Dynamic ceramics: Hess (12) molds his artistic experience


Erica Jiang and Samantha Matays

Devoted ceramic artist Leo Hess (12) has been creating works of pottery since he was four. “I like the 3D aspect of it, the fact that I can make something then hold it, turn it around in my hands, and use it” he said. “It’s something that you can enjoy at any level and something that can provide benefits in terms of creativity and relaxation at any level.”

Hess was first introduced to ceramics at day camp when he was seven. He created handbuilding clay projects with basic techniques and simple tools, he said. 

When he was ten, Hess attended sleepaway camp where he participated in ceramics classes again. He used the potter’s wheel for the first time and his passion for the art form grew.

He later developed this passion in seventh and eighth grade when he took ceramics classes and developed his handbuilding skills. In the class, he learned how to dunk pottery into different glazes and layer them to paint richer colors on the outside of his piece, he said.

While fostering an interest in ceramics, Hess also applied to the school for 9th grade. Hess said he was especially intrigued by the ceramics program while touring the school. “It was the most elaborate and in-depth ceramics program I’d seen out of any of the high schools I was looking at,” he said. 

For the short term, Hess hopes to become more consistent in his work by crafting a set of plates and bowls, rather than individual pieces. In the future, he plans to pursue ceramics in college and specifically looked for a strong ceramics program throughout his college search. After college, he hopes to continue his ceramics work in a local studio.

Hess prefers using the potter’s wheel because it creates a more consistent flow and less interrupted shapes, but he also experiments with handbuilding, combining multiple pieces of clay to create a new shape. “It’s really just making things out of clay using only your hands, or occasionally simple tools like stamps or rolling pins,” he said. “Handbuilding tends to be more sculptural-looking work, whereas things made on the potter’s wheel are typically more symmetrical.” 

Although Hess does not stick to a specific method, he typically begins a project with a foundation of what he wants to create in his mind, but he is flexible throughout the journey. “It’s a bit of a weird process where I start by making the basic construction; then, I just follow where the clay is taking me,” he said. “So if I see it’s starting to get wide at the bottom, I may continue bringing that wideness up to the top and make it a bowl instead of trying to constrict that wideness and force it into being a mug.” His creative process is an organic and spontaneous journey of making visually appealing and useful pieces, Hess said.

While Hess typically creates from imagination, he also enjoys looking to others for inspiration. Hess said he finds inspiration in ceramics teacher Keith Renner’s numerous pottery books and enjoys observing other students’ work such as Mia Calzolaio’s (12) to see a variety of techniques and glazing methods. “Because of the different experiences they’ve had and the different art pieces that they’ve seen in their lives, other students help illustrate new patterns or shapes to me,” he said.

For example, he watched a senior experiment with glazing when he was a sophomore and saw how they tried out all kinds of different combinations without trying to predict the outcomes. It taught him the spontaneity that came with making pottery and the huge array of ways that one can create something appealing or useful, he said.

Hess also finds it helpful to work on multiple projects at once. This way, he has a variety of options to work on if he feels a creative block with one project.  

As a whole, the amount of time he spends on each clay creation varies, Hess said. Sometimes a piece can never feel completed while other times he can put the piece back on the wheel and rework it. “The beauty of working on the wheel is that you can change what you’re making as you’re making it and you can stop the wheel at any time and alter your work,” Hess said.

At school, Hess works with Renner in the ceramics studio to create his pieces and refine his skills. He is currently one of two students at the school taking Directed Studies in Ceramics, a full credit course that meets four times a week. Renner teaches Hess pottery techniques and vocabulary and helps him get from A to B in the less structured Directed Studies class, Renner said. “Instead of Leo coming in and [me] saying, ‘here’s a technique, learn this’ or ‘here’s an idea, run with this,” it’s ‘what do you want to do and how can I help you get there?’”

Renner enjoys working with Hess on his current project which includes taking the 13 glazes at the school and firing them over and under one another while keeping the glazes oxidized, Renner said. When finished, there will be a grid, with a hand built stack of extruded loops of clay, that displays the effect of reduction, which is the removal of oxygen molecules from a glaze, on different glazes, he said.

“It’s pretty ambitious and it’s going to be a long lasting project that’ll actually help future generations of ceramic students.” Renner said. “Leo was curious about what these glazes would look like if you did not reduce them, if you fire them oxidized.”

After the oxidation grid is complete, students can compare the oxidation with the reduction of glazes, he said. “It will give current and future students more possibilities for glazing and more information to make decisions about finishing their clay work.” Renner said. This grid will also be useful as a teaching tool to illustrate how these two firing methods differ, he said.

This project has given Renner insight into who Hess is underneath his artist identity: thoughtful, creative, and helpful to his classmates, Renner said. “I am sure that many years from now, while watching students contemplate Leo’s glaze oxidation glaze grid to decide how to finish their artwork, that I will be reminded of Leo and his dedication to the ceramics studio.”