Wisconsin artists Karl Borgeson and Zac Spates rely on simple, refined forms to create functional art. An exhibit of their ceramics, “New Work in Clay,” opens Friday and runs through Feb. 25 at Abel Contemporary Gallery, 6858 Paoli Road, Paoli. A public opening reception will be held 5 to 9 p.m. Friday at the gallery.

Borgeson constructs utilitarian pots meant for everyday use as well as covered vessels that are more sculptural, yet still useful. Most of his pieces are wheel-thrown, even ones that are modified into squared, oval, or triangular forms. He also hand builds some of his ceramics.

To satisfy his minimalist instincts, Borgeson uses a limited color palette of just two slips (creamy clay solution) and four glazes. Stoneware and porcelain are used to achieve slightly different color responses. Wood ash on the surface of his pieces before firing, and a small amount of salt at the end, produce subtle surface variations, color and texture.

The surfaces of Borgeson’s ceramics may be embellished with basket weave imagery, checkerboard patterns, or parallel lines. His travels have influenced him to create the subtle patterns in the glazing of his work.

“He [Borgeson] is particularly intrigued by textiles, baskets, tribal masks and vernacular architecture witnessed during recent travel in West Africa and Indonesia,” the Abel Contemporary Gallery press release said. “Inspiration comes in many forms but usually manifests itself subtly and abstractly.”

Borgeson is a professor emeritus from UW-Whitewater where he taught for 32 years. His home and studio are in Whitewater.

Spates strives to make simple, well-thrown pottery with complex wood-fired surfaces. His pieces are also mostly functional, such as trays, bowls, mugs, tumblers, etc. They are thrown on a traditional kick wheel, rather than an electric pottery wheel, and then altered right before he removes them.

Along with using simple glazes, if any, Spates uses slip made with clay that he dug and refined from quarries in Central Minnesota. All his work is fired in a labor-intensive wood-fire kiln.

“Decoration is minimal, leaving the surface to be etched and blushed by the flame’s movement throughout the kiln,” Spates’ artist’s statement said. “The way the pots are stacked in the kiln is more important to my pottery’s surface than the individual pieces by themselves.”

Working for several years with two very different wood fire potters, Spates had developed his own combination of tight forms with loose, organic finishes. His pottery continues to evolve as he modifies the way he creates the forms and the way they are fired to utilize each to its full potential.

Spates has a home and studio in Hudson.

— Robyn Norton


Robyn Norton is a features assistant for the Wisconsin State Journal.