Bayou Artist: Emma Melville
THERE’S SOMETHING SPECIAL ABOUT THE INTERACTION WITH SOMETHING HANDMADE VERSUS MASS PRODUCED. IT’S ABOUT ESTABLISHING A SENSE OF COMMONALITY–A CONNECTION WITHOUT WORDS IN A PIECE OF ART. EMMA MELVILLE DOES THIS WITH EASE IN EACH BEAUTIFUL PIECE OF POTTERY SHE CREATES.
ARTICLE BY APRIL CLARK HONAKER AND PHOTOGRAPHY BY MARTIN G MEYERS
FOR EMMA CASE MELVILLE, making pottery is a hobby, not a job, but she would argue that making pottery for fun doesn’t make her any less of an artist. In fact, she believes it’s wrong to assume every artist’s dream is to do art full time. “We all need different things to be fulfilled,” she said. Emma came to this realization after making art full time and finding the things she loved most about the process were lost. Add the stress of having to make ends meet through art alone, and Emma found the thing she’d once loved lost its luster.
Now Emma has a day job, and her love of making pottery has been restored. She also has a stronger sense of what drives her art, which is the human connection. Emma describes herself as a social person and said, “Pottery is another way to have a social connection with people.” In fact, she said the worst thing for her is sending a piece away to someone she doesn’t know. When she was making art full time, Emma was serving a faceless customer, a retail customer. Now Emma creates pieces for clients, which is far more gratifying for her. “I don’t want to make things that match for people I don’t know,” she said. “In everything I do, there has to be some form of human connection behind it.”
She especially enjoys making custom pieces for people because she gets to know them in the process. In addition to getting to know the client, Emma wants to drive the design, which requires mutual trust. In the process, Emma gets to share part of herself, and the client gets to know her through the design. According to Emma, this process feels more selfless than creating for a retail customer. In the end, she believes the majority of the value is in her, not in the piece. At this point in her development as an artist, Emma said, “It’s important to go back to making pieces creatively driven and exciting. It’s not about production. I just want to make things that are fun to make—that are special.”
Emma understands that everyone will not appreciate the same things in art, but she said, “The interaction with something handmade is different than something mass produced. There’s something special about it.” She believes art is about communicating with others. It’s about establishing a sense of commonality—a connection without words.
“A piece speaks to you,” she said. “If it doesn’t light up some part of your soul and make you smile, don’t buy it. But if it makes you want to pick it up and use it, I think you should.” Emma believes art is a language whose power comes from the ability to convey a meaning or message without words. “That’s the magic of art in general,” she said. “There’s something about the aesthetic or form that strikes a chord.” If the work strikes a chord in you, she believes you should buy it. According to Emma, we should buy art when we see something and understand its language. Although she doesn’t expect everyone to speak her language, she hopes that people who speak it will buy her art.
Another way art communicates is through demonstrations, which Emma loves, because the human connection is intensified. Kids especially are mesmerized by the process of throwing clay. “Their eyes light up, and you’re basically magic at that point,” she said.
Over time, Emma has grown to appreciate these moments of human connection more and more, especially the magic these connections create. In the same way that objects must touch and exchange electrons to form static electricity, people must come together during Emma’s creative process for the “magic” to happen.
For Emma, human connection and the arts have always been intertwined. She grew up playing the piano and clarinet, but her favorite part was playing music in a group. These were her passions. Although she considered pursuing music in college, she didn’t want to turn her passions into her job. At the same time, she didn’t know she wanted to make art when she started college. Instead, she opted to pursue architecture, because she felt it would allow her to make a difference in people’s lives, which has always been important to her.
While studying architecture at Louisiana Tech University, Emma supplemented the curriculum with courses in interior design, a choice that led her to a color theory class taught by Professor Emeritus Peter Jones. Painting in Jones’ class reminded Emma how much she loved the tactile side of being creative, and soon after, she changed her major to studio art, where she found ceramics and fell in love.
Now she fondly refers to ceramics as “architecture of the hands,” because, like architecture, ceramics marry form and function. For Emma, ceramics and music also share a connection. “There’s something about the tactile that appeals to me,” she said. “There’s something about letting creativity flow through my hands that feels natural to me—whether it’s music or clay.”
Although Emma is appreciative of the years she spent studying architecture and the perspective it’s given her, she’s found more fulfillment in clay and finished her Bachelor of Fine Arts in studio art in 2012. While architecture would have allowed her to solve problems and make a difference in people’s lives, she said, pottery allows her to solve problems and make a difference on a more intimate level.
