It’s back-breaking work that requires late nights, early mornings and a whole lot of faith that your effort won’t prove to be in vain. Throwing pottery – seen by many as a hobby reserved for art classes with pre-fabricated kilns – is more than just a craft. For Alex Matisse, a 28-year-old traditional potter based in Asheville, North Carolina, it’s his life’s calling.
Inspired by traditional Southern potters, Alex not only molds pots, but he also creates the clay and glazes by hand, using all local ingredients. “I like that you’re doing different things different days, and I like the challenge,” he says. “I’m pretty hard on myself, and I don’t ever foresee a point where I say I’m good enough at this. I always feel myself getting better, improving, struggling and working through problems.”
Constant improvement is the mark of any great craftsman – and Alex would know. Though he may not say it up front, he’s the great-grandson of renowned French painter and cutout artist, Henri Matisse, and the product of a family tree of painters, artists and curators. But creating underneath someone of that stature can be a heavy burden.
“It’s a tremendous blessing,” Alex says about his legendary surname. “It’s there, and that’s fine, but I knew that if I was going to make craft work, the name would only go so far. I would still have to do the work, and people first and foremost look at the work.”
When it came time for college, Alex left his family in New England for a new start in North Carolina – a land that’s full of pottery experts. Three years ago, Alex began his professional journey after he dropped out of college and finished a three-year apprenticeship under notable potter, Matt Jones.
Today, Alex is committed to an arduous, sometimes monotonous, process that only happens four times every year. He spends nearly three months fashioning and glazing about 1,000 pots of varying sizes, style and design, before loading the kiln – a 7-foot-wide, 35-foot-deep, 18-foot-tall structure that he made by hand. The wood-firing process takes three days and requires someone to be on-site at all times, stoking the wood every five to ten minutes, and bringing the temperature up to the maximum 2,350 degrees. Then, after the temperature is brought carefully down, the unloading process begins. And that part, he says, gives him nightmares.
“It can be horrible,” Alex explains, describing how the fire can obliterate the colors and opacity of pots he created so carefully. “I have some control, but you cannot have all control. You have to let go of them during that time. It can really get messed up in the fire, and I lose a lot of work. But the pots that come out well, I really cherish.”
When we spoke with Alex, he was in the midst of the anxiety of a firing. This time, the pots he unloads (for better or for worse) will be on display and for sale at the American Craft Council Atlanta Show, March 15 -17 at the Cobb Galleria Centre. And while he stokes the fire and sweats it out waiting for the final results, Alex continues to appreciate the impact that the South has had on his craft.
“I found this community here,” he says. “It was completely serendipitous to find myself in North Carolina, and I opened my eyes and looked around and saw that I was in this land made of clay, quite literally. I stayed here for the community of potters and collectors that is here in great abundance.”