Craft Culture: Hand-thrown tableware from Ceramic Chinn

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Alex Chinn // Photo by Tj Turner

Two years ago, Alex Chinn propped open the lid of his electric kiln to inspect the 40 plates stacked inside. He noticed something he didn’t expect. Before firing the plates, Chinn had dipped each one in a white satin matte glaze. But instead of creating an even surface, the glaze had broken apart on the edge of the plates, creating a pop of contrast between the crisp white and warm gray of the clay peeking through.

Some artists might have become frustrated at the imperfection. Not Chinn. He viewed the uneven glaze as a bonus, an added level of depth and interaction for his plates. He applies that go-with-the-flow attitude to all his work: Instead of trying to control the unpredictability of the process, Chinn revels in it, turning unexpected moments into conscious design choices. He talks to his clay. And, often, it talks back.

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Photo by Tj Turner

“This interaction is like a conversation. We ask the clay to do something and it responds, sometimes in ways we don’t want,” says Chinn, who has worked in ceramics for more than 20 years. “I think the best pieces are made when both sides have a voice.”

For Chinn, that conversation with clay began in college. Growing up in Massachusetts, art was inescapable. His mom worked as a painter, and as a kid Chinn played around with an assortment of two-dimensional media. But when he arrived at Macalester College in St. Paul, he wanted to explore three-dimensional art.

Although he majored in geology, Chinn still found the time to take a variety of art classes. He experimented with metal and wood, but didn’t feel a connection with the either. Nothing stuck—until he took a ceramics sculpture class.

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Photo by Tj Turner

The medium spoke to him and, outside of assignments, Chinn began creating 70-pound sculptures comprised of organic, bulbous forms, formed using reclaimed clay. “There was this big slop bucket and you could take whatever clay out of it that you wanted,” Chinn says. “So I started reclaiming clay.”

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Alex Chinn // Photo by Tj Turner

Unlike new clay, the reclaimed clay was free. Over three semesters, Chinn recycled nearly 300 pounds of it to make massive sculptures, many of which still sit in his St. Paul yard today.

Chinn’s interest in clay fell to the wayside post-graduation. He took a job as an environmental field technician for a Twin Cities engineering company and, for three years, it was enough. Then he started getting restless.

“Field work is what I was always interested in. When it became apparent that the next step up was to manage projects and sit in the office, I opted to not move up,” Chinn says. “It became more of a job than a career.”

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With creative energy to burn, Chinn stopped in at Northern Clay Center. The center was located just down the street from his office at the time, and he decided to sign up for a throwing class. Then another. After two classes, Chinn was hooked. He bought his own wheel and set up a studio in his basement.

For years, Chinn’s work with ceramics just served as his creative outlet. But when the engineering company he worked for was sold, everything changed. As his hours were cut to part-time, his ceramics practice ramped up. In 1998, six years after his first Northern Clay class, he launched his company, Ceramic Chinn.

“A lot of [my work] comes from my own needs,” Chinn says. “I had a baking stone [that] I put a pizza on and it broke. I thought, ‘That’s stupid. I could make something better than that.’”

He started making root barriers, house numbers, and tiles too—pieces for which he had no trouble finding buyers. Meanwhile, Chinn continued making sculptures. His first big professional break came when the Minnesota Craft Council accepted him into its fall show in 2001. Shortly thereafter, Chinn picked up a second studio space at Northern Clay Center’s new and current location on Franklin Avenue. But something was missing.

Next page: Filling the void

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