Beauty, Function Define East Bay Ceramics
Simple, beautiful, and functional ceramics and dishware land on East Bay tables and in kitchens.
Photo by Ward Long
Beautiful kitchenware that does what it should with understated simplicity is a hallmark of what finds favor in East Bay kitchens and on local tables. Appreciated for their utilitarian origins and timeless design acumen, ceramic artists Jered Nelson and Sarah Kersten are alike in that their creative, functional kitchenwares are meant to be admired — and used — every day.
Nelson had no illusions of what it meant to earn a living as a ceramic artist. After completing a degree in ceramics (because none was offered in glass blowing), Nelson rented an old dairy barn in his native South Dakota and embarked upon the “romantic” phase of his pottery career.
“My kiln was powered with wood scraps gathered from all my construction jobs,” said Nelson. “I had to do a lot of other kinds of work to be a professional potter.”
Following the tradition of his extended family’s migration west and some encouragement from his brother, Nelson brought a truckload of his wares to California — and sold the entire lot in short order.
“My brother told me, ‘In the Bay Area, if you really know something, and you’re good at it, people will respond to it,’” said Nelson. “Which isn’t necessarily the case where I come from.”
Buoyed by success, and several more truckloads of ceramics sales, Nelson made the permanent move to the East Bay in 2004, settling into a small Richmond Annex artists’ community. It wasn’t long before his pots and plates piqued the interest and refined tastes of an appreciative Bay Area audience.
When Wendy Tsuji of Frost Tsuji Architects wandered into Nelson’s former San Pablo Avenue studio while having her car repaired, she began inquiring into what Nelson could produce.
“She asked me if I could make quantities of everything, and I replied ‘yes.’ Turns out, she was working with Michael Mina on his Aqua project in San Francisco, and she commissioned me to make the dinnerware,” said Nelson. “We designed a bowl to accommodate the exact shape of their soup spoons so diners could get the last drop out of the bowl without picking it up.”
Defined by its austere simplicity, functionality, and sublime glazes, Nelson’s pottery also gained recognition among Bay Area chefs, including Kelsie Kerr of Berkeley’s Standard Fare. Nelson created reusable, ceramic, ovenproof to-go containers to help the chef cut down on paper waste from takeout meals.
The potter’s green and local ethos is a common thread throughout his work and part of his creative philosophy. Nelson locally sources and formulates his clay mixture and glazes and handcrafts many of the tools used to create his wares. When Restoration Hardware commissioned Nelson to create a dinnerware collection, Nelson insisted on personally making the dishware domestically, not in China.
“We moved to a larger studio in Richmond and produced over 10,0000 pieces,” said Nelson. “That kept us busy.”
In the days before refrigerators, fermentation was a common way to preserve food, and almost every kitchen had a ceramic crock (sometimes buried underground) dedicated to pickling and preserving.
Renown for her modern-day interpretation, ceramic artist Kersten spent the requisite 10,000 hours perfecting her exquisite fermentation jars. Inspired by ancient Chinese “water-lock” jars, her voluptuously proportioned vessels are borne from function with a love of form. Hard-working everyday kitchen wares, the zaftig fermentation jars are disguised as sculptural art — and used and admired around the globe.
Various epochs of the jars line the shelves of the artist’s West Berkeley studio, documenting the evolution of her design. Randomly curated groupings of shiny, smooth, or matte finished jars showcase both Kersten’s 6-quart, and diminutive 2-quart version, a blooming adolescent in comparison to it’s full-grown, counterpart.
All Kersten’s products are vitrified, which means they’ve been high-fired resulting in the fusion of clay into a very low-porosity pot that won’t sweat during fermentation. Her glazes are specially formulated to food-grade specs.
“The high firing required me to purchase a larger kiln,” said Kersten sitting among her wares in her Sawtooth Building studio. “It was a large investment, but it also allowed me to increase my production and hire some ceramic artists to work with me. Now, I have the time and opportunity to explore other ways to creatively grow and promote my wares. My next move is a press machine for dinnerware.”
Foodies and the health conscious have long known about the health benefits of fermented foods, but making it can be intimidating and time consuming for beginners.
“No one wants to constantly monitor their fermentations — or scrape mold off food,” said Kersten. “The water-lock design is ingeniously simple. The lid sits in a trough of water surrounding the jar’s opening. When the vegetables begin to ferment, the gases are able to percolate out into the atmosphere. When there is no oxygen, mold spores can’t survive, but lactobacillus, a beneficial bacteria, can.”
It can all get pretty scientific.
“I spent over four years perfecting its shape and function,” said Kersten, “Now, I’m blown away at the thought of how many are out there.”