Friday, November 16, 2012

Mike Vatalaro - Dedicated to Clay

Wall piece - Untitled Landscape

24" x 24" - terra cotta - 2012

Mike Vatalaro is well known in the clay/ceramics community having worked and exhibited his work on both a regional and national level for many years.  He began his work as a production potter in Akron, Ohio and then attended Alfred University in upstate New York where he received his MFA.  Alfred is one of the premier schools for studies in clay and it was during his studies there Mike began to develop his personal style in sculptural work while perfecting his eye for wheel thrown forms.

Mike was my major professor at Clemson University where I earned my MFA.  He was just out of graduate school and I was one of his first graduate students.  When I was accepted into the program I was making loom-woven work.  There wasn't anyone on the faculty with that expertise so I studied ceramics with Mike but continued my studies in textiles.  It was a great experience.

Mike Vatalaro
Artist Profile

Terry:  As an artist you have dedicated your studio experience to clay for many years.  How do you keep your work fresh and exciting

Mike:  I find the work often presents new paths as I continue with different series of works or forms.  I follow my interest in both historical forms and natural forms from nature.  I find that the wide range of clay types and firing treatments to be inexhaustible and stimulating.

Sculpture – Renewed Landscape

27” x 22” x 9” - t
erra cotta - 2012

Terry:  What are the inspirations for your work?

Mike: My interest in the historical ceramics of Japan and China has inspired my recent work.  During a sabbatical to Taiwan, I was able to focus on Asian collections in Taipei and Tokyo.  I had time to sketch in the museums and understand the role of ceramics in everyday culture and it was inspiring.  The architectural use of tile and ceramic sculpture in Taiwan was also very interesting.  Detailed ceramic tile is used extensively to enhance cast concrete form, creating a nice contrast between the intimate and the public space of architecture.  It has inspired me to work with some wall relief/tile work.


24" x 24" - terra cotta - 2012

Terry:  During the years I have know you, you have made work that is clearly sculpture as well as objects more visually related to "functional" forms.  Do you see these vessel forms to be sculpture as well?

Mike:  I think the focus on vessels over the past 8 years is related to my work rhythm during my term as Chair of the Art department at Clemson.  With limited studio time, I was focusing on making very good vessels that celebrate the firing process of wood and soda as well as make historical references to some of the Japanese and Chinese forms I've noted.  My recent exhibition at the Spartanburg Museum of Art was important in that I was able to look at the vessels together along with several recent wall relief sculptures.  These hand built wall forms are born out of the slab construction process  and my long time interest in the landscape/natural forms.  I see myself doing more works in this direction as these initial works act as sketches of sorts.

Taiwan Jar

18" x 19" - stoneware - 2012

Terry:  Do you work on more than one series at any given time?

Mike:  I always enjoy working between the traditional vessel form and the more constructed sculptural forms.  Each has its own challenge and wonder to bring out.  In the vessels it's the intimacy and grat surfaces of the clay and glazes.  In the sculptures a more poetic gestural exploration of clay and the environment.

Wall Piece 2 

24" x 24" - terra cotta - 2012

Terry:  How do you balance your desire for creative expression with the technical demands of your medium?

Mike:   This balance is not a problem as the technical issues provide exciting challenges that when successfully met result in incredibly unique ceramic expressions.


12” x10” - stoneware - 2010

Terry:  What role do you see clay playing in the contemporary art scene?

Mike:  Having worked in the field for over 38 years I have enjoyed a unique time in the history of ceramics in the USA.  Clay has enjoyed both the vast exploration of its unique role in functional ceramics and craft while also bringing significant new form and imagery to Sculpture.  As a result we find ourselves at a very interesting time, celebrating finally some serious respect of the medium in the art world while also retaining the traditional respect of the craftsmanship traditions of materials and process.  The two directions have crossed back and forth over the past 30 years without a great deal of extensive critique.  I believe clay would benefit by more critical writing in all of the interest areas we are pursuing.

Mike Vatalaro

Terry:   How has technology impacted ceramics?

Mike:  I think "making" has changed a great deal.  Post modernism pretty much leveled the playing field on craftsmanship by devaluing individualized handcrafting to a non issue.  As a partial result I think the continued explorations of new processes are broader and more democratic than ever.  In that we have a lot of assembling and layering of process and imagery that comes from many commercial or industrial sources.  The best results are compelling in that they ask us to reexamine the commercial or mass produced objects or imagery.  I think the work reflects the societal values we are projecting.  I think all artists are working towards an individual and personal statement, but I believe the increased role of technology in interpersonal relationships and its impact on how one learns and develops knowledge is so different that it is hard to locate some semblance of what we identified in the past as an 'intimate individual expression of materials and process' that was so central to material/craft art.  

Indeed I think the challenge is to create new work informed and relevant to our changing times while sustaining the best of our primary relationships with materials and human expression.

To read more about Mike and his techniques, click HERE to read an article about a recent exhibition of work at the Spartanburg Art Museum.


Thank you for spending time at
Studio 24-7.
I love hearing from you and remember...
Commenting is FREE!!!


  1. "Each has its own challenge and wonder to bring out."
    I love that.

    1. Thank you Melanie. It is always interesting to follow the development of an artists work over many years. Mike has developed a way to work with clay that is very personal. I appreciate your commenting!