Artisan Wednesday | Q+A with Mitch Iburg

To gather a deeper and more intimate connection with the artists and artisans we work with, we asked each to answer a series of questions. We will be showcasing each Q+A in correlation with our familial content. Enjoy! 

x Shop Zung

 

Without giving away your location, describe where you are right now. What are the things you see, smell, or hear around you?

Bill Charlap playing ‘The Nearness of You’, a faint smell of Myrrh incense burning in the other room, morning light casting shadows on the drifted snow of a neighbor’s roof.


Taste, touch, smell, sound, sight — which of the five senses do you rely on the most? Why?

Touch and sight are undeniably important when it comes to making. However, smell has always played a huge role in translating my experiences into memories - something I hold very closely in a world that’s constantly changing.


I’ve had the privilege of working in several different regions throughout the United States over the past ten years - each setting having unique scents that I now associate with distinct experiences. I love how re-encountering the familiar scent of astringent pine, damp deciduous leaves, salty ocean mist, or lingering wildfire smoke instantly brings me back to specific moments or emotional states from my past.


Scent also plays a role in learning about natural clays. Hints of astringency, iron, sulfur, or rich soil offer insight to minerals that may be present and the environmental conditions that existed at the time the deposit was formed. You really begin to see the materials in the context of the earth and organic life. It’s something you simply can’t experience with commercially refined materials.


When was the first time you realized your passion for ceramics? Have you always known you would take a path as a ceramic artist?

I stumbled into clay while pursuing a degree in Fine Art in college. I had the intention of studying painting, but immediately became captivated by the physicality and rich history of the ceramic medium. It wasn’t until after I graduated that I first began to develop a personal vision. This is something that came about when I first began sourcing my own materials in 2011. At first it was just a matter of being resourceful, but I quickly began to realize that there was something profound about forming a direct connection with the earth beneath my feet. Although I've moved and gone through many changes, I still feel the same excitement each time I encounter a new resource.


We want to know more about your creative process, walk us through it. How do you begin your creations? Do you anchor it with an image, a material, color, feeling? How do you come to a stopping point and know your work is complete, if you ever think so?

I’m interested in pursuing a studio practice that is less defined by the objects I make and more by how I approach a wide range of natural resources - foraged clays, minerals, sands, and stones. To achieve this goal, I move between many different bodies of work through the year. Regardless of whether I’m focusing on sculptural objects, vessels, tableware or paintings, there is always the same starting point - an initial investigation of material.

When I first discover a new resource I ask many questions: What are its properties? Is it a workable clay? A crumbly stone? A fine grained sand? Will it hold its shape or melt during firing? Can it be used on its own or added to something else? Most importantly, What type of object or form will best showcase its unique attributes?


This first stage involves making and firing many tests in the studio - a process that naturally influences how I eventually use the materials. Often I find that many resources have the potential to be used for ongoing bodies of work like vessels or tableware, but occasionally the results of this testing process give rise to completely new objects or ways of working.


Materiality is an integral part of your work. Rather than store bought clay, your process of surveying the natural land of Minnesota, using the foraged clays, stones, fossils, and glacial debris add sublime depth to your vessels; a manifestation of time-past and a rooted connection to our planet’s history. Tell us more about this process and what it means to you.

The process of locating and collecting materials is something I could not accomplish without my partner, Zoë Powell. We begin by researching geological publications, maps, and mining records to locate different resources throughout Minnesota. Once we make contact with the land owners we collect samples to bring back to our studio for testing. If the results are promising we return to the site to collect a larger quantity. Each year we bring in about 2000 pounds of material.


For me, using raw materials collected directly from the landscape has multiple levels of significance. First, it is a sustainable alternative to an industry with an immense carbon footprint and destructive impact on the landscape. Second, using unrefined materials rich in natural impurities like sand, stone, and organic matter contributes to a wider range of textures and colors in the finished work. Most importantly, this way of working creates an opportunity to connect with the landscape and learn about the history that shaped it. Clay is the byproduct of millions of years of geologic change. It tells the story of mountains, volcanoes, glaciers, floods - all things that we cannot experience on our brief human timescale. My hope is to use each material in a way that makes the often unfathomable history of the earth more tangible.


