By LEANNA MILLER • Photography by RORY DOYLE
Unique creations, clay-covered hands, and a peaceful heart
Clarksdale native Austin Britt is grateful the fine art and handcraft of ceramics claimed his creative passion and brought him back home. For this talented professional photographer—specializing in portrait, wedding, and band photography—painter, and former musician in a touring rock band, finding a place to lay his cards down and get to work has proved to be a cathartic experience. Britt’s small batch of wheel-thrown and hand-constructed pottery is aesthetically rich, and his admirers and pottery collectors alike are taking notice of his beautiful creations.
Growing up in Clarksdale, Britt was bound to unearth his artistic side. His grandmother owned a dance studio but it was his mother, a painter, who introduced him to visual art. “It’s why my first pottery business was called Foxtrot Pottery, an ode to grandma’s old dance studio,” said Britt, “I like for my pieces to seem like they’re dancing when they come off the wheel.”
He remembers making salt dough creations with his mother, mixing salt, flour, and water together to just the right consistency, molding and shaping it into little animals, and popping them in the oven to see how they would come out on the other side. Little did he know this simple activity with his mother was a subtle introduction to working with clay that would have a lasting impact on his future.
Britt did not fight his destiny; he eventually traveled south down Highway 61 to attend Delta State University to study fine arts. “I wanted to soak up as much art and knowledge as I could while I was there,” says Britt. But it wasn’t until the tail end—his final two semesters—that Britt signed up for a pottery class. The medium took him by total surprise and changed the course of his artistic evolution. Working with clay clicked instantly, and within a month, it became an obsession.
“It became essential for me, resulting in me distancing myself from other aspects of college life so I could spend as much time as possible in the studio—sometimes 10 to 12 hours or more a day, seven days a week. There were times when I woke up during the night, drove to campus, and went straight to the pottery classroom because it completely occupied all my thoughts!”
In 2009, Britt graduated with a bachelor of fine arts degree in graphic design with a focus on photography. He left DSU with not only a degree and some fine-tuned skills under his belt, but with passion and inspiration. Although he is trained in graphic design, and has worked with oils and painted large-scale murals, Britt has centered his creative focus on clay—and that concentration is paying off in the quality of his work.
Britt recalls the first time he sat at a pottery wheel, he produced a prodigious number of pieces, which is rare for a beginner. He still has those pieces today.
His ceramics professor, Ky Johnston, played an enormous role in fueling his ability to create tirelessly. Johnson’s laid-back approach reduced the pressure and expectation for what the end result would be during the creative process while simultaneously inspiring Britt with each work. “Thanks to Professor Johnston granting me freedom as an artist,” says Britt, “I managed to reach my full potential.”
After only a few months working with clay, Britt was accepted to the prestigious Penland School of Craft, tucked away in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. The program offers total-immersion workshops and residency opportunities for budding and veteran artists. There, he was introduced to atmospheric firing techniques using salt, soda or wood kilns—soda, being his preferred method. Britt found he gravitated toward vessels with movement and also learned that perfecting his glazes would take some time.
Upon completion of the program at Penland in 2009, Britt moved to Memphis and began searching for a studio space. He placed orders for supplies and had a $12,000 kiln sitting in storage. He began working with a successful Nigerian artist but still had trouble finding studio space. Later in 2010, Britt came home for the Juke Joint Festival. He stayed downtown for three days to be near the music, arts, and events of the legendary blues celebration. He did some thinking, and after talking with his parents, Britt decided to open a studio in his hometown.
By the time of the Sunflower River Blues Festival that same year, Britt had opened his first pottery studio. He called it Foxtrot, and there he honed his skills and worked for about five years until life had yet another plan. He fell in love, got married, and started a family—changes that demanded his art take a pause, at least for a while. It’s only this year that Britt has come back to ceramics, showing and selling pieces at the recent Mighty Roots Festival at Stovall. He wonders why he ever left at all.
Britt credits several accomplished ceramic artists, including Matt Long, Steven Hill, Tom Coleman, and Mike Jabbur, for their influence along the way. He has studied glazes developed by Tom Coleman and Steven Hill for years and currently uses their methods for his work. It’s a process that requires much trial and error, and he is still learning, years later, new things about glazes and their applications.
When shaping and firing clay in the kiln and perfecting his cool and layered, warm-tone glazes, Britt feels completely at home. He has developed a unique style working with the Mississippi Delta clay, putting great emphasis on the construction of the handles and lips of drink vessels, particularly his stunning coffee mugs.
“The handle is tapered, so it fits easily in your fingers, and the lip has a certain angle that makes it more comfortable for drinking,” said Britt.
When asked why he uses clay, Britt points to the many steps it takes to make the final product.”You can’t rush anything working with clay. Having my hands submerged in clay is the ultimate peace for me—and you have to have a tactile conversation with clay because it will let you know very quickly if it doesn’t want to listen to what you are telling it,” he explains.
For now, his ceramics endeavor continues to grow. Currently, Britt is in the process of putting together pottery classes, workshops, and other various ways to introduce people to the art of clay. He also remains quite busy as a professional photographer.
Britt predominantly makes cups, mugs, and other vessels, as they are forms of functional art. He wants people to develop a connection with their morning coffee mug or their evening rocks glass so that when someone holds one of his pieces, they can feel the texture, see the expert craftsmanship, and know that he shared a part of himself in each work.
For more information or to purchase Britt’s pieces, follow on Instagram, @austinbrittceramics, or visit his website, austinbrittceramics.com, or email at email@example.com.