American Design Stories: Michelle Erickson
The Virginia-based ceramicist uses historical techniques to tackle some of today’s most pressing socio-political issues
In the American Design Stories series, we ask designers from across the Americas to share their insights on American design today, along with three images that represent their vision of American design.
This time around, we speak with Virginia-based ceramicist Michelle Erickson. Erickson expertly explores colonial-era ceramic techniques in bold works that take on 21st-century social, political, and environmental issues. From gun control to mass incarceration, the climate crisis, and beyond, her objects serve as powerful bridges between past and present.
What makes your American story unique?
My American story is shared by millions of others born to families of first and second-generation immigrants. All those whose parents or grandparents made the journey to America and whose lives shape and are shaped by American transformation.
What is unique is my personal expression of that experience through my art—a story that begins with where I’m from and how that place inspired my path as an American artist working in clay. I grew up in the Colonial Triangle of Virginia, a place of ancient Indigenous home sites, of First Contact, of Pocahontas and John Smith, of the 1619 arrival of the first enslaved Africans in America, of Revolutionary War and Civil War, a place where enslaved Black Americans flocked to Fort Monroe as “contraband,” escaping the Confederacy on the “technicality” that spurred the Emancipation Proclamation.
But I came to know, came to experience this complex history through ceramics excavated beneath my feet in the place I grew up. As a studio art major at the College of William and Mary, my passion for clay as a medium collided with the rich resource of colonial American archeological ceramics that surrounded me and became a career-long fascination. Fragments of pottery and porcelain from British, European, Asian, Native American, and enslaved African makers unearthed in colonial excavations embody a remarkable convergence of cultures in clay. I think my now 30-year practice in the rediscovery of lost ceramic arts has inspired a depth of historical reference and technological virtuosity that gives my ceramic art a unique voice.
What does “America” mean to you?
A few weeks ago I was working on a piece, and I googled “what is the Chinese word for America.” The first translation Google brought up was the colloquial version, Meiguo, made up of two characters that translate to “beautiful country.” It took me by surprise, but when I read those words I began to weep. My heart broke for America, “beautiful country,” and at the same moment, it was filled with love.
The events of this year have blatantly exposed wounds that run deep in our American psyche, wounds that have disproportionate real life consequences to those marginalized by institutional racism, cultural injustice, and gender inequity. But that pain turns to passion and propels us to reach for the impossible ideals of what America should mean. I don’t know if I can explain that feeling that welled up inside me, but I believe it is real and profound. And I believe it is fundamental to the self-expression in my work.
Describe how that notion of America is expressed through your own work.
My practice in the rediscovery of colonial era ceramic arts has revealed time and again how highly developed diverse ceramic traditions were uprooted and transformed when transplanted in America. Every aspect of this new environment influenced production and design, from resources of clay and wood and glaze material to the significant exchange of culture, artistry, and industry of Indigenous peoples and enslaved African Americans.
American ceramic history is an unbiased record that includes harsh realities of colonial invasion, settlement, subjugation, and domination analogous with the social, cultural, religious, and political forces that transformed life in America.
In 2018, I collaborated with the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia to create the video Making a Bonnin and Morris Pickle Stand. The video features my seminal work recreating an 18th-century American porcelain masterwork produced in Philadelphia at the Bonnin and Morris factory, operating 1770-1772 amidst the burgeoning forces of the American Revolution.
My process to reverse-engineer this American porcelain superstar explores through making a delicate porcelain dish from our colonial past as relevant to the most pressing threats to American independence today.
In the late 18th century, the British ceramic industry was a global economic force that I equate with an industrial design giant like Nike, producing a product that reaches households around the world. But the significance of the first American porcelain manufacture that rivaled the wares of Britain and Europe was larger than its short-lived success. Today there are only 20 known extant examples, however the implications of these arcane dishes that sat on the tables of Philadelphia’s most elite patriots became emblems of American Independence.
