In her early twenties, Michelle Erickson took two jobs that influenced the trajectory of her career as a ceramics artist.
After graduating from the College of William and Mary, she spent a year working as a potter in the French-Canadian section of the Busch Gardens theme park. Tourists could watch her throw pots on the wheel, which—once fired—were sold in the gift shop. The experience showed Erickson that it might be possible to pay her bills as a ceramics artist.
Erickson took another job running the ceramics studio at Jamestown National Park, where she began to study and recreate pottery from the archeological collections on the earliest colonial American site. Jamestown was the destination of many trade ships, so Erickson soon found herself learning about pottery that had made its way to the new colony from all over the globe. Working at the outpost settlement enabled her to study 17th century artifacts from faraway places such as England, Holland, Spain and even China.
“In art school, I wasn’t exposed to Western ceramic history of this period—what we often refer to as ‘decorative arts.’ There was a focus on contemporary ceramics and on Japanese and Chinese ceramic traditions,” says Erickson. “I became very interested in how these Western earthenwares, stonewares, and porcelains were made and the context of their history.”
Erickson had become familiar with both Colonial Williamsburg’s ceramics collection and the archaeological collections at Jamestown during her undergraduate education, but as her interest in America’s ceramics tradition began to deepen, she wanted to better understand the techniques 17th and 18th century potters would have used.
“I like to use ceramic pieces from history and work backwards. I consider if the piece is earthenware or porcelain or stoneware, whether it was thrown, slip cast or hand modeled, how it was decorated, fired and glazed. Whenever possible, I use clay from the places where the pots would have been made. I have to understand these pieces before I can play off them,” says Erickson.
Erickson has become known for combining traditional pottery-making methods with contemporary narratives. At VisArts’ Collectors’ Night, two figural bottles, “Green Squirrel and 2nd Amendment Squirrel,” which were made using the techniques of 18th century North Carolina Moravian potters, became one of the most highly sought-after items of the evening. One squirrel holds a gas cap and the other an AK 47.
Erickson’s work is in the collections of the Mint Museum of Craft and Design, the Museum of Art and Design in New York, the Milwaukee Art Museum and the Yale University Museum, among others. Jamestown commissioned her to make the official gift presented to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II during her 2007 visit to Virginia, and in 2012, Erickson completed a three-month residency at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
“I try to help other organizations come up with forward-thinking ways to interpret the past. Trying to be a part of a place for a while, it brings a lot to the table. You can act as a conduit between two places and encourage exchanges between organizations that might not otherwise connect up,” says Erickson.
It’s true that artist residencies help organizations and artists connect. As part of her monthlong residency at the Visual Arts Center of Richmond, Erickson is connecting the 53-year-old community arts center with the Wilton House Museum, a historic home in Richmond that was built in the mid-18th century. On April 15, she’ll open an exhibition of her work at the Museum. “You & I Are… Earth” runs through Oct. 30.
As part of her collaboration with Wilton House, Erickson is reproducing two of the house’s artifacts in clay—a pair of satin shoes and a Derby porcelain figural couple, or figurine. Bernard Means, with VCU’s Department of Anthropology, scanned the items and printed 3D replicas from which Erickson is working.
“In the mid-18th century the British ceramics industry was a huge, global industry,” says Erickson. “Because they were so profitable, they could afford to invest in the most high tech production methods. I want to bring history into the 21st century so I look at the tools at my disposal and ask myself, ‘What are the giant gaps between the two ways of making things?’”
In addition to completing new work for the Wilton House exhibition, Erickson is spending some of her time at VisArts exploring ideas surrounding race and culture. She has made a series of skulls, which she is slipcasting with various shades of porcelain slip, traditionally used to cast ceramic doll heads. “When you have nothing left but bones, you don’t know what color the person is. Everyone’s democratized,” Erickson says.
Erickson is also asking VisArts students to place their hands in the slip before leaving a handprint on a giant face jug, which she recently made. She plans to wood-fire the jug at the conclusion of her residency. “I like getting people’s hands in clay,” says Erickson. “When you think about the handprints we find in caves, you realize it’s one of our earliest forms of self expression.”