution.

Were there 'happy accidents' along the way?

With ceramics, all accidents are happy. I wood fire my work, a lot happens during the process. My work tends to be enhanced by those accidents.

How/Where do you market your work?

My large sculptural work requires a specific market, which I have yet to tap. Recently I have developed several bodies of work based on the same clay body that appeal to various aesthetics. A new series of compact structures with smooth and/or textured surfaces and angles designed to pull the viewer into the work is available at 18 Hands Gallery in Houston.

Who are your current favorite artists (clay and non-clay)?

I am in awe of the impressionists. In the late 1800s, they changed the art world, painting life, their modern life.

From your CV, I see you are very active in communications in Clay Houston and with the Glassell School of Art and also with NCECA for this year's conference.

Does this help keep you connected to the art and clay community at large?

So many people have helped me navigate my way in the ceramic world I strongly believe in giving back. My activities in ClayHouston and the Glassell allow me to do that. Also I am constantly learning from the people and my experiences.

NCECA was such an amazing opportunity to come to Houston; you just had to be involved. NCECA was our opportunity to increase the public awareness of ceramic as an art form, which we accomplished. It is up to all of us to keep the momentum going.



Texas Clay Arts Association 2014

Images in header (from left): Annie Foster, Karmien Bowman, Mimi Bardagjy

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