A collection made from fire and clay

By Jef Rietsma

Collector? Michael Watts.

Collection? Ceramics – his own creations.

What kind of ceramics are in your collection? “Mostly vases, but it does include some bowls, plates, platters and other creations.”

How did acquire such a vast collection of ceramics? “I made them all myself.”

Did you always have such a strong interest in art? “The art of ceramics, specifically, is something I developed later in life. We started going to art shows after moving back to Michigan in the early 1990s. I talked to a ceramic artist at a show in Bronson Park and he suggested I take a class at Kalamazoo Institute of Arts, and he said Kalamazoo Valley Community College also offers courses in working with clay. I started at KIA then went to Valley for classes.”

So, when did you start getting serious about ceramics? “I’ve been very interested the last 20 years or so, but I got more serious not long after my son graduated from high school and that was 2009.”

You eventually learned several different techniques. What are some? “I learned there’s low-firing, high-firing, there’s bisque firing. For design, I have done horsehair, which is a style using the hair from a horse’s tail and incorporating it into your piece. The work involves spraying the surface with polyurethane, which enhances everything, then I polish it with furniture polish. Crystaline is another technique that produces beautiful pieces.”

How long does it take to make a piece? “Less than a half hour, but it goes in the kiln for hours. Kiln temperatures range from 1,200 degrees to 1,600 degrees depending on whether you want to use low-firing, high-firing. Though Raku is a technique that requires about 1,800 degrees. Anagama kilns heat up to 2,400 degrees.”

Watts explains the procedure he follows requires a glaze application on the exterior of the piece and an oxidation process brought on by the level of heat. Watts said the exterior of every piece features original designs and patterns based on how they react to the heating process and where they are placed in a kiln. Most pieces he makes are about 10 inches in height.

Do you design a piece as you go or do you have a preconceived vision of what a finished piece will look like? “I have to look on the internet to see different forms and choose one. If I don’t, I struggle in the studio.”

How many pieces have you made through the years? “I’d typically make between 20 and 30 pieces per semester. That’s actually not much but I’ve made easily more than 400 pieces.”

Do you sell your pieces? “I used to attend art shows. The world of art is fickle because one thing in vogue one year may not be in vogue the next year. I came to terms with the idea that my work may be better than others, but I know I’m worse than others. But I made the mistake of judging my work to others and that is the beginning of an end of what you’re doing. Because I did that, I had to step back and ask what else could I do.”

When did you last make a piece? “It’s been about two years. I miss it, though I’m happy with what I’m doing with photography. But I’ll go back to ceramics at some point. It’s very therapeutic and very fulfilling.”

So, you are not currently involved in ceramics? “At the moment, no. I still have my kit in the garage but I’ve moved on to photography. I don’t even sell pieces anymore because what I have on hand now are pieces that I really like and don’t necessarily want to get rid of. I’ve probably given away about 30 percent of my pieces as gifts.”

When you did art shows, how did you decide the value of a piece? “I’ve always struggled with that. How do you price it to sell? The price you can put on a piece in Kalamazoo County is a lot different than what you could put on it in Grand Rapids, where it would be priced higher. It’s all about the market. The most I ever sold a piece for was around $50.”

Where will your collection eventually end up? “My son and his wife have been given a number of pieces through the years and they seem to enjoy my work. I guess where everything ends up will be decided by my wife, our son and his wife.”

Footnotes: Watts, 73, was born in Port Huron and grew up in Texas. A resident in Portage’s Haverhill neighborhood, Watts and his wife moved back to Michigan in 1993.

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