Text & Interview: Alec Coiro
Photo: Todd Weaver
Natan Moss is an L.A.-based ceramicist. Looking at his ceramic creations for the first time, I was struck by the textures he deploys to create a decorative effect. The result is pieces that have taken full advantage of the ceramic medium.
In the course of our conversation, however, I see that there is a deeper level to his practice. Consider your aesthetic evaluation of a piece of an object. At your most conscious level, you decide if you like it or not and why. But, of course, there is also the level below that immediate evaluation where the aesthetic of objects and environments affect your mood and mindstate in a way that you may not be aware of until you become nostalgic for the years later.
In the course of our conversation, it becomes clear that this deeper aesthetic level is not lost on Moss, and I think part of how he incorporates it into his practice is by actively working to make the production a spiritual experience as opposed to the grind that it could turn into given his high level of output.
Moss’s techniques were from his uncle, David Cuzick, who taught him the art of pottery in the tradition of Bernard Leach and Shoji Hamada. He began the course of study after an early-life career as a photojournalist, which, like ceramics, is a practical application of the arts. Indeed, for all the talk of spiritual aspects, Moss also knows the science behind his business and appreciates a well-formed functional object.
He’s a multifaceted designer, and we delve into the various aspects in our conversation below.
Your work distinguishes itself in part through its texture, which often creates patterns that become a decorative element. How do you design and achieve these textures?
I have a few different designs that I’m working on with texture and patterns these days. I used to do mainly wax resist, contrasting the raw clay with the glazed parts, that graduated to using under glaze with my 11th dimension series, which I always say is inspired by my interest in String Theory, but I think it’s mostly a super time-consuming way to doodle. My newer work is much more three-dimensional. I throw or extrude pieces of clay to add recesses or humps to the vessel, which I use a Sureform tool to finish, trying to always maintain a certain minimal quality as I have a tendency to overwork pieces.
Looking at your work, you seem to mostly design functional objects, but some of what you do seems more sculptural. Is there an art/design divide in your practice?
That’s something I’m constantly trying to balance. Having learned to work with clay from my uncle in the studio pottery tradition of Bernard Leach and Shoji Hamada, I have a tremendous amount of respect for functional ceramics. The idea that the ceramic vessel in a tea ceremony or a plate at a dinner party is merely there to facilitate the lived experience around it is both deeply humbling and conceptually very powerful.
Throwing 100 cups in a row can be a very satisfying if you can get into the right mindset; many a potter has written parallels to wheel throwing and all different kinds of spiritual enlightenment, which it can be at its best. However, if you’re not in the proper mindset it’s easy to feel like a factory worker pumping out widgets. Because I struggle with this at times, being able to balance my work with what I call “decorative sculpture” is a personal necessity. As much as I’m interested in the humility of functional ceramics, I’m fascinated by non-functional work as well. In my mind, these kinds of objects are meant to stimulate one’s senses and elevate the energy purely by their presence in a space. It can be a conscious or unconscious feeling that anyone who’s ever walked into an Apple Store versus a Wal-Mart can relate to. When designing this kind of work, I pull inspiration from a variety of places, though mainly in art mediums other than my own.
My uncle has also maintained a consistent balance between art and function and as he started to become sought after for his more expensive and less functional work, he continued to make both out of respect for his clients and the craft.
I’d like to try to maintain that balance moving forward as well.
Throwing 100 cups in a row can be a very satisfying if you can get into the right mindset; many a potter has written parallels to wheel throwing and all different kinds of spiritual enlightenment, which it can be at its best.
I understand you studied under your uncle David Cuzick. Can you tell us a little about him and your experience learning from him?
Growing up I spent very little time in my uncle’s studio. I made an odd paperweight or ashtray with my cousin, but never gave it much thought beyond that. In 1998 I went to the Middle East to be a photojournalist and sometime during my time thereof being put into one horrible situation after another, the calmness of working in relative solitude began to appeal to me. I moved back to California and began interning with David full-time. It was hard physical work but eventually, I learned how to throw, glaze and fire a kiln. It wasn’t until graduate school that I was really able to appreciate the opportunity I was given by having a relative who was already in the business. There is a lot to learn working with clay; there are so many variables that go into firing earth to 2,400 degrees. By studying under someone who has that much experience you can really streamline the trial and error process. My time spent working with David was like an intensive master course. Though one never fully removes the mystery from the process, starting off that way was a tremendous benefit.
David has a degree in chemistry, so his approach to glazing is quite scientific. Many ceramicists use the glazes their school sets out for them or ones they buy prepared in a jar. In my opinion, by not understanding what glazes actually are and how they work, they’re missing out on half the process. When I was first tasked with making glazes I was fascinated by the assortment of materials, Feldspar, Silica, Lithium, Cobalt, Copper Carbonate – raw materials mined all over the earth. This really brought home to me how connected this craft is to the natural world. Using these natural elements, craftspeople have meticulously formulated and reformulated over many generations before they’re written down very specifically on a 3×5 card for me to precisely weigh and mix. David has such a wide range of colors to glaze his pots, which I think is part of the reason his work is so unique.
Another reason his work is so unique is that he never makes the same design twice. When he throws 100 cups he makes each and everyone different, helping to fight the widget-making syndrome. With a loyal clientele built up over many years, he has the luxury of doing exactly what he wants, as a wholesaler I’m required to make most of my functional work to order, but in my more sculptural work, I rarely make the same thing twice.
Is there a ceramics community in Los Angeles that you are part of?
Because I‘ve always maintained my own studio, coupled with the fact that I mainly wholesale directly to stores, I’m not as a part of the ceramics community as other local ceramicists. A lot of people begin working at a class or a shared studio and are able to tap into that community. I know a few other local ceramicists and they’ve been a great resource for finding assistants, creative and business collaboration and general friendship. I will say that potters are by in large a very generous and enthusiastic group of people.
What are some of the new ideas or approaches to ceramics you plan to explore in your upcoming work?
In true fashion of trying to maintain the balance in my functional and art pieces, I’m doing an entire series of completely non-functional sculpture. It’s a bit of a departure for me as the plan is to display these in a gallery setting (the complete opposite of the humility I spoke of earlier). These pieces are going to be colorful and use a lot of techniques I don’t typically get to explore, like airbrushing and low fire luster glazes. I’m excited about where these pieces are going, but it’s still clay and I have more trial and error ahead of me.