Anyone can walk into a big box store and buy a run-of-the-mill four-piece dinnerware set. It’s much harder to find a mug featuring raindrop dimples or one made with clay found along Peconic Bay.
Ceramic artist Chris Fanjul, 39, specializes in just such pieces — including bowls, mugs, plates sculptures and more — all of which are anything but ordinary. Fanjul, who creates his comely yet functional pieces at his Mattituck home studio, contends that ceramics is as much of a form of creative communication as any traditional art.
“Its been seen for so long as a functional craft, but you can be as expressive with it as you’re able, as you chose to be,” he said during a late July interview.
An anthropology major with a degree from Swarthmore College, he was drawn to pottery, in part, for its role in human civilization.
“Going back centuries and going back millennia … pottery is one of the most baseline things we have,” he said. “That and fire, which is part of my interest in it.”
With years logged in North Fork kitchens and vineyards and work as a photographer, the New Jersey native landed on ceramics after taking a workshop at Brick House Ceramic Art Center in Long Island City. He was hooked.
“I always wanted to make things but I didn’t know what my direction was going to be until I started playing with clay,” Fanjul said.
The process is long and can be frustrating — pieces can explode in the kiln — but, he notes, it’s one that takes him out of his head and into his body. Fanjul said he prefers using the potter’s wheel, although he experiments with freehand pieces as well.
Once a piece is shaped, the first firing, also know as a biscuit firing, is done indoors in an electric kiln. The process dries the pieces by drawing all the moisture out of the clay.
The piece is then dipped in glaze and readied for its entry into the firing kiln.
That propane-powered mechanism, made with rings from a defunct electric kiln, fireproof bricks and clay, produces flames that shoot up to three feet high from its chimney. Its interior temperature can reach 2,400 degrees, which Fanjul casually described as “being as close to the inside of the earth as we can get.”
“You have to imagine fire being liquid,” he said. “Once you learn how to manipulate it, it behaves like water in a way.”
Elements added during this phase of the process affect the look of the final product. For example, salt sprayed in the kiln during firing vaporizes and adheres to the pieces, giving them a glassy finish.
It’s not a process Fanjul undertakes on his own. He works with a firing partner, ceramicist Andrew Sartorius of St. James.
Sartorius noted that for him, the appeal of making pottery is that it allows him to connect with the elements, and that a finished piece provides a bridge to the artist.
“I think that having something that is handmade instead of factory made, sort of brings the artist into your life,” he said. “I’m in essence transported to spending time with that person and it’s a moment of reflection and enhances your experience. It’s not different from when my family would break out my grandmother’s china.”
Fanjul’s pieces can be found on the table during PawPaw dinners, the weekly pop-up restaurant hosted by chef and snail farmer Taylor Knapp. The interesting, conversation-starting pottery is a natural fit for the event, at which the chef prepares multiple courses with seasonal foraged and locally farmed ingredients.
“Any time you’re doing a longer tasting, you want to be able to help the guests escape a little bit,” Knapp said. “You want to take them out of their every day situation. The plates help.”
This is the fifth installment in a northforker and Suffolk Times series about young North Fork artisans.