Rhody Maker: Potter Mike Tavares Crafts Rich Earthenware Ceramics in Pawtucket
The Rhode Island-based artist also helped establish a nonprofit that brings pottery programs to schools across the nation.
Rhode Island Monthly: When did you first develop an interest in art?
Mike Tavares: I always drew and I always had a sketchbook, but never took it serious. I went to Shea High School [in Pawtucket] and one of my friends noticed my sketchbook. He had spoken about transferring to JMW [Jacqueline Walsh School for the Arts], a visual arts school, and I thought: “Why not just go with him?” So I spent my last year and a half of high school at JMW, which had counselors and art teachers that would push me.
RIM: When did you decide to pursue pottery?
MT: I went to Syracuse University, and I was an undergrad who was undecided art. I took a pottery class and it took off from there.
RIM: What draws you to the medium?
MT: I guess the different ways you can process clay. There are many different techniques and ways you can think about working with the material. It’s extremely malleable. For me, I can go from working with something on the wheel, then taking it off, altering it. Working in slabs, pinching. There are so many different ways to work the material. It makes it easier for me to think about form.
RIM: Could you share some of your aesthetic influences?
MT: Very early on, Randy Johnston was a huge influence. My eyes were just drawn to simple and slow-developed forms. For example, I’m working on a lot of pitchers right now and there’s a certain amount of curving within a certain height; otherwise the form looks like it can’t hold its own weight. So I pay more attention to the form rather than the surface. But I’m very drawn to earthy, drier tones.
RIM: What’s on the horizon for you? Anywhere we can catch your work?
MT: I’m on Northern [Clay Center]. There’s also this virtual event called Above Board [an online tableware exhibition during the 2021 virtual NCECA Conference, beginning March 17]. Penland is also having an expo in late-April, with my interpretation of a ramen bowl. I’m also trying to build a website right now, and I’ll have a little shop on there. In late-April, I’m supposed to be moving for an apprenticeship with Simon Levin in Springfield, Illinois, so that’ll give me the opportunity to be an artist full-time. It’s a lot, but it’s worth it. I’d much rather be busy than bored.
RIM: You’re in good company at Northern Clay Center. They represent some amazing artists.
MT: A lot of artists I looked up to and have inspired me are on there. I remember when I first looked at the catalogue and Randy Johnston’s name was right next to mine. It’s a great opportunity. My family has been proud and it’s been fun.
RIM: Tell us about the Clay Siblings Project, the nonprofit you co-founded with your friend, Gerald Brown.
MT: We do workshops in schools two days before the NCECA Conference — whichever city it occupies. This year we’re doing Richmond and Dayton; last year, we were supposed to do Richmond but it didn’t end up happening because of the pandemic so now we’re working on doing virtual workshops for the students.
RIM: What do you like about this work?
MT: My favorite part is just teaching kids how to throw and the potential in art. I think about how I had to transfer from Shea High School, a high school that maybe didn’t have all the resources and didn’t have an idea or an attitude about art that was so positive, and then going to JMW that put you in the right place to take off. I understand how important that is. So we like going into schools that don’t have the resources, where kids are on their back foot, like: “Who are you guys?” All we need is two or three kids who are excited about throwing, and the excitement shoots up. By mid-afternoon, it’s almost craziness, bowls left and right, everyone’s talking and asking questions. We provide donation clay for every school. If schools don’t have wheels, we bring in the wheels. It’s a completely free service. From August to March, we spend time planning and fundraising.
RIM: When the conference was in Providence, the community rose up with events and gallery openings, so it’s nice the kids can get this exposure through Clay Siblings, then can experience it in their community.
MT: We started the project in 2017 and, since 2018, we’ve been taking kids to the conference. I tell this story all the time, but there was this one kid, Malik, he was one of the kids who wasn’t that interested in throwing. He looked great — nice shoes, expensive pants — and he didn’t want to get dirty. So I go and get everyone set up and, a couple minutes later, he’s throwing. A couple of minutes later, he’s teaching somebody else to throw.
Malik ends up going to the conference, and I see him standing in this crowd just looking. I walk over like, “What are you looking at?” He goes, “A throwing competition.” I’m like: “Oh, are you watching?” And he’s like, “No, I signed up.” This kid learned how to throw forty-eight hours before and he enters a throwing competition at a national conference. It was really exciting to see that because it reminded me of myself, in a way, where I had no access to the material, I didn’t know I’d be interested, and I got introduced and it took off.
RIM: It sounds like you’re really passionate about teaching.
MT: Art is funny, because we spend so much time alone. But it’s also important and powerful when we can share that experience with someone else.