Studio tour with “Michael” Cunningham (Local 847 Shop "M")

What do you consider your impractical labor?

I do bas relief carvings of narratives in ceramics. I am a storyteller.

Why do you do it?

I do it because I become restless and unhappy when I'm not making things. I do it because I feel a joy and satisfaction in the act of making. I do it because I want desperately to believe I am something worthwhile and being an artist seems worthwhile (at least sometimes it does). There's a bit of vanity in making as well, a desire to impress.

What are you working on right now?

Projects are constantly set aside and picked back up. I recently took up carving the interior of a bowl that I carved the exterior of almost a decade ago. I didn't like my original idea for the interior and the bowl's just been sitting around waiting... The alphabet cups I have included a picture of were started many years ago. They each depict a type of tree, one for each letter, and a hand woodworking tool. They are intended for the woodfire and hopefully a branch of each represented tree will be fed to the fire. They get started on again every few months, but then set aside when a more pressing project comes along. I really hope to put these in this summer's woodfire.

How did you begin?

My mother's an artist. She sold drawings at street fairs when I was growing up. So I naturally gravitated towards art classes in high school, in small town Iowa. We had a one art teacher. He was a jack of all trades, but pottery was his major in college and that's where I first made with clay.

In what ways does your practice connect you with other people, a community, the world? Is this important to you?

Currently my practice connects me to a very small group. I do my work at a community college and my practice connects me to my fellow studio mates. Woodfire in particular has the ability to forge connections because there is so much communal work, the culmination being the 36 to 80 hours (depending on the kiln) of feeding the fire with a contingent of fellow woodfirers.

My narratives speak to larger environmental and political issues, but so few people see the work that I don't see a larger circle of connections forming there. That said, I would like my work to be seen and have made showing work a serious goal for 2015. And the American fine-craft ceramics world is pretty small. If I can get some notice in one small part of that world, I'll soon have notice in the entirety.

What sustains you?

The simple act of doing. The long slog of sitting and carving; slowly, deliberately, meticulously shaping an image -- an idea -- until it becomes manifest. A material object, driven by my original idea, but adapting and adjusting and expanding as I make. Coming back later and finding something finished that looks like more than I possibly could have made with my own hands, something that breathes on its own.

What questions are you grappling with?

I just said that being an artist sometimes feels worthwhile. Something to take pride in. But often, making art can seem like a foolish and foppish thing to do. A waste of time. I often make narratives with themes of environmental catastrophe, but what good does that do? Would it have been better if I had studied to be a forester or a chemist or an environmental lawyer? Would I do the world more good in one of those roles?

You can reach "Michael" at Local 847 Shop "M".

Are you an ILSSA member who would like to be interviewed? Please email us at markdown at