Built by Hand: An Interview with Clay Artist, John McRae

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Take a step into the rear studio at Mighty Mud, Knoxville’s own pottery studio for aspiring and established artists across town, and you’ll find John McRae at his work bench focused on his latest commissioned sculpture. As I delved into discovering who the man behind the kiln was, I learned that I was sitting with not only an artist, but an educator, architect, and inspiring altruist.

“I’ve always loved pottery,” John said. “In the early 70s I took a class and began tooling around with pottery, doing some work on the wheel early on. I started into hand-building a while after that, which is what I do now, but took an extended break for quite a few years to pursue other things.” Before moving to Tennessee, John was a Dean at Mississippi State. “When we left there and decided to move to Knoxville, my wife and I were given a gift from someone at the school of two Raku torsos that are bigger than the ones I make, and just beautiful. The pieces were intriguing, edgy. At the time I was only working on these other types of ghoulish figures, and my wife suggested I try creating torsos. So I did, and found it wonderful. About ten months ago I began digging into custom works and that’s about all I do now.”

There aren’t many UTK affiliates who don’t recognize the name John McRae. He has been involved with the university for many years, first serving as Dean of the College of Architecture and Design, and then returning to full-time teaching. For the last two decades, he’s lead excursions to areas from rural Kentucky to earthquake-shaken Haiti in hopes of building areas that otherwise wouldn’t have the opportunity for reconstruction.

“I went to Haiti first in 1985 for a health mission. I met this Haitian minister in a small town there and kept in touch with him over the next few years. When the earthquake happened, I contacted him and asked how we could help. He told us their needs, and we went down there and made it happen. Since then, I’ve been down almost twenty times in connection with these projects. We’ve taken well over 120 students to Haiti to design and work on these constructive programs.

John and his team have also worked in Appalachia for the last couple of years as a part of a grant through the US Department of Health and Human Services in support of community health and wellness in Clay County, Kentucky – one of the 5 poorest counties in the country. He and the team built a water kiosk building in Clay County that services 9,000 families who have no running water. To think that there are families only 2 and a half hours from us who don’t have running water is remarkable. “The group we work with are called Red Bird Mission, about 45 minutes into the mountains from Pineville, Kentucky. The reason they don’t have water is not because there aren’t water lines available, but because so many of the occupants live on a 40% slope in the mountains; it is nearly impossible to get piping up there. A group did an experiment in which they put water pipes in to twelve families in the mountains, and it cost over $1 million.”

The passion seen in John’s eyes when referring to these reconstructive projects is inspiring. There is always work to be done, but it doesn’t seem to affect his moral. “I never really consciously think about getting over to the studio to unwind and relax,” he says. “I love all of the other things I do for work as well, so it all kind of blends together. I just have to make sure I spend time prioritizing between my other commitments at the university.”

If someone were to ask your advice about becoming a clay artist, what would you tell them? Would you say it is a prosperous form of income, or better suited as a hobby?

“Well I work with a lot of artists who do this full time and bring in good prices for their work. I think by and large though, a lot of ceramic artists and potters don’t do it for the money. I certainly do not – I’m never going to be buying a beach house with the way I’m working. I do it because I enjoy it and I’m passionate about it. I would definitely encourage people to pursue pottery if they are ardent about it. We are blessed in that we have jobs we love, even if they don’t go above and beyond in paying our bills.”

What’s your technique when hand-building these women’s torsos?

“I build my pieces from the bottom up. I do it in a sort of circular fashion, with the inside being hollow. I use turned slabs in which you build one on top of the other, and i put paper inside to keep it stable, make it easier to forge. I also do tattoos, by the way.”

John pulled a beautiful torso off the shelf that had a hand-drawn imitation of a lighthouse tattoo on the torso’s upper arm.

“This is how it works: I use a photograph as reference to draw the outline of the tattoo onto the sculpture. I score it with a knife, and then bisque it. I then add the black glaze, wipe it off, and let it set down in the crevasse, which then gets sealed once you bisque it again.”

John doesn’t only focus on women’s torsos, though these are by far his most common request. He has also received a wide range of projects to recreate family heirlooms, build detailed sculptures of couples together, and other diverse works he’s been challenged to create. He reached for a small figurine of a boy with messy hair and overalls standing on the edge of the table.

“The idea for this piece was one that a student of mine brought to me. Her grandmother had this little sculpture that was ancient and old, and one day it was dropped and shattered. She sent me a photograph of it so that I could re-create it for her.”

As I sat with John, it was hard to not have a wandering eye with all of the distracting colors and artwork around me. To my left sat a torso which looked like it had been through the kiln too many times, covered in different swatches of glazes used as a trial for other pieces. To my right stood a small, dried clay covered table, and tools of all sizes whose handles showed their loyalty to the wear and tear of daily use.

“I find inspiration in the actual work on the pieces, with the people I have contact with as a result of their interest in it. People who have a desire to have their work done for various reasons are inspiring to me. Maybe it’s someone who lost a lot of weight, or is a cancer survivor, or even someone who is well into their old age and just want a representation of their body. I always want to do work that is responsive to whatever the person would want. It’s a delicate issue, frankly, to mimic the look of a woman’s body. You have to be responsive in this case.”

John McRae plans on continuing to evolve his sculpting and find new ways to progress his trade while continuing with projects in Kentucky, Haiti, and Knoxville. He is willing to sit with anyone and hear their ideas, in hopes to expand his artistic horizons and keep growing. If you’re interested in talking with John about a commissioned piece or to discuss his work further, you can contact him via Facebook, at John Malcolm McRae.

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