Ceramics seems like a very calming, therapeutic artform. A clump of clay gets dropped onto a wheel, spun about at a consistent speed and smoothed over by wet hands. For anyone whose mother may or may not have been obsessed with the 1990 film Ghost, it’s also damn near impossible not to associate the craft with a certain degree of romance, a la Swayze and Moore, while The Righteous Brothers bellow out their haunting version of “Unchained Melody.”
The uninitiated, therefore, might find ceramicist Brenna McBroom’s description of her process a bit jarring. “I do a lot of swearing in the studio,” she says. Of course, McBroom works in a very specific and specialized form of ceramics — the crystalline glazing process. It’s one that demands a delicate balance between glaze composition, firing schedule, glaze thickness, pot shape and pedestal control. “All it takes is a small margin of error and the results can be terrible,” she says.
And yet the process itself also involves elements of the uncontrollable and unknown. Once a piece is placed in the kiln and fired at an unimaginable 2,345 degrees Fahrenheit, crystals grow. At this point, their shape and form are at the mercy of the ceramic gods. When benevolent, these gods fire out results quite surreal — emerald teapots and aqua bud vases whose crystal surfaces are stationary, yet alive. Look into one of McBroom’s’s fruit bowls and it’s as if you’re peering down from space, seeing Earth’s outer atmosphere engulfed by an ominous — albeit beautiful — turquoise storm.
McBroom’s own journey toward ceramics mirrors the very elements of her craft — a focused drive toward the unknown. A prodigious child, McBroom was dual enrolled at St. John’s River Community College in Palatka, Florida by the age of 16. Yet once she began as a full-time college student, she found herself disengaged. “My classes were all very theoretical. I was used to doing things,” she says.
By the end of her first semester, she had dropped out. “I didn’t have a concrete plan,” she says. “For awhile, I was living at home and kind of freaking out.” Within a few months, however, she began reaching out to ceramic artists online, explaining to them her story — one that involved a single ceramics class, but a class that left an indelible impression. And so began a series of apprenticeships that took her from Jacksonville, Fla. to Boston, to Corvallis, Ore., to Asheville.
While in Oregon, under the guidance of Dale Donovan, McBroom was introduced to crystalline glazing. “I’d heard about it at a craft show in Boston, and I’d always kept it filed in the back of my mind,” McBroom says. “I fell in love with the form’s precision and ratios.”
When she returned to Asheville, where she and her family had relocated in 2010, McBroom found herself with a style that separated her from the more traditional Appalachian stoneware — a technique that is often produced rapidly, with little to no trimming. “I suddenly had a niche market,” she says.
Nevertheless, McBroom did as she had always done between apprenticeships, taking a job unrelated to her craft. “I worked as a warehouse packer,” she says. Her position, however, was eliminated within two months of her employment. “That’s when I just decided to go for it,” she says.
Between an Etsy account and craft shows, McBroom soon found a growing customer base. “My first success was with LEAF,” she says. “In retrospect, I didn’t actually do particularly well in sales for a three day festival. But at the time, it felt awesome. It kept me going.”
And for the last four years, she’s been doing just that — designing and creating a line of glazed porcelainware that embodies a sense of play within a paradigm of precision. With a home studio based in North Asheville, McBroom’s work can be found online as well as at Clingman Café, Dobra Tea and K2 Studio.