PROVIDE CONVERSATIONS: MICHELLE GRIMM
Ceramicist Michelle Grimm produces beautiful work – delicate vases with glazes and colourways that feel almost mystical in nature – but the stories behind how she produces those vessels are just as captivating. She works with traditional methods – fire, smoke, salt and other organic materials combine so that every piece she creates is truly one of a kind.
We caught up with Michelle as she participated in an artist’s residency, and chatted about her unusual methods, why it’s important to make mistakes – and how to lean into the fear when a facing a big decision.
Whereabouts are you right now?
I’m currently at my artist’s residency over in Deer Lake, at the Shadbolt Centre for the Arts.
I’m here until the first or second week of September, so I’ll be spending most of my days and nights here, which is pretty fantastic. I don’t know if you’ve ever walked the grounds, but I’m surrounded by all this gorgeous nature, and then the facilities are just beautiful to work out of. It’s really something special.
Wonderful! So when you’re not doing an artist’s residency, what does a typical day look like for you?
Well, my studio is quite far away. I live in Vancouver, but I do that reverse commute out to Langley-Abbotsford – almost the U.S. border. I have a little studio out in the woods in that beautiful farmland area where all the wineries are. I have to be really strategic about my weekly planning. I try to do three days a week in my studio—full, uninterrupted studio time, and then I do two days of admin-slash-all-the-hats that the solopreneur wears, and that artists wear. So depending on if it’s a studio day, I really just try to make the work that I need, depending on firings that are coming up. I try to just be there and be present, and not think about anything else.
I also try to always reserve my admin days to meet up with other people for a coffee, because working in the studio is quite insular. You forget how to talk to people, or you get a little too excited when someone’s having a conversation with you, and you realize that the only person you’ve talked to for two weeks is your partner. So I try to balance those sorts of activities as well.
But I do always start my day as quiet as possible: my coffee by myself, just quiet time, so that I can reflect and think. I’m a slow mover, so I try to take as much space when I first get up as I can.
That’s interesting – I feel like the process you have for your work is slow as well. Can you want to talk about what makes it a little different?
I don’t know anybody who would choose to go into firing the way that I do if you didn’t really love it. It’s so time consuming and so much can go wrong. You can lose a whole collection of work. A lot can happen. So I think it really makes sense for a lot of ceramic artists to work the way that they do with an electric kiln, going to their studio and producing the same kind of work over and over and over again. It’s smart, it makes sense. But unfortunately, that’s just not me. I’m very curious by nature, and I get bored really easily. I really like a challenge, and I love to learn, and I love experimentation. I think that’s what makes my work a bit different.
I have a bit of a different philosophy than a lot of potters. Everything I make is really minimal, and I only consider myself a small part in the making process. Obviously my hands do the work, and I do as much planning and research as I can prior to firing. I really consider where each piece is going to go in the kiln because it behaves differently in different areas. Each kiln has its own personality.
But really, once I make the form, I kind of let all the elements do the rest of the work. So I really view myself as a collaborator with fire and smoke and atmosphere and materials, so that it kind of takes some of the pressure off, because if something doesn’t go right, hopefully I’ve learned from that mistake. Mistakes are inevitable, and if you’re not making mistakes, you’re not moving forward. So I’m perfectly willing to do that, for better or for worse. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
You work with fire instead of an electric kiln – but where is the fire? Is it under the kiln? Is it in the kiln?
Depending on how I’m firing, the fire can be everywhere. Sometimes when I’m working out of my studio I actually use a torch, and I will pipe the torch into an antique steel drum that’s lined with a ceramic fiber wool so that it won’t catch fire. I can actually direct the flame as I need. When we’re doing soda firing, for example, when we add the soda ash to the kiln it vaporizes, and that causes the flame to travel throughout. So the fire is acting like a very real… I consider it like a living thing. It behaves in a different way when it’s looking for oxygen, when it’s hungry. It moves at this very slow, crawling pace. It’s like an animal. So it can come from all around.
Almost all of the pieces you can see the forensic evidence of where the pot has been kind of kissed by the flame. So depending on the air, depending on what drafting is going on, and where we’re feeding the kiln – when we’re wood firing, we’re feeding the kiln first at the front to build the temperature, and then we start feeding it from the sides and the back, and that wood is burning all throughout the kiln.
What drew you working with ceramics, and this kind of firing?
I started my business in 2020 during Covid, like many of us did. But prior to that, I have to jump back a couple of decades. I lived in New York City, and I worked in lots of facets in the fashion industry. But after I left New York, my job didn’t exist for me anymore.
