Selective Focus: Burdock Ceramics

Burdock Ceramics is the pottery duo of Duluth artists Rita Morris and Barry Sands. Their pieces are hand thrown and painted, creating functional and elegant pottery inspired by the northwoods.

How long have you two been working with pottery?

Well, quite a long time collectively! Barry took ceramics classes in high school and found his calling. His high school had an amazing ceramics program with a wood kiln, so many wheels and an amazing instructor. I grew up around it, my dad is a potter (Paul Morris Pottery) and I spent a lot of time as a kid watching him throw, watching him and my stepmom Denise decorate the pots, firing with them and occasionally tagging along for Art shows. In fact, Barry apprenticed and worked for my dad many years ago and that’s how we met!

I didn’t embrace pottery for myself right away. I received a BFA in painting and drawing from the U of M and then later a certificate in natural science illustration from the University of Washington. The more time that passed, the more I found myself drawn back to the comfort and familiarity of clay — being in a ceramics studio always felt like coming home.

It was very natural to start working with clay seriously about eight years ago and using it as a canvas to paint on. Barry and I started collaborating shortly thereafter and Burdock Ceramics was born.

I understand Burdock is a partner duo. How does that work?

We visualize the forms together, talk about what we want to see, and then Barry goes to work throwing the forms. We have pretty separate roles at the beginning of our process, but come together after everything is painted to glaze and fire the work. We try to give each other a lot of space and freedom to make or paint whatever feels right in the moment as well. That lets us each explore and grow in our own ways and keeps our pottery naturally evolving.

What does your creative process look like?

Barry throws the pieces on the wheel and I hand paint the imagery onto them. We try to focus on ceramic forms that are subtle and simple to be able to show off the paintings on the surface. The ceramic process is pretty drawn out, from wet clay to a finished fired piece of pottery takes about a month.

After throwing a body of work, we fire everything in an electric kiln to make it easier to handle and to glaze. I then get to work painting the imagery onto the surface, which is one of the most tedious part of the process. We rent studio space in the Lincoln Park building of the Duluth Art Institute where we finally glaze and fire our work in the gas kiln.

The designs on your ceramics are so detailed. Do you use a stamp, or how do you transfer the image to pottery?

We don’t use a stamp or anything — that’s too easy! We like to do things the hard way. With my background in drawing and painting, it was only right to start hand painting on our pottery. I started out using a technique called sgraffito, which is carving into a black slip to reveal the white clay underneath. I eventually transitioned to using black underglaze to paint right onto the bisqueware a while back to keep the dust down and get a bit more detail.

To get the highlights in the paintings, I use a paintbrush with water to pull up the paint as you would use an eraser in a drawing. I freehand the paintings from looking a photographs, so each one is a little different. I’ve come to love our slow process — it feels like an important act of resistance in this fast paced world of ours with mass production being the norm.

What is the significance behind the name “Burdock Ceramics”?

After a lot of hemming and hawing, we decided to name our pottery collaboration after our amazing dog, Burdock! When Burdock was little, I lived where there was burdock plant everywhere and the burrs would get stuck in his fur. I love plants, so naming my dog and pottery business after a plant that is often seen as a nuisance — but actually has healing properties as well — seemed fitting.

There’s always a bit of good mixed in with the bad, sort of like the learning process with clay. There are so many things that can go wrong in the pottery process and with each mistake you learn so much.

Do you have a favorite piece of pottery or design to make?

Barry loves to make vases of all shapes and sizes. He really enjoys getting in the zone by making simple forms to act as big canvases for my paintings. He especially likes to challenge himself by throwing really large vases in multiple sections.

I like to paint imagery from the natural world, especially the native flora and fauna here in Minnesota. I love being able to highlight some of the species that make this such a unique and special place.

Where can folks keep up with Burdock Ceramics?

You can find us at shows this summer and fall, we’ll be at Art at Bayfront Park on Aug. 20 and 21 and at the Lake Superior 20/20 Studio Tour up the North Shore Sept. 23 to 25.

You can also find our work at Siiviis Gallery (Canal Park in Duluth), North & Shore (Lincoln Park Craft District), Bailey Builds and Friends (West Duluth) and the Big Lake (Grand Marais).

You can find us on social media, as well, Burdock Ceramics on Instagram and Facebook.

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