Materials for Mapping Our Watershed: Foraged Clay

Another material I am using in the artwork I am creating for Mapping Our Watershed-is natural, foraged clay. I have studied and made ceramics pieces at various points in my life, but the idea of making work from clay I sourced myself significantly increased my interest. During my two years in the Confluence MFA program, where I have been experimenting with natural art materials, I have twice had the opportunity to learn about natural, or “wild” clay with respected practitioners. In January 2022, I dug clay with renowned potter Clarence Cruz from the Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo in New Mexico.   We dug dry clay and then processed it by screening and re-wetting. In January 2023, I spent a day at Casa Mezquite, a family-owned ceramics studio in San Bartolo Coyotapec, Oaxaca specializing in barro negro, or black clay. These beautiful ceramics are unique to this particular region of Mexico. Our group learned how it is processed (it’s harvested dry, reconstituted, and then kneaded by foot), and then had a chance to make a piece and have it reduction fired in their kiln. In thinking through ways to represent watershed ecosystems in my work–and build upon the paper sculptures that I was making based on rock rubbings–I decided to start sourcing local clay. Thankfully, there are a number of great resources out there for learning how to locate and process wild clay. The website Ancient Pottery has a number of instructional videos, and the new book Wild Clay both offers tips and showcases some of the amazing artists using this material. I also got some guidance from artist Margarget Boozer of Red Dirt Studio.  

The soil where I live in southeast Pennsylvania is very clay rich so it’s not hard to find. I started out using some clay dug by my friend Elie Porter Trubert, who accompanied ceramicist John Reinking to one of his clay sources in New Jersey, and then began to source and process my own. I did some bisque fire tests and was amazed when they made it through the kiln! Since then, I have been making a series of pieces inspired by the course of Tookany Creek and the form of the creek bed; I am presssing stones and  plants into them, both to add texture and pattern and to represent the parent material the clay came from and the living things that grow from it. I am stringing these pieces together with cordage I made from cattails and willow bark; this work will be installed alongside my experiential map pieces for my MFA thesis exhibition in June and then incorporated into the larger map piece this summer.  

And, as an endnote, the concept of mapping with clay has an ancient precedent: the oldest known world map, made in Southern Iraq in 700-500 BCE, represents Babylon as the center of the world–and it’s a clay tablet. 

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