Eric L. Stearns is an associate professor at Doane University in Crete, Nebraska and studio ceramic artist.
Eric was born and raised on a ranch near North Platte, Nebraska. He earned a Bachelor of Arts Degree with a Professional Emphasis in 2003 from Doane College in Crete, Nebraska. He returned to North Platte to open his studio, Stearns Ceramics, while teaching and assisting with his family’s ranch.
After a couple of years teaching full-time, working in his studio, and assisting his family on the ranch, he committed more fully to his art and in 2008 he received a Master of Fine Arts studying under Linda Ganstrom at Fort Hays State University.
Eric returned to Doane College after receiving his MFA and is now Associate Professor and Chair of the Art Department. When not teaching, Eric spends time in the studio creating sculptural pierced raku art.
The Art of Raku
Eric Stearns’ influences include the bold, repeating geometric designs present in the Native American Acoma pottery to English artists influenced by storage jars from West Africa and pre-Columbian American ritual vessels.
After looking at contemporary raku and the many different effects that artists are doing today, Stearns added another element to contemporary raku when he integrated form and surface quality to set himself apart from his peers. His meticulously pierced patterns, coupled with his thinly thrown forms, are put through a risky raku firing process, known for having a high breakage rate. His pieces, as a whole, are very complex, and without knowing exactly what he is doing, the pieces wouldn’t make it through the process.
Each piece is thrown on a potter’s wheel. Once the piece has reached the desired form, Stearns carefully trims the excess clay from the bottom of the piece and marking between 40 and 80 horizontal lines lightly into the clay while its still centered before he cuts it from the throwing bat. It’s removed from the bat and placed on a couple sheets of newspaper for two days until he flip each piece over to trim and sign, giving it his personal sign of approval. Between 40-80 vertical lines are then lightly incised, creating a grid for Stearns to create a pattern of pierced diamonds, triangles, and rectangles. Using an X-acto knife to create his pierced patterns typically takes several hours to complete. The piece is then bisque fired to a pyrometric cone 08 (approximately 1800° F). Once cooled, Stearns uses slip decoration, stamps and masking out areas with tape and stickers. The graphing tape and stickers masks off areas to create a crisp, hard-edge line in specific design areas that accentuate his pierced pattern. These ideas of using graphing tape and stickers to mask areas off were explained to Stearns by Sheldon Ganstrom. Circle stickers in a variety of diameters as well as the reinforcement rings for repairing torn punched hole papers adds an additional dimension to his surface decoration.
The final part of Stearns’ process is the raku firing itself. After experimenting with a variety of gas-fired raku options, his graduate school professor, Linda Ganstrom, suggested that Stearns try using an electric kiln, which produces a cleaner firing, especially for clear crackle where the kiln is always in oxidation instead of reduction. Oxidation is clean air, which prevents the glaze from forming those little black speckles that Stearns was having problems with when firing in a converted electric kiln. He was also able to better learn and control his kiln and firing. In an electric kiln, all of the elements are heated up equally around the piece and a cone can be placed in the kiln sitter so that every firing goes off exactly at the same temperature. Stearns primarily use Cone 07 when firing his raku pieces, which is just below 1800°F. A pyrometer is used primarily for the cooling down process so that he knows exactly when to pull the piece in order to get a great crackle while still being able to smoke the piece in the reduction chamber. The piece is left sealed in the reduction chamber for approximately 30 minutes to allow the carbon to get trapped in the crackles of the glaze.
Article originally published in Pottery Making Illustrated, Jan/Feb, 2016. http://potterymaking.org. Copyright, The American Ceramic Society. Reprinted with permission.
