Potter Mark Issenberg infuses clay with nature’s voice.
The view from the bluff by Mark Issenberg's pottery studio atop Lookout Mountain is breathtaking. It’s appropriate that his pots are produced in such an environment because they are a perfect embodiment of natural beauty. His unique glazes and the forms that they cover are the result of a lifetime of experimentation and practice.
Issenberg’s work is refined yet distinctive, and exudes a quiet Zen that he brings to the world from a deep connection with nature. When he’s not volunteering at the Tennessee Aquarium or Cloudland Canyon State Park, Mark can be found making pots, tending to his garden, and training Bonsai.
The Pulse: How did you get your start as a potter?
Mark Issenberg: I started making pottery in ninth grade in Miami, and then went to summer school with my teacher Ron Raymond, who really turned me on to clay. Then my high school art teacher, Gene DeSmet, really helped me to go forward, and he also got me into plants. I’ve been gardening ever since.
TP: What did you do after high school?
MI: I graduated and drove up here in 1968 to study with Charles Counts at Rising Fawn. Coming here for the summer was my first time away from home. I shared a little cabin near the pottery shop with Jeff Green and Sinclair Ashley, who went on to teach art at Baylor. Charles was a brilliant guy, a great potter, and a great educator. He instilled his work ethic in me and taught me how to manage my time when making pottery.
TP: Did your work as a firefighter influence your pottery?
MI: I was always a potter before I was a firefighter. It was a great job, it had good benefits, and it was nice to be able to help people. I was an EMT and a firefighter, so I did rescue and I was on a fire truck. Living in Miami, being on the water affected how I lived and how I thought about clay more than the job.
TP: Are there any other artists who have influenced your work?
MI: That’s really hard to say. I’m still learning new things daily. I was just watching a video about a guy in Australia doing Bonsai workshops, but there’s not one artist in particular who really influenced me other than Charles. For instance, I make these big platters and they are mine—they’re like nobody else’s. I’m really working on them and I love making them. A lot of my time is spent finding my own voice in clay so that people will know that I made that work. It’s really hard to make your art have a look of your own.
TP: Do you place more emphasis on form or function?
MI: I make everything functional for what it is. When I make a mug, it’s a mug. There’s no question of what it is. You’re not going to get cut and bleed using my mug, and you can put it in a dishwasher or microwave it. It’s safe. It’s the same with my Bonsai pots…they’re really sculptural but functional.
TP: Do you have any observations about the state of the arts in Chattanooga?
MI: A lot of people enjoy seeing these big pieces of sculpture in Chattanooga, but we really need a place where everybody can go for the arts. The city spends all kinds of money to put art out in public, but there is a lack of art education. It’s all divided. Everybody has their little art thing around town but what we need is one big place that is devoted to the arts, like a Creative Arts Guild, where anybody can go. We also need a really good botanical garden. I’m not talking about Reflection Riding; that’s wonderful for what it is, but I’m talking about a place that is enclosed in glass that has all kinds of tropical plants that you will never see anywhere else. Many surrounding cities have a good one. Growing plants is an art form too.
TP: What is your philosophy on life?
MI: Be happy. I like to keep things very simple, growing stuff and making pots. There is a quote on the wall in my studio that says, “I’ve found that 99% of my practices and worshiping consists of just going outside, sitting still, shutting up, and listening.”
Mark’s pottery can be found here in town at Plum Nelly and Area 61, and his studio/gallery at Rising Fawn is open to the public by appointment. Visit lookoutmountainpottery.com