I am honored to be a curatorial intern at Krannert Art Museum (KAM) this semester, helping my supervisor, Assistant Curator Katie Koca Polite, prepare for the exhibition Pattern and Process. This is my third job at KAM, having worked as part of the installation team for a whole year as well as a student gallery attendant in the summer of 2022. The curatorial internship has provided a different perspective on the operations of the museum.
While browsing the exhibition checklist, I was instantly attracted to a large porcelain platter because my undergraduate and graduate degrees were in ceramics, and I have years of experience working and teaching with ceramics. When I saw the platter, I decided I would like to do more research on the story behind it.
When I got home, I was still excited about this beautiful platter, titled Last Day of September, as it shares something similar with my own art making. It is made of white high-temperature porcelain clay and is shaped from a huge clay slab. There are many patterns carved on the front and back sides of the platter, including texts and cartoon-like drawings. The back of the platter has three vivid bunny-shaped feet. There are waddings on each foot and the center of the back side. The waddings can support the whole platter instead of touching the kiln shelf directly, so the pattern on the backside is more integrated. The entire platter is covered with a dark blue translucent glaze. This transparent glaze makes the blue color in the carvings a darker blue than that of the surface. The front edges of the plate are decorated with golden luster with some additional flower-shaped embellishments. Taken as a whole, the plate shows a combination of intricate carving, simple glaze colors, organic golden flower shapes, and lively feet, making the work visually striking and animated.
The platter was created by artist Jeffry Mitchell (represented by PDX Contemporary in Portland, Oregon). His imaginative works, mostly figurative but at times abstract, incorporate various references to religion, nature, cultures, fine art, history, and personal narratives to explore the intricacies of the human experience. I was especially curious about the patterns on the plate, including bears, rabbits, flowers, dates, and locations. After I searched the artist’s website and works, I learned that Mitchell was born in Seattle, Washington. He works in various media, including ceramics, painting, sculpture, printmaking, and installation. During my research and collecting information, I realized that similar patterns repeated throughout the artist’s works, so I contacted the artist on Instagram, hoping to learn more about the platter and his artistic concepts.
Mitchell responded to me enthusiastically. He explained the reasons for creating this plate, the creative process, and the special meanings that the patterns held for him. This platter is part of a series of four platters, which vary in color, but they were all created using shared techniques and decorated with similar patterns. Below is the artist’s description of the production process:
I made them in Berlin at the Zentrum für Keramic, run by my two friends, Kaja Witt and Thomas Hirschler. We used porcelain slip from Limoges, cast large slabs, [and] from that I cut a scalloped oval, formed it over hump molds, added feet and then incised a drawing into the leather hard clay. I then painted over the top of each line with a brush and shellac. When the clay and shellac were completely dry, I damp sponged the surface to erode the clay not protected with the shellac resist to create the shallow relief.
How thrilling to read about his process! As a ceramicist, I am amazed at the complexity of the process and the artist’s skillful handling.
Mitchell also provided more information about the meanings behind different patterns, which come from his life experiences, personal narratives, and creative thinking. He offered the following interpretation:
The decorations comprise all my favorite decorative motifs.
- Scallop: the universal feminizing decorative gesture
- Bears: Berlin’s mascot; childhood protagonists, such as Winne the Pooh and Paddington; and friendly and erotic gay logo/icon/mascot/totem
- Peonies: I spent three years in Japan, working for a potter and studying calligraphy, and the peony is such a common motif in Chinese, Korean, and Japanese decorative arts. I admired and copied the systematic stylization of the peony in Korean folk paintings and I’ve drawn it a million times. [It] is, in a way, a symbol of a symbol for me, it embodies what all flowers embody—time, eros, and the brevity of life? Mortality.
- Bunnies: Easter? Fecundity? Fertility? Not sure. I come from a family of nine kids. I know that [the rabbits] make me think of the decoration on Dedham Pottery, and American art pottery workshop in the northeast.
The platters with their porcelain, deep blue colors, and gold luster rimming hold an aspiration to be classy the way Meissen, Limoges, Sevres, and Chinese Blanc de Chine from Dehua are but would never be mistaken for anything other than American, West Coast funky pottery.
The platters almost always contain a date, often including the weather, in the spirit of the occasional object, greeting card, wedding certificate, Pennsylvania Dutch Fraktur, and possibly On Kawara’s dated missives. And like all ceramics [and] minerals, they are brittle, breakable, chippable but they never decay. They might last forever.
I was deeply moved by the artist’s story. Throughout his career, Mitchell has continually observed the details in life and other aspects that inspire him, incorporating these elements into unique, amazing works. What’s more, this platter almost acts like a diary, recording the time, place, and his mood, commemorating that particular moment in time. I am very grateful for him in openly sharing his thoughts because I understand that artists need to be honest with their creative ideas and processes, allowing them to continually improve their works through dialogue and experimentation.
I am very glad to be involved in the research of artists and works in this exhibition. With the help of my supervisor and the support of the artist, this research process went very smoothly. Both the ceramic techniques and the creative concepts have been a great inspiration for me. I have also developed a deeper understanding of the connection between the exhibition concept of Pattern and Process and the works included, and I’m glad my work contributed to this fantastic show.
Published February 13, 2023
Authored by Rachel Yan Gu, Curatorial Intern and PhD student in Art Education, with research supervision by Katie Koca Polite, Assistant Curator and Publications Specialist.