Studio Visit
Adam Silverman, Studio Director at Heath Ceramics

To identify yourself as a potter in this day and age sounds strangely old-fashioned. A ceramicist, yes; a ceramic artist, sure. And yet there really is no other way to describe Adam Silverman, the Los Angeles–based studio director for Heath Ceramics, who jokes that he keeps a banker’s hours behind the wheel he runs from the back of Heath’s Commune-designed retail facility. Silverman, of course, wasn’t always a potter by trade — he was first a RISD-trained architect and then a fashion entrepreneur who founded the late-’90s fashion label X-Large with his college roommate. But he always had a nagging feeling that he was ignoring his calling. “For me, it was a hobby. If you invited me to your house, I would bring you a pot instead of a bottle of wine,” Silverman told me when I visited his studio earlier this year. Finally in 2002, he attended a summer ceramics program at Alfred University and went about setting up a proper studio in Atwater Village. “I basically gave myself a year, and I have kids, so I couldn’t fuck around. When you do it like that, getting up every day to do the work, your progress is relatively immediate. I had also stepped into this weird vacuum where there was nobody else here doing this kind of thing.”

By “this kind of thing,” Silverman means pottery, but in truth, there is nobody anywhere who turns out the kind of experimental vessels that he specializes in, all wildly textured surfaces and slithery, primordial glazes. Such an unconventional aesthetic might at first seem at odds with Heath, a more streamlined brand with a half-century of tradition behind it. “All of my stuff is a pure expression of process — pieces that are fired many times and ground down in between or glazes that move and freeze when they’re cooled or layers of things that get thicker and thicker and change color,” says Silverman. “When I first got involved, I would get comments from the people up at the Heath factory in Sausalito like, ‘I can help you fix that.’ But I think they’ve come around.” He was hired in 2008 by Heath owners Catherine Bailey and Robin Petravic, and these days, anyone stopping by the Heath shop can spy Silverman in the back, churning out small-run production pieces, custom work on commission, and weird ceramic experiments that may one day find life as either of the first two.

Lately those experiments have revolved around a project Silverman is doing in collaboration with the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas. “There’s an iconic Louis Kahn building that’s been there since 1972, and they’re building a new Renzo Piano addition next door. There’s a Tadao Ando building near the premises as well. I’m harvesting materials from the construction site and making a body of work from that. I don’t know what I’m going to make or where it will go once it’s done, but the project is basically about how do I use these materials — clays, wood, stones, water, etc. — to make a body of work that somehow reflects the interaction of these three architects, on this site, at this time.” Silverman is keeping a blog detailing the project; check it out here, and keep reading for a glimpse at the potter’s process.

 

small wall

Silverman’s set-up at Heath was inspired by mid-20th-century Scandinavian ceramics factories like Royal Copenhagen, which often housed artists’ studios on-site. Shoppers are encouraged to peek through the open glass doors into the potter’s 1,200-square-foot lair, where nearly every surface is covered with pots or ceramic experiments in various stages of completion. Shown here are unglazed vases, slip cast into classic Heath forms and destined for Silverman’s Hybrid line.

mottledvase1

For a Hybrid, Silverman and his assistant Roger will first cast a pot and let it dry, then paint a band of silicon carbide around it. “We fire it once and glaze it, then fire it again. The silicon carbide causes a gas to form under the glaze that makes it bubble. When the piece comes out of the kiln, we grind off the top of the bubbles so what you’re seeing is the back of the bubbles. Depending on how thick the glaze is, sometimes the bubbles are thicker, and sometimes they’re tiny,” says Silverman.

candleholders

Candleholders and ashtrays finished in slightly altered Heath glazes. “With something like this, I’ll throw the first one as an experiment, and then we’ll make a mold and cast the rest. They’re halfway between my stuff and the typical Heath stuff, and the nice thing is they’re much less expensive than my hand-thrown pieces. Also Roger can make them once they’re designed and up and running,” says Silverman.

matches

A finished ashtray. “The idea with things like this was that if the market responded well, we could send them up to the factory in Sausalito to begin real production,” says Silverman. “But in reality the factory is so maxed out that it’s actually quicker for us to do them here. They just don’t have the room.”

heath_winterred

Out in the shop, a display of seasonal Heath pieces. “We do seasonal glazes in the winter and summer, and for the past couple of seasons we’ve experimented with layering glazes. You can see on the top right a matte red, then a darker red on the bottom, and then we let them overlap for about an inch. When we first opened the shop, it was a nice marriage because I had a good local following and Heath had their following. Some diehard Heath people responded to my work and some didn’t, but the halfway stuff is a nice compromise that they can understand.”

