Just short of a ravine, ceramicist Josh DeWeese--son of the late Bob and Gennie DeWeese, who were mentors for scores of Montana artists--stops his car. His students grab shovels and buckets, then head downhill through the scrubby trees that conceal ghostly kilns of potters past. There--on a Cardwell ranch with long ties to MSU's ceramics program--is the treasure they came to dig.
It's a pocket of "wild" Montana clay--native, unprocessed clay that offers new opportunities to intrigued artists who believe that too much refinement sucks the soul from their work. The red and yellow rocks that indicate clay on Michelle Tebay's ranch seem to delight DeWeese, his colleagues and students as much as dinosaur fossils excite the MSU paleontologists who scour the badlands of eastern Montana. Both groups, in fact, look to road cuts to see what they reveal. Each group has been to China to pursue its passions.
DeWeese and MSU ceramicist Dean Adams, assistant professors of art and co-directors of the International Wild Clay Research Project at MSU, say they want to move away from the increasingly expensive commercial clays that are predominantly mined in the Southeast and Midwest and respond so predictably to their wheels and kilns.
They prefer, instead, to explore the world of wild Montana clay to see what kind of bowls, cups, sculptures and glazes they can create from it. Compiling a database for potters who share their interest, they want to know which clays work better for molding or throwing on a wheel and which ones are suited more for a sculpture or a mug. They want to know how the clays stretch or shrink with heat. They want to experiment with the clay's natural colors.
When they have enough pottery, they slide it into one of MSU's kilns and shovel rock salt through an opening to see how the salt reacts with silica in the clay to form a glaze. They observe how fly ash (formed by burning wood as fuel for the kiln) follows the path of a breeze and forms a glaze.
"The endless variations are part of what's so interesting about this," DeWeese said. "It feels like there's so much to discover and try. That feeds you. Every time you open a kiln, you are really eager to see what happened to the materials."
Adams said that most ceramicists in this country use the same clay from the same mines.
"By looking at wild clay, the potential is there for every kiln to have its own color palette," Adams said. "Every little vein of clay is unique because of the impurities."
State of clay
"Wild clay" is found all over the world. And while several universities across the U.S. have individuals conducting research into wild clay in their area, MSU ceramicists believe there is nothing else like MSU's broad-based International Wild Clay Research Project.
Because of geological variations across the state, the working properties and firing characteristics of clay near Butte and Helena are different from those at Miles City and Glendive, said MSU graduate student Dave Peters, who already knows so much about wild Montana clay that he is a respected resource for faculty and students alike. Working toward his Master of Fine Arts degree specializing in ceramics, he said Montana's geological formations are generally associated with volcanic eruptions, igneous intrusions and sedimentary layers from ancient seas. Within those formations are pockets of clay that vary by locale.
A native of Amarillo, Texas, Peters was artist-in-residence for about 2 ½ years at the Archie Bray Foundation. In his spare time, he explored the back roads of Montana and learned much about the state's wild clays.
"I don't have one type of clay I like the most as much as I like the fact that Montana has such a rich diversity of minerals," Peters said. He enrolled at MSU, in part, because of DeWeese's and Adams' research. He also wanted an MFA degree so he could teach.
Among the undergraduate students already benefiting from his knowledge are Joe Geil and Nick Danielson who have been awarded scholarships through MSU's Undergraduate Scholars Program to research Montana clays and glazes.
Geil, a junior from Eugene, Ore., is focusing on native clays. To conduct his research, he digs or otherwise obtains clay from different parts of Montana and stores them in the ice cream buckets that sit in the ceramics studio in Haynes Hall. The bucket marked Bear Canyon contains a red clay from near Bozeman. The buff clay comes from Tebay's ranch near Cardwell. A former MSU student who commuted to Bozeman to learn about the clay on her family's ranch, Tebay hosted ceramics camps on her property for 15 years until MSU art professor Michael Peed retired. From 1994 through 2009, MSU students camped on Tebay's land while they dug clay, made pottery and baked it in the kilns they built among the trees.
Geil makes oblong test strips from his clay and bakes them like cookies in the MSU kilns. When he pulls them out, he records what happened so other potters will know the characteristics of those clays.
