Q&A with Matt Harris: Not Your Typical Ceramist

Bourgeois Tomb Guardian

ArtStyle: Where were you born and where did you grow up?

Matt Harris (MH): I was born in Blacksburg, Virginia, raised in Charlottesville, Virginia, and then my family moved to Madison, Wisconsin, where I attended high school as well as completing my undergraduate studies at the University of Wisconsin.

ArtStyle: What got you interested in ceramics?

MH: I first took a ceramics class during high school. I had an amazing teacher named Jeff Herman. He was able to find and encourage the unique characteristics of each individual student. He has influenced many students who have since continued to be involved in ceramics today.

Boddhisatva Segemented A

ArtStyle: Your work has a strong conceptual bent to it. When did your concepts develop?

MH: During my studies at the University of Wisconsin, I was encouraged to further explore and develop the conceptual aspects behind my artwork. During my junior year, I spent nine months researching ancient ceramic kiln use throughout China. Passing through such extreme differences in cultural landscape, I became increasingly aware of the tensions inherent in the simultaneous pursuit of economic advancement and cultural preservation. It was not until I had returned and began to reflect upon the experience that I truly felt like I had a strong message to convey in my artwork.

Bloom Two

I received some odd looks from villagers huddled under porches and inside houses out of the rain. Not too many outsiders came this far. I asked if anyone could point me in the direction of the kiln ruins. Eventually, a sympathetic woman convinced her husband to show me the way. We headed up the mountainside with the wife’s pink umbrella, some black rubber boots, and a machete. Before too long, we were standing on top of the imperial Longquan celadon kiln ruins, the mossy ground covered in layers of green shards dating back to the 13th century. Not wanting to keep an old man out in the rain too long, I explored the area and soaked in the experience as quickly as possible. The man insisted I take a few of the better shards home with me. Back in the village, I noticed that the tiny, green, glistening flakes of history were also embedded in the village’s cobblestone road. Centuries of transporting ceramic work out in carts had left its traces.

ArtStyle: How did you, as a westerner, become so interested in the cultural ancestry of Chinese ceramics?

MH: My first introduction to Chinese culture was during high school when I began to study the Chinese language. I continued my language studies throughout high school as well as in my undergraduate studies. Through studying both the written and colloquial aspects of their language, I became very interested in the culture and traditions behind the language.

ArtStyle: How long was your research in China and where did it take you?

MH: I spent nine months in China and was very fortunate to be able to travel to many different areas of the country. I made it as far north as Harbin (near the northeast border of Russia), as far west as Kashgar (close to border of Afganistan), as far south as Hainan ( an island of the coast of China near Vietnam) and to many other cities inland and on the east coast.

Bloom Four

ArtStyle: Have other study trips/overseas research influence your work as much, and if so, where and what were they about?

MH: As a young child I was very fortunate to be able to accompany my father on many of his overseas research trips. His academic research into the theatrical and religious aspects of festivals took him to many countries within Europe and Latin America. This introduced me to many different cultures at a young age and led to my appreciation of the vast diversity of the world. The current homogenization of these different cultures through mass media and globalization is one of the main influences behind my artwork.

Bloom Five

ArtStyle: Your research focuses on the traditional processes of ceramics from antiquity, but your pieces have a lot to do with social-political and economic impacts current in China? Could you elaborate upon these and how you developed bodies of work from them?

MH: My interests in the use of traditional processes by contemporary Chinese ceramists are what led me to my research in China. From the beginning I was interested in finding what traditions had been kept and what had been lost in the fast pace and changing aesthetics of modern life. I discovered both efforts to preserve the traditional and aspirations for change and advancement. This was not only true in the field of ceramics but within the culture as a whole. China's rapid economic growth due to the country’s expanding role in the modern global market has led to and an increased strain on these conflicting interests. This tension as the country races forward with the all eyes watching is part of what I aspire to capture in my artwork. I draw from specific modern day events as well as surviving ancient imagery and blend the two together to represent the transformations occurring as China rediscovers itself in today's global culture.

Matt Harris may be contacted at matthewharris@hotmail.com.

All images in this article were provided courtesy of Matt Harris.

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