Active since 1976
My work has involved animal images, primarily birds, as a major theme for well over two decades. These images are, typically, not meant as exact depictions of any specific species, but instead refer to psychological and spiritual aspects as interpreted by the viewer. In creating the images I am most concerned with the drawing and focus on that aspect of the process to reach my conclusions.
Certain life circumstances have affected me very deeply. My work seeks to express feelings and responses appropriate to these experiences that have formed me and to evoke, from the viewer, empathy with the work. Some of these pieces have explored morbid elements that reflect the dark side of the human psyche. Newer work is characterized by an increase in elements reflecting connection, joy, sensuality and, occasionally, a bit of whimsy.
Surfaces are intentionally worked to reflect a painterly and/or linear quality with the use of a subdued pallet and subtle glazes. Drawing is important to me and the surface imagery often goes beyond that dictated by the clay form.
Technically the work is low-temperature clay that has been oxidized in a cone 04 firing. Under-glaze stains are sprayed, smudged, and brushed on the surface to achieve the color and surface effects.
Curated Ceramics visited ceramic artist Michael Padgett at his St Paul, Minnesota home and studio on Feb 1, 2018.
We’d begun carrying his work last year. Having now received more sculptural work from Michael, it was a good time to learn more about his career and ceramic art.
We had met a few times earlier. I’d always found him thoughtful and friendly. Engaged and engaging. This visit would be no different.
Our discussion initially focused on the Detroit area where he grew up and set the foundation for his career. Topics then moved to inspiration and narrative. Lastly, we discussed his time as art department chair at the University of Wisconsin River Falls.
For sake of brevity, Curated has decided to release his interview in parts beginning with Inspiration and Narrative.
Thank you, Michael, for sharing these special insights.
Partner, Curated Ceramics
Inspiration and Narrative
Steve Basile, Curated: There’s something I find interesting about the Detroit area where you trained in the 1960s-70s. People under 40 know about the North Carolina, Minnesota and Wisconsin, and other current scenes. They might not know that something similar had also gone on in Michigan because that scene is not anymore. I know John Glick stayed there for a long time but a lot of the Michigan memory is faded. It was a hub for art education in the day even though we don’t identify as such anymore.
Michael Padgett: There was also the 1970s. The tension between what artists were trying to do with clay and self-expression. So the influence of the West Coast with Arneson and Voulkos. Then of course the more traditional East Coast. Toshiko Takaezu, Ted Randall and the New York group. It was really more the tension of the 1970s with the war, political turmoil, artists breaking boundaries in all sorts of ways, and particularly in clay.
Clay was always thought of as vessels and all of a sudden somebody comes along and does something odd with it. Not just making an unusual vessel, but an actual piece of sculpture out of clay like Jerry Rothman. This was pretty controversial stuff. The galleries didn’t know how to deal with that. So suddenly there started to emerge galleries that focused on clay artists instead of just traditional materials.
While I was trained to throw pots on a wheel, the consistency of making that work never happened. I love to throw, but making 20 bowls all the same is just not me. So it was exciting to see artists breaking in other directions like Ron Nagle doing his funky cups that had no practical use whatsoever.
That’s now very very popular in ceramics. You go into any contemporary gallery and look at the work. There is some traditional work you can use, but there’s also a lot of work where practical use isn’t the primary reason it exists.
People were making tea pots that wouldn’t pour. Cups that couldn’t figure out where to put your lips. Sculptural forms that were exciting visually! That was really becoming as valid a reason to work with clay as more traditional reasons.
Curated: Your work is very creatively driven. You’re not a big craft guy. You’re not doing what others have in functional work.
Padgett: I’m drawn to working with the figure. I think that goes back to my early exposure to drawing and emotional experiences with the loss of my father (at 17), etc. Bringing out that emotional aspect of human psyche. A lot of work I do that’s more sculptural is really dealing below the surface. Even though you might see a figure, often the figures are amorphic. They’re really expressing the subtleness of connection to people. Both empathetically or emotionally or affectionately. I think that’s what people respond to and say, “Oh, that piece speaks to me.”
