Diane Mayo breathes life into raku ceramics

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There’s something about Diane Mayo’s pottery that shouts sass. Maybe it’s the bright colors and textured patterns of her towering pots. Or perhaps it’s the two side handles that look like hands on hips that give the pieces some attitude. Or conceivably it’s the way each pot seems to curve and sway that adds vitality.

No matter how you explain it, there’s something about Ms. Mayo’s pottery that catches the eye and warms the heart. The Montauk artist smiles and shrugs with uncertainty when asked how her pots can radiate so much happiness. For her, ceramics are a way to play with distinct color fields and texture in a way that implies a human figure using the medium of a cylindrical pot.

Ms. Mayo’s pottery is currently on view at The Drawing Room in East Hampton in what feels like a solo show because her work takes up the entire front gallery. Her pots are placed on pedestals, drawing attention to their varying heights and putting their colorful bodies face-to-face with viewers. Photographs by Laurie Lambrecht of Roy Lichtenstein’s studio are featured in the center gallery.

More than anything, Ms. Mayo loves color. Coming to pottery as a painter, she brought color theory with her. She understands the way placing colors side by side can simulate and affect perception. Unlike most raku ceramicists, Ms. Mayo applies glazes using a paintbrush so her work feels like a painting that just happens to be round and made of clay.

Years of working with glazes and understanding how the interaction of oxygen and heat affects the clay allows her to effectively use a cornucopia of sheens, colors and translucency to go way beyond the singular surface application found in many ceramics. The result is a feast for the eyes in which there’s always something interesting to see.

Sometimes, it’s the way the brushstrokes swirl the colored glaze. Other times, it’s the random crackling patterns formed from the raku firing that draws the eye. Raku pottery is fired with open gas flames that heat the pots quickly, cutting down the firing time from the eight hours or so typical of electric kiln firing. The thousands of tiny intersecting cracks are the result of the abrupt change in temperature shocking the finish when a piece is removed from the flames.

Before the raku firing, Ms. Mayo’s hand-built pots are bisque fired in an electric kiln. Multiple glazes are applied—and sometimes layered—to create the various colors and textures found in Ms. Mayo’s work. The result is a combination of conscious application of color in defined fields with the random imperfection produced by the firing process.

Knowing that the outcome can never be accurately predicted is one of joys of working with clay, Ms. Mayo said. Pottery also provides a freedom she didn’t experience while painting on canvas. As a painter, she felt tied to reproducing the subject of her art. With clay, the subject is the blank clay form that can be freely completed with color without suggestion from a landscape, still life or figure before her. After making her first pot 20 years ago, she has never looked back.

“The pots are vessels for color,” Ms. Mayo said. “This is my way of using color without making a painting.”

Each pot is hand-built by rolling slabs of clay and forming them into a cylinder. The slight curvature in each of her tower pots was discovered by serendipity. While rolling the clay, she overshot one of the rectangular surface edges and the side of the pot was bowed a bit after firing. Liking the look, Ms. Mayo started to purposefully give her pots some sway, making them look like they are in the middle of a sensual dance or striking a dramatic pose for effect.

Ms. Mayo has always been attracted to stripes and her early work had lots of them. She is especially inspired by the textures and color combinations found in Nigerian striped weaving. Some years ago, she saw a show at the Whitney featuring contemporary quilts made by Gee’s Bend Quilters in Alabama. The patchwork and the way the African-American women combined shapes of colored cloth struck Ms. Mayo as something wonderful.

Since then, her pottery has slowly moved from featuring big fields of stripes incorporating a patchwork of color, texture and patterns. Stripes can still be found in her work, but rectangular patches of color have surged in importance.

“When I looked at the way the cloth was cut and then sewed together, it seemed like something that I could do with clay,” she said. “The way they put together the cloth pieces and combined them was similar to the way slabs of clay are put together. It was a natural. So I started making rectangles with different glazes on the pots.”

Ms. Mayo expects to continue making her colorful figurative pots just as she has for the last 20 years. Working with a similar shape in different sizes provides a familiar structure that allows her creativity to run free. Pushing the figurative aspect, she’s started making outdoor ceramics in the shape of spiders and praying mantises. Like her tower pots, they incorporate fields of color and textures created by glazes and the firing process.

Ms. Mayo has exhibited her pottery in solo shows at galleries in Germany, in Manhattan, and on the East End, including The Drawing Room, Vered Gallery and Lizan Tops Gallery. Group shows include galleries and museums in Manhattan, Florida, Washington, D.C., California, and Illinois, among others. She and her husband, the painter Rex Lau, run the artist and writer residency program at the Edward F. Albee Foundation in Montauk. Both have taught at the Art Barge in Amagansett.

“Diane Mayo: Raku” remains on view through January 19 at The Drawing Room, 16R Newtown Lane, East Hampton. Also on view is “Laurie Lambrecht: Inside Roy Lichtenstein’s Studio: Photographs 1990-1992.” The gallery is open from Friday to Monday. For information, call 324-5016 or visit www.drawingroom-gallery.com.

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