It takes more than the happenstance commonly attributed to serendipity to achieve the masterful glaze outcomes artists Brett Gray and Kevin Kwiatkowski display in Serendipity, a Pewabic exhibition that opens with a reception 5-8 PM Thursday, Sept. 28.
The artists will also lead a Gallery Talk and Demonstration about Serendipity, 5:30-7:30 PM Thursday, Oct. 19.
Serendipity demonstrates how the two accomplished potters tame the difficult-to-control nature of the soda and wood atmospheric firing processes on their carefully designed utilitarian vessels.
“While we have complete control of the design and shape, the atmospheric firing process makes every piece unique and rare in its own right,” explains Gray.
Serendipity accurately describes how these two potters finally met – mutual friends had suggested each to the other for years – and how their friendship and ceramics practices similarly align with a foundation in community.
“So, you’re Brett Gray,” Kwiatkowski recalls saying when he met Gray when both artists found themselves working at Pewabic; Gray as a staff vessel and tile maker, and Kwiatkowski as a tile presser and mold maker. “It’s just funny how our paths crossed. We’re pretty alike personalities. We’re both goofballs and hard workers.”
“We both totally knew who each other was,” agrees Gray. “Our work is completely different, but we definitely inspire each other.”
That inspiration is especially important, because finding the time and energy to do your own work can be tough when you’re holding fulltime ceramics jobs. Camaraderie and community counts.
“I’ve never fired it myself because it’s always more fun with two,” says Kwiatkowski, referencing the soda kiln. “The fun thing about it is it’s not so predictable. There’s a lot of chance that happens. You can try to go for something, but you never get exactly what you want. Sometimes you get better. Sometimes you get worse.”
Soda, in particular, follows the flame path, Kwiatkowski says, with fire going through the kiln like water would. The pots deflect it every which way.
“Whether wood, soda, or salt, the materials introduced in a kiln create an interaction with the ware that produces a unique finish on each piece that may never be duplicated,” says Kwiatkowski.
Gray considers how the shapes he’s making will react in the kiln. The way the glaze thickness differs creates nice glaze variations in his carved work, he explains.
“You don’t really know what you’re going to get,” Gray says. “I do that firing process because – in terms of glaze application – it’s much more surprising and exciting. That’s what inspires me to make what I make. The firing is a source of inspiration. It’s total surprise. You know what you’re doing, but you never know what you’re gonna get.”
Kwiatkowski’s Serendipity pieces all came through Ken Shenstone’s Albion Anagama kiln, which requires a 10-day firing and ideally a team of six people continually watching and feeding the fire. Both Gray and Kwiatkowski take part.
“It takes a month to load and it takes a year to make all the work. We split all the wood, which has to be at least six months before firing so it dries. The firing is the easiest part,” explains Kwiatkowski, adding that wood firings like this are why he got into ceramics in the first place.
Kwiatkowski received his BA from Adrian College in 2008 and his teaching certificate in Ceramic Arts from Hood College in Frederick, Md. in 2010. He began at Pewabic as a volunteer in 2006, later teaching soda firing/salt firing workshops and working in the shipping and receiving department before joining the fabrication team.
Gray received his BFA in Crafts/Ceramics in 2010. He then served as a board member on the Michigan Ceramics Council and was Artist-in-Residence with (the late) John P. Glick at Plum Tree Pottery. An NCECA fellow, Gray was construction manager for The Detroit Noborigama Kiln (aka The Salty Dog), before embarking on a career as production manager and lead board shaper for BLK Box Surfboards. Gray returned to ceramics with Brett Gray Clay, focusing on soda- and wood-fired utilitarian objects, and began working at Pewabic in 2015.