Wisconsin-born ceramist finds inspiration on a big lake – Reuters

DULUTH — Ashley Hise tilts the clay between her hands as her green booted foot fuels the dull hum of the potter’s wheel. Her newly formed piece spins forward, reflected in a mirror adorned with flecks of dried clay.

A ceramic piece by Ashley Hise photographed on the shore of Lake Superior, a great source of inspiration for the Duluth artist.

Contributed / Ashley Hise

“It’s to see where I’m going,” she explained.

With the support of a 2022 grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board, the ceramic artist – known for his work that mimics growth patterns in nature – creates with clay harvested near the big lake. “I love that it looks like it’s been washed over water, like something that’s disintegrating, worn and weathered,” she said.

Mission accomplished.

The art on Hise’s website and Instagram account resemble aquatic movements frozen in time, often at the top of a wave, and finished with brilliant teal glazes. Some are austere angular structures with a sequence of outstretched flaky fins and hollowed centers. Striking, dramatic and begging to be looked at more closely.

Artist Ashley Hise removes excess clay
Artist Ashley Hise removes excess clay as she works on a wheel at the Duluth Art Institute in Lincoln Park on May 3.

Jed Carlson / Upper Telegram

“Working with clay is especially paramount,” Hise said. “It’s such an old art form. Digging up clay and setting it on fire. It’s a very grounded medium.

Hise grew up in Stevens Point, Wisconsin and studied ceramics in North Carolina. She took a course at the Duluth Art Institute when she moved to Northland in 2013.

Ashley Hise smiles with a red mitten hand on her grandfather Joe Leek's shoulder, as the two stand outside a house on a wintry day.
Ashley Hise took her first art class at the age of 11 with her grandfather, Joe Leek. This photo was taken in 2014, after Hise moved to Duluth.

Contributed / Ashley Hise

After more than a year on the waiting list, she landed a spot in the cooperative art space in DAI’s Lincoln Park building, which has a long history for her.

When Hise was 11, she and her grandfather, Joe Leek, took her first adult art class in the building that now houses her studio. Years later, his grandfather retired and returned to school in his 80s to earn his Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the University of Minnesota Duluth.

Hise’s studiomate, Holly Jorde, was Leek’s art teacher at UMD.

A painting by Joe Leek shows a pond of koi fish.
A painting by Joe Leek shows a pond of koi fish.

Contributed / Ashley Hise

“It was all freshmen in class with him — fun to have this juxtaposition of this seasoned doctor coming back for another career,” Jorde said. “He was a small man with a huge personality commanding the room.”

Leek died in 2017 and spent many good years painting the poppies in his garden and the koi fish pond, Hise said. “These are the ones the family is fighting for.”

The light streamed from the window wall of the DAI building at the beginning of May. The door was ajar, a testament to the warmer temperatures. Artists and students were busy in their workspaces or filtering for classes. It is an inspiring and united common space, useful for brainstorming, meeting other artists and leading workshops.

There can be many problems in ceramics, Hise said, and in the studio there is always someone to help.

Alongside the large workspace, the ceramists share the kiln firings. It’s hard to produce enough work to fill it otherwise, Hise explained.

Ashley Hise adds to a piece she is currently working on at the Duluth Art Institute
Ashley Hise is adding a piece to the Duluth Art Institute on May 3.

Jed Carlson / Upper Telegram

Hise’s process begins with ideas inspired by a growth pattern, shell, or fossil, from studying fox and deer bones found along the lake. This led to meditating on the evolutionary nature of physical existence, the meaning of transfiguration, growth and decay, she said.

Hise sketches his ideas like a loose guide, then adds curves and edges on the potter’s wheel. Then she sculpts the clay until it crumbles. “Every choice leads to another place to resolve or connect,” she said, cutting small pieces of clay from a developing room.

It fires a piece at high temperatures, causing pieces to twist and warp – and glazes to crystallize and blend. These mix and melt, often freezing the liquid mid-drop.

For his latest collection, Hise uses clay he bucketed from the mouth of the Iron River along Wisconsin’s South Shore. It is often dry and crumbled, perfect for catching large chunks which she can then break up and filter through the mesh of the window.

Hise placed a small finished pot on the table revealing a deep, shiny russet with basalt stones strewn about and the coils of a seashell carved into the side.

Lake Superior clay doesn’t need a glaze, which makes the process easier, she said, and its finish adds a nice texture.

A piece made of clay collected along the south shore of Lake Superior rests on the table
A piece made from clay collected along the south shore of Lake Superior rests on the table as artist Ashley Hise works on a piece at the Duluth Art Institute May 3.

Jed Carlson / Upper Telegram

To create enough pieces to enamel and fire, Hise works on a monthly cycle. This leads to a slow learning curve and you can’t apply the lessons until the next shot, which can take months.

Much ceramic work relinquishes control, Hise said, and what happens in the kiln can be “incidental or heartbreaking.”

Artist Ashley Hise works on a piece
Artist Ashley Hise works on a piece at the Duluth Art Institute on May 3.

Jed Carlson / Upper Telegram

There’s that moment when the oven shelves collapsed, causing him to lose his job. “The last batch, I was blown away by what can happen that really has nothing to do with me,” she said.

Her work is available at the American Indian Community Housing Organization’s Indigenous First Art & Gift Shop and will be available at the Park Point Art Fair starting June 25, as well as on ashleyhise.com.

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