One of Michael Sherrill’s themes is the poignant beauty that may be found in living beings even in decay—the image of a rhododendron growing out of a rock,the “plant bound inside a rock, surviving.”
The visual world is Michael Sherrill’s first language. “If I want to talk,” he has said, “if I want to write my story, it is by creating dimensional things that tell a story in the world.” The intensity of this desire to be heard is evident in the clarity and the conviction of Sherrill‘s voice throughout the varied phases of his career.
The son of a self-taught inventor who patented industrial processes and created machines out of his head, Sherrill was born into what he terms a “making culture.” Standing now within sight of the 26-foot sculpture, New Growth, that he created for the Bank of America in Charlotte, NC, in 2003, he can look down the street to the empty building that once housed his father’s machine shop. As a youngster in the 1950s he would sit on an island of clean cardboard on the floor of this shop, playing with “punched out pieces of steel and nails and old boards and hammers and tools. All around me there‘d be milling machines going and lathes and metal shavings everywhere and my dad was walking around with a hot piece of metal in his hand and a pair of pliers.”
Sherrill found school a daunting experience, but his humiliation was mitigated by his almost preternatural understanding of every material he touched; and his ability as “a maker of things” gave him an important identity. He was diagnosed with dyslexia in high school at about the same time as he discovered the medium of clay. “I just fell in love with clay... and the whole idea of seeing where it could go and where I could take it was just like an epiphany or a love affair.” After studying art at a community college for a year and turning down a full scholarship to the Memphis Academy of Art because it had no ceramics program, he moved to western North Carolina in 1974, determined to become the best potter he could be.
A member of the “back to the land” movement, Sherrill could not afford to take classes at Penland School of Crafts, but his proximity to the school brought him in contact with artists who exemplified the world to which he wanted to belong. Reflecting their influence, he adopted the habit of making pots in series, pursuing a single idea through multiple variations: “That sense of interjecting discovery and play in my work became an early learning tool,” he says, and a lasting sense of adventure has kept him engaged with clay over more than three decades. His connection with Penland has remained strong: he has exchanged information with artists in many media during his frequent teaching stints there, and he at last became a Penland student a few years ago when he took a flame-working class with the glass artist Paul Stankard.
Characterized by an edge of excitement and a young man’s energy, Sherrill’s early work was wheel-thrown, functional and predominantly earth-toned. He investigated salt-glazed stoneware and raku simultaneously, transferring techniques back and forth between processes and exploring different methods of altering the thrown form. He has characterized these early pieces as “potters’ pots,” in which the medium of clay and the processes of handling and firing took center stage.
Over time he realized that he wanted to communicate to a wider audience, to “speak more than the potter’s inside language.” He had been transfixed by paintings in the museums in New York City and Washington, DC, as a child, and it became his ambition to make art of similar scope. Function lost its importance for him, and color became a preoccupation. Working in porcelain, he developed a bold, minimal style of vessel he has characterized as modernist. The matte surfaces of these pieces were, in Sherrill’s words, “incandescent,” with layers of contrasting colors of glaze floated one on top of the other. A striking group of flattened bottles in this style selected by Michael Monroe in 1993 for the White House collection of crafts brought Sherrill to national attention. These modernist vessels led to another series of thrown and altered pieces, faceted forms in which emphatic shifts in plane were heightened by color contrasts; dealing with foreshortened imagery, this series evoked the compositions of Matisse. In the articulation of the formal elements in both series, Sherrill added cleanly defined handles and spouts that he shaped in the most practical way, by using an extruder.
From the beginning, his love of materials was bound up with his love of tools. “Being a tool maker was just part of my nature and a creative part of my life that was not that separated from the making of art for me.” Making tools stretched his imagination and broadened his view of the potential of clay. Now he built several variations of the extruder, one of which revolved like a potter‘s wheel. Challenged to "create stuff that doesn't look like it came out of an extruder at all,” he gave the extruded forms the central place in his work and translated the altered vessel into sculptures of increasing complexity. He often constructed pieces along a single axis, as if conceived as a picture plane in which the space around the components functioned as a vital part of the abstract composition.
In 1997 Sherrill constructed a 5,000-square-foot studio with large windows overlooking 10 acres in a cove in the little town of Bat Cave. A few years later, he and his wife, Margery, settled their young family into the house on the property built onto a 19th-century log cabin. Sherrill has attributed the change of direction that has occurred in his work since this move to his sense of seeing nature for the first time. Almost immediately, the organization of his sculptural forms became less structured and more organic. His new shop has provided him with greatly increased capabilities as an artist, housing a complete clay facility, a metalworking shop that has the capacity to cast bronze, and a bench for flame-working glass.
At about the same time as his move to the new studio, Sherrill founded Mudtools. The business began with flexible ribs made from a specialized plastic and has expanded to offer a variety of innovative clay-working tools. It was his goal “to create systems so that somebody else can make the tools.” The process he employs is to make a master tool and, just as his father did, walk around with it in his pocket and feel it and know, “Hey, this is the right shape.” Only after this examination does he take the tool to someone capable of generating a computer model a machinist can use to make molds. Since Sherrill has turned the daily operations of Mudtools over to an assistant, the business has contributed to his artistic freedom, allowing him to accept more extended commissions. The additional income also gave him the flexibility to accept the invitation to make a sculpture in Inchon, South Korea, during the International Ceramics Symposium in 2004 and to serve a three-month residency at the Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan, WI, in 2006.
Sherrill’s turn towards natural subject matter in his sculpture recalls the career of colorist David Hockney, a painter he admires, who turned to representational painting when he found abstraction too barren. Like Hockney, he has retained a brilliant palette and a strong sense of abstract form. His current work exhibits a perfected attention to detail: far from betraying their origin, the extruded components are transformed into the substance of life. Their organically patterned, multicolored surfaces involve a painstaking process of layering and abrading and require four kiln firings. In the interest of “expanding what clay can do” Sherrill has introduced metal into his sculptures: “How do I draw with small pieces of porcelain? Metal becomes the backbone for a line or an idea that I want to express.” He has also introduced glass for its color and its heightened translucency; in images which convey the sexual energy generated by the presence of both male and female genitalia on a single plant, the most evocative elements are frequently crafted of flame-worked glass. Sherrill’s handling of metal and glass, often involving tools he has originated, is as sure as his touch with clay. The materials are frequently difficult to distinguish; the work transcends medium.
The “natural narratives,” as Sherrill terms them, are metaphors for his personal experience, which is also our own. One theme is the poignant beauty that may be found in living beings even in decay. Beauty in a Hard Place, 2006, is the image of a rhododendron growing out of a rock, the plant “bound inside a rock, surviving,” while the theme of “beauty beyond the wound or the bruise” captures the persistence that allows a plant to bear fruit even after brutal breakage.
Unveiled this January in the Carolinas Medical Center-Mercy hospital in Charlotte, Mercy Seat consists of a level stone seat sheltered by an 11-foot-high tree whose trunk of cast bronze supports an umbrella of more than 300 porcelain leaves. In aesthetic terms, the sculpture is compelling for both perfection of detail and generosity of form. The artist's intent was to create a place of rest and renewal: the work conveys a sense of calm that approaches the spiritual. But however eloquent the voice, Sherrill believes a story is incomplete without a response. As the steps of great cathedrals have been worn by the passage of human feet, the sculpture will be finished when the bronze is polished by the warm touch of hands.
Joan Falconer Byrd heads the ceramics program at Western Carolina University. She has recently completed a biography of Harvey Littleton.