Curated: So the emergence of sculpture and nonfunctional art in the ceramics field was encouraging as it allowed you to find a truer expression than functional work?
Padgett: Voulkos would be a critical turning point. Beating up clay in a way that nobody had done before. It freed a lot of people to think outside of the norm. I was thinking about something Dan Anderson posted the other day. He takes photographs of the grain silos and says, “Here’s a future teapot.” You look at the work and who’s gonna serve tea in that?
There’s always been sculpture in ceramics. There’s always been traditional forums. You look at the history of ceramics and it’s one of the oldest materials ever used for creative expression. So it was that awareness. You know the old adage of there’s nothing ever new done. It’s always sort of some interpretation of that.
I did a teaching exchange in England back in the early 1980s. This was sort of an eye opener. I was in Stoke-on-Trent area, the traditional seven pottery towns and the commercial evolution of ceramics. I realized that with undergraduate school, graduate school, and had all this clay experience, and I knew absolutely nothing about commercial ceramics. It was a great to be exposed to the tradition of the industrial side of ceramics.
Then I had the good fortune of spending four years in Scotland as part of another university program. That gave me time to look in other areas of the country that had ceramic traditions I knew nothing about. The Scottish tradition got me interested in all kinds of things that have influenced my work. Like the Staffordshire figurative desktop ornament (in Curated’s store). Desktop ornaments aren’t traditionally thought of as being made in clay.
If you look at early English 17th and 18th century ceramic, there’s a lot of sculptural elements. They are also often quite functional. Then you get into the decorative work from France and Germany. Meissen figures that are strictly sculptural. But the intent is creating a highly prized object, very portable, and full of intricate detail. The flow back and forth between the complexity of glazes, multiple firings, slip cast and handmade, and so on.
It was a real eye-opening experience going thru the Victoria & Albert. In Stoke-on-Trent, there’s a wonderful little version of the history of ceramics at the Potteries Museum in Hanley. Just some really mind-blowing stuff. There’s a massive collection of cow pitchers. Interesting thing about these cow pitchers is they’re pretty unsanitary because you couldn’t clean them thoroughly. So the milk would spoil.
Many of these things were glazed by very young apprentices or kids in the factories. You start investigating the industrial revolution and the technology influences to make things in mass quantities. It’s just a fascinating experience. You take that and digest it.
A lot of the stuff that I saw would have been slipcast. Never actually had much interest in slip casting, but it doesn’t mean I need to make 50 of them. I might want to just make two or three or let each one evolve from one stage to another.
I think that goes back to what the creative process is about. You need to put your mind and body in that frame to move to the next step. Artists do that in massively different ways. Nobody has a formula that says you do this and you’re going to get this. It’s all about finding what works for you.
Curated: I naturally assumed you went to Britain to look at handcraft. But what actually influenced you was slipcast decorative English ceramics. The more decorative aspects were influential. Not craft of the pot but art of the pot.
Padgett: It’s that initial idea. How do you get that figurative thing to work in a way that has a functional element to it.
Curated: Some of the forms we have in your show are the lamb figure and satyr pitcher. Your work is responding to inspiration from the art of pots.
Padgett: I would give Gail Kendall credit for that. The first time I did an exchange in England, she got an apprenticeship with a restorer. She did ceramic restoration a long time after that. The types of pieces brought in were fascinating. When you go to the museum, you could get pretty excited about that as an inspiration.
Curated: Your UK experience being influential from decorative standpoint helps us understand how those aesthetics found their way into your work. It fits with your handcraft being driven to art and narrative.
Padgett: I did this series of desktop ornaments. When you visit the old stately homes of Europe, you often find these elaborate libraries and lovely desks. They often had these metal paper clip or pen holders. Portable desks with little aids to writing or creative work. That to me is what the creative process is about. It’s as though something happens, stimulates the desire to reinterpret in a more personal way.
