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 A wild & trippy kingdom


To get to James Salaiz’s open-air ceramics studio on Shelter Island, one must meander off the road and head “down a secret path to the banks of Crab Creek under the native oaks.” The directions alone feel out of a fairy tale, and the split log propping up a gnarled tree trunk adds a Tolkien-esque quality. But it’s the amorphous cave-like sculptures displayed on rusted plinths that evoke an archaeological dig to Middle Earth. 

Welcome to the artist’s latest collection — A Wild & Trippy Kingdom.

Salaiz, who decamped from New York City to Shelter Island during the pandemic and has since made it his permanent residence, has used his nature studio to inspire a new direction in ceramics. Originally from San Antonio, Texas, he studied photography and ceramics at Cornell College in Iowa, then kick-started his New York career creating ceramic prototypes for iconic potter Jonathan Adler. His work later caught the eye of avant-garde Japanese designer Rei Kawakubo, who invited Salaiz to show his “figurative realist and minimalist” sculptures at Comme des Garcon’s Trading museums in Paris, Tokyo and London. 

But the East End has set him on a new trajectory. 

“During lockdown out here, my husband, Mark, and I were so immersed in nature, I wanted to throw myself and my work into that escapist experience,” says Salaiz, who also works in the landscaping business in the Hamptons. “The ceramics I had been doing in New York were more industrial — inspired by the architecture and building cranes. Out here, for example, I just created a piece that emulates the tree canopy.” 

James Salaiz in his natural element on Shelter Island. (Credit: David Benthal)

Many ceramic sculptors work on a wheel or hand-build their pieces, but Salaiz integrates the two — working with clay that’s delivered from New Jersey once a month and stored in his basement studio. 

His latest process involves “throwing” a piece on the potter’s wheel then, before it fully hardens, “squeezing, crushing and shaping it” with his hands and puncturing holes into it with his fingers. “This is how I show the ‘artist’s hand,’ which is especially important in this day and age where you have 3D printing,” he explains. “I wanted to move away from the precision and perfectionism of forms you get in a lot of pottery, especially from the wheel.” 

Once pieces are finished and fired in the basement kiln, they need to be glazed, which can often be the main attraction. Salaiz has been creating his own glazes since he started his career, experimenting with color and interesting layering techniques, with inspiration from the 16th-century Japanese technique of Raku. (Pieces are pulled from the kiln at peak temperature and cooled in the open air or doused in sawdust or paper, all of which produce unpredictable patterns and colors.) Closer to home, the nature beyond his back porch sparks glaze ideas, like the “churning waves” blue/white or “tortoise shell” brown/yellow combos. 

“You never know exactly what you’re going to get, which is part of the fun,” he says about glazing’s unpredictability. “It was definitely a letting go for me to not be so precise in my expectations and find beauty in what happens naturally.”

You never know exactly what you’re going to get

Which is part of the fun.

– James Salaiz

Salaiz also incorporates his back yard beach into his works via sea glass collected on long walks. He sprinkles the clear or colored glass onto flat portions of his sculptures, where it melts in the fiery kiln and later hardens into sparkling puddles. The result evokes ancient Turkey’s crystalline Pamukkale salt pools or Cappadocia’s unusual cave dwellings. Which brings things back to his imaginative Wild & Trippy Kingdom and its strange cave-like sculptures and environments. It begs the question: Exactly who, or what, lives there? 

Salaiz is starting to ponder that very topic. He pulls out whimsical sketches of colorful creatures with blobby forms, multiple eyes and irregular limbs. He isn’t creating them out of ceramics just yet, but he is imagining the functional items they would use in their Wild & Trippy Kingdom. From quirky candelabras to illuminated pieces to interconnected modular vases that can be rearranged again and again (“almost like how an amoeba splits and then reforms”), there is an organic structural thread that ties everything together. 

For people who might have a hard time envisioning Salaiz’s intended uses on the more functional items (abstract sculpture can always be a bit of a Rorschach test), a little explanation goes a long way. “When I create planters or candle holders, I will sell them with plants and candles so they are easy to understand and ready to use,” he says. 

Photos by David Benthal

Representational or abstract, wheel-thrown or hand-built, ceramics are resonating with consumers right now, even for those not obsessed with the HBO Max reality show “The Great Pottery Throw Down.”

“I am really enjoying this ceramics moment, which I think is increasing because people have been more in touch with nature lately,” Salaiz says. Many people are bringing ceramic sculptures into their homes, but Salaiz prefers to share them with the public in his al fresco studio, with plans to eventually participate in artist studio tours. “I created my own outdoor sculpture park, as it makes a difference to view works in a natural environment,” he says. “I let the metal display bases deliberately rust in the elements to show nature at work.” 

So what’s next for the artist? “Taking my ceramic work, scaling it up and casting it in metals is definitely a next step,” says Salaiz, who wants to work more with glass as well in a multimedia context. “I’m thinking to cast some sculptures in bronze, then blow molten glass into them so it can drip and flow at will in organic forms. If that’s not letting go on precision, I don’t know what is.” 

James Salaiz is represented by Cristina Grajales Gallery in New York City