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Art for the Soul: Tabbatha Henry

by Belinda Recio

Tabbatha Henry has been working with clay for over thirty years. Her love affair with clay began when she was a young child and continued through college, apprenticeships, an MFA program at the School for American Crafts at the Rochester Institute of Technology, and finally, the launch of her ceramic studio, Tabbatha Henry Designs.

Henry works in an old gristmill overlooking a river in Northern Vermont. The river, landscape, trees, weather, shadows, light and other aspects of the natural world inspire her as she creates translucent porcelain candleholders, lighting, vases and custom sculptural installations. Her work is luminous, minimal, and elegant. It reflects her love of nature, her deep appreciation for the medium, a strong sense of design, and the mastery of craft that she has developed over the years.

We asked Tabbatha to share some thoughts about her art and the influence of place on her work.

OSM: What do you love most about clay as a medium?

TH: I love the tactility of clay, and its personality. There is really no other medium that can be worked the way clay can be worked. Clay requires a dialogue between maker and material, and because all clays are different, there is always a “getting to know you” phase during which one learns about each clay’s unique plasticity and tolerance. After this learning phase, I strive to express my ideas in partnership with the clay, rather than by imposing myself upon it. I also love the process of ceramics. There are so many different ways—both simple and technical—to build, fire and color clay. This is why clay has held my attention for over 20 years.

OSM: You often describe your work as fusing traditional ceramic techniques with modern technology. Can you tell us more about the techniques and how they come together in your work?

TH: We slipcast our pieces, which is an industrial method for ceramics manufacturing that has been used historically by larger companies—such as Wedgewood—and more recently adopted by artists and small batch manufacturers, such as myself. My assistants and I have also designed and built a few custom machines to speed up the more mundane and time-consuming processes, such as trimming and drilling holes. I still finish every piece by hand, but streamlining certain aspects of the process has helped reduce the toll it takes on my body and mind. We are on track to make about 2,000 pieces this year for my production line. Without these machines we would not be able to produce at that level.

OSM: You make your wonderful luminaries, lanterns, and votives from cool white porcelain, and yet the light that emanates from them is incredibly warm. Is there something about the porcelain that reflects the warmth of the candle flame better than other clays?

TH: Porcelain and china are the only clay bodies that have the ability to be translucent, and both offer so many different colors, just like there are a thousand variations of white house paint. Because my goal is to foster feelings of warmth and comfort, I chose the color I work with precisely because it has a cool, pearlescent look to it when not lit, but then magically transforms and emanates a warm glow when lit.

OSM: Your dark candleholders are quite dramatic when lit. Are these pieces glazed or do you use a black porcelain slip?

TH: For my black pieces, I use two different methods to get the color. Depending on the design, I either paint a black glaze on the pieces, or layer black porcelain over the white. We color our clay in the studio, and the black porcelain, though not as black as the glaze, offers a subtle depth that has a light-reflective quality not achievable with glaze. It’s a more complicated process than glazing, but I think it’s worth it.

OSM: In addition to candleholders, lighting, and vases, you do custom sculptural installations for homes and businesses. What do you like best about designing and installing these installations?

TH: I love doing the installations for several reasons. Most of my installations consist of multiples of a simple design, which are repeated over and over. This gives me the ability to experiment with pattern and light on a whole different scale. The artistry really comes into play with the installation. Each piece can be hung in so many different ways, depending on the space and available light, which I like to exploit. As the daylight shifts, so do the shadows of the work, which is one of the things I consider when installing. I also really enjoy the technical challenges: engineering the design and figuring out how it will attach to the wall. And, when I get to design something for a specific space it presents new possibilities and new design “problems” that I love to solve. Its quite different than my production work in that way.

OSM: What are some of your art and design inspirations? Which artists, designers, or movements inspire you?

TH: I find inspiration everywhere! Mostly, I go directly to the source: Nature. I can find the seeds of a new design in the smallest little detail of the landscape. When I look to other artists, though, I am particularly drawn to Scandinavian designers as a whole. Their clean, simple lines have an elegance that is powerful, yet calming. The ceramics of Eva Zeisel, Ruth Duckworth and Hans Coper never fail to amaze me, so I guess you could say I am influenced a bit by Mid-Century Modern design. For sculptural inspiration, I look to Maya Lin and Tara Donovan for their ability to transform simple materials into elegant and profound statements. Lately I have been looking at fabric design patterns from the likes of Marimekko, Trina Turk, and Pucci.

OSM: You have been drawn to clay for as long as you can remember. It seems like it has been a true calling for you—something you just had to do. The ancient Romans said that “the Fates lead those who will, and those who won’t, they drag.” Could you imagine a life in which you did not work with clay? Or do you think clay was always your fate? And if you did move away from clay someday, what might you do instead?

TH: I truly cannot imagine not working with clay. I have somehow always managed to make it a part of my life, squeezing it in wherever I could. (Ha—a little clay joke!) I do love textiles though, and have always wanted to design a line of fabric and clothing influenced by my ceramic designs.

OSM: As a New Englander, I find that the seasons have a profound impact on my moods, motivations, and inspirations. Living in Vermont, where the seasons are such a big part of life, do you find that the seasons influence your work?

TH: The seasons absolutely influence my work, but winter by far has the most impact. The grayscale color palette and quality of light really speak to my soul. It is the reason why my work is all black and white. The long, cold season ignites my desire for warmth and comfort, hence the candleholders. While summer has its beauty, it is winter that has my heart. I love how the landscape reveals itself when it is covered in white. The texture of everything becomes so much more visible with a coating of snow: the crags of the rocks, the patterns of trees and branches against the grey sky, the undulations of the hills with bare trees. When the wind blows the snow, it creates beautiful sparkly sculptures and patterns. There is nothing like being in the quiet woods on a snowy day. I try to reflect this in my work.

Tabbatha’s work is available online at tabbathahenry.com and at fine galleries throughout the country.

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