My research and collaboration uncovered that the American design incorporates three life casts of natural scallop shells for the tripartite form. This one element uniquely distinguishes the 18th-century American design from its British and European counterparts and decisively changes the aesthetic from the “old world” Baroque of British and European examples to a neoclassical construct that literally references the architecture of an Independent America. My series American Pickle invokes this porcelain icon to protest 21st-century racial injustice, globalization, and gun culture and speaks to the threat of American dependence on fossil fuel at the global cost of climate change.
What American stories are you telling with your work?
My work is often about the story of place. For example, I was asked to participate in a traveling exhibition called Another Crossing. For the project, curator Glenn Adamson invited 10 contemporary artists and designers of different backgrounds, working in various disciplines, to create objects to mark the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower crossing the Atlantic in 1620. The Protestant pilgrimage to escape religious persecution in Britain and Europe landed in Patuxet, the ancient home of the Wampanoag people. Our mandate was to create work using 17th-century technology as much as possible, while exploring topics of immigration, religious persecution, invasion, displacement, disease, and genocide through a 21st-century lens. Realities generally not included in the story of the first Thanksgiving.
Trips to Plymouth MA and Plymouth UK were arranged to learn about the Anglo-Dutch expedition and the related artifacts, documents, and material culture. We were exposed to early 17th-century design and craftsmanship, food-ways on a trip to Plymouth Plantation’s Wampanoag Homesite, as well as sessions with Wampanoag artists and makers. It seemed like bitter irony that the exhibition was postponed due to a pandemic first detected in 2019 that literally marked 400 years since the 1619 pandemic that killed thousands of Wampanoag people, leaving the shoreline exposed to the Mayflower landing.
The complexity and sensitivity of this history is striking, but what seemed inescapable to me was the fragility and majesty of the landscape. The vulnerability of this ancient place in the 21st century became the story I had to tell, the story of where we go from here and the imperative to raise up the treasure of Indigenous voices as we face the challenges of climate change and environmental injustice on Native lands. The exhibition has just been re-scheduled to open at Fuller Craft Museum in July 2021, and its “crossing” to The Box in Plymouth UK is TBA.
What is an example of the best of American design?
Nike’s EQUALITY campaign. In 2016, NFL player and now Nike spokesman Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the National Anthem to protest the injustice of mass incarceration and institutional racism. Kaepernick’s extraordinary action was demonized as disrespectful by then candidate Trump and amplified by rightwing networks and social media eventually at the cost of Kaepernick’s career. His ousting from the NFL was met with deafening silence from the NFL as a franchise and a corporate America unwilling to speak out for the cause of racial justice and the fundamental civil liberty of protest afforded by the first amendment. Nike took the plunge and began its EQUALITY campaign using the power of design and global industry to amplify Kaepernick’s righteous action on behalf of the voiceless who suffer the injustice of racism.
Thank you so much, Michelle! ⬥
Internationally recognized for her mastery of colonial era ceramic techniques, Michelle Erickson’s pieces reinvent ceramic history to create 21st century social, political, and environmental narratives. Erickson's works are distinguished by insightful commentary on the universal character of the human spirit, and her art stands apart from much of the contemporary ceramic and craft community by its historical depth and technological virtuosity. Her ceramic artworks are in the collections of major museums in America and Britain, including the Museum of Arts and Design in New York, Seattle Art Museum, The Potteries Museum and Art Gallery at Stoke on Trent, and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
Inspired by the 2020 Design Miami/ Podium theme America(s)—and all the complexities that go along with it, especially in this moment—Anna Carnick and Wava Carpenter of Anava Projects connected with a selection of outstanding designers with personal ties to the Americas to get their take on “American” design today. Their responses were insightful, inspiring, and diverse: From thoughts on the most pressing issues and challenges facing designers now, to hopes and suggestions for a more equitable future, and reflections on their own American design journeys to date. Each story is accompanied by images provided by the designer that embody what America(s) or American design means to them.