Curated: You had mentioned in your writings that the figure is not really about illustrating individuals. It’s about conveying emotion or narrative.
Padgett: What happens for me is when I’m talking about emotion, I’m really talking about a full range of emotion. Those happy moments and those sad moments. I’ve done several with a crouched over figure. That’s more of a depressing than elated feeling. As I explore that, the figure will move through different contortions. It’s like when you go to a life drawing class and put the model in a position where he or she can sit for an extended period. Yet you’re trying to create some angle conflict that makes it an interesting composition. So this figure, for example, emerges out of the crouched figure. A contemplative meditative sort of a pose. Is it a male? Is it a female? They have an either/or possibility. But I’m not thinking about that when making them. I’m trying to make something work that’s going on for me and the piece at that time.
That’s how the process happens. I don’t often start out and say, “I see the end piece in front of me.” Now I’m going to try to get there. It’s, “I want to get started.” and as I’m working the piece starts to come up for me. In some cases it’ll be more successful than others or a stepping stone. Sometimes I’ll have pieces that are very sentimental to me because that kernel of an idea led me to a more completed piece.
Curated: When you see your old work, do you think, “I made that when I was in a contemplative mood?” Or do you actually remember what you were contemplating when you put it together? Does it capture a memory or a mood in particular?
Padgett: In some cases it captures a memory. Often it goes back to an experience. I often work in series. Usually the first piece is that reflective kernel that kicks me off in a direction. I may not remember as much about the latter pieces, but each has said something to me along the way.
One of the exercises I’ve been doing is going back through my slide portfolio to see, “what happened here?” What I’ve found is certain themes reappear. I want to pay attention because that’s an important motivator for the next stage. Even old drawings. I’ve gone back and looked at some things I hadn’t looked at it in years. They became motivation to rethink how I might do that. It was interesting how long the bird image has been appearing in my work and I can go back decades.
Curated: In your new Curated Ceramics show there’s a lot of figural work. I would be interested to know what you recall when you see a piece. This piece with the yellow fish. Did set out to make a fish or does a fish embody something that you were feeling in that moment?
Padgett: I haven’t done that many fish images. The motivation for that was a three-dimensional piece from many years ago that I regret not having held on to. It was almost more of a sea creature than a fish. There was something about it, a darkness. I’ve been doing these birds. Part of me said, “I know in Minnesota there’s a lot of people interested in fish as well as birds.” I tried a few and it didn’t work as well as the birds. But this one, this particular piece, there was something about the color and it’s really silly because there’s not really a fish per se. And you know, we can’t say this is a portrait of a fish. They become much like the human figure, an expression of some emotional pain or connection.
Curated: The next two pieces are birds.
Padgett: That’s another good example. The black birds, and ones with color, are influenced by a lot of different factors. One being as a young kid I had great fascination with Disney characters. I used to try and draw them all the time. I remember in one of his movies the crow figures were talking. Just a certain cartoony quality. They’re not really cartoons. They’re not meant to be humorous and I don’t think they are very humorous. But there is something about the subtlety of the black birds that drift into the background and sort of emerge out. That whole shallow relief thing that I’ve done for many years of figures and birds and other objects.
At one point, I used to have an early fear of color. Not knowing or having a lot of confidence about how that color would work on this piece. That was always my trouble with painting. I was never very confident about color. Whereas with drawing, or colored pencil, or even watercolor, I have a much more comfortable relationship with that. So as the color palette brightens it’s often a reflection of my own mood. So if it’s gray and dull, I’m probably not in a upbeat mood. It’s more colorful and the color jumps out at you have has much more light hearted quality.
Curated: I want to understand that on these low reliefs, the fish and the two birds, did the animal form emerge from emotional inspiration or from inspiration about the animals themselves?
