Ceramic artist Tori Motyl is beginning a new piece — not at the potter’s wheel in her Weaverville studio, but on the grassy banks of nearby Reems Creek. Wearing a
Ceramic artist Tori Motyl is beginning a new piece — not at the potter’s wheel in her Weaverville studio, but on the grassy banks of nearby Reems Creek. Wearing a bright pink stocking cap over her spiky brown hair, holding a lavender polka-dotted pillowcase in one hand and a long-handled shovel in the other, Motyl squats down at a half-bare patch of earth, scrabbles up a handful of dirt streaked with red, and sniffs it. Instead of the mulchy, vegetal odor that might make for a good garden, the scent is clean, mineral. Delighted, Motyl starts to dig.
The clay that she turns up, just below the surface, has made western North Carolina a center of pottery production for centuries, from the traditions of Cherokee makers to the efforts of European settlers and their descendants, who clawed a livelihood out of the region’s difficult soil. Clay — a specific kind of earth, rich with fine mineral particles, that becomes yielding and moldable when combined with water — results from the millennia-long weathering of rocky landscapes like the Blue Ridge Mountains. With clay free for the digging, at least five potteries flourished in this community just north of Asheville through the 19th and early 20th centuries.
As the ceramics industry shifted toward mass production, however, commercial clay — cleansed of grit, blended, and homogenized for qualities that make it easier to throw — became widely available. Since then, fewer and fewer potters have embraced the ancient challenge that Motyl has set for herself in her very modern work.
“When you work with commercial clay, you can start with an idea of what you want to make,” Motyl says. “When you work with wild clay — clay that hasn’t been heavily processed, clay that’s close to what it is when it comes out of the ground — you have to understand its properties, figure out what you can do to show off the material itself. You start with the clay, not with the idea.”
Motyl has been digging wild clay for a little more than two years, both in her native upstate New York — another traditional pottery region — and on the Burnsville property where she and her husband settled in 2016. Her interest in wild clay coincided with a challenge she set for herself to throw 100 large-format pots, and converged in the 28-inch-tall vessel — deep iron black and rusty red, tall and textured — that earned her top honors in Our State’s 2020 Made in NC Awards.
“I remember thinking the first time I saw it, ‘I wish I’d made that,’ ” says Sarah Wells Rolland, a fellow ceramic artist and an owner of Asheville’s Village Potters Clay Center, where Motyl teaches and has apprenticed. From her 35 years of experience in the medium, Wells Rolland understands how hard it is to pull off a piece like the one that earned Motyl the award. With its heterogeneous, sometimes gritty texture and lack of natural elasticity, wild clay is inherently “short” — crumbly, as in “shortbread.”
It’s even more challenging to turn into large-format pieces than commercial clay. The structure has to be thrown carefully — Motyl makes her large pots in stacked sections. “A big pot will always tell on you,” exposing any weakness in the potter’s abilities, Wells Rolland says — and that’s especially true when the artist is working with unpredictable wild clay.
The success of Motyl’s piece reflects her skill — but it’s also a product of serendipity. “That pot received an incredible blessing in the firing,” Wells Rolland says. When pockets of low oxygen in the kiln encountered minerals in the wild clay, the colors deepened, changed, bloomed rusty red in just the right spot and just the right way to accentuate the form of the vessel. Motyl uses slip — a loose, pudding-like mixture of clay and water — to create surface texture on much of her work, and she eschews commercial glazes on her pieces made from wild clay. Instead, she lets the composition of the clay itself come through. The high iron content of one batch led to an almost melted effect when the pots came out of the kiln.
It wasn’t what Motyl expected, but she accepts it as an expression of the landscapes where she digs her clay and makes her work, almost like the concept of terroir in winemaking. Like a Bordeaux or Burgundy, Motyl’s pots couldn’t come from anywhere else. She eagerly takes on commissions from collectors who want ceramic pieces made from clay dug on their own land, as a way of celebrating a beloved place. The forms of her pieces tend toward the minimal and the modern, allowing the material itself to speak.
As with many things that read as simple and authentic, though, there’s vast craft at work. Motyl’s family encouraged her to pursue her interest in art from an early age, but she prepared herself to make a living as a teacher with degrees in education. After an early focus on metalsmithing in her own work, she pursued a series of apprenticeships in the ceramic arts when she realized that she responded more strongly to pottery.
“It’s such a ubiquitous art that has always existed for humans,” says Motyl, who has also studied archaeology. “All cultures have developed it independently, and most of us still use some form of it every day. The emotional reaction to handmade pottery is so powerful, and that’s even more profound when you’re working with wild clay.”
There’s something magical in working with wild clay.
Motyl is now working on a textbook about wild clay, and she’ll be leading an online class on the topic in February. While a handful of North Carolina suppliers, including STARworks Ceramics in Montgomery County, offer wild-sourced clay for sale, Motyl encourages students to dig their own.
As she fills her purple pillowcase with clumps of earth, she puts her shovel down for a moment to rest and look at her haul, to imagine what it might become. “There’s something magical in working with wild clay,” she says, “in being the person who takes it from the ground to the finish line.”
Related: 2020 Made in NC Awards