iflooking at one of Heather Stewart Harvey’s contemporary ceramic pieces evokes memories of weathered rocks found along the beach or spied in a stream in the Maine woods, it’s intentional.
Even before moving to Maine from North Carolina, Harvey would visit her husband Ben’s family here and find inspiration in what was around her. “I see some connection to beach stones and birch barks; Maine is textural and beautiful,” she explains. Over the years she’s even picked up stones, using them as visual reminders in her quest to reproduce that unique color and texture. “I’m down to a collection of four or five rocks,” to which, she says with a wry laugh, “I will someday figure out how to make a pot that looks like you.”
Like many artists, her journey as a ceramist hasn’t been a traditional one. A native of the West Virginia, for 15 years she was an academic librarian, specializing in instruction, including teaching documentary studies. An introductory class in ceramics, taken to fill some downtime, sparked this new passion.
“I’ve always been a really big gardener,” she says, “and I was often at loose ends in the winter. I had space in my life, and I knew I didn’t want to do anything that involved sitting or looking at a computer, which is a lot of what librarians do.” Taking up wheel-thrown pottery, she says, “felt very physical and hard.”
From working on the wheel, Harvey has transitioned to her unglazed coil-built pieces, and has most recently added some slab work, after receiving a Maine Arts Commission grant that is helping to fund the exploration of new techniques and business opportunities.
The material itself is a part of Harvey’s process, beginning with buying clay and then amending to it to get the desired look and texture. “It started out as a quest for the perfect gray clay,” she says. “I started experimenting with clay materials, slowly becoming more educated about what I was doing, but certainly a dash of luck was involved. I’ve always really liked raw clay, even if it isn’t as crazy as my clays are. I like the texture of it, and I feel you have to build or throw in a real careful way because there are no secrets. If you crack it a little or ding with your rib, you will see that in the end.”
A self-acknowledged “terrible draftswoman,” Harvey says she doesn’t rely much on two-dimensional sketches but takes a more organic approach to the process, which may include getting ideas from ancient pots, or even forms that show up in catalogs or magazines.
“Because I’m newer to hand-building, but also because pottery is hard, I feel once I finish it, it will be different anyway,” she says about not always adhering to her initial design. “I go back and forth between feeling like I have good results when I just start with a general notion and see what happens, and then trying to be more disciplined and really go for the shape I have in my mind, even if that means cutting off the top of the pot and starting over. I do have very strong shapes in my mind. I really like curves; I like pots that look different from different angles. That’s a place I’ve been happy with for a while.”
During the 3½ years she’s been pursuing ceramics, Harvey’s work has transitioned from usable, conventional shapes to more expressive forms.
“I’ve always really loved to make vases … and initially I was making traditional bottle forms—beakers, wine bottles. But now I’m really focused much more on gesture. Not that the pot would be personified for you, but it would give you a feeling of gestural movement. I started making pots that have a concave and convex shape that fit together if you want to place them together.”
The pandemic and even the family’s move to their Portland home has also influenced her work. “Moving has been hard and moving not long before a pandemic took hold has been hard and it has changed a lot of relationships in my life,” she says, “and I think I’m finding ways to integrate that into the sense of my pots more: how we come together, how we pull apart, how we arrange ourselves around each other. Also, how we integrate challenge.
“I’ve also been interested in questions of repair and mending. You’ll see some of my pots have what you might think of as clay Band-Aids on them. I’ve been thinking about how you rebuild … how you repair something without just masking the injury, or masking the rift or the shred or the hole. I’m thinking about these more emotive things.
“I think a lot about how pots go together without the luxury of a glaze to smooth connections and maybe even cover a small flaw here and there. How continuous does the joint have to be? How much time is too much time spent on such a thing? What requires a repair, what can add to the richness of the pot by revealing something about process and the maker?
“Some months ago I forgot to cover a large bottle as it was drying—good grief, the cosseting that hand-built pieces require!—and several small cracks appeared on the shoulder of the piece. I remember being so mad at myself that morning. The day before this happened I found out that an old friend learned that a cancer we had all hoped was banished forever was back, and my mind was so angry even preceding the cracks that I immediately moved to throw the whole piece into the reclaim bucket.
“Mend, repair, patch.
“As a person, I have historically found these things to be difficult both literally and figuratively. On we grow, though, and lately what I see is a clearer view of what needs to stay broken and what needs a mend. I patched this pot with all the love in my heart for my friend, knowing that sometimes a mended thing emerges stronger and more beautiful than ever, and now I mend many of my pieces in some suggestion that we honor the wound and accept the new ways a piece can exist."
“I made this piece while thinking about how a body grows around emotionally difficult experiences. I had just experienced a deep loss that felt so invisible to everyone but myself and the word gutted kept knocking around in my mind. I wanted to make a pot that rendered that feeling into a piece."
Harvey, who left her librarian job at Maine College of Art last year and has taken on the role of teacher for her young son and daughter during the pandemic, has become a night owl in her basement studio, working after her parenting day is done. “I’m always fighting for it,” she says about finding time to create, which currently includes working on a commission for a local hotel.
The commissioned pots aren’t meant to be functional, which was a revelation of sorts for Harvey. “I realized up to that point I hadn’t given myself that permission,” she says. “You can still stick a piece of fruit or a flower into everything I’d made until those pieces. And I think for me it’s going to take a while to see if I’m comfortable moving into that space.”
But Harvey said she does enjoy commission work, noting that the parameters set by such projects can be helpful. “I like things leaving me. Collaborations and commissions have been some of my favorite projects so far, and I enjoy working with an understanding of what moves a person or a project.”