Chris Gustin

Chris Gustin

Chris Gustin (b.1952) ceramic artist and sculptor

With a career spanning nearly half a century, Chris Gustin is one of the most renowned ceramic artists working today. His background could not have been more aligned with his career, having been immersed in the ceramic arts from a young age. Born in Chicago in 1952, Gustin was raised in Los Angeles where his parents ran several pottery factories. There he first cultivated his affinity for the making of ceramic objects and tiles. During high school Gustin took his first studio pottery class, and in 1970 he entered University of California, Irvine, where he studied with ceramic artist John Mason. Taking a two-year break from university, he worked as foreman and manager at one of the family factories, Wildwood Ceramics, an experience he considers an invaluable apprenticeship. Urged on by his older brother Dan and sister-in-law Jane Gustin who were studying at Kansas City Art Institute, in 1972 Gustin joined them in pursuing ceramic studies there. At the Institute he studied under ceramic artists such as Ken Ferguson, earning his BFA in ceramics in 1975, then going on to New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University, where he received his MFA in 1977. Shortly thereafter, Gustin was awarded his first visual arts fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts (1978).

After graduating, Gustin set up his first studio in Guilford, CT together with his sister-in-law Jane, producing both functional and sculptural pottery for the next five years. He also began teaching at Parsons School of Design, and in 1980 became Assistant Professor of Ceramics at Boston University. In 1982 he converted an old 8,000 square foot building in Dartmouth, MA into his new studio and living area. Gustin became head of the ceramics program at the Swain School of Design in New Bedford, MA in 1985, leading to his tenure as professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth. In 1986 he cofounded Watershed Center for the Ceramic Arts, an artist residency program in Maine.

While Gustin’s studio work was rooted in making functional domestic ware, he gradually shifted from utilitarian pieces to more figurative and sculptural vessels. A standout in the field from the onset, his earlier work was often distinguished by strong use of color and sandblasted surfaces. With his vast technical and artistic experience in ceramic production, Gustin was able to experiment widely with form, volume and surface, functional forms becoming a point of departure for more abstract forms. Notable among these are thrown or coil-built pots that reference the functional vessel. From the eruptive energy of his earlier pieces, his artistic trajectory moved to the subtler power of more overtly sculptural works. Drawing inspiration from historical utilitarian pottery as well as the human figure, and utilizing his mastery of materials and firing, Gustin set on exploring the vessel as biomorphic form. Sensually curved and evocative of bodily forms, these sculptural works reflect on ongoing concern with the way a vessel contains its interior space, both enclosing it and allowing it to expand breath-like. Scale is important in Gustin’s work; his vessels and sculptures can range up to four feet in height, amplifying their bodily scale. They evince an almost visceral connection between clay and the body. “I am interested in pottery that makes connections to the human figure,“ asserts the artist. Of the essence is Gustin’s dynamic working of curves, not only in referencing the body, but also in evoking energy and tension.

Further highlighting the interplay of form, volume, surface, and clay are Gustin’s glazes. Often rendered in rich earth tones and ranging into more complex, mineral-like and opalescent colors, his glazes demonstrate his painterly concern with the transmission, reflection, and scattering of light. A master glazer, Gustin’s wood-firing techniques rely on the combination of glaze and ash to achieve rich depth of color, and utilize metal oxides for further coloration and translucence. Taking 4 days to fire, each piece is the unique result of expert skill, creative intuition and the alchemy of wood-firing. The definitive effect of his finished glazes is all the more remarkable in light of the unpredictability factor of wood-firing, a testament to Gustin’s mastery. He fires his work in an Anagama kiln, a type of wood-fueled kiln dating back to ancient Japan. Adding to the unique beauty and mystery of each piece is the fact that he keeps his glaze recipes secret.
In 1994, when Gustin and his wife, the painter Nancy Train Smith, began working on the design of their new Massachusetts home, he drew on his roots in ceramic production and years of technical experience to make all the tiles for the house. Using high-fired clay for durability, he endowed the tiles with his complex signature glazes. Out of this endeavor evolved his new company, Gustin Ceramics Tile Production, which continues producing tiles and is represented by select architects, designers and showrooms. Tile, Gustin has said, “is the ultimate functional object, made throughout time by cultures all over the world...It is very basic, and consequently, quite powerful.”
In 1999, after twenty years of teaching, Gustin retired from UMass Dartmouth to devote himself to his studio art as well as his tile production company. Around the same time, his work underwent noticeable softening and quieting, a reflection of the deep community and spiritual need he considers essential to pottery making. Even though his studio work over the years moved away from function and utility to more sculptural concerns, Gustin affirms that “the desire to make things that function in our daily lives still resonates deeply” in him. Whether functional wares, tiles, or singular works of art, Gustin approaches all ceramic-making with his rigorous expertise and aesthetic, challenging the viewer to look at these forms in new ways. What excites him is “how a pot can exist on a variety of levels, slowly revealing itself." Platters, bowls, vase forms, and larger vessels should all, he feels, be able to play off each other in a group, yet still stand on their own. Remaining Massachusetts-based, Chris Gustin has had more than 50 solo exhibitions at leading institutions and galleries throughout the US and abroad. A retrospective of the artist’s forty-year career, Masterworks in Clay, traveled through several important institutions. He has been the recipient of two National Endowment for the Arts Artist Fellowships and four Massachusetts Cultural Council Artist Fellowships, among other awards and honors.
Gustin’s ceramic objects and sculptures are in numerous national and international collections, both private and public, including The Museum of Art & Design, New York, NY; Renwick Gallery of the Museum of American Art, the Smithsonian Institute, Washington, DC; Kemper Museum of Art, Kansas City, MO; LA County Museum of Art, CA; Everson Museum of Art, Syracuse, NY; Daum Museum of Art, Sedalia, MO; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, TX; Detroit Museum of Art, MI; Mint Museum of Art, Charlotte, NC; Newark Museum of Art, NJ; New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred, NY; Racine Art Museum, Racine, WI; Shiwan Treasure Pottery Museum, P.R. China; Shigaraki Ceramic Cultural Park, Japan; Victoria & Albert Museum, London, UK; Yingge Ceramics Museum, Taipei, Taiwan; and Icheon World Ceramic Center, Icheon, Korea
Selected Exhibitions
2014 Chris Gustin: Masterworks In Clay; American Museum of Ceramic Art (AMOCA); Pomona, CA
2013 Chris Gustin: Masterworks In Clay; Daum Museum of Contemporary Art; Sedalia, MO 2012 Chris Gustin: Masterworks In Clay; Fuller Craft Museum, Brockton, MA
2010 Circling Into Now; University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth; Dartmouth, MA
Selected Publications
Clark, Garth and Watson, Oliver; American Potters Today; Victoria and Albert Museum; 1986 Perry, Dr. Barbara; American Ceramics: The Collection of Everson Museum of Art; Everson
Museum of Art, Syracuse, New York; Rizzoli, New York; 1989
Lauria, Jo; Color and Fire: Defining Moments in Studio Ceramics, 1950-2000; The Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Los Angeles, CA; 2000
Mathieu, Paul; Sex Pots: Eroticism in Ceramics; Rutgers University Press; Piscataway, NY; 2003
Fuller Craft Museum; Chris Gustin: Masterworks in Clay; Fuller Craft Museum, Brockton, MA 2012 (Retrospective Exhibition Catalogue)
Complete list of exhibitions, collections, and full bibliography: