Matt Fiske is a modern-day alchemist.
He isn’t turning rock into gold, but darn close.
The resident potter with the Red Lodge Clay Center mixes disparate personal interests - geology, technology, art history and ceramics - with finely ground stone he sources during rock hound expeditions to make glazes that fuse art with science.
“I like to go digging for minerals,” Fiske said. “I’m a huge rock nerd.”
Fiske’s scientific approach to art has expanded his education and landed him in pottery studios in China, South Korea and several in the United States, including a long-term residency in Montana that began in July 2016.
Combined with his curiosity, the artist’s willingness to immerse himself in pottery processes and document the details via a blog earned him a full-ride master’s scholarship in ceramics to Utah State University. Fiske is the first art major to receive a STEM scholarship from USU, according to the university’s website.
At Utah State, Fiske learned how to use a scanning electron microscope to examine materials and glazes at nanoscale; he then scanned and printed the images for his final show.
While science permeates his work, the outcome of his experiments transform the deceptively simple lines of Fiske’s favored utilitarian kitchenware into elegant art. His pottery is inspired by the Sung Dynasty pottery he learned to make during a trip to China.
The glazes Fiske creates vary in look, depending on the minerals. His pottery is a physical catalogue of glaze recipes.
Celadon blue glaze flows like molten glass from the top of delicate cups, ending in drips that resemble ice cream melting from a cone.
Iridescent hematite in a hare’s foot oilspot glaze glimmers like gold leaf in the interior of a bowl.
And multiple layers of what looks like microscopic stacked ice give a multidimensional effect inside another dish.
Scoring a coveted fellowship at Red Lodge Clay Center fired Fiske’s imagination for five years. Montana’s “world class” pottery center and studio, plus its geology and fishing, were a strong lure, he said.
“There’s something amazing to me about exploring the place that I am in.”
Fiske didn’t stray far from Red Lodge, though.
He took hikes along Rock Creek and fished the stream that runs through the 100-acre property where 10 years ago Red Lodge Clay Center Executive Director David Hiltner and his wife, textile artist Maggy Hiltner, built the Red Lodge Clay Studio. The studio is located six miles north of Red Lodge on Two Bridges Road.
His jaunts included searches for new minerals to test, and Fiske is just beginning to make pottery with his finds. His private studio space resembles a rock shop. Small dishes, numbered to distinguish the ground minerals inside, sit on a table along with chunks of rock and gallon-size plastic bags of red clay.
Fiske reaches up to take a rich brown cup from a shelf in his private studio space and turns it slowly. Like his earlier work, the glaze shimmers on the surface like molten glass. Its only ingredient - plain red clay dug from a Montana road cut.
Minerals prospected at mines also go into Fiske’s glazes. From a corner, he pulls out a bucket and sifts a hand through a mixture of green rock and sand, then holds out a small container.
The cup is rustic and elegant; different than his other work. Streaks of blues and greens originating from the bucket’s copper ore cover the surface, contrasting with granite pebbling.
After a visit to the Carbon County Historical Society and Museum, he was given a box of coal samples bored from Red Lodge.
Customers at Red Lodge Clay Center are drawn to Fiske’s pottery; fascinated by its backstory, he said.
“People want the new Montana glazes,” said Fiske.
Even Fiske is mystified by his own interest in making glazes from the soils of the places he inhabits.
“What is it about it that makes it so cool?”
Perhaps it is a simple answer, he said. Whether he’s shoveling buckets full of iridescent vesicular basalt from a quarry near Paul, Idaho, or topaz amber at Topaz Mountain in Juab County, Utah, the contents become a tangible representation of the area.
The sorcerer’s stone
A self-described pyromaniac, Fiske experiments with the effect of fire on ceramics. He’ll use a hammer to bust off a hunk of rock, toss it in a small ceramic dish and cook it in a kiln. If anything remains when the dish cools, Fiske runs additional tests.
“Not knowing the outcome is what makes creating glazes interesting,” Fiske said. “I’m constantly collecting new samples, testing stuff.”
It wasn’t always that way. As an undergrad at Indiana University, Fiske let his lack of knowledge about minerals, geology and potential outcomes impede him from experimenting with glazes.
Then one day, he changed his thinking, perhaps influenced by a high school teacher’s earlier encouragement to play with commercial glazes.
“Somewhere along the line, I just started testing,” Fiske said. “It’s a lot like baking cookies. It’s just a recipe.”
Fiske’s college instructors reminded him that his glaze studies and kiln experiments were immaterial without solid fundamental pottery building skills.
When he sits down at his wheel in Red Lodge, Fiske revisits forms he prefers to make. By doing so, his work has improved.
“The forms have changed and gotten better,” Fiske said.
The kitchen is a useful starting point when deciding what pottery forms to make. It is a view developed after a fellow college classmate said it seemed Fiske didn’t use his ceramics.
“I wasn’t paying attention to the actual living with stuff. You need to take these home and use them,” Fiske said.
Fiske now makes utilitarian, simply-shaped dishes: gin and tonic cups, tea bowls, dessert plates and colanders. Making pottery is also about community; bringing friends together to share a meal and drinks.
“I use handmade pots every day. That informs what I make, using them in the kitchen.”
His favorite dish is a cup, a vessel which most potters make. The small, easily portable size and inexpensive price are also popular with customers.
“I drink whiskey out of it,” he said.
To Fiske, cups are the most intimate of kitchenware.
“There are so few things that we put to our mouth.”