Danielson, from Bozeman, is focusing on glazes that contain native Montana materials, such as thistles, rice husks, sage ash and wood ash. Danielson collects the materials, burns them, collects the ash and then stores them in bags until he's ready to mix up a batch of glazes. He adds the materials like ingredients in a recipe. Then he applies the glaze to pottery, fires it and documents the outcome.
Plants that are nuisances to a Montana rancher can produce some beautiful glazes, Danielson said. Horsetail grass, for example, is hard for animals to digest and bad on their teeth, but its high silica content works well in glazes as it interacts with the clay. So do other grasses that cattle tend to avoid because they have sharp leaves or unpleasant tastes.
Romance is work
Wild clay may seem romantic, but obtaining and understanding it are much more work than ordering clay from Florida or Ohio, home to much of the country's biggest suppliers of commercial clay.
"It's a lot easier to get it out of a box, believe you me," said DeWeese, who also arranges outings so his students can gather wood for some of MSU's kilns. Danielson told of driving toward Bridger Bowl to collect sagebrush and other natural materials from property Adams owns.
Peters talked about driving down Montana dirt roads until he sees mud cracks in the side of the road. Then he stops the car and climbs until he discovers the source of the mud. Other times, he drives around Montana and asks old-timers where he might find a local clay he has heard about. He also reads geology books, studies geology maps of Montana and consults with a geologist friend.
"A lot of it is detective work," Peters said.
DeWeese said ceramicists are always searching for a new source of clay.
"Whenever we go out to different places, we are looking," he said. "If something looks interesting, you stop and get little samples and see what it does."
The ceramicists described long nights, too--sometimes several nights in a row--feeding wood-fired kilns to get them to 2,350 degrees Fahrenheit. They compared their experiences to running a marathon, visiting a sweat lodge, having a baby and other exhausting endeavors that push them beyond the normal activities of everyday lives.
"Every time I load a kiln, I say I will never do this again," Peters said. "Every time I unload a kiln, I say, 'I can't wait to do this again.'"
Because of their interest in indigenous
clay, the ceramicists have delved into chemistry, geology, Montana history and mining. They have learned how Native Americans made clay-based pigments for decoration and used clay to make bug repellents and sunscreen. They have shared the science of clay with Bozeman youngsters during the popular "Science Saturdays" initiated by Trevor Douglas, an MSU chemistry professor, potter, IWCRP board member and director of MSU's Center for Bio-Inspired Nanomaterials.
Douglas' interest in ceramics when he was young led to a distinguished career in science because he wanted to know how color is established in glazes. That led him to study chemistry and, in particular, the chemistry of materials, he said.
"Working with the Wild Clay Initiative is a great integration of my interest in art and science, and I am still working with ceramics in both arenas," Douglas said. "Clay, after all, is probably the most common 'nanomaterial' (a material that has an average particle size of between one and 100 nanometers) on the planet, and there is a lot of interest in making functional nanomaterials from 'dirt cheap' resources."
The MSU ceramicists also talk about the possibility of involving MSU Extension agents in spreading the word to ranchers about wild clay and its potential in Montana. Extension agents, after all, are used to sharing research-based information as part of MSU's land-grant mission.
This collaborative element is valued by Vaughan Judge, director of the MSU School of Art.
"The International Wild Clay Research Project is a creative hothouse," he said. "It is a reminder that there is no limit to imagination and creativity here in the 21st century."
The labor-intensive work involved with wild Montana clay also helps build community in the often-solitary world of artists, the ceramicists added. Connections grow in the middle of the night as potters share secrets and dreams while adding wood to the kilns. Relationships build in the daylight when the artists talk to producers who can speak to the availability of camelina straw and ash. Adams is investigating the use of camelina straw to heat kilns and its ash to produce a new type of glaze.
Connections also grow as ceramicists talk to ranchers who have clay on their land or dump truck drivers who haul the clay to MSU.
Montanans who might never visit an art gallery start to see connections between the clay on their land and the mug on their table, the ceramicists said. Artists who might never fight a noxious weed grow to appreciate the Montanans who do.
"Maybe I don't know how to grow something out of clay, but I definitely know how to grow art," Peters added. "I feel connected to Montana in ways that I wouldn't feel otherwise."