Clay, Glaze and Firing: Iowa

Photo by Billy Cho

Whether we’re talking sculptors, painters, authors, musicians, or any other creative, decade after decade, the Midwest produces some of the most profound artists in the world. In recognition, this year we’re zooming out from Wisconsin to celebrate ceramicists in our neighboring states. Next stop: Iowa.

Photograph provided by Billy Cho


Ceramists go all-in when investing into the idea of clay, but their portfolios vary significantly. Where one artist dedicates a lifetime to the spiritual connection humans have with earth, another gets delightfully lost measuring and defining a range of factors occurring at the chemical level. Billy Cho’s time in the market has evolved into providing the audience an impression of clay as a material. Though he’s very familiar with the look and feel of clay, audiences are most often familiar with clay’s byproducts: sculptures and pottery.

On a fundamental level, Billy wants people to break free of what he sees as a limited definition. “Using the ceramics itself with dishes and things like that, people oversee the material itself,” says Billy. “So a ceramic plate, people see it so often they’ve kind of lost the idea of what ceramics really is.” We have to train ourselves to see our everyday worlds beyond the things into which they culminate.

Billy achieves his aims through simple forms of different media, usually wood, metal, and clay. Using concepts of abstract art, primarily those involving line, dimension, and shape, something incongruent culminates into a structure only fully appreciated after examining each part then stepping back to see the work in its entirety. Most intriguing is his decision to have the ceramic components not be overtly ceramic. You have to get close, even touch the piece, to be sure it’s not porcelain, bone, paper, or vinyl. For the viewer, understanding the material means shattering preconceived understandings of what is and isn’t ceramics.

One of Billy’s strongest fascinations in using clay to create art is that the end product doesn’t have to be perfect to be appreciated. In fact, it’s when his pieces are all clean lines and uniform structure that people struggle to see the shapes as ceramic, as though their understanding of clay relies on imperfections. This is mirrored in how Americans react to the fact he’s from Hong Kong, expecting him to strive for perfection. Billy says it’s “the idea of how can you deconstruct an item and put it back together in a different idea.” Redefining others’ views is, as Billy sees it, an exercise in taking apart what they know and then reassembling the pieces to create a more accurate representation.

Conceptually, I’m pulled in by his aim to give credence to perspective, even those steeped in stereotype or delusion, and acknowledge there’s a validity to what’s happening while pointing out a breakdown in interpretation. We’re all experiencing the same space, but we’re not all having the same experience. A new bridge is built to connect the artist’s and the patron’s perception of material.

When it comes to functional pottery, Billy takes a different approach. Audiences will immediately recognize the work as ceramic in material, but where some pieces have a clear use, others can be interpreted by the user in several ways. “I’m really just trying to make the object and let the viewer decide what that could mean for them.” There are often connections to Billy’s culture, like the side-handled kyusu teapot, which might not be straightforward to everyone.

Every pottery piece has 12 layers of glaze to achieve something of a signature look created by abstract shapes carved deep to allow runny glazes to momentarily pool. “They’re not all stable glazes,” says Billy. “A lot of the surface detail that were purposefully made on the piece become a painting canvas for me where I can contain certain colors and emphasize the line.”

No matter the pieces, Billy’s mindful approach to material is evident. It’s more than carrying on the traditions of those who came before him; he’s trying to get everyone on the same page so when we get to the next chapter, more people appreciate how we got there.

Photograph provided by George Lowe


George Lowe has a relationship with clay fueled by its global and historical ubiquity, his process and creations reflecting more than just his over-45 years as a potter. It’s been through his journey that he’s learned to understand clay beyond its physiology. For George, working with clay has never been a one-sided exchange.

“I think of the raw clay as being a living material in a sense,” says George. “It records your energy that you impart on the clay, and so, in the finished cup, somehow my energy is locked into the nature of the cup. I like to think of it that way. That it’s indeed a living material, and that it can last a long, long time. And yet, it’s so fragile.”

Authenticity in process translates to an authenticity in conversation, a transfer of energy between his pieces and patrons. George’s pots, cups, and jars are meant to be approached with intuition, and held with a calming familiarity. A distinct minimalist approach in process keeps things from being too convoluted or lost in translation. In fact, he mostly works with a green glaze and a brown glaze, which leads to an improvisation around form more so than meticulously inscribing a concept.

What results are pieces with a really attractive timeless look, often seeming weather worn or unearthed. “I love found objects,” says George. “And I guess I’m inspired by the earth and nature in all its forms. If I can somehow capture just a glimpse of the earth or what fire does or something that’s growing—I tend not to paint little flowers and force that. I just let the surface suggest rain or water or growth.

“It’s a formula of trying to be able to make it quickly, but show a genuine, kind of mature hand. Like a concert pianist can play the same song over and over again throughout their career, and a few years later, that same song will be fantastic. So I kind of play the same song over and over with these cups and bowls, and once in a while the performance is really good.”

When first starting out, George recalls having difficulty making just 10 pieces, but maturing his process hasn’t just led to an efficiency in production. He’s essentially learned a new language rooted entirely in process. “The preparation is a physical workout to prepare clay. And then you put it on the wheel and enter this praying kind of posture of centering it. Being centered is such a powerful metaphor, and then opening, and then pulling it up, and then breathing life into the form.”

Working as a professor gave George the opportunity to teach abroad and put this language to use. “I got to take students to Nicaragua for the Potters for Peace Brigade tour. I’ve gotten to teach pottery classes three times in the Middle East. With pottery, you can speak through the material and the process and find common ground that way.” Using clay to communicate complex ideas is far more ancient than any language used today, and mastering that language has tapped into a source of guidance for George.

Now, George finds himself in perhaps the most unique position he’s ever been in as an artist. “Now that I’m retired, I can make what I want. But I need to make it somehow—there’s pleasure I can still get out of it.” Working with clay was never about making big waves in the arti-sphere for George. Rather, it’s a key that grants him access to creation on a more universal scale.

Photograph provided by Reiko Uchytil


Vincent van Gogh was a painter who suffered from psychotic episodes and delusions. His story is a tragic one. Considered a madman and a failure during his lifetime, his contributions to post-impressionism wouldn’t be recognized until sometime after his suicide by gunshot. His state of mind is oft noted in relation to his desire to eat paint and turpentine to poison himself.

Where am I going with this?

Reiko Uchytil might be considered psychologically stable by most measures, but the origins of her work, well… “I started my journey with clay crawling around on the studio floor eating it.”

In fairness, she was very young at the time. It still got her into Wonderland, white rabbits and all. She fondly remembers her time growing up in her parents’ studio. “I’m a second-generation potter. … My parents always encouraged us to play in the studio, so I started off making pinch pots and selling those in shows at my parents’ booth.”

What came out of that childhood was a person who sought exploration of the obscure, the absurd, and the non sequitur. Sometimes it results in doll-inspired rabbit sculptures with overstretched legs. Sometimes it’s abstract patterns on the gown of a jackalope. Sometimes it’s texture-heavy sgraffito rabbits on plates. The rabbit seems a strong metaphor in her work, taking her from the real world into a creative realm where rules are often reinterpreted. “I don’t like realistic, and I don’t like super cartoony,” Reiko says of her rabbits, their humanoid depictions influenced by folklore, mythology, and cartoons.

Some of her favorite pieces were fired in a giant 80-square-foot soda kiln her and her dad built. With it, she was able to create sculptures three, four, even five feet tall. “I begged and begged my dad [to build that kiln]. We gotta do soda firing. We gotta do soda fire. So we finally built a soda kiln together, and it was just so much fun. That was Christmas every time opening that up. There was so much exploration. … The ones that make me happy are the large, overly elaborate, overly detailed pieces. That’s what makes my soul happy.”

When Reiko’s father passed from cancer a few years ago and her mother retired, her mother sold the house along with the studio and the kiln. This meant she’d have to make smaller (not necessarily small) pieces, but losing access to a giant kiln has done nothing to slow down the creative direction of her work.

One look through Reiko’s portfolio is all it takes to know she is nothing if not adaptable. Even her functional pieces demand a second or third look before being picked up. And then people are struck by the tactile experience of holding the piece. She carves her lines deep and puts bumps and slips where people are likely to take hold so she can share her obsession with texture, hoping people find new ways to interact with the mug or plate.

The range of Reiko’s work has left me going through her pieces multiple times just to get a handle on which direction she wants to go with her art, but it turns out she’s comfortable letting a moment’s inspiration take the wheel. “I have rebuilt my 10- by 10-foot display every year for six years because my body of work kept changing so much in size and style.” She’s not just in the middle of function and provocative, she’s redefining what that middle can look like. As was true of her father’s mentor, Dean Schwartz, Reiko violates the edge of what ceramics is.

Kyle Jacobson is lead writer and senior copy editor for Madison Essentials.

Photograph by Barbara Wilson

Billy Cho

George Lowe

Reiko Uchytil