The Art of Working Extra Hard to Avoid Perfection

HARD DAY WITH CLAY
Melissa Weiss in a brief moment of relaxation.
Portrait by Rachel Pressley

Potter Melissa Weiss wanted to do film-based photographic art, so she attended the School of Visual Arts in New York and earned a BFA in photography in 2000. But her career plans went south right after she graduated, because photography went digital. “I lost interest immediately,” she recalls. “It was such a useless degree to me.” Then Weiss literally went South — and that journey eventually landed her in Asheville, where she’s been a full-time studio potter for the last eight years, using laboriously hand-dug clay, traditional ash and shino glazes, and various decorating techniques — including wax resist and inlay work — to make custom, functional pots and vessels. Not even her mugs are production pieces.

How did you become a ceramicist?  

I took my first pottery class when I was 30. I was waiting tables and started selling a few pots. After a while I was selling more pots and was down to waiting tables just one night a week, so finally I applied to all these craft shows. I made it a vacation, traveling across the country, and it was successful, so I never had to go back to having a [traditional] job again. 

I work really hard, but so much is timing and luck, and I have such a supportive partner. …. I dig my own clay off land I own in Arkansas, and processing it is so hard, but he helps do all the behind-the-scenes stuff.

How’d a WNC potter wind up using Arkansas clay?

I used to work blueberries in Maine, migrant work, and then go to Massachusetts and work at the Ocean Spray cranberry factory. Twelve hours a day, seven days a week, living in a tent in the woods behind the factory in October and November, always cold and wet. Friends I met at the cranberry factory said, “Land’s cheap in Arkansas,” so we drove out and I bought 25 acres for less than my kiln cost. After I became a potter, I brought some [clay] back to test, and I’ve used it ever since. I go out once a year and dig 2,000 pounds of it.

You bought the land without knowing you would later become a potter? 

I had no idea. It was just all very serendipitous. 

Long before her signature glazes and design come into play, Melissa hand digs her raw material in her plot of land in rural Arkansas.

Did you even realize the land had clay on it?

Oh, we realized it because the clay made it so we couldn’t drive up our road. But I didn’t think about clay as ceramics. It didn’t even cross my mind. 

It hasn’t gotten that much easier — all your pieces, including the mugs and tumblers, are one-offs, right?

Everything is one of a kind. … The catalyst for moving to mostly hand building [from wheel throwing] was three hand and wrist surgeries … but I just prefer that method of making now. The wheel makes things too perfect for me. I like the intuitiveness that comes with hand building [a pot] … the fact that it will never be a perfect round thing.

What have you been making lately?

I have a large body of work that’s bigger pots, and I recently started painting, which is fun. I’m making ceramic picture frames with original paintings in them.

Melissa Weiss, Asheville. For studio appointments, e-mail melissa@melissaweisspottery.com. For more information, see melissaweisspottery.com and on Instagram (@melissaweisspottery). Weiss will vend at the Big Crafty, happening Sunday, July 11, 12-7pm, at Pack Square Park in downtown Asheville. www.thebigcrafty.com. 

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