How would you describe your work? How do other people describe your work?

There are many contrasting forces at play in my work - quiet yet full of movement and gesture, austere yet ornate, timeless and enduring yet delicate and worn. Regardless of what I’m making, I hope for my work to bring about a visceral reaction within the viewer. Its like being attracted by some element of nature without knowing exactly what it is. Regardless of whether it’s profound or mundane, its something you connect with deeply.  



What is your favorite object you’ve created? What about one from a different designer? 

Some of the objects I value most are the pieces I made at the beginning of my career. From 2011-2014 I worked at a small studio in rural Virginia. I made an enormous quantity of work during this time - so much that I had to leave most of it in the woods when I moved away. Six years later I returned to visit and dug up a few of the pieces that were left behind. They are incredibly crude and proportionally awkward, but they remind me of the excitement I felt being able to source my own clay for the first time. To me, they have a value far greater than any of the pieces I’m currently making.


I also enjoy collecting work by other artists - especially those who I have had the opportunity to work with and learn from over the years. I have a growing collection of pieces made by friends and mentors who’s generosity has helped me get to where I am now.


Think of an object in your home that has the most significance to you. Could you share with us what it is and the memory behind it?

Several years ago when looking for clay I came across an old shovel head buried in the ground. It has a wonderful patina that has been a huge inspiration for the surfaces I hope to achieve on my work. Luckily, it just so happens that many of the clays I use produce a similar color palette of yellow, beige, and orange when fired.


We live in a society where so much of our identity is surrounded by the things we consume whether that be the things we buy, the food we eat, or the content we see, along with the fast paced nature of it. How do you approach mindful living and sustainability in the context of your work and in your everyday life?

I’m making a better effort to live a more minimal lifestyle. Less need, less consumption, less waste. Outside of the studio I spend most of time cooking, so purchasing used or sustainably made kitchen & household tools made from natural materials is important. Eating a mostly vegetarian diet, buying well-made used clothes, and learning to repairing things when they break is also a large part of this lifestyle.


I’ve never been great at maintaining a good work-life balance, so I’ve come to really appreciate the brief moments of pause I take throughout the day - rituals like morning tea or coffee, walking along the quiet shores of the Mississippi River, reading, and listening to music in the evening.


What do you envision for Mitch Iburg Ceramics in five years?

An ongoing goal in my work is to continue developing my understanding of Minnesota’s geological history and sharing the resulting research with my audience.

My partner Zoë and I also envision expanding our shared studio and business, Studio Alluvium, into a larger format that provides workspace and opportunities for other artists to visit and explore local materials. I imagine that this transition will open new doors and opportunities within my personal studio practice as well.

 

What do you want people to take away from your ceramics? What is the legacy you imagine?

My biggest goal is to produce objects that influence the way others see or interact with the natural world around them. This could be treading more lightly, appreciating something previously taken for granted, or taking the time to learn about the history of one’s own surroundings.


 A big part of this involves upholding a standard of honesty and respect when it comes to using natural materials. Nothing is wasted. Nothing is shrouded or muted. Each resource is treated as precious and rare - regardless of its abundance.


Are you looking forward to anything in the next few months? Any new exciting projects or plans?

I’m just beginning to produce a new body of work for a solo exhibition at Sage Culture in Los Angeles that will open this April. Aside from making work, much of my time throughout the year is spent teaching through Studio Alluvium. Each year we offer in-person and online workshops on how to locate, test, and prepare local materials. We are just now finalizing our 2022 workshop schedule and are excited to share our techniques with others interested in sourcing and learning about their own materials.

 

Photo courtesy of Mitch Iburg