Padgett: The bird image has come up in many of my pieces. I can show you pieces that were done in the eighties and seventies where bird images appear often. The bird image throughout history has had all kinds of roles. There’s also an attraction to that image for people in a variety of ways. For me, it’s always had a freedom element and a spiritual element. I’m not overly spiritual, but in terms of imagery, that would be one that would reoccur. Part of that reoccurrence is a reference to loss or guidance or something being above giving some help.
Curated: So the bird is a metaphor for a number of things.
Padgett: Yes. The pieces themselves are going back to what motivates you in speaking through a bird image or a fish. I’m really saying a similar thing with the human figurative images. It’s just a different metaphor.
Curated: These two bird images, one is a matte black and one is polychromed. If the bird is the metaphor, is the glaze the mood?
Padgett: Partly. That and the detail on the bird. I’m trying to use a familiar figurative image like a bird, a fish, a figure, but express below that surface. How do you respond to that fish? That’s what’s key.
I respond to it in a particular way. It may be whimsy. It may be depression. It may be whatever that emotion is. Like when you walk in a room and are drawn to something. You may not know what that is, but there’s some communication going on. That’s what I think a lot of my work does. So a measurement of that.
Why do I come to that conclusion? It’s simple. A lot of people who own my pieces don’t tire of them. So when you look at your collection, what pieces do you go back to? I’m sure you have pieces that have more of an attraction than others. Sometimes it’s the moment.
I can show you some pieces that at the moment I was attracted to. I really would love to have that in my house, but after a few years it’s lost whatever that moment was. A lot of my experience with my own work with people that have had it for a long time, that doesn’t quite go away. There’s something. A comfort level. Like I have other pieces that I’ve had up for years. They just don’t tire for me and always brings me back. I think that’s that underlying emotional part that I’m always looking for.
Curated: It seems the binding element between you and collectors is the emotion of the piece.
Padgett: Well, for me that is. It’s like going to a psychologist. You uncover things about yourself by contemplating the work.
Curated: Have you interacted with a collector of an object from 10, 20, 30 years ago and learned from them what’s still resonates about their purchase? Have you learned if it’s the beauty of the piece or the emotion of the piece?
Padgett: Interestingly that happened to me just a couple months ago. Someone who’s had a piece of mine from the 1980s has transposed their lost mother into that piece. So every time they look at that piece that reminds them of their mother. Now obviously I didn’t make the piece with the intent to reference their mother. The piece is an amorphic robed figure that’s tall. The motivation for me was emotional because it was really reflecting back on a loss. So it’s interesting that for them it also represents a loss. So there is that emotional connection.
Curated: Let me ask about the lamb tabletop figure.
Padgett: The lamb was very much a warming feeling about when I first went to Scotland. There was a big manor and a pasture out front. They’d often put sheep and cows in there. I think part of the motivation was I had done these two dogs and liked them. They were kind of an homage to a dog we had lost back when Deborah and I first got married. I’ve wanted to do a different animal and the sheep came to mind. I’ve done two or three of them now. There’s sort of a Staffordshire base. That kind of influence of a simpler form of a sheep. It’s not trying to be a portrait or anything. There’s something perplexing or draws you in that I like about them.
Curated: Thank you for taking time to talk about all this. I’ve put you on the spot a few times.
Padgett: I’m not a very ego driven person. Often when people ask me, “what did you do?” I often just say I was a teacher. I don’t want to get into the fact of what I actually did because there’s all kinds of layers to it.
One of the reasons I really appreciate connecting with you is that I don’t want to sell my work. (laughs) I don’t like to. I don’t mind talking when people come. We open the studio a couple times a year and that’s more than enough. I’d much prefer just being out of the dialogue. I know a lot of what I do doesn’t have mass appeal in a sense. It is for a very targeted audience, but that audience is very meaningful to me.
I’ve been in clay since like 1964-65. That’s a lot of years and a lot of experiences. So I know there’s a message there that resonates with certain people. And at my age that’s more than adequate. I don’t need the goals that I might have set for myself in my 20s, 30s, and 40s. I’m at a different place in the balance of what I’m trying to do.
