A Fire Within

A Fire Within

Early hardship fueled Marvin Blackmore's determination to make a living with his intricate ceramics.

Marvin Blackmore’s childhood was hardly idyllic. But he never expected what happened, and when it happened, he never could have imagined where its challenges would eventually lead. The sixth child of 14 kids in a struggling family in Cortez, Colorado, Blackmore occupied himself with sports, friends, and drawing, keeping his distance from the downward spiral of alcohol and drugs he witnessed in his family. Then, when he was a senior in high school, he came home from a weekend at a friend’s house and discovered that his family had moved – to California.

Blackmore made a choice. Convinced he should finish high school – he ended up as the only one in his family to graduate – he decided to stay in Cortez, getting by however he could. With the help of a school janitor, he slept in the school weight room, showered and washed his one pair of pants and two shirts in the locker room, and left each morning at 5 before the other janitors arrived. On weekends, when the school was closed, he wandered around town, sometimes sleeping beneath dryer vents at a laundromat for warmth. “I’d have lint on me,” he says, smiling, “but I didn’t die, so that’s cool.”

Blackmore’s life since then is evidence that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. As he tells his story, the 49-year-old artist is sitting in his twin-engine Beechcraft Duke, which he flew from his home in Durango, Colorado. He opens a cardboard box and pulls out a lidded ceramic vessel delicately hand-etched in exquisitely intricate geometric patterns covering every millimeter of surface. Colors emerge where the etching penetrates the vessel’s black outer layer to underlying clay slips of varying hues. The finely etched designs continue on the lid, on the vessel’s bottom, and even inside – wherever the artist’s hand can reach.

Blackmore has become widely known for the complexity and beauty of the multilayered etching on his pottery, which often incorporates Southwestern American Indian motifs, as well as aesthetic influences from ancient Egypt and the Middle East. Recently he spent three years experimenting until he perfected a method of adorning vessels with 24-karat gold. His widely collected art has earned numerous awards and been included in such major venues as the annual Smithsonian and Philadelphia Museum of Art craft shows.

But that’s jumping ahead. After graduating from high school, Blackmore spent two years working in the oil fields of southern New Mexico before returning to Cortez, where he met a Navajo potter named Manuel Morgan, who showed him the basics of working with clay. Blackmore began selling Morgan’s pottery on commission, traveling to trading posts around the Southwest. The route exposed him to some of the best Pueblo pottery and other American Indian art in the country, including the carved, black-on-black vessels of renowned Santa Clara Pueblo potters Joseph Lonewolf and Maria Martinez. “Their work was beautiful and really inspired me. The wheels were turning,” the artist says.

When he was in his early 20s, living with his wife and infant son in low-income housing but finally feeling like he was starting to get somewhere, Blackmore was laid off. He was devastated. Then it struck him: “I knew how to make pottery. That’s when it all started. The best gift Manuel could have given me was to let me go.” Blackmore’s first vessels were carved black-on-black, which the owner of a local pottery shop fired for him. He sold them by driving hundreds of miles to trading posts. He sold everything he made, but cheaply – he and his wife were still eating ramen and barely able to pay for gas.

A year into this routine, Blackmore learned of an art show in Page, Arizona. With a total of $72 to his name, he talked the organizer into letting him take part, promising to pay the $350 booth fee through his sales – not knowing whether he would have any. That weekend he sold $1,800 worth of pots. He also earned first place in ceramics, besting several well-known artists for the award. Shortly afterward he attended his second show, taking in $3,000 and earning Best in Show honors. “Going from zero to having a surplus of money – it was just unimaginable,” he remembers. He began selling regularly at regional art shows and soon shifted from carving to etching, taking the first steps toward his extraordinarily detailed, meticulous style of today. “When you see success, it inspires you to see how far you can go with it,” he observes. “I started pushing myself more and more.”

At some point Blackmore realized it was mathematically impossible for one person to spend so much time on each piece and make a living. So for the past 25 years his lifelong friends Doris and Rodney John have assisted him. The Johns – and now Blackmore’s eldest son, Valentino – add their talents to Blackmore’s in designing, etching, and wheel-throwing vessels. Other aspects of the process, including mixing glazes, firing, and applying gold, are done only by Blackmore and his son.

For the artist, learning to fly and buying a plane were also aimed at saving time. The father of four kids, now in their mid-teens to mid-20s, he never misses an opportunity to show his family the support and assurance of love he lacked as a boy. Flying to shows around the country leaves more time for family activities such as cycling, as well as for making his art.

Yet Blackmore knows he would not be where he is today if he hadn’t known the hardships he experienced as a kid. “What it gave me was incredible determination to work hard at everything, because I knew I had no safety net. I had to make it work,” he reflects. And that determination continues to fuel his ongoing artistic mission: to deliver a “wow moment” with everything he creates. As he sums it up, “I want to make the most intricate, beautiful, complex pieces the world has ever seen.”