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Island Artisan: Jennifer McCurdy

Jennifer McCurdy

“You could say a piece takes me about a month,” McCurdy says, “or you could say it actually took me about 40 years, because that is literally how long it took me to develop the skills.” Photo by Paige Biviano

Martha’s Vineyard ceramicist creates porcelain perfection

In the basement studio of her waterfront Vineyard Haven home, ceramic artist Jennifer McCurdy is transforming clay into extraordinary, rather ethereal works of art. Crashing waves, soaring flames, branches of leaves intertwined—there are endless ways to interpret the intricate designs of her wheel thrown porcelain sculptures. To McCurdy, it’s all relative.

“I’m just glad if you respond to it,” she says of her work. “It’s like my song; it’s my expression.”

McCurdy has spent the last four decades working with porcelain, a type of clay that is non-porous and translucent. During a visit to her studio this past summer, McCurdy demonstrated the meticulous process of crafting her porcelain pieces—or “vessels,” as she calls them. It’s a process that involves a unique, highly skilled approach. “I throw my porcelain very thin,” McCurdy explains, “and I do that because it’s the aesthetic of porcelain to be translucent and thin.” Porcelain in itself is difficult to throw, McCurdy says, as it absorbs water quickly and is more flimsy than other clays. While she uses some water in the beginning of her throw, she employs a technique called “dry throwing,” in which she shapes the clay with flexible metal ribs. Since these ribs have a smaller surface area than fingers, McCurdy says they encounter less drag on the clay, making it easier to properly form the piece.

When a piece is ready to be carved, McCurdy says she only has a window of one to three hours, depending on the size of the piece and how much moisture is in the air, before that piece becomes too dry to carve. She describes the designs she carves as “iterations” of her previous designs. “I think about things in fractals,” she says. (Essentially, fractals are never-ending patterns that, on different scales, are variations of themselves.) “I remember in the late ’70s I discovered fractals, and it blew me away. I thought, ‘Yes! This is the truth of the universe,’” she adds with a laugh. McCurdy says she loves exploring how her designs can iterate to become something new. “I’m looking for patterns within patterns, movement around the form,” she explains. “It’s all about the integration of the form with the surface.”

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