Artist Profile Story by Jamey Bradbury
While most art is meant to be viewed but not touched, sculptor Michael Anderson creates murals and stoneware pieces that are specifically meant to give viewers a hands-on experience. “A lot of what I do to make things look different is the texture,” describes Anderson, whose first public installations were done for Mt. Eccles Elementary School in Cordova. He purposely hung his murals of wild salmon just two feet off the ground so students could explore the panels with their hands.
The functionality of clay is what first attracted Anderson to sculpting. “I love to draw, but you can’t make a drawing that you can have breakfast in or use for tile to walk on,” he says. His desire to make art that’s both beautiful and useful was influenced by growing up in a house where form and function went hand in hand.
“My dad built houses that really functioned ergonomically,” he recalls. “And my mom was an architect. I remember crawling into her lap to watch her draw plans, then I’d go out to the site with her and see what those plans turned into.” As a boy in Portland, he felt lucky to have access to museums and public sculptures that made him realize that buildings could be more than just places where people work and live: “Public art helps to create buildings that are more beautiful and more connected to the people who use them.”
Anderson creates that connection by designing murals that bring the outside environment in. Inspired by his home of 32 years in Cordova that overlooks the ocean, his bas-relief ceramic tiles are full of movement, featuring otters playfully twisting through tangles of kelp and sea grass; sleek salmon winding their way upriver; and octopi floating serenely among colorful starfish and aquatic insects.
“I like doing environments that you can’t normally immerse yourself in,” explains Anderson. To realistically depict these settings, he hits the books, meticulously researching his subject. He also heads outside: “I consider going fishing a part of my research. Any new fish I catch, I take pictures and measurements, study the texture. I figure hands-on is really the only way to understand something.”
Probably best known for public art murals and architectural elements, Anderson creates his pieces by roughly sketching an idea on paper, then determining the size of the clay that will be needed to fit a wall in the entry of Sitka High School, for instance. Then he rolls out large pieces of clay, onto which he makes a more detailed sketch. “I’ll move these around like pieces of a puzzle,” he says, “and then as the pieces come together, I actually cut them apart even more so when I fire them in my kiln, they don’t crack or warp.”
To achieve the vibrant reds and muted blues of his pieces, Anderson uses “slip painting,” mixing chemicals with ceramic glazes, which allows him to have more control over the intensity and placement of the color. Still, one of the aspects of ceramics Anderson enjoys is its unpredictability. “When I fire my kiln and bring a piece out, it’s like Christmas. You don’t know what you’re getting until you see it.”
What Anderson finds inside his kiln is not just tiles for his latest public piece but beautiful and functional pottery that brings Alaska’s wildlife inside the home: bowls with octopus tentacles wrapped around their sides, pitchers shaped like elegant swans, jelly jars in the shape of actual jellyfish. Every piece is high temperature stoneware and is oven-, microwave- and dishwasher-safe. These aren’t art pieces meant only to sit on the shelf; Anderson wants collectors to get real use out of his work.
Anderson’s public art can be seen in buildings throughout Alaska, from a mural depicting an otter-octopus encounter in the Valdez ferry terminal to columns adorned with ceramic sea life in the Islands and Oceans Center in Homer. Wherever his art is found, Anderson hopes viewers will be compelled to interact with it, exploring it with both eyes and hands. “Interaction is really the key to my art,” he says. “Without that tactile interaction, you’re not fully experiencing it.”