- THE MAGAZINE
For Matt Nolen, ceramics is more than a simple pastime or a source of income; it is a mode of communication. Nolen began his career with two degrees in architecture but has worked with clay as a studio artist in New York City for the last 20 years. He labels his work “philosophical ceramic art” and molds his creations into narrative vehicles for social and political commentary.
“My pieces are very funny, but they’re also very pointed in terms of their message. They’re like political or satirical cartoons in ceramics,” Nolen says.
Most of Nolen’s early artwork focused on decorative sculptural pieces, but he has recently begun to work in functional and architectural ceramics, such as dinnerware, bathrooms and fountains. Rather than creating his own forms, he typically adds his creative touch to existing pieces through multiple firings and layered glazes—a process that he calls “recontextualizing.” However, this process also carries its own unique challenges. The glaze used to decorate each piece must be able to adhere to the surface of glazed, fired ceramics, and it must also be able to withstand the multiple firings Nolen uses to perfect his creations. To meet these objectives, Nolen turned to a durable, versatile glaze product called Stroke & Coat.*
“Stroke & Coat is wonderful for multiple firings because it doesn’t burn out, and it’s also very versatile,” Nolen explains.
Painting with GlazeNolen first discovered the versatile glaze in 1999, when he was commissioned to create a public men’s restroom at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan, Wis. Another artist he had been working with introduced him to the product, which she relied on heavily for surface work. Pleased with the results of intensive testing, Nolen decided to use the product for the Kohler project.
“I found that Stroke & Coat not only melts into a glaze at a low temperature, like cone 04, but it also works at a higher temperature, like cone 6, where it becomes a more translucent glaze yet maintains its saturated color,” Nolen says.
These characteristics enable the glaze to perform well through multiple firings. According to Nolen the glaze is pretty much impossible to over-fire—and he should know, since many of his pieces are fired five or six times before he feels that they are complete. The glaze is opaque and satin at lower temperatures, while it is glassier and more translucent at higher temperatures, so the firing temperature and the number of firings depends on the project and on the effect the artist wants to create.
“I also come from a painter’s background, so using the multiple firings is like increments of seeing, like a painter sees his canvas. It’s a way to work with the transformation and keep going until you’re happy with the final product, instead of just smashing the piece when you’re not happy with it. It ends up being more of a layered effect,” Nolen explains.
For the Kohler project, Nolen used Stroke & Coat on glazed Kohler sinks, toilets and urinals, as well as 1500 ceramic wall and floor tile, to create “The Social History of Architecture”—a narrative that unfolds throughout the public space of the restroom. Since the pieces were fired in the Kohler factory, Nolen was limited to two firings—cone 11 and cone 6. However, the versatile glaze worked well at both temperatures.
After completing the Kohler restroom, Nolen began using the glaze to produce other “public” works of art. For Bubble Tea, a Chinese teahouse in New York, Nolen recontextualized a complete set of restaurant china, including plates, cups, saucers and teapots—500 pieces in all—using the versatile glaze. Nolen also used the glaze to design “Public Garden, Private Garden I and II,” two public restrooms at the Meyers School of Art at the University of Akron in Akron, Ohio.
By this time, Nolen had become highly skilled at re-glazing finished ceramic pieces, but the Meyers School project proved especially challenging. Although he had worked with large vitreous china pieces to create the Kohler restrooms, the pieces had been created specifically for that project, and the work was completed in the Kohler factory. For the Meyers School restrooms, Nolen purchased two vitreous china sinks from a local home improvement store. While the Stroke & Coat glaze performed well on these pieces, the sinks themselves were difficult to handle.
“When large objects leave the factory, they tend to get bumped around, so you never know what re-firing is going to bring out in terms of stress cracks,” Nolen says. “I had to remake the sinks for the Meyers School project a couple of times because there were some problems with the firing, but I ultimately achieved the look I was after.”
Simple, Versatile and DurableAlthough Nolen enjoys working on challenging projects, what he appreciates most about Stroke & Coat is that it’s so easy to use. The glaze is designed for use on bisque, but it also adheres to glassy, vitreous surfaces, as well as other glazes.
“Once it dries, it’s really hard and will not scratch off,” Nolen says. “After you’ve applied an initial coating, you can go back and add an underglaze, clear glaze or more Stroke & Coat. I usually apply my first coat and then dry it with a heat gun or blow dryer before I start working on top of that to add more shading or texture.”
The glaze can also be applied in a variety of different ways, including brushing and pouring. “I imagine it could even be thinned for airbrushing, but I haven’t tried that,” Nolen says.
To achieve a mosaic look, the glaze can be painted on an acetate sheet. Once the glaze is dry, it can be cut into shapes, misted with water and applied like decals or stickers to a raw-glazed or fired surface.
“You can also use a dry-erase marker to draw on your glazed surface before you apply the Stroke & Coat glaze. The marker resists the product and provides a masking effect,” Nolen explains.
The dry-erase marker works on acetate sheets in a similar way, acting like a dam to hold pools of color until they dry. The result is controlled, thicker coats that can’t be achieved with a brush. These designs can be used to add texture to a glazed or fired surface.
“I haven’t really found any applications where Stroke & Coat won’t work,” says Nolen. “It’s very compatible with most glazes—it just sort of melts in on top of anything. I’ve never had an adhesion problem, and I’ve never had it flake off of anything. It’s pretty hardy,” he says.
Reinventing Everyday ObjectsNolen continues to focus on functional and architectural ceramics, but his finished pieces are anything but typical. While striving to give his pieces purpose, he also gives them new life.
“I prefer to work with existing objects mainly because I enjoy taking things that have been in the world and have already had a life…and reinventing them,” Nolen says. “For instance, I did one body of work that was loosely inspired by Renaissance apothecary jars, and I reinterpreted them to focus on contemporary ideas of healing. I did another body of work called ‘Family,’ using domestic pottery forms to talk about function and dysfunction in family relationships.
“Each project starts out very personal, but I try to expand it so that it’s not just an inside joke but is more universal,” he adds.
With the simplicity, durability and versatility of Stroke & Coat, Nolen has the freedom to explore new techniques and methods to communicate his ideas to the public realm.
“I want people who see my artwork to walk away with a smile on their face,” he says. “But it’s like a sugarcoated pill, in that there’s something a little hard underneath. My designs leave people with a sense of well-being, but also with a little challenge.”