Beauty from Smoke: Nell Devitt

by Paul Sturm

I was jolted into exuberance the first time I saw Nell Devitt’s artwork…that ‘shock-of-the-new’ rush from realizing I’ll forever see the world with new eyes.  There was no going back; no “unseeing” or forgetting her bold wall sculptures made of smoke fired clay tiles.  (clay! of all things…)

Thirty-five years later, Devitt remains an all-time personal favorite visual artist, with a refreshingly distinct voice – her extraordinary ability to blend the clean-line beauty of minimal geometric forms with a murky, smoke-infused palate and rich surface textures born from aleatory…it’s like luscious dark chocolate for your mind and soul.

I count myself lucky that I’m an occasional visitor to her studio in Greene County.  Through the years, I’ve been able to track her progress and revel in her new work.  For most art-loving Hoosiers, though, Nell Devitt’s work is less accessible for viewing because she has rarely shown in Bloomington or Indianapolis.

Devitt’s creative prowess and assured technique have allowed her to create ceramic art tile works that have attracted buyers and commissions in major urban markets on both East and West coasts, and in Chicago.  She sells the inventory she might otherwise exhibit and then turns her attention to generating new series of art tiles.  Devitt has led, and continues to lead, the life of a successful working artist.  And that – at least for some readers – may be considered an even greater feat than her bold innovations in using ceramics as a collectible art medium.

So with full-on excitement, I herald the coming of “Nell Devitt Ceramic Retrospect 1980-2017” – a not-to-miss exhibition featuring a 37-year retrospective look at the work of this local gem.  The show runs at the Ivy Tech John Waldron Arts Center’s Miller Gallery from Oct. 28 thru Nov. 18.

Devitt began her career in the 1970s with a functional clay background (making pots, cups, plates, bowls), but most of her work for the last 30+ years has been decorative art tiles – both smoke fired and occasionally wood fired.

I recently made the pilgrimage out to Bloomfield to chat with Devitt in her studio.  I asked her how and when she made the leap from table to wall; from functional to nonfunctional clay art.  For her, the shift was organic.

“I can’t recall having an ‘a-ha’ moment.  I make connections through growth, learning and change, but the process was gradual.  It’s important to remember that craft itself is a very organic art form.  The craft tradition is that you learn by doing things through repetition.  You learn how clay responds by making series of multiples, like a series cups.  That gradual transformation is an important aspect of craft, and an important part of my process.  So it wasn’t one moment; it was a gradual, organic process.

“I started with pots and vessels, bowls and cups, canisters, bird feeders…  Like other clay artists, I started by throwing functional work, the type of work you do in larger production scales.  But I never did as much pure production work as most clay artists.  I was more interested in doing limited series that I could use to explore a theme or design, but then allow my work to transform and change as I had new insights and ideas.  When I switched to smoke fired clay, I began creating decorative wall tiles as a complement to the vessels – and they were useful in designing a visually compelling booth at craft fairs – and gradually my focus shifted to the wall tiles.

“In 1979 I started doing regional craft shows with my smoke fired work, and I was fortunate to begin showing at American Craft Council (ACC) exhibitions in 1985.  At that first ACC show, my pieces caught the attention of Carol Sedestrom Ross (founder/CEO of American Craft Enterprises and senior vice president of American Craft Council).  Carol was the first person to encourage me to develop the design side of my work.  She believed that I could be a designer as well as a producer; that most clay artists are makers, which is good; but she thought I was strong in both design and execution, which made my pieces distinct and original.  For clay, my pieces were less utilitarian and focused more on creating a strong image.  I got encouragement like that from several people, which gave me the confidence to keep trying new things.”

Whether her source inspiration is a zipper or a leaf or a letter or a geometric shape, Devitt’s tiles explore abstraction with a minimalist aesthetic that incorporates the indeterminacy of smoke firing.  Her practice is rooted in Japanese raku, and Devitt apprenticed for a year in Kasama, Japan with potter Ono Yoshi, before coming to Bloomfield in 1978 to set up her studio.

“During my year in Japan [1977], I saw firsthand how artists would create with a specific intent to celebrate the error or the irregularity or the one little flaw that makes a whole image come alive.  That aesthetic infuses my work and my creative language.  I’m interested in the imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete found in nature and the world.  I try to create tiles and installations that embody asymmetry and simplicity; that use the rough, uneven surface of smoke firing.


“And I’ve always liked repeating tile patterns that have small, irregular interruptions; like old tile floors with small, scattered imperfections.  I like creating that look in the context of minimalism and abstraction.  What I like about minimalism is the repetition and the space, and one of the values in abstraction is that it can be open to any interpretation.”

And Devitt is committed to smoke firing, a technique she has been mastering and refining since 1979.

“I like to use straw in my smoke firing, although some artists use sawdust, newspaper, or other flammable materials.  What I love is the warm, dark, dim look of clay that is smoke fired: the straw marks, the irregularities, the random results.  I also have a primary color palate – red, yellow, blue, and green stains – that, when you smoke fire them, their color is more subtle but still visible.”

Devitt’s dark tonal palate contributes to the dramatic impact of her work.  Within Devitt’s fields of multiple tiles, there’s tremendous subtlety in the surface and color and shine of each tile, lending textural depth to her large minimal designs.  This combination of simple form, elegant design, and engaging texture has made Devitt’s work a favorite of interior designers, architects and galleries.

