Working off unsettled beats and experimental muses, Charlie Olson takes to pottery like jazz. The product might look straightforward, every curve and coloration seeming the result of a clear plan, but there was a 54-year learning curve to manufacturing that cohesion. As jarring notes ring fittingly dissonant, Charlie’s pieces sometimes capture an allure with regard to intention—his practiced hand turning what might’ve been a blemish into a feature.
His deftness can be credited in no small part to knowing his art in a way few potters do. Charlie understands his glazes and clays at a chemical level because he formulates his own. “You make up a formula,” says Charlie, showing me his notebooks. “If you have any chemistry background, you can see there’s a listing of all the various elements that comprise this glaze. These are represented by raw materials, some of which contain a number of these oxides. … Most every glaze mineral is in an oxide form.”
Charlie’s dive into becoming a glaze-aholic started when he was in undergrad at Minnesota State University, Mankato. “Most potters don’t work with 26 glazes; that’s kind of insanity for most people.” His high school art teacher had already sparked his interested in ceramics, but “it was at Mankato that I had such an awesome teacher. He was a black man, which was really rare back then. We’re talking 1969, and I’m in a southern Minnesota rural area.” That man was the late William E. Artis. He’d been featured as a sculptor in the 1930s film A Study of Negro Artists, a silent film meant to highlight black artists associated with the Harlem Renaissance.
“He really inspired me as to the chemistry of glazes and the technical aspect of ceramics. I don’t think that many people realize you can pursue this interest in many different ways. On one end of the spectrum, you can buy your clay commercially; you can buy your glazes commercially. In fact, you can get your work fired by an outside source. The way I learned is totally on the other end of the spectrum.
“So my true inspiration was in undergrad. Then I went to grad school in Boulder, Colorado, and that’s when I shifted away from pots and started doing more abstract sculptural forms.” Not to say he wasn’t doing any pots, but his abstract pieces carried his professional career through exhibitions and gallery representation coast to coast. Charlie eventually settled in as a professor at University of Wisconsin–Whitewater for 35 years, until 2012.
As with most every artist I’ve met, retirement doesn’t equate to an end to artistic pursuits. “It’s kind of funny because I’m ending my career as I started it. I’m just concentrating on porcelain pots now and a different kind of firing called oxidation firing, which required me to do an entirely new range of glaze testing. Over the course of a year or two, I did nothing but glaze research.”
Charlie showed me a box with 40 of his tests, each on a vertical, wavy ceramic tile meant to mimic different surface aspects of his pots. Matte, glossy, crackle, and oil-spot glazes all with distinct colors and characteristics. “I have about 35 of these boxes, that’s about 1,400 different individual tests to choose from. Now, I have about 26 different glazes that I have isolated from that testing to use on my pots. That doesn’t mean that one pot is just dipped in one glaze, so one glaze over the other creates another set of variations. … That interaction, one glaze to the other, creates yet a new glaze because those chemicals react to each other.”
We then head over to the kiln to crack open a recent load. “Sometimes you lose a bunch of them,” he says, but that wasn’t the case this time. Under the lid are over a dozen forms, half utilitarian, half purely aesthetic. They make up a varied bouquet of tone and texture ranging visually from light robin-egg to hardened oil-spotted onyx. He pulls out a bulbous bell-shaped form, dark green with a navy stripe running diagonally, and holds it in awe. Hanging from its belly is a glaze teardrop. “This one almost lost it. Look at that little drip there. That’s really special. I’m not going to throw this pot away because there’s no way you can predict repeating that.” It goes back to his jazz-style planning. Charlie can’t predict everything, but he can navigate his process and its outcomes because he’s been there often. When he engages with his pieces, he’s looking for a natural unity between the simplicity of form and surface.
Taking that love of the uncertain, a pursuit of perpetual questions, and an array of glazes leads us to Charlie’s latest endeavor—glaze-painted porcelain panels. He unsheathed several from bubble-wrap envelopes and arranged them in the only open area on his workspace. “These are wall pieces, and these are brand new. I started experimenting with these about a year ago, and nobody has seen these yet.” They all harken to Charlie’s interest of how things interact chemically in the kiln. One piece, what appears to be some sort of snake or worm turned to ash, is the result of laying a copper wire over the glazed panel prior to the firing.
Life has provided Charlie a creative tandem to pursue, and he’s always taken to it with genuine curiosity. His relationship with ceramics at the chemical level has provided access to connections not everyone can tap into—connections he’s learned to react to so he can find the next link in the chain of insights. “Everything inspires you one way or another. It’s just how you process and apply this information to your work that ends up becoming the creative bottom line.” He’s not finding answers; he’s gaining perspective.
To see Charlie’s work in person and support a local art gallery, visit Abel Contemporary Gallery in downtown Stoughton, Wisconsin.
Kyle Jacobson is a copy editor for Madison Essentials, and a writer and beer enthusiast (sometimes all at once) living in Sun Prairie.