Wreckage, Remnants and What Remains – Jo McIntyre Bornemissza writes about the work of Michael Stephan
Michael Stephan’s ceramic structures invite consideration and contemplation.
Distinctive, unique, yet ambiguous, they are silent catalysts for the maker’s own thoughts on life and nature, as he is the catalyst through which they have come to be. Indeed, they may well be referred to as ‘Zen’ creations, because of Stephan’s selfless respect for nature and clay, his non-self-assertiveness and non-craving acceptance of life. They are original, unselfconscious, abstract and intuitive expressions using clay and fire.
Stephan has long been enthralled by landscapes in which once-thriving, productive industry has fallen into decay and desolation; where the arrogance of Man’s domination of nature has proven to be foolish, the symbols of which lie in naked chimneys, crumbling walls and rusting machinery, or in the devastation wrought by floods, conflagrations or earthquakes. Such actions concern him, while at the same time he is in awe of the tenuous hold that exists between Man and Nature.
During his time monitoring boilers, Stephan also became fascinated with the effects of heat, steam and pressure upon pipes and machinery. There, the palpable danger, the smell and sounds of expanding metal, left indelible imprints upon him, aspects of which are now seen in his work.
Stephan lives under the shoulder of Hobart’s iconic and imposing Mount Wellington with its mighty dolerite outcrops, and works in a modest, sparsely-appointed space under his house.
He describes his pieces as “happening in a moment”, his actions being spontaneous, immediate, intuitive and dependent upon his reflexes.
Using heavily grogged clay, he starts with a block into which he cuts downward, but not completely through, with a coil of springy wire. The only conscious part of this initial process is the forming of the slender cylinders, which represent chimneys, funnels or vents, that are shoved into or sandwiched between separating slabs and pushed upwards. Sections, which threaten to detach, are jammed together again without slip as Stephan’s hands work hastily, infusing the finished pieces with pent-up energy. Usually, parameters are “wide open”. However, in the conflict between control and spontaneity, Stephan finds himself seized with uncertainty and anxiety.
Pieces of dowel or fingers are poked, plunged and pushed into the work creating holes which serve to aerate and lighten the forms, while the inevitable stresses exerted in the drying process invest the pieces with characteristic ruptures, tears, splits and cracks – a process of upheaval.
Periods ranging from a week to a month typify the drying process after which, usually on a Friday, Stefan drives 250 kilometres north to fellow potter Neil Hoffmann’s property at Reedy Marsh, where he loads a bourry box kiln that has a top loading chamber with the fire box on the side. He places approximately twelve ‘structures’ within the kiln, around which he packs functional ware (mugs and bottles) he has thrown from fine, white stoneware and high iron-bearing stoneware, which he glazes with various Shinos. (He has yet to “make a good mug” and won’t consider selling any until this happens). The packing process takes about six hours.
Fallen timber, local hardwood and gum from the property is used as fuel and following pre-heating to 800ºC, the kiln is left to “slow combust” (by completely filling the fire box and adjusting dampers until reduction smoke clears) until early morning. Stephan is then able to take a welcome rest in readiness for the next day and the final assault.
The long firing process, which takes up to sixty hours from packing to cooling, is one from which Stephan feels detached and vulnerable. For Michael, fire is an awesome force and tool by which ‘so much happens’; it is intriguing and complicated. With this limited control, there is a need to be brave, to ‘let go,’ to allow his work to take on its own identity. Profound humility, perceived as strength, is coupled with anxiety. He wonders if he is “chasing vulnerability”, especially when entire kiln loads are lost, as has occurred previously. His average success rate varies from 30–50%!
Yet, although some pieces may fall apart in his hands, the unpredictability of the entire process (the deconstructing, maturing and ageing) is synonymous with life itself and exemplified by the aspects over which humans have little control – the Darwinian ‘survival of the fittest,’ which appeals to Stephan.
Often disheartened and uninspired by the homogenisation of the environment through formulae-ridden, insipid housing and franchises, which he feels leads to a certain loss, he embraces the converse that occurs in the firing, for he finds that the ‘stories’ of his work, which he ‘reads’ anew, have changed. He accepts the flaws, fractures, cracks, tears, scars, softening, fusing or healing that his work undergoes, with interest and intrigue.
Detaching is an, imposing structure that alludes to factories or castles. It lists; its chimneys lean. Sections have dragged apart, forming flange-like folds, which are enlivened by a warm, peach-coloured sheen or viridescent edges. The upper ridges, bearing deposits of ash and other debris from the kiln, are sharp and ragged or sensuously soft and smooth. Folds, fissures and faults intrigue and fascinate.
Compression, Vagrant Series, is a compact, single-chimney form with an angled extension that suggests overflow. Glazed with a high alumina dry Shino, it is a warm terracotta colour, suggesting earthenware pipes or bricks. The stacked slabs of the body have drawn apart and cracked with tension and heat. Ash has speckled a side of the chimney and one facet with greyish mottling, similar to birds’ eggs.
Chimney Form, Vagrant Series, derives from the idea of an object ‘hanging around, without a purpose, yet, at the same time, with a past.’ Such objects ‘hang around’ in Stephan’s mind causing him to question why he creates such things and how they can possibly evolve from his imagination. The answers elude him. This is a double-chimney form of which each facet or side displays different colours and textures. One facet has inky blotches and spattering, punctuated by cracks and scribbled lines, a result of being close to the firebox and fired to Cone 12 (1320ºC), while the opposing facet is of a burnt umber hue on which darker indentations suggest Palaeolithic markings or weathering. Tears and fusing are textured by ash. A third facet reveals a cavernous split whose gaping mouth is distorted and lop-sided. The side view of a slab, which has been wrenched from its neighbour, imparts tenuousness, while permitting a sliver of light to enter its mysterious interior. The fourth facet slopes dangerously and is forced adrift to show the inner workings. Ash has caused greenish, glassy coagulations that run and pool on jagged edges. The surface of the taller chimney is characterised by crawling and stripes of rust and opaque grey.
Quarried is a softer, discreetly curved form, its single chimney set at a jaunty angle. The central vents relate to vascular or respiratory systems while the holes suggest eyes, knots or other anatomical phenomena. The rugged cavity in which the vents are held has been torn asunder by heat and natural forces, edges buckling and crumpling, wound-like. The surface has an unctuous skin and bears subtle milky greys, warm Shino tans and ash dappling, while light and air enter and escape through the central opening, enabling the pot to ‘breathe’.
Stephan believes that values, expectations and taste are challenged by good art. He does not wish to conform to established or traditional criteria. Chance, intuition, humility, awe and the anticipation of the unknown inspire his making.
His works are eloquent monuments, solidly grounded yet lightly reaching upwards, quietly inanimate yet alluding to power and energy. They are mysterious, ambiguous abstractions, yet reflective of life. They are strong, commanding but sensitive statements from the heart.
Jo McIntyre, who lives in Hobart, is a former art teacher, artist, freelance writer and collector of ceramics.
Michael Stephan; E: email@example.com