I like to use straw in my smoke firing, although some artists use sawdust, newspaper, or other flammable materials.  What I love is the warm, dark, dim look of clay that is smoke fired: the straw marks, the irregularities, the random results.  –Nell Devitt

In fact, the marketplace is ever-present in Devitt’s creative plans and art-life gestalt, but commerce plays a very symbiotic role with her growth and development as a visual art innovator.  Rather than dampening or ‘chilling’ Devitt’s artistic vision, the customers she has attracted and the revenue she generates from her work actually serve to coax, validate and ‘underwrite’ new periods of exploration.

“When I first started participating in ACC shows, there were a few adventurous buyers who really liked my early tiles.  I remember an exhibition in West Springfield, MA when an architectural group from downtown Boston got so excited.  They laid their blueprints down on the floor to figure out how many tiles they would need for an installation in a Boston bank, and they bought my entire display of 40 tiles.

“When I get enough orders to work on a line of tiles, I can work on a visual series that allows me to explore the theme, the design.  And it’s through repetition that I develop insights and a personal style; the progression from one series of tiles to the next series grows out of what I’m able to learn from exploring the design through the repeat production of a design series.  So the steady commissions and income from wholesale buyers, architectural designers, and collectors has allowed me to explore and deepen my craft.”

To keep her ideas fresh, Devitt has played with text as a stylistically disruptive departure from abstract shapes and forms.  And across many years and tile series, her foray into text-art clay has – not surprisingly – led her back to abstraction.

“My first text piece was ‘My List’ and it was just that: a list of all the things that I thought defined me.  For my initial text tiles, I would cut clay letters from stencils or templates, and add them to tiles.  It was very time consuming.  Every day I would be able to get only one or two full words created.  I did a number of text tiles like this, but the process was always very time- and labor-intensive.  I eventually stopped making them, although my text tile pieces were very popular at a show I did at the Smithsonian.

“On my next series of text pieces, I used a cover-tile that would hang over a back-tile that had text on it.  You had to lift up the cover tile to see the text etched onto the back tile; otherwise, the message simply exists under the surface of the image you see on the wall; kind of a conceptual aspect.

“All of those early text pieces were more like typesetting in clay.  Now I’m interested in the letters themselves, but letters in abstract form – using one complete but cropped letter for each tile.  I take a single corner or section of a letter and zoom in on it, keeping what’s most interesting or most important in that image.  Pieces in this style include ‘direct experience’ (2006), ‘unafraid’ (2009), ‘objective’ (2010), and ‘fearless’ (2017), which was fired in September.”

And very recently, Devitt has begun again to etch messages into the exterior walls of freeform pinch pots.  This new series of pinch pots, which returns to a very simple functional form, and a very simple method of creation, is a further extension of Devitt’s lifelong affinity with minimalism and the reductionist aesthetic at the heart of her creative method.

“It’s a subtractive process.  I throw out everything that isn’t part of the pure design in its simplest form.  I’m not making a representational piece.  I’m trying to create tiles that use the simplest elements to achieve something beautiful or memorable or provocative.  For me, it’s the emotion and joy that comes from seeing something elegant created from simple abstract shapes.  My goal is to make art in a way that I can eliminate non-essentials, not only in the design of the piece but also in the way that it gets fired and in the subtle smoky palate I use.

“And I try to live my life through a subtractive process as well, clearing away everything that isn’t necessary to being an artist working and living in Greene County, Indiana.  It’s what I’ve done all my life, because it’s a core value.  Whether I was making functional pieces to sell in local craft fairs, or making big, dramatic sculptural tile installations for art buyers, I’ve always wanted to keep my production right-sized to that level where I can pay for my process of discovery and then keep innovating.  I can make enough pieces of a series that the repetition teaches me something, but then move on to the new ideas I get from that repetitive process.”

Most professionals also hone their craft through lifelong study of their medium and exposure to peer artists.  Devitt is likewise devoted to seeking out and studying the work of others, and this learning process is only getting better – more information-rich – as technology allows faster, broader sharing of images and ideas.

“Coming from a functional clay tradition, it’s been important for me to study other contemporary ceramicists and the history of clay, but also painting, sculpture, jewelry and other media.  My influences are wide-ranging: from minimalist Sol LeWitt (I love MASS MoCA’s building that houses 4 floors of his wall drawings) to post-minimalist Eva Heese; from conceptualist Barbara Kruger (with her mind-blowing floor-to-ceiling text pieces) to painter Agnes Martin to sculptor Donald Judd.

“All of my early study was done slowly: hours devoted to trips to the library and days hanging out in the art section of a bookstore that allowed me time to digest information and assimilate visual ideas and aesthetics.  Today I’m able to travel virtually to any place in the world at any time of the day using my iPad and cell phone.  With Instagram, Google, and other Internet tools, I can look at artists’ work both old and new, in galleries and in studios, from any location.  It’s a rich time for artists to intermingle their ideas.

“Through it all, my goals have been simple: create art that satisfies me, sell what I make, and make what I need to survive.  I try to eliminate the non-essential in my artwork as well as my life.”