Telling the story of ceramics in the United States and beyond, Missoula’s Radius Gallery is featuring pottery and sculptures from 12 artists and is taking appointments to show the work in person while the building remains closed to the general public due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The 5th Annual Radius Ceramics Invitational, on display in the gallery’s new building downtown through June 6, showcases the state of the clay art world and looks at where the community is heading.

“It’s supposed to be a snapshot of what’s going on in ceramics,” said Radius owner Lisa Simon.

The show mixes functional pieces with sculptural works, features both experienced and emerging artists, and gives a nod to ceramic tradition while making space for artists to display experimental new techniques.

And while the gallery has yet to fully open, Simon and co-owner Jason Neal are taking appointments for private showings (see box for details).

“We’re just doing it by appointment to kind of control the numbers that are here at any one time,” Neal said. “It’s how most people want to see the show anyways.”

The gallery held a virtual opening last Friday on Facebook Live and has photos of the work on their website, but Neal said the digital offerings pale in comparison to visiting the gallery.

“It’s no substitute for coming in and actually seeing all this work,” he said. It’s true, the scale of the pieces and details of the work are only on full display when you're right in front of it.

In a series of mugs by Michelle Summers, whimsical illustrations come to life against a stark white porcelain surface and form a narrative as each mug is turned around. Curator Jason Neal called her work a window into an imagined universe.

Austyn Taylor’s set of stoneware sculptures look as if they’re wooden toys, with a cartoonish feel but eerily human eyes. The surfaces are shaded with graphite and feature numbers that correspond with highways Taylor has crossed driving from residency to residency over the past four years.

Leslie Fry’s glazed vitreous china combines architecture and the human form. In her piece titled “Held Column,” human hands anchor a pillar on all sides, as if they’re holding the structure together.

In a nod to local Missoula artists, Karla Potter’s work takes inspiration from the likes of Beth Lo and Trey Hill. Her piece “Lo’s Holy O’s with Fins” features a scuba swimmer submerged in a bowl of cereal, a direct reference to Lo’s signature swimmer cups.

Kensuke Yamada's solitary submission is an ode to Sandro Botticelli's "Birth of Venus" in modern form.

Kelsey Bowen’s imaginative figures seem to bring to life childhood fairy tales. Her sculpture “For My Next Trick” features a mythical-looking rabbit with the body of a young girl in a pink dress ducking under the mouth of what looks like the “big bad wolf” from the story of the three little pigs.

Eric Rempe used the invitational to show his first foray into combining his woodwork and his ceramics. His cups, mugs and serving bowls are both functional and artful, with each drinking vessel paired with its own custom wooden shelf.

“I’m combining two interests that I really like and then trying to figure out how those two interests relate to each other visually,” said the New Jersey-based potter.

Rempe works with wild clay, giving the surfaces of his work an interesting texture. He uses a salt-firing process that vaporizes rock salt, the same material used to melt ice on sidewalks.

“The vapor travels around the kiln and it gets attracted to the silica in the clay body and it attaches itself to the silica and that’s what forms the glaze,” Rempe said. “But then some of the impurities, like quartz, have a habit of resisting that salt much more so than the silica … so what you end up with is sort of this variegated surface based on the attraction or resistance to the salt vapor.”

He first started using wild clay when he moved to New Jersey after living in San Diego for 20 years. When he caught wind that a local quartz mining company was disposing of clay, a byproduct of their operations, he wondered if he could use it for his ceramic work.

“It required a lot of processing, but once the processing was done, I was getting results with that clay body that were many, many times better than any commercial clay that was prepared in a bag,” he said. “That just led me to try more different kinds of wild clay.”

He’s since used clay he dug in his backyard while planting a tree and also sourced the material from excavation companies who normally have to pay to dispose of it.

His earthy tones are soft and run in tandem with the materials used, but they may not look the same to him as they do to everyone else. Rempe has some degree of color blindness, so he tends to pay more attention to the way his work feels and the look of the textures than what color it is.

“I do respond to the surface quality of the salt-firing and I do like the color of the salt-firing, I just don’t know that the color that I see is necessarily the color that you see or that most people see.”

Rempe said while he’s always considered himself a functional potter and still does, he said this series is an exploration of creating pieces for use that are also meant to be on display through the shelf pairings. But he’d much rather have someone holding his work every day than watch it collect dust.

“I’m setting up this kind of ritual where this person has this shelf in their kitchen and this one place that they go and they drink their coffee, they hand-wash the mug, they put it back on the shelf,” he said. “It’s just a really, really simple thing that I do that can maybe enrich their morning experience.”

As Montana’s economy begins to open back up and businesses look to form a plan of action, Simon and Neal said they’re using a wait-and-watch strategy for when they might fully reopen.

“There are predictions that it’s too soon. We want to keep an eye out just in case that’s accurate,” Simon said, adding they’ll be wearing and encouraging masks for the in-person appointment showings and providing gloves as well.

While their appointment-only system might look quite a bit different than their normally packed gallery openings, Neal and Simon said they knew they wanted to find a way to move in a positive direction toward a new normal.

“There’s so many shows that have gone down. I’m seeing cancellations of exhibits all over the place and even galleries that are going under already,” she said. “I think it was important that we went forward.”