So I had to think about all the things I really loved, and I was working with a lot of artists. There was an named Dominique Gonzales-Foerster who designed the space that I was working out of. I got to meet her and have conversations with her, and I realized how important space was. It can transform the way a person feels.
So I transitioned into the world of commercial interiors, but I created art-based spaces in the commercial interior world. I worked on this really intense project with this chef. He cooked with fire: he cooked with smoke, he cooked with steam and he cooked with water. I was trying to articulate his philosophies of food, and it got me questioning fire – I was kind of obsessed. I was thinking about, you know, how much can we char the wood? Is it 60 percent, 70 percent, 80 percent?
So I really started to think about fire and smoke, which is all the ways that I’m working now. But I hadn’t actually touched clay until 2017, when my partner enrolled me in a sculpture class. And it just felt like magic. I’d never worked with a material that’s so responsive and had this sense of pressure: you could be gentle, you could be firm. And I’d also never worked with such a philosophical material. Clay is incredibly humbling. It is a great teacher. And there’s just something really primal about working with dirt and earth. It just felt really good in a way that a pencil and paint never did.
When we moved back to Vancouver in 2020, as the world shut down, I knew that clay was such a lifeline for me in so many ways, that I set up my studio in the woods and just never looked back.
Could you talk a little more about the experiments you do with clay? I know you work with horsehair sometimes, and you mentioned soda.
I am consistently working in wood firing, soda firing, Western-style raku firing and I’ve been experimenting with more primal methods like pit firing and smoke firing, which is actually what I’ll be focusing on during my residency here. The horsehair is really lovely – the only way I can describe how the pieces are made is that they’re like abstract expressionist paintings. I’m literally laying each piece of horsehair onto the pot while it’s about 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s very, very hot. And I’m literally painting with the hair around the piece and looking at it, and determining when it’s done. I have about a two-minute window to get it perfect, to get it precise. And sometimes it cools, and you’re like, “Okay, it’s done! Decision made for me.”
And what is pit firing?
So pit firing is one of the oldest ways of making ceramics. It’s been used by ancient civilizations all around the world: Africa, South America, in the U.S.. It’s usually done by a whole community. Everybody would bring all their wares, and you’d either dig a hole or you would just mound up everything that you have, all of your pieces. And you pack them with combustibles – they would have been using grasses, hays, even cow dung and horse dung. That would all be put in into the pit, and they would light it on fire, and just let it burn and burn and burn and let it cool. And then, once everything’s cool, they’re cleaned up and their wares are ready.
So I do a modern version of that. I build a kiln with fire brick and pack it with combustibles, and let it burn until it’s done. The smoke and the carbon and the natural organic materials that I’ve collected, that imparts all the colour, all the texture. Those pieces are very fragile because it’s a low-fire way of working – the fire just doesn’t get as hot. But they’re really beautiful. You never know what you’re going to get, based off the material and how it’s going to burn. Different things like seaweed, for example, can produce really beautiful coral blushing, oranges and really intense burgundies. You can get steel blues. I had a fluorescent highlighter yellow, and I have no idea how that that happened on one of my pots. I try to use as off-cuts from furniture makers, and Kasama chocolate frequently gives me their chocolate husks that they winnow when they’re making their chocolate. So I collect those and use those in the fire.
Let’s talk about how you started working with Provide. How did that first come about?
I walked in and introduced myself! When we moved to Vancouver I knew that working with Provide would have been a dream for me. David has impeccable taste, he curates so beautifully, as we all know. I know people say it over and over and over again, but it’s really true. What they’re doing over there is really special. And I knew that if they’d have me, I would love to be a part of it.
But the real tea, the real story – the day I walked into Provide, I had had the worst day. We were doing a wood firing, and it was a kiln disaster like I had never experienced. And I was feeling really terrible. I was like, I’m never going to make it – no Vancouver potter is ever going have me, because all of these kiln shelves collapsed. Thankfully, not a piece was broken. Everything was saved. It just happened to happen while I was there, but I felt responsible.
So I thought, “Okay, I’m feeling really terrible. Today’s the day I can handle rejection.” So I pulled myself together, came home, took a shower, cleaned myself up, put on a dress, packed a few pots in a box, and walked over and introduced myself. And I thought, I’m never going to remember the day Provide said no, I’m always going to remember the day I potentially collapsed a kiln and ruined all of these people’s work. I thought, I’ll just get all the rejection done at once.
But it turned out very differently! So it’s just a really nice reminder – when accidents happen, when disasters happen, which they absolutely will, you just have to really pick yourself up and move forward. And maybe do something that feels a little more scary than that.
Contact Provide for more information on our Michelle Grimm ceramics collection.