Shadow May makes treasure maps that can't be followed
Shadow May throws pottery on a wheel. Just like a seemingly infinite number of ceramic artists, he makes round-ish vessels with openings at the top, containers that can hold things. For most ceramists, that's where the pot stops, but for May the pot is a building block for something very different.
In his Red Bank studio, Shadow May shows me four abstract sculptures he's preparing for a show in St. Louis. Each is composed of many small clay pots that have been squeezed together to make a new shape. Resting on a small pedestal—securely, May says, though they look too big for them—the new shape occupies a territory somewhere between grounded and rising. Recognizable vessel shapes are squeezed and distorted, almost like a wadded up sheet of paper but short of total collapse. They are densely packed around a cylindrical hole that passes cleanly from front to back.
"Some people would say, 'Well, he just took his mistakes and piled them all together,' but I could never do that actually," he says.
Because wet clay offers a limited window of time for shaping it, May has to make new pots day by day as he builds these abstract pieces. First comes that surprisingly small pedestal and a few pots. Then he throws a thick cylinder to make the central void that will hold the smaller pots together and layers more pots around and on top of it. The cylinder retains its shape, like the eye in the middle of a hurricane of twisted crockery, though its edges are torn and smeared into the surrounding pots.
"This piece right here is 10 to 15 open and closed thrown vessels that could easily be 75 to 120 dollars apiece if I just left them alone," he says. "I choose to spend all the time to make them and then to build some sort of ambiguous shape."
The pieces he's showing me are like perverse little meditations on containment, made of containers but incapable of containing anything themselves.
He points to another abstract piece that has some of the same elements, but is more expansive. A larger cylinder angles up from its base and a large flat bowl torn in half is attached. Ragged tears and cuts are prominent and barely softened in the finished pieces by a simple white glaze.
"I am all about form first. The glaze is there to let the form stand on its back," he says. "It's almost like when you were in class and the math teacher said 'We're having a take-home test, and I want you to show your work.' I want to show my work. I don't want to hide it at all. You see the process of what I'm doing, of everything that went into making the piece."
May worked with clay throughout his high school years in Homer, Alaska. As soon as he graduated, he drove from Homer to Knoxville for an apprenticeship with a clay artist. After working as a carpenter or as a chef for a long time, he's made a living as a full-time artist for the last 12 years.
He still makes functional pieces like trays and mugs and semi-functional pieces that show a playful mind at work. He shows me one piece he calls a "split jar." It looks like a large bottle, with a cap at the top, but like a Russian nesting doll, one thing hides inside another. The bottle lifts up off of a base that looks like it is part of the bottle. Inside are two shot glasses. The structure is sophisticated, the finish deliberately rough. He calls it "Japanese architecture meets Fred Flintstone ceramics."
His heart is clearly with the abstract work, which he sees as a rebellion against his training as a potter. He wants his pieces to transcend expectation, inspiring people to think there's no way a human could have made it.
And he really loves it when he reacts that way to his own work. Some nights when the day is over and his four-year-old son is asleep, he goes back to the studio behind his house, looks at the day's work and thinks, "Man, did I make that?"
Doing work that surprises him begins with knowing his skills and his medium. He says he has found his voice as an artist only in the last five years.
"Now it's time to see what you're made of and let your imagination go," he says. "That's what I've been doing. The work just keeps evolving."
Every day in his studio he asks, "How can I take my idea a step further to where it's almost like a treasure map that you cannot follow?”
And it doesn't work every time.
"Sometimes I catch glimpses of it, and sometimes I get codependent on what I used to know," he says. "It's just being brave, fearless. It's like a damn drug. If I could buy it, I would be broke. To me, it’s very addictive."