It took living away from his home of Arizona for ceramic artist Ben Jordan to start missing the look and feel of the desert state.
The ideas of settlers moving to a wide-open West, to be explored with wonder, boiled up in him.
“I found myself doing the same, in my own life,” Jordan said. “Romanticizing it a little bit.”
When he came to the Clay Studio of Missoula for a two-year residency, Jordan had all the inspiration and tools to create an exhibit based on that romance, from his ceramics form to function.
“Domestic Topography” showcases vases, cups and bowls, yes, but also terracotta planters and sculptures of rams and horns.
Every one of the sculptures is covered with intricate floral designs that glow bright on the dark clay, some accented with gold paint.
“I really like putting a ton of design on the surface,” Jordan said, “to compete with the form a little bit. They’re competing for the viewer’s attention.”
Those flowery designs are heavily influenced by western leatherwork, Jordan said, which he notes carries a rich global history as well, before it became part of American culture.
The designs are carved in by hand using slips, a form of watered-down clay that are cut and layered on top of the ceramic, making for a three-dimensional texture. This is a method called “sgraffito.”
He also uses leather stamping tools for some of the unique designs, like teeny, intricate doily-like shapes that center some of the flowers.
“It translated well to clay,” Jordan explained. “I use it for accents here and there.”
While the outside of Jordan’s pieces are intricate and careful, he, like many clay artists, purposefully leaves hand- and finger-marks on the inside and bottom of his pieces, though even these have a shape and beauty to them.
The inside of Jordan’s vases and bowls have scallops from finger imprints, but they don’t look purely random; more, another three-dimensional pattern to further texturize the pieces.
This inner texture is also somewhat finished, with a smooth feel, since Jordan uses press molds for many of his pieces.
Leaving bits of process and human touch represents another focus of Jordan’s: the interaction between humans and nature.
His ceramic vases and pots are tools people use to bring nature into their homes, he said. This is emphasized in “Domestic Topography” by having prickly pear cacti planted in three of Jordan’s pots.
“That’s what I made them for, so why not?” Jordan said.
It’s also present in his most unusual pieces: a large, ceramic bust of a bighorn sheep, and several ram's horns.
He wanted to press his point home by using taxidermy foam molds to create his bighorn sheep mount, which is glazed a bright white, with brown horns and the same ornate flowers on the outside. The head is tipped on its side, to show the hollow interior.
“When you see it on the wall you don’t see the synthetic nature of it, with the foam,” Jordan said. “Some of this stuff, like this and the plants, is referencing our relationship to nature — these manicured interactions.”