Sometimes, when she’s on the hunt, Tori Motyl will strap on her boots and take a long hike in the woods of western North Carolina, an empty pillowcase slung over
Sometimes, when she’s on the hunt, Tori Motyl will strap on her boots and take a long hike in the woods of western North Carolina, an empty pillowcase slung over her shoulder, a shovel in hand. By the end of her hike, that pillowcase is often a whole lot heavier with the day’s harvest, but it’s not mushrooms or berries that fill it — it’s clay.
“Once you start working with wild clay, you just start seeing it everywhere,” Motyl says. “Outcroppings, walks in the woods — it’s very abundant. Usually, if I’m looking for a new vein of clay, I just try to find a really good hike. If I find a nice sort of landslide area and there’s beautiful clay exposed, you know, I can just take a couple shovelfuls and play around with it.”
Unlike most potters, who use commercial clay, Motyl, a ceramic artist who lives in Asheville, creates stunning vessels from wild clay she’s dug out of the ground herself. It’s certainly a more challenging way to work, but for Motyl, that’s the whole point.
“I want the finished piece to be very authentic,” Motyl says. “I want the wild clay to come out of the ground, to be formed into a piece of pottery, to be fired. And then for the viewer to look at it and say, I see what wild clay is, I see the properties of that clay and what makes it unique. So I don’t put any glaze on my pots — I try not to do anything that takes away from those inherent characteristics.”
Our State sat down with Motyl to learn more about her one-of-a-kind pottery, her creative process — and why she loves a challenge.
OS: What do you love most about working with clay?
TM: Clay really is a blank slate, and I think that’s what really wows me about it. What I also really love about it is that it’s been an art form that humans have used forever. Across the world, different cultures either have developed the use of pottery independently of one another or through sharing with other cultures. And I like thinking about how, really, you can’t do anything new with it — in a way, when you’re making a bowl, a plate, a cup, these are forms that people have been making for years and years and years. And there’s sort of a tradition to that and a connectedness to past generations. I feel proud to be a part of that long chain of humans.
OS: What inspires you to create?
TM: I find inspiration from this specific region. When I was making work in New York, my work was very light, and I incorporated a lot of very modern, minimalist surface design with very bright and pastel colors. Being here in Asheville, though, and loving the opportunity to be in the mountains and being so close to nature has really inspired me to think about my work in a more earthy and grounded nature. And I think that’s why I gravitated towards wild clay, because I find myself so inspired by this area. And again, the mountains and the color of the ground before I even knew that it was clay that I could use to make pots out of — I just wanted to use the medium to make my work. So there’s a connection to nature and to earth here that is new to me and is incredibly inspiring.
OS: What is your thought process when you’re planning a new piece?
TM: It’s sort of a roller coaster. I become very obsessive about the idea: I think about it, I draw it, and If I’m not in my studio when the idea comes to me, I become sort of consumed by it. When get into the studio, there’s this excitement — I’m seeing it come together, I make the piece and fire it. And then I look at the finished piece, and about 24 hours or longer after that, I go, “Oh, it was way better in my head.” Then I have some calm and I think, What’s the next step? How do I improve upon this? You know, I’m happy with it and I’m glad that I made it, but it wasn’t the thing in my head. It wasn’t as amazing as I wanted it to be. And then when it dawns on me, often in the shower, for some reason, the way that I could have improved it or the next step to push my buttons, to push my work — it starts all over again. There’s this frenzy, again, of needing to make it. So it’s just sort of frenzy to calm, to frenzy to calm. I think that’s what drives artists — we just keep chasing the image of what we think we’re capable of, forever.
OS: Do you have a philosophy when it comes to creating?
TM: There has definitely been an undercurrent of authenticity. I really want both the work that I make and the way that I make it to be exactly what I want to be doing. What I mean is, don’t do anything in clay that you don’t want to do. I really want to make work that reflects who I am as a person, and using wild clay — which is what I’ve been primarily doing and will continue to do moving forward — speaks to that authenticity, because for me, self-reliance is very important. The ability to go out and dig clay and bring it back to my studio, process it myself, fire it myself, and then have a finished item that was really not reliant on any other outside influence, is just really important to me.
OS: Why use wild clay?
TM: There’s a very big difference between working with wild clay versus working with commercial clays. There’s a large variety of clays available to potters, and usually the artist is thinking to themselves, this is the work I want to make — what clay will best fit that vision? Some commercial clays, for example, will have a very high grog content, which means there’s a lot of sand or grit in the clay, and that’s really great for large pieces. If you really wanted something white and pristine and translucent, then you might go purchase a porcelain clay to create that specific look. When it comes to working in wild clay, however, you don’t really get to shop around. You’re limited by the clay that you have available to you that you can dig up. And what I love about that is that I don’t come to the clay and say, “This is what I’m going to make.” I dig the clay and have to experiment with it and find out what are its unique properties, and then I have to make work that is challenged and restricted by the properties of that clay. It’s just a completely different way of making the work as a potter. It’s just incredibly challenging to throw wildly — it wants to crack on you, it wants to fall down, it just doesn’t want to do a lot of the things you can do with commercial clay. But wild clay is much more unique and it’s very temperamental, and I find that enjoyable and interesting.
OS: Where do you harvest your clay?
TM: I used to source it right from my front yard. Now I have two sources: Burnsville, North Carolina, and a piece of property that I own in New York, where I can dig clay whenever I go and visit my family. But once you start telling your friends and family that you’re trying to find locations to dig your own clay, it’s kind of amazing how often someone will just call you and be like, I’m putting in a garden bed and I’ve just hit a bunch of clay, do you want to come get some? Or just tell you a great location. For example, someone was building a house next door to a friend of mine and the big machines had come through to dig out the foundation. And there were just truckloads of clay for the taking, which was insane. Construction areas are a great spot, but I do always ask permission.
OS: What is your mission as an artist?
TM: What I strive to do is sort of two-fold. I want to communicate with people through my art;
It’s an innate drive in us as people to create something that is outside of ourselves. For me, that’s what pottery is. But then, for the people around me, I see pottery as an amazing opportunity to be in community, to work with other artists, to support each other so that this passion that we all have and share together — by working together, by sharing resources, by lifting each other up — enables us to do what it is that makes us passionate every day.