Most of Emma’s work is functional, and for her, “Functional pottery is a puzzle.” It’s bringing together the perfect vessel with the perfect handle to create the perfect mug to hold the perfect cup of coffee. Of course, that’s just one example. Emma often looks for ways to create things that allow people to enjoy a certain food or beverage better. Her work tends to be simple, minimalistic and multifunctional. “I feel like my work is an invitation of life and use,” she said. “By keeping it simple, I feel I’ve created a canvas for people to bring their own story.”
Emma also uses mostly neutral glazes, creating pieces that are white, black, gray or other solid colors. For Emma, the form is the most important and the primary source of beauty in each piece. In fact, she loves the bare clay and said, “Once I glaze, I feel like it’s lost something.” As a result, part of the challenge for her as an artist is finding glazes that don’t detract from the form. She believes a pristine plate awaiting food is more inviting than one with a decorative glaze, and said, “Life is so colorful. The contrast is more appealing.”
While at Tech, Emma was trained primarily by ceramic artist Mary Louise Carter, who makes traditional, functional pottery, and Carter’s influence on Emma’s work is evident. “I very much value having such an experienced and skilled mentor,” Emma said. Like Carter and other traditional potters, such as Eva Zeisel, Emma values functionality and usefulness, because without these the connection and interaction would be lost. One of the things that makes Emma happiest is to have her clients send pictures or tell her stories related to how they’re using a piece.
Because each piece is handmade, each is planned and thrown individually. In the planning process, Emma sketches what she envisions and also considers how the pieces will interact in a tablescape, as well as how they’ll be stored, cleaned and displayed. “These are a huge part of the life of any piece,” she said. Having it look just as beautiful on the table as on the shelf is important to her.
This process of planning and making traditional, functional wheel-thrown pottery is one of the key things that separates Emma from production potters. A lot of production potters use slip casting to mass produce their work. In slip casting the hands-on step of shaping the clay on the wheel is lost. “A production potter has to love the product,” Emma said. Although she loves the product, she loves the hand-throwing process as well and simply hasn’t been willing to sacrifice it. The tactile aspect of wheel throwing is what drew her to pottery in the first place. “The actual throwing of the piece is the moment where the clay is being moved in your hands. That’s the most thrilling part,” she said. “Every movement you make, the clay responds.”
According to Emma, so many things can happen in this moment, and the slightest movement can change everything about a piece. Although she starts with a plan and sketches every piece, sometimes the realization is slightly different or, in some cases, a lot different. As a result, the process requires a certain level of flexibility and a willingness to go with the flow.
Although perfection is never guaranteed and the hand-throwing process takes more time and effort, Emma appreciates the challenge. Every piece she makes starts from a lump of clay that she’s processed. Then it must be put on the wheel, shaped, glazed and fired. As a result, every piece is slightly different, which makes each one special. “They’re formed from my hands,” Emma
said. “If they match, it’s because a lot of time and energy was spent.”
Those who haven’t experienced the process of hand throwing pottery may not realize the amount of work and time that goes into it. Emma compared processing the clay to gardening, because getting the moisture content just right is important. Getting all the bubbles out of the clay is important, as well. Then, once the clay has been thrown and the shape is complete, the piece needs to dry. In Louisiana, the high humidity means Emma’s work takes more time to dry, and it must be bisque fired at a low temperature for several hours, before it can be glaze fired. Even then, if there is too much moisture in the piece, it could crack or explode in the final firing.
“It’s a science in many ways,” she said, “but you’re leaving a lot to chance—to the kiln gods.” Given the number of steps and variables involved, it typically takes Emma at least a week to create new work. Because some of the variables can’t be fully controlled, the outcome can be exciting. “It’s like a chemistry experiment,” she said, and sometimes pieces don’t turn out as planned or break in the firing. For this reason, Emma makes multiples, learns from her mistakes and calls on her patience when necessary. She said, “When it breaks, you say, ‘That’s life.’” Then you do it again.
Emma has learned a lot of lessons the hard way, but she believes making pottery is a good metaphor for life: you make a lot of messes, but it’s worth it. Because Emma’s pottery is generally very refined and thin, she feels it represents the opposite of life. Creating work with precision and consistency is difficult. Although many things have to be overcome to achieve a crisp look, Emma welcomes the challenge. The organization and discipline evident in her work are features she’s proud of, but in the end, it’s always the human connection that makes everything worthwhile.