To me it is become more and more self contained. I do the work now for me. If it’s speaking to me and if it speaks to somebody else, that’s great! All pieces don’t say the same thing to everybody and it’s often fascinating to me. I had a woman come in that was really drawn to a piece. It just surprised me because it’s one that I liked. I kept it around, had it for a long time, but it didn’t seem to resonate with too many people. There’s just these situations that I find most rewarding.
Curated: There’s two things you said that I want to note.
First, there’s not a lot of ego carried forward when your work is shown. And that’s refreshing to hear. I think that’s one of the hallmarks of Midwestern artists. They’re often less ego driven. Also, it’s refreshing that you’re not forcing your vision upon the collector. You’re leaving space to interpret for themselves. Because in ego you would want to give explicit instructions as to what it was intended. The buyer can interpret for their own needs.
For the second point I want to go back to talking about emotion in your work. Your lamb connected with my wife on an emotional level. Not about the subject at all. She didn’t say, “I really love lambs.” More like, “Aww.” So I think your art is succeeding as an emotional connection with your collectors.
Padgett: I think that is true from my perspective. I don’t start out saying, “I’m going to depict this emotion.” It seems to evolve as I’m working on the piece.
©Curated Ceramics 2018. All text and images may not be reused without expressed permission from this website.
Michael Padgett was born in 1944 in Dearborn, Michigan. His interest in art was evident from an early age and continued throughout high school. He majored in art education as an undergraduate at Eastern Michigan University and took a teaching position in Bloomfield Hills Schools after graduation. He earned his M.F.A. from Cranbrook Academy of Art, majoring in ceramics. After earning his graduate degree, he returned to teaching art in Dowagiac, Michigan until an opportunity for a temporary assignment at Eastern Michigan University allowed him to gain his first college teaching experience. After two years at Eastern he took a position at Valley City State College, becoming Chair of the Art department in 1976. He moved to St. Paul Minnesota in 1978 to accept a position at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. As full professor he served as Art Department Chair, piloted and taught courses in advertising design, remained an active participant in the WISCONSIN IN SCOTLAND program he helped to start (1986) and directed the University of Wisconsin System Pigeon Lake Field Station (a science and arts facility in Northern Wisconsin). He retired from the University of Wisconsin in 2009.
Michael has been an educator and active studio artist for more than 40 years. His work has been exhibited in numerous regional and national exhibits as well as abroad. His work is in a number of private and public collections. His ceramic work has involved figures, fish and bird images as a major theme for well over thirty years. The figures are not meant as portraits, per se, but instead refer to the psychological, and spiritual aspects of being human as well as referring to the human body as form. The animal images had a paralleling development with his other figurative work, coming from an early fascination with Egyptian art. His work was also inspired by his experience with and exposure to Staffordshire Figures and early ceramics produced in the area called the “Potteries” in Staffordshire, England. His work attempts to express feelings and responses appropriate to the experiences that have formed him and to evoke, from the viewer, empathy and appreciation for the work. Newer work is characterized by an increase in elements reflecting connection, joy, sensuality and, occasionally, a bit of whimsy.
He shares his life and studio with his wife, writer and painter Deborah McWatters Padgett.
B.A. Art Education, Eastern Michigan University, Ypsilanti, Michigan, 1967
M.F.A. Cranbrook Academy of Art, Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, 1970
Major in Ceramics. Minors in Sculpture and Weaving.
Professor Emertus of Art, Art Department, 2009-present
University of Wisconsin-River Falls, River Falls, Wisconsin
Honorary Professor, Department of Cultural and Creative Arts, 2012-2013
The Hong Kong Institute of Education, Hong Kong, China
Instructor of Art Augsburg College, 2011-2016
Chairman of the Art Department and Professor of Art, 1989-2009
University of Wisconsin-River Falls, River Falls, Wisconsin
A full copy of Michael’s resume is available upon request.
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