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Wisconsin-born ceramics artist finds inspiration on big lake

“It’s so ancient as an art form. Digging up clay and putting it into fire. ... It’s a very grounding medium.”

Artist Ashley Hise talks about her process while she works on a wheel.
Artist Ashley Hise talks about her process while she works on a wheel at the Duluth Art Institute in Lincoln Park on May 3.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram
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DULUTH — Ashley Hise angles clay between her hands as her green-booted foot powers the low hum of the potter's wheel. Her newly formed piece spins ahead, reflected in a mirror adorned with splotches of dried clay.

A teal colored aquatic sculpture resembling a hollowed out seashell sits on the Lake Superior shore.
A ceramics piece by Ashley Hise photographed by Lake Superior, a large inspiration for the Duluth artist.
Contributed / Ashley Hise

“It’s to see where I’m going,” she explained.

With support from a 2022 Minnesota State Arts Board grant, the ceramics artist — known for work that mimics growth patterns in nature — is creating with clay harvested near the big lake. “I like it to look like it’s been washed up on the water, like something disintegrating, worn and weathered,” she said.

Mission accomplished.

The art on Hise’s website and Instagram account resembles aquatic movements frozen in time, often at the peak of a wave, and finished with shiny teal glazes. Some are stark angular structures with a sequence of fanned-out flaky fins and hollowed-out centers. Striking, dramatic and begging for a closer look.

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Artist Ashley Hise trims away some excess clay
Artist Ashley Hise trims away some excess clay while she works on a wheel at the Duluth Art Institute in Lincoln Park on May 3.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

“Working with clay is especially primal,” said Hise. “It’s so ancient as an art form. Digging up clay and putting it into fire. It’s a very grounding medium.”

Hise grew up in Stevens Point, Wisconsin, and studied ceramics in North Carolina. She took a class through the Duluth Art Institute when she moved to the Northland in 2013.

Ashley Hise smiles with a red-mitten-ed hand on her grandfather Joe Leek's shoulder, as the two stand outside of a home on a wintry day.
Ashley Hise took her first art class when she was 11 with her grandfather, Joe Leek. This photo was taken in 2014, after Hise moved to Duluth.
Contributed / Ashley Hise

After more than a year spent on the wait list, she landed a spot in the cooperative art space at DAI’s Lincoln Park building, which has a long history for her.

When Hise was 11, she and her grandfather, Joe Leek, attended her first adult art class in the building that now houses her studio. Years later, her grandfather retired and returned to school in his 80s to earn his Bachelor of Fine Arts degree at the University of Minnesota Duluth.

Hise’s studio mate, Holly Jorde, was Leek’s art instructor at UMD.

A painting by Joe Leek show a koi fish pond.
A painting by Joe Leek shows a koi fish pond.
Contributed / Ashley Hise

“It was all freshmen in class with him — fun to have this juxtaposition of this well-seasoned physician coming back for another career,” Jorde said. “He was a short man with a huge personality who commanded the room.”

Leek died in 2017 and had many good years of painting the poppies in his yard and the koi fish pond, Hise said. “Those are the ones the family fights over.”

Light beamed in from the wall of windows in the DAI building earlier in May. The door stood ajar, a testament to warmer temps. Artists and students busied themselves at their workspaces or filtered in for class. It’s an inspiring and supportive communal space, useful in brainstorming, and for meeting other artists and hosting workshops.

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There can be many issues in ceramics, Hise said, and in the studio, there’s always someone to help.

Along with the large work space, ceramic artists share firings in the kiln. It’s hard to produce enough work to fill it otherwise, Hise explained.

Ashley Hise adds to a piece she is currently working on at the Duluth Art Institute
Ashley Hise adds to a piece at the Duluth Art Institute on May 3.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

Hise’s process starts with ideas inspired by a growth pattern, a shell or fossil, which came from studying fox and deer bones found along the lake. This led to meditating on the evolving nature of physical existence, the sense of transfiguration, growth and decay, she said.

Hise sketches her ideas as a loose guide, and then adds curves and ridges on the potter's wheel. Then she carves the clay to the point of collapse. “Each choice leads to another place to resolve or connect,” she said, trimming small bits of clay away from a developing piece.

She fires a piece at a high temperature causing pieces to twist and warp — and the glazes to crystallize and mix. The latter mix and melt, often, freezing the liquid mid-drip.

For her latest collection, Hise uses clay gathered by the bucket at the mouth of the Iron River, along the South Shore of Wisconsin. It’s often dry and crumbled, perfect for grabbing large chunks that she can later smash and screen through window mesh.

Hise placed a small finished pot on the table revealing a deep, shiny russet with basalt stones peppered in and the coils of a seashell carved on the side.

Lake Superior clay doesn’t need a glaze, which makes for an easier process, she said, and its finish adds a nice texture.

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A piece made from clay collected along the south shore of Lake Superior rests on the table
A piece made from clay collected along the South Shore of Lake Superior rests on the table as artist Ashley Hise works on a piece at the Duluth Art Institute on May 3.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

To create enough pieces to glaze and fire, Hise works on a monthly cycle. It makes for a slow learning curve, and you can’t apply the lessons until the next firing, which may be months away.

Much of ceramics work is relinquishing control, Hise said, and what happens in the kiln can be “serendipitous or heartbreaking.”

Artist Ashley Hise works on a piece
Artist Ashley Hise works on a piece at the Duluth Art Institute on May 3.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

There’s that time the kiln shelves collapsed, causing her to lose her work. “The last batch, I was blown away by what can happen that has nothing to do really with me,” she said.

Her work’s available at the Indigenous First Art & Gift Shop at the American Indian Community Housing Organization and will be available at the Park Point Art Fair starting June 25, as well as at ashleyhise.com.

Related Topics: DULUTHART
Melinda Lavine is an award-winning, multidisciplinary journalist with 16 years professional experience. She joined the Duluth News Tribune in 2014, and today, she writes about the heartbeat of our community: the people.

Melinda grew up in central North Dakota, a first-generation American and the daughter of a military dad.

She earned bachelors degrees in English and Communications from the University of North Dakota in 2006, and started her career at the Grand Forks (N.D.) Herald that summer. She helped launch the Herald's features section, as the editor, before moving north to do the same at the DNT.

Contact her: 218-723-5346, mlavine@duluthnews.com.
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