A potter’s life
Mark Pratton is a rocket scientist by day (yes, really) and a master potter by nights and weekends. His work is currently on display at the Kennedy Gallery Art Center (1931 L Street), and on Saturday, December 7, Pratton will host an open house at Old Home Pottery, his Elk Grove studio, to mark the 25th anniversary of designing and building his first kiln. In the years since that milestone, Pratton has collected three additional kilns and plenty of secret recipes for beautiful stoneware pottery and a rainbow of iridescent glazes. Pratton stepped away from his kiln long enough to discuss the creative process, his pottery playlist and what he keeps on his wall of shame.
Before pottery, what did you think you’d do with your life?
I probably thought I was going to work industrially. I have a contractor's license. Around the time I was 14 or 15, I was rebuilding small engines and car engines. I've always been a very handy guy. I fell right into chemistry and science; it was just easy for me. I'm actually dyslexic, so I don't read a ton of books, aside from my pottery books. It was hard for me to write essays, but science and technology comes to me pretty straightforward.
When did you start making pottery?
I started around 1982. I took a pottery class at College of the Siskiyous in Weed, [California]. I was about 21 or 22.
How do you mix your clay?
I use a pug mill. It mixes fresh-out-of-the-kitchen clay. I get my clay from [a place] on the south side of town. Because I'm a chemist, I have different ingredients to mix in. They use a lot of these same materials for face makeup. The pug mill takes all the air out of it and packs it really tight, and it gets warm enough that it's steamy in the winter. Then, it comes out of the end like a big spaghetti maker. I've built a lot of my own tools, too.
Are your pottery pieces functional as well as beautiful?
I envision my pieces as utilitarian, this is what a family could eat soup and everything else out of. It's all microwave safe, dishwasher safe. You could bake bread or little casseroles in the oven with my smaller bowls.
Are you really a rocket scientist?
I've been building rockets, rocket fuels and all that stuff for 10 or 15 years, as well as pharmaceuticals. You have to build a lot of equipment in the laboratory, too. I worked for Aerojet for 18 years and AMPAC Fine Chemicals for the last five or six—[that company] came out of Aerojet. Aerojet started a side business for chemicals, and they turned into AMPAC. So, I designed rocket fuels, but my current day job is pharmaceutical chemistry.
How dangerous is working with a kiln?
You build a fire that's 2,300 degrees, so the box and materials have to be able to hold that. One of the things I always like to say is: “We had pots before we had plows.” It's pretty easy to melt the metal oxides, which are in glasses and ceramics. Then, if you handle your fire correctly, you can go from a metal oxide to a metal. Also, ceramics are very sharp. Every year when I open the kiln, somebody gets a bloody finger. I always tell everybody to be careful when handling the pieces, but you don't even know you're cut, [it's] like a razor. I've singed my hair a few times, too.
What do you do with your pieces that don’t come out right?
I have a wall of shame. Everything that's completely unacceptable for a multitude of reasons hangs there. A few are slumped, completely melted down flat. It got overheated, and because of the formula, it melted at too low a temperature. When I first started, I realized I wanted the glazes to get drippy and runny down the sides because I like the texture. I want to have control over that, but the first time or two it was so runny that a few melted onto the shelf.
What’s on your essential pottery- making playlist?
I'm