For a Healthy Relationship, Let the Kiln have the Last Word

Shawn Ireland went from C student to A-list potter.
Portrait by Audrey Goforth

Shawn Ireland’s exciting partnership with clay involves struggle and surrender. “It challenges me … but being open to where it will take me keeps it vital.”

He does admit that some relationships have bumpy beginnings. As a fine-arts major exploring painting and ceramics at Pennsylvania’s Kutztown University, Ireland got an undistinguished grade of “C” in his “Intro to Throwing” class. “I distinctly remember saying, ‘I will never have to do that again!’” 

However, being in the right place, at the right time, with the right teachers, changed everything. During his senior year, he heard about Penland School of Crafts, and in 1991, he signed up for a two-month workshop there with noted potters Will Ruggles and Douglass Rankin. Besides learning the history of pots and wood-kiln burning-and-firing techniques, “I was introduced to the interaction of nature with art,” says Ireland, “and, maybe most importantly, to an aesthetic of looking deeply into what is happening creatively before you in your hands.”

Bird Bowl

Ireland draws inspiration from a variety of sources, including ancient art, African carvings, and international folkcraft. “These influences,” he says, “all get mixed up in the studio, hopefully resulting in something both rustic and modern.”

From 1993 to 1995, he participated in Penland’s Core Fellowship Program. “Core Fellows are behind the scenes keeping the school running smoothly, while having access to studios,” explains Ireland. Following this, he was a Penland Resident Artist from 1996 to 1999.

For seven years, beginning in 2006, Ireland worked off and on for the University of Georgia’s Study Abroad Program in Cortona, Italy, something that still influences his art, especially through his current Animalware series that is at the same time sculptural and functional. “Etruscan and Mediterranean zoomorphic pots knocked me out — I just had to put a chicken head on a bowl!” He adds: “Now it’s wide open, especially after traveling in South Africa and experiencing the awesome wildlife there.”

But the resulting artwork doesn’t stem from whimsy. “It’s important to me that the animal bits remain architectural elements rather than narrative. They are used to create and accentuate form. If they get cute, they get tossed.”

Ireland fires three times a year in a kiln that holds around 400 pots. “When the door comes down, it’s always an emotional rollercoaster, so you have to be open-minded. The unpredictability and variation of the wood fire makes every kiln load a new start.”

He uses what he calls “wild” materials, referring to ingredients he finds in nature. The potter digs some of his clay locally; Mitchell County is a mineral-rich area containing feldspar, silica, and kaolin. These coarse materials add character to the pots and promote surprises.

“The elements which compose pottery are alive,” he notes. “For me, the good pots are not ‘finished.’”

Top Left: Bird Tray, Top Right: Chicken Boat, Bottom Left: Rhino Bowl, Bottom Right: Bud Vase

Shawn Ireland Pottery is shown at American Folk Art & Framing (64 Biltmore Ave. in Asheville) and at the Penland Gallery & Visitors Center at Penland School of Crafts (3135 Conley Ridge Road, The artist’s studio, located at 134 Penland Road in Bakersville, is included in the Toe River Arts Council Holiday Studio Tour, happening November 30-December 2, 10am-5pm ( For more information, see

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