assortedceramics

For the most part, however, Petravic and Bailey have given Silverman complete freedom to run wild, and pieces like this are closer in spirit to the work he did under his Atwater Pottery label. “On these, the clay itself is black and the glaze is a cobalt crater glaze. A lot of what I do has a limited palette and it becomes more about putting one glaze on top of the other, or using a thicker or thinner application to achieve a certain texture. The thicker and more crackly the glaze appears, the thicker the application.”

gloopy2

“In both of these cases, a crackle glaze has been applied over a glossy black glaze. When the glaze cracks in the kiln, it slides around a lot and then stays in place when it cools. The thicker the application, the more the glaze moves around. Things like this involve a lot of trial and error, a lot of caveman action, and a lot of kiln cleaning. You can see the one on the left has what look like little feet: That’s from the glaze running down and sitting on the kiln shelf.”

blue_tower

“You can see where the glaze has been applied thickly, how it peels apart. Glazing is sort of like baking, like how more butter and less flour can affect the outcome of a chocolate cake. Glazes are just a combination of chemicals, but each one is a very specific recipe.”

bluepotspecial

“This is that same cobalt glaze, but with the white applied more thickly than the cobalt. In most cases like this, you make the pot, you let it dry, and then you fire it once to a temperature that’s less than the final temperature, which helps it absorb the moisture of the glaze. After the glaze is applied, you fire it a second time to a mature temperature. You could fire it all the way through before glazing, but then the clay would respond differently.”

flaky_vase

An experimental piece Silverman created using glazed clay shards. “This is more of a concept piece,” he laughs. “I put some pieces like this in a gallery show. In an art context, it’s okay to be dangerous but not so much in a housewares store.”

glazesamples

Boxes of glaze tests. “I decided I wanted to develop a whole new body of glazes because I’d been doing a version of the same thing for what felt like many years,” says Silverman. “The palette was inspired by the images of bullfighting hanging above it. The idea was, how do you convey that violent imagery and its weird beauty and savagery, all in a glaze on a pot? And of course all without then telling people that’s what you’re going for. So we made these glazes with super-aggressive crackle and textures. We did probably 200 tests to narrow it down to about five.”

drypigment

In the corner of the studio are shelves filled with glaze ingredients: chemicals, clays, and colorants. “Some ingredients, like silica, will make a glaze melt, some will make it hard, some will make it bubble or crackle or shine or change colors,” says Silverman. “Some glazes have 15 ingredients while some have three. It’s all about finessing the formula.”

chalkboard

Every few weeks, a van comes down from the Sausalito factory filled with the materials Silverman needs to produce on-site. Shown here is his current grocery list. Silverman uses three different blends of clay, two for Heath — sourced mostly from quarries around California — as well as the black clay he uses for his own work.

kimbell_clay

For the Kimbell project, Silverman harvested five clays from five parts of the site and began testing them first by themselves and then in blends. None worked very well on its own; some even slowly decomposed after being fired in the kiln. “I prefer wheel-throwing to slip-casting, but if the Texas clays don’t want to do that, it’ll influence where the project goes. I also won’t add a bunch of stuff from the factory just to make it do what I want it to do,” Silverman says. At the same time, he’s also gathering material from the maintenance of the Ando building as well as from a nearby Richard Serra sculpture, which regularly sheds pieces of rust that can be used as a source of iron oxide in glazes.

redclay

Since he began harvesting materials more than six months ago, Silverman has filled two massive storage lockers in Fort Worth. He’ll transport the whole thing back in a truck this summer, but until then, he’s been ferrying back smaller clay samples in sandwich bags. Shown here is one of the first clays Silverman harvested from the site, found caked on the roots of an upended tree.

molds

Shown here, the shelves and posts that allow Silverman to create various assemblages in the kiln. “Up in Sausalito they use gas kilns, but here we use electric,” he explains. “They’re not substantially different, it’s just that a kiln up there would require so much electricity to run that it’s hardly worth it."

inside_kiln2

Hybrids, candleholders, and other small-batch production pieces cooling in the kiln.

inside_kiln3

Experimental pieces and commissions.

adam

Silverman articulating the foot of an already thrown piece. His love for the wheel only goes so far: “In L.A., you have people who will come in and say, ‘Can you make me something like that but five times the size?’" he says. "And you say, ‘Only if you give me a ridiculous amount of money.’ And then they say okay, and you have to make it! This summer we did three or four really huge planters, which took a ton of work. You have such a high failure rate; when things get that big, they warp and crack. You have to throw it in sections, and take the kiln apart. One of them blew up in the kiln.”

GM2006

Before moving into the space at Heath, Silverman worked for years in the same building as Los Angeles graphic designer Geoff McFetridge. For a show in Tokyo in 2006, the curators asked Silverman's friends and colleagues to write something about his work; McFetridge submitted this drawing of Silverman at the wheel instead. Stay tuned: McFetridge is set to get the Sight Unseen treatment himself within the next few weeks.