Pottery made with function and beauty in mind

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The setting is appropriate. Merry Farm Pottery studio and gallery is accessed by traveling a third of a mile down a (well-maintained) dirt road off State Road in West Tisbury. The woodsy location suits the owner, Micah Thanhauser, and his wares to a tee. Raised on the Vineyard since he was 5, Thanhauser has a local pedigree that matches his work and his philosophy on his art. He sometimes uses actual Island clay in his creations, and he follows a sustainability ethos, using materials in as organic a state as possible and keeping his designs simple, yet individual, and his palette earthbound.

Two years ago, after returning to the Island from North Carolina, Thanhauser purchased the house on Merry Farm Road that previously served as home and workshop for boatbuilder Frank Rapoza. He set up his kiln and wheel in the spacious studio space, and started selling his ceramics at the Chilmark Flea Market and the Artisans Festival, as well as from his rustic home gallery.

The 30-year-old artist studied at Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design before serving a three-year apprenticeship with Osaka-born clay artist Akira Satake, whose design aesthetic left a lasting impression on Thanhauser. While completing a major at Brown in Contemplative Studies: Creativity and Consciousness, the magna cum laude student spent time in Japan exploring Zen and the country’s artistic traditions. “The focus of my studies was on contemplative traditions in religion and philosophy and science,” he says.

Of his goal when creating a piece, Thanhauser says, “When someone is actually using it, there’s hopefully this really beautiful moment that people can have with this piece of pottery. Ideally you can see something new in the pottery each time that you use it. My designs are fairly simple, but I try to get a lot of depth in the surface and the form. I try to think about the use of the item and the food, and the user’s daily rhythm.”

The process begins with using clay that is as minimally processed as possible. He sources much of his material from a North Carolina arts-centered community called STARworks, which describes itself as “the only ceramic supply company in the U.S. using local wild clays.” Recently Thanhauser acquired some material from a construction site, when he was invited to dig up clay unearthed while putting in a foundation. He then processed the locally sourced clay himself at his studio. The artist notes that the Island is unique in its geologic makeup. “Martha’s Vineyard happens to have very diverse and interesting clays,” he says. “Nantucket doesn’t have any clay. Neither does most of the Cape.”

Thanhauser hopes to have other opportunities to forage clay, and welcomes all offers to recycle material that would otherwise have to be disposed of.

In working with the clay, Thanhauser tries to keep the product as bare-bones as possible. He strains out pebbles and twigs, unless he is using the clay for a sculptural piece that might benefit from a rougher look. “My aim is to change it less and try to use more of a whole clay, without removing all of the impurities, and to find the beauty in that natural state.”

Most of Thanhauser’s pieces are composed of a dark, iron-rich clay covered over by a white clay slip. “The dark shows through the white, so that you see both at once,” he says. By using a clear glaze on his pieces, the artist notes that you can appreciate the dynamic between the two different colors of clay.

For his glazes, Thanhauser also often incorporates local, organic substances. He mixes all of his own glazes, often using ash from his own wood stove. He prefers to use a clear coating for most of his work, but sometimes opts for a honey glaze that adds a warmth to the natural look.

There is an element of design to each of the one-of-a-kind pieces, but it’s generally just a very simple swirl or artistic drip effect. Sometimes the artist includes a subtle scratch pattern. The look is very minimalist, incorporating soothing forms found in nature.

“I try to keep it simple, but at the same time I want the pieces to be lively,” says Thanhauser. “I’m always struggling with that balance. I think about how a piece is going to look with food or flowers. It shouldn’t look totally complete on its own. It should only look complete when there’s this other element.”

That approach to design can be traced back to what Thanhauser absorbed from his studies abroad, and later with a Japanese master ceramicist. “The underlying philosophy in Japanese pottery is using materials that are unique to a region,” says Thanhauser. “Work is all designed around food and use. The main characteristic of Japanese ceramics is the emphasis on place and material.”

On his website, Thanhauser writes, “When the clay, my shaping hands, and the fire all work in harmony, it is a form of alchemy. These objects are sent into the world, as ambassadors of beauty and usefulness. They find their completeness in use, holding a cup of tea, a bowl of food, or a stick of incense.”

Merry Farm Pottery, 79 Merry Farm Road, West Tisbury, will be open on weekends (and by appointment) for the holiday season. Hours are 10 am to 5 pm on Friday, Nov. 27, and Saturdays and Sundays from now until Dec. 20. A selection of Thanhauser’s ceramics are available at Vineyard Decorators and at the new Lauren Morgan Co. on Main Street, Vineyard Haven, and you can also shop online at merryfarmpottery.com.