“Pushing the limits of clay, both in the form as well as the finish, inspires me to create; raku firing tests the limits of those extreme forms. I purposefully make every piece as delicate and fragile as possible while celebrating the robust bonds that are inherent in each molecule of clay. Influenced by the patterns and styles of Acoma pottery, I explore the positive and negative spaces within the design and the clay itself, then build depth with the glazes. Precise application of geometric principles is exhibited in each choice….” >> More
When people ask me about my work I tend to give them the interest in mathematics, when really that’s just a small component behind the meaning of my pieces. Each piece is truly a reflection of who I am as a person and as an artist. I believe that if my art wasn’t an expression of myself I wouldn’t be interested in making it. For once I will expose myself with regards to these pieces and the meanings behind them. I’ve chosen to not talk about the meaning of my pieces with others for I have had a difficult life and through my art I express and deal with the concealed emotions of my past.
First, let me begin by explaining why I choose to concentrate my area of work on the raku process. Raku art pieces are not long term and in no way will last until the end of earth. Over time, the pieces become vulnerable exposing them to unlimited trials of actions of which damage the integrity of the piece. For example, the pieces might break, start to collect moisture or begin to deteriorate and fade all of which could lead to possible replacement by the owner. Raku is also very complex, for when you think you have it figured out, something changes or surprises you. These examples are related directly to my life and the person that I am. Like raku, I will not live forever; over time I too will pass as will my pottery. It is possible that I might put so much pressure on myself to succeed that I might break and fade as an artist. Additionally, many people refer to me as complex as well. They think they know a lot about me when actually they do not know anything about the person I am. I choose to tell only certain elements about myself while keeping other aspects of my life hidden, of which translates into other aspects of my work.
The primary choice of glaze I chose to use is a crackling glaze, that when cooled rapidly cracks in certain areas more than others. I view these as veins, paths or trails and shattered dreams. I have gone through a lot in my life and most of it has been through physical abuse and blame. I thought veins are representative for when I am really worked up I have a tendency to tighten up throughout my body causing my veins to bulge. Each vein leads to another one all throughout my body as reflected on the body of my pieces, only ending when there is no other place to go. In everyday life we go through different paths of life, wondering if we are doing the right thing or not. Having so many different directions to choose from is always challenging but we choose a path to follow until life causes us to choose another. I have taken several journeys down paths and trails throughout my life that differ from my family and their beliefs. I chose the road that I thought best fit me. I was the first in my family to go to college and complete an undergraduate degree. Following graduation, I was accepted to graduate school. Through this experience I have had many accomplishments as well as multiple opportunities to grow as an artist. So far, I have no complaints or regrets. I have taken the road less traveled and I am learning a many valuable lessons of which make up the person I am today.
On a couple of pieces I have chosen to use the color red. The color red refers to the pain and the love that I have experienced in my life. The color in general can represent a range of seemingly conflicting emotions from passionate love to violence and war. I want everyone to see me for who I am today and not judge me for what I went through in the past. But through all of this pain I have learned a great deal about my love and passion for my work. My art means a lot to me, I chose to show only the pieces that reflect myself, the others usually find the dumpster or are only a sketch never of which is transferred onto one of my forms.
Now that I have talked about certain parts of my pieces, I would like to address them as a whole. When I step back and look at my work the first thing that I see is that these pieces have taken a lot of time and have evolved to create the final creation of a perfectionist. I see an artist who pays attention to every little detail. These pieces are clean cut, meticulous, straightforward, attractive, quiet and one of a kind. I dress my pottery as if I was dressing myself. I take great pride in the overall appearance of myself and I feel the same way about my work. I have expensive taste when it comes to clothes and when I dress up, I feel good about myself. I want my pieces to express this same expensive taste and feel good emotion.
Most of the pieces have some type of piercing on them. Some pieces have hidden forms or cylinders inside of them, with some of these cylinders pierced as well. What I am trying to convey through piercing of the vessels is that I too have so many hidden secrets about my life and those around me are starting to see right through or past me. I feel that my past is tearing me apart, and at times I am only holding on by strands. This emotion is seen in the strands of clay that are bonded with one another, barely holding the piece together, making each extremely fragile for at any minute they could fall apart.