It was not a propitious beginning for a budding young artist. Michael Hamlin was in second grade when his art teacher gave her students balls of clay and told them to create something. “I made two things — a cat and a whale. I was particularly proud of how well I made them,” he recalls.
But then two other students broke the tails off Hamlin’s sculptures, rendering them unsuitable for glazing and firing. He was told instead that he could paint them with watercolors. “I was so disappointed!”
Despite (or perhaps because) of this setback, a rebelliously creative spark had ignited within him. “I started taking out craft books so often the librarian forbade me to take out any more.”
Hamlin went to college to study horticulture, but that interest soon waned when he began delving into clay. “I bought a couple of how-to books on ceramics and a small kiln for $100, which I kept in a friend’s basement.” He started making vases and platters until one day he realized: This is what I want to do with the rest of my life.
Hamlin enrolled at the Columbus College of Art and Design (CCAD) in Ohio, where he earned a Bachelor’s degree in fine arts with a major in ceramics and glaze chemistry. While there, he created glaze recipes he continues to use today.
At CCAD, he says, it was drilled into the ceramics majors that they weren’t there to learn to be production potters. “We were expected to make one-of-a-kind pieces … that could stand alone as objects of art.” It inspired him to create vessels that implored the viewer to pick them up, hold them, and closely study their details. This, he explains, is how he defines intimacy.
While Hamlin didn’t pursue a degree in horticulture, he’s always enjoyed gardening, and for years has drawn and painted pictures of flowers, often incorporating those images in his sculptures. “I like studying just one flower, not a huge bouquet of flowers. That is simply too loud for my taste” — thus the reason he tends now to make small-necked vases.
Once he’s decided on a design, he says he considers all the possible ways to achieve it. He’s “not devoted to any particular process” — e.g., wheel throwing, handbuilding with slabs or coils, or slip casting. “For me, it’s the end result that matters most.”
He continues to find inspiration for his designs in the plants in his garden and in the mushrooms, lichen, and other plants that grow outside his studio on Little Bearwallow Mountain in Gerton, in rural Henderson County. Unique patterns in manmade objects also offer inspiration — “I look at lampshades from the 1950s and at abstract and nonrepresentational paintings.”
Hamlin’s mastery of glazes allows him to imbue his sculptures with a sense of motion. That’s especially true with his signature crater glaze that resembles the moon’s surface. Applied with a house-paint brush and a palette knife, “it’s about as thick as cream cheese,” he says. Some pieces get up to ten thick coats apiece, taking many days to dry. “Without the movement of the glaze,” he says, “the sculpture can look unexciting. The glaze brings it to life.”
Michael Hamlin, Gerton. Hamlin will be the featured artist at the North Carolina Ceramic Arts Festival, to be held in sponsorship with the Village Potters Clay Center on Saturday, Sept. 19 — Hamlin’s 55th birthday — from 11am-5pm at Pack Square Park in Asheville. Check the festival’s website for updates according to the latest phase of state reopening protocols: northcarolinaceramicartsfestival.com. Hamlin’s work is also sold at Woolworth Walk (25 Haywood St., Asheville, woolworthwalk.com); Trackside Studios (375 Depot St.,tracksidestudios375.com) and Splurge (37 Paynes Way #003, @splurgedesign on Instagram and “Splurge by Robert Nicholas” on Facebook), both in the River Arts District; and at New Moon Marketplace (1508 Charlotte Hwy., Fairview, newmoonmarketplace.com). For more information, see hamlinceramics.com.