Couple featured in Carbondale Clay Center show |

Couple featured in Carbondale Clay Center show

Stina Sieg
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado

CARBONDALE, Colorado ” There are certain things that couples are warned against. Don’t work together or shop together. Don’t hang wallpaper together, people like to say.

Not surprisingly, spending 30 hours manning a labor-intensive, wood-fired kiln isn’t usually on the list.

But for ceramic artists Susan Muenchen and Ralph Scala, the setup feels just right.

“You’re in this weird, weird state when you fire,” explained Scala. “Not to sound weird or goofy or hokey, but sometimes it’s a real meditative state with the kiln.”

All the better to share.

For the last few years, Scala, 40, and Muenchen, 36, have been firing their pieces as a duo. They’ve been trading off eight-hour shifts, keeping the flames at just the right temperature. The pair met at the Anderson Ranch Arts Center (which Scala runs and where Muenchen takes classes). They both still live in Snowmass Village. They’re both very much dedicated to their work. They also happen to be engaged.

On paper, that’s right about where their similarities end.

In their upcoming joint show, Muenchen’s pieces are the big, double-walled, slab-built vessels. Scala’s are much more demure ” small pots carved out of clay, meant to border Muenchen’s pieces in the kiln. While Scala has been deeply involved in the clay world his whole adult life, Muenchen hadn’t really ever dabbled in it until her late 20s.

What changed, exactly?

“Centering a lump of clay on the wheel,” she said. “I guess that changed things for me.”

That was back in 2002, when she was offered a last-minute spot in an Anderson class. “Serendipitous” is how she likes to describe it.

“It was like it was very natural,” she said. “I moved right in, like, ‘Yeah, this is where I belong.’ Anderson Ranch can’t get rid of me.”

It certainly hasn’t tried, either. For the last five winters, she’s been an artist-in-residence there. Though she started out on the wheel, she graduated to slab-building. For her, that seemed the best way to create her massive, rough-edged vessels. Measuring about 25 or so inches high, to her they symbolize the cliffs and rocks and valleys of Colorado. This is where she yearned to move after growing up in the South. With names like “Dancing with Cows” and “Sleeping Thunder,” they’re far from representational to the casual viewer. But to Muenchen, they speak of the “church” of the outdoors. That’s her religion, she stressed.

“These are the places I go to ask questions about me and my place in the world and permanence and time,” she said. “And ultimately, I want people to have a greater relationship with the natural world we live in.”

She also hopes her work stands on its own, without the lengthy explanation. In her words, “Art is subjective like that.”

Scala had much less to say about his small, simple pieces.

“I don’t know if I want them to feel anything,” he said, of his audience.

In fact, he makes these little clay blocks as nondescript as possible. Though they might not be functional, they do serve a purpose ” to help move fire around Muenchen’s work.

“The flame is like a paintbrush,” he explained, describing why their pots have this almost granite-like surface, though no glaze is used.

They’re also far from everything else he does. He creates all kinds of sculptural ceramics, like figures of people, monkeys and dogs. He does more complex pots, as well, and tends to leave a human aspect to all his work. He likes it to have fingerprints, showing people the passage of time it took to make, giving the viewers something to relate to. A potter since 1990, he’s lived in art studio settings practically all his adult life. Before coming to Colorado, he ran art centers in Santa Fe and Chicago, and has been running Anderson ever since he came to work there about four years ago.

But he’s not the focus of this show, he stressed.

“It’s really about Susan and I firing together, I think,” he said.

He loves fire, he went on. He loves the alchemy of the process. Every color and texture and emotion that’s left on the clay’s surface comes from decisions that he and Muenchen make together. While that kind of close quarters might not do every couple well, he sees it as a rare opportunity. How often is it that two people are paired on so many levels?

“Hopefully, we’ll have a lifetime of this,” he said, sounding content about that.

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