September 19, 2017

Ceramicist Robert Hessler: Flawless Imperfection

Robert Hessler blurs the line between art and design with his mesmerizing collection of handmade vessels

by Nicole Haddad

Robert Hessler Pottery
Robert Hessler.
Robert Hessler Pottery
Wheel-thrown, reduction-fired porcelain vessels featuring multiple
crystalline glazes.

Ceramics have played a functional and ornamental role from ancient Mesopotamia to the Arts and Crafts movement, to today's artisans working all over the world. In the last few years, the art form has seen a rise in popularity with hip boutiques across the U.S. lining their shelves with creative designs and high-end galleries focusing entire exhibitions on the form. Organically shaped vases, vessels, and tabletop items that are not mass-produced and embrace a lack of uniformity are gaining traction as a return to authenticity celebrates the maker's mark.

Robert Hessler, a ceramic artist whose unique work is displayed at Still House in the East Village, is the epitome of this movement. His hand-thrown, one-of-a-kind porcelain vessels are the result of 22 years of trial and error, exploration of shape and color, chemistry, and improvisation. Hessler begins his work on the potter's wheel, where he plays with clay's parameters of form—including height, width, angle of line, and proportion—letting the material dictate what it wants to be. Once he is satisfied with the structure—he usually opts for narrow or elongated openings to render a more defined and dramatic shape—he begins the crystalline glazing process. His saturated, zinc-based glazes include varying amounts of cobalt, zinc, iron, silver, and tin oxides. While he frequently layers only two glazes per vessel for a specific gradation effect, his creations can employ up to six different glazes in a single firing. The key to his unique aesthetic though, is manipulating the kiln over the 14- to 15-hour firing process. Once the kiln turns off and cools to about 300 degrees from its final firing temperature, Hessler turns it back on for a few hours at the cooler temperature. As the zinc oxides in the glaze start to reconfigure and crystallize on the surface of the piece, he describes the environment created in the kiln as "akin to how crystals are formed in nature."

Robert Hessler POttery
Vessels by Robert Hessler.

The results are thrilling. It is the unpredictability of the final color combinations, texture, and patterns that impart a sense of grace. "There are always elements you can't entirely control," he explains. "The beauty lies in the imperfections and in the joy and excitement of discovery." By allowing nature to take its course, the finished forms exude a sense of poetry. "The best types of ceramics demonstrate a dexterity of skill and a sense of exploration that show a cohesive but growing vision—where there is real evidence between the creator and his/her medium," says Hessler.

Robert Hessler POttery
Left: Vessel by Robert Hessler. Right: Hessler trims and refines a form.

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