Richmond ceramicist Claire McCarty embraces the functional, the abstract and the unique
By Eric J. Wallaceen forme
Ceramic artist Claire McCarty stood in the gallery at the Visual Arts Center of Richmond, studying a large, decorative plate. Roughly a foot long and wide, it was painted grey and encircled with jet-black tribal lines that framed a serpent, pink and white, coiling through a corolla of flame-red petals.
The piece was part of a charity exhibition called “Of Mud & Blood,” which brought together about 50 of central Virginia’s top ceramicists and tattoo artists. McCarty had partnered with Daryl Rodriguez, co-founder of Richmond’s Hold It Down tattoo studio, though neither knew whom they had been paired with until the Nov. 12 opening.
McCarty says fans of her work would likely be surprised by the piece. Her studio, Bear Ceramics, is known for its minimalist home décor and kitchenware, and her focus on creating modern relics has led to contracts with about a dozen Richmond galleries and boutiques, including VisArts, the Quirk Gallery and Shockoe Bottom Clay.
But McCarty enjoys pushing boundaries. And her process stays the same whether she’s crafting mugs, vases, custom fireplace tiles, abstract wall hangings – or collaborating with a local tattoo guru: She approaches every piece from an artistic perspective, and it has to be one-of-a-kind.
As a result, pair of matching coffee cups or a set of bowls will feature subtle variations in shape and color. She even has a rule for commissioned reproductions: Requests are viewed as direction for a new project in a similar vein.
“Those idiosyncrasies are what give Claire’s work that special something,” says Susan Gaible, owner of Shockoe Bottom Clay. Within a 20-piece dinner set, each component “is its own little work of art.”
If that’s missing, “I feel dishonest, dissatisfied,” McCarty says. “I have to start again."
Her love of imperfect perfection began as a freshman majoring in fashion design at Virginia Commonwealth University in 2008. “The program seemed super-secretive and cutthroat,” McCarty says, and she needed an escape.
She signed up for a ceramics class on a whim. The atmosphere was warm and inviting – people shared ideas and encouraged one another’s growth. She also liked that the art itself could be used for practical purposes, such as enjoying a bowl of soup.
And the rhythms of the pottery wheel, the feel of the cool-wet clay on her fingers? “It was pure Zen,” says McCarty, who quickly switched majors.
The next three years were intense and absorbing. She came to class early to work on projects alone, then stayed late with ambitious peers. She attended extra workshops, studied abroad in France and spent most nights and weekends experimenting in the studio.
“Ceramics became all-consuming,” she says. “I wanted to use that time to explore as many different styles and techniques as I could.”
After graduation she focused on pragmatism, as making a living as an artist wasn’t something that was taught in college, McCarty says. She took an internship with career ceramicists in North Carolina arts havens like Boone and Asheville. The posts taught her important business skills, such as branding, running an online store, managing social media feeds and connecting with galleries.
More importantly, she discovered a passion for teaching. “I realized that sharing my art with students was profoundly rewarding,” McCarty says. It also could bring steady income and access to a professional studio.
McCarty honed her skills by taking workshops at the Penland School of Craft in North Carolina and, later, teaching them in Richmond. The experiences helped her secure a job teaching ceramics at St. Catherine’s School in 2013. Bear Ceramics, named for a childhood nickname, launched soon thereafter.
“It started with me making [kitchenware and decorations] for my home and posting photos on Instagram,” McCarty says. Friends and family reached out, asking her to make items for them. Requests from strangers soon followed.
The interest inspired McCarty to build a website, and things quickly snowballed. She started doing pop-ups at local markets, which led to connections with galleries and shop owners. Within a few years, Bear Ceramics displays were found at about a dozen galleries and boutiques.
“Having a day job has let me say yes to opportunities that feel right and pass on those that don’t,” McCarty says. “I’ve been able to maintain a reasonable degree of artistic autonomy.”
That said, now that she’s made a name for herself, she’s slowly pushing the scales in a more creative direction. For instance, the project with Rodriquez spawned ideas for a series of large, wildly painted sculptures.
“I love making the functional stuff, because it grounds me,” McCarty says. “But I like to balance it with something totally creative and abstract. Moving forward, I’m looking to do more of that.”