The Test of Fire

Potter Charles Smith, known the world over for his meticulous Afrocentric and ceremonial vessels, sits down with MB to reflect on his purpose, passion and legacy.

Charles Smith // Photo by Elizabeth Gelineau

It’s an honor to meet you. I’ve read a lot about your artistic process and watched several of your demo videos on YouTube. I’m curious, how would the man behind the potter’s wheel describe himself?

First and foremost, I’m a genius. (laughs) No, I don’t know. Sometimes we have to get a third party to answer that. My name is such a common name. There’s probably 20 or 30 Charles Smiths in every county. How am I going to stand out? I had to figure out how to create my own thing, to find my purpose of being. I had to figure a way to have some type of stamp on my name. I wanted to produce something that my grandkids and their kids could look back on and say, my granddaddy was a potter. 

And their granddaddy is a gifted storyteller. Could you talk a little about how you found your artistic voice?

When I first started out, I knew I wanted my own design, but that took a long time to develop. Years ago, when my wife and I were doing shows, she asked me why I always brought in pieces with water as part of the design. The same thing started happening with collectors. They’d come back and tell me about elements they saw in pieces that I didn’t see, like serpents and fish. I was born and raised on the Gulf Coast, and we’ve got all this water and marine life around us. [Subconsciously], I had created a story line — this is the story of Mobile.

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When you were studying art education at Jackson State University, one of your professors noticed your incredible ability to draw. Do you make a sketch before you create each pot?

I’ll do a quick sketch now because my mind isn’t what it used to be. But you definitely have to have a design alphabet in your head in order to bring that image into a real form. Is it going to have a foot? Where is the face is going to be? How is the lid going to look?

Well, you’ve certainly perfected your technique. Do you ever create the same piece twice?

In all this big old world, there is only one of each. There is no reason for me to copy a piece. Mass production is not my thing. I’m just here to do that one heartbeat and move on. And with it being carved by hand, each one is different. 

Would you consider your works functional pottery?

I don’t do mugs. If I wanted a damn good mug, I’d go to the 99-cent store. There’s a joke I like to tell: Once the check clears, the buyer can do whatever the hell they want with their piece. Seriously though, these pots are more about ceremony. 

How did you wind up throwing clay, so to speak?

I was an angry Vietnam vet with post-traumatic stress disorder. I didn’t want to be a potter; I was just being a renegade. Nobody else was doing it. My folks thought I had gone way, way in left field. Here you’ve got a storm trooper, a ninja, a guy that went into battle and he’s over here playing in clay. What’s wrong with this picture? They didn’t understand because, at that time, it wasn’t part of the community, they didn’t need pottery. They had Mason jars and Tupperware. Even now, do we need potters? Why would people do this? It’s just a calling. Some things you just can’t explain. 

Charles Smith is revered for his intricate face sculptures, as in this ceremonial face vessel, keeping watch in his studio.

There certainly seems to be a deep connection between you and your pots. Is that why you choose to bury the pieces that don’t turn out correctly?

If I break a pot after I’ve put all this heart and soul and energy into it, I sweep it up and put it in a brown paper bag or a box and take it out back and bury it. Some people don’t have these guidelines; they’ll just throw it in the trash. No. Shoot, you’ve got to have a decent burial. You’ve got to mourn the pot. It’s not a religion; it’s the thing that you have to come to grips with to keep you in check. 

The clay keeps you honest, huh?

Clay is a living, breathing form. You have to know exactly what’s going on at all times. You can make a nice pot, but it ain’t worth a damn in the raw state. It has to go through the test of fire. The rule is, never fall in love with your work until it’s fired because if you fall in love with something, that’s what’s gonna blow up in the kiln. When things start blowing up, you better know why. But that’s the learning curve; a lot of this stuff isn’t in a book. They don’t want you to be disappointed because you might put the book back. 

Ceremonial wall hanging, the highlights on which were produced by Charles Smith’s repeated handling of the molded, unfired clay. Oil from Charles’ hands oxidized during the firing process, resulting in a shiny, worn appearance.

What are some other things you’ve learned that you didn’t read in a textbook?

You need to keep a junk box. Everything in art is critical: acorns, old nails, glass, stone, hubcaps. Also, your studio needs to have order. Once you’re working and you get inspired, you don’t need to be looking for stuff. It’s like cooking. You don’t need to be in the bathroom looking for a blender. And it doesn’t have to be pretty. People aren’t buying your studio; they’re buying the end result. 

Are you in your studio every day?

No, but I do go there every day. You don’t have to produce stuff daily, but you do have to think about it; it’s always in your head. Especially now during the pandemic, I’ve got time to reassess some of the things that I thought were flawed, things that I had put in the attic. As you get older, your eyesight goes bad, you can’t hear a damn thing, you find out one leg is longer than the other after all these years. (laughs) Now that I’m “flawed,” I can deal with the pot. It doesn’t have a blemish anymore. It used to be a defect, but now it’s not. 

Your creative well has yet to run dry after four decades as a potter. Do you ever experience mental blocks?

I try to work in threes. So, if I get a mental block on something, I let it rest and work on the other two. Then I can come back in a couple days and approach it from a totally different perspective. I’ve had artists call me and say they have mental blocks. I’ll tell them that they are working too fast, that they’re trying to complete it, but it’s not ready to be complete. What they need to do is set the piece to the side and work on something else.

Speaking of working on other things, tell me about Three Sisters, the sculpture you created in 2011 for downtown Mobile.

Three Sisters is sort of a mystery to Mobile. The Mobile Downtown Alliance called and asked for a bicycle rack, but I don’t make those. (laughs) Instead, I used the opportunity to create an Afrocentric piece. Those are three African queens. They represent strength, wealth and justice for all. It’s not a racial thing; it’s about strong community. At the base, you see things we are bound by in this area, which is water, alligators and birds. 

You’ve said in previous interviews that each work of art documents time and space. When you return to production, will your designs reflect the uncertainty surrounding the world today?

No, I’m not going to have any death crosses or cemeteries. History will already document that. That’s why I put the date on the bottom of my work; the date will tell you that Charles Smith existed during the pandemic. Now is the time for me to stop and smell the roses, to regroup. Why am I still creating art? It goes back to that calling. It’s why I’m here.

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