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Art of the Moment: Pandemic-Inspired Pottery

Pennsylvania artist Peter Olson fuses photography with ceramics in shockingly beautiful pots that reflect the viral reality of 2020.

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If you’re looking for something pretty, Peter Olson’s pottery isn’t for you. Vintage medical texts, death, disease, life in all its decaying glory—that’s what really inspires this artist’s creativity.

Olson had already built a successful career as a photographer of corporate CEOs, architectural landmarks, and bustling street scenes when he decided to try his hand at ceramics. His recent work fuses photographs onto ceramic vessels in a fascinating hybrid artform he calls photo ceramica. Pieces from his latest series, urns festooned with COVID-19 imagery, are currently on view at Denver’s Michael Warren Contemporary gallery. We asked the artist about his unconventional and mesmerizing work.

Covid Urn #1 and Covid Urn #3 (each measuring 19 x 6 inches) Wheel-thrown porcelain mix clay with original photography and iron oxide decals. Photo courtesy of Peter Olson

5280 Home: How did you discover your passion for ceramics?
Peter Olson:
About seven years ago, I started taking morning classes in Philadelphia for clay. I thought it would be fun; it was not anything I’d ever done before.

What inspired you to mix photography and ceramics?
I saw a couple of mugs with photographs on them—you know, like an image of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. With photography I get to travel, so if I go to London, I go to the High Street during the busy shopping times and shoot people. I do the same thing in New York, at Times Square or Ground Zero. You can just shoot everyday people who aren’t posed. So, I bring those home and start working on pots with those pictures.

Grouping of six pieces; Mean Streets #1–#6. (Approximately 18 x 7 inches) Wheel-thrown porcelain mix clay with original photography and iron oxide decals. Photo courtesy of Peter Olson

How did COVID-19 affect your artwork?
Every place we travel, I photograph museums, and I started working with some of the museum photos I had taken of ancient medical texts. At the same time, I was reading Daniel Defoe’s “A Journal of the Plague Year.” And I saw some of the imagery from the CDC of COVID-19. It was really graphic, like Sputniks. So, it seemed like a logical step to do a small group of vessels with those [images] on them—they’re my journal of the plague year. I had the images of COVID-19, and I made some of them out of focus so they weren’t all perfect, and I layered them. From a distance, maybe somebody thinks, “Hey look, that’s a pretty vase!” And you get up close, and you realize, “Ah, this is not that pretty, but it represents this year we’re in.”

How do you decide which images to put on which pots?
I do the [ceramic] pieces first. I start working on my shapes—you want to make them interesting. And then they’re all new images for what I call the anchor image. It’s kind of exciting to dig them out and work with them in PhotoShop and figure out how they’re going to go on the pot. Then I do tops and bottoms sometimes with some of the older stuff. I have about 100,000 images; they’re all cataloged, they’re all in files.

Mean Streets #7. (32 x 8 inches) Wheel-thrown porcelain mix clay with original photography and iron oxide decals. Photo courtesy of Peter Olson

Walk us through the firing process.
Basically, the pot is fired once, then you put your glaze on it, and you fire it again. For normal people, that’s it. With me, once [the pot is] glazed, then I apply the decal, which I’ve printed on a mono printer—a black printer that has a lot of iron in its ink. Then I refire to about 1800 degrees. All the decal burns off and all that’s left is the iron from the ink. As the glaze gets soft, the iron shoots in, so when it solidifies, the image is in the clay. It can’t scratch; it can’t fade. It’s totally indestructible.

Are you concerned with beauty?
No, not at all. My first instinct is always, “Do I like it?” I’m not there to please with some kind of beautiful garden picture. You know, in my day job we shoot CEOs, and you have to make them look good. So, when I started ceramics, I thought, I’m not going to have that. I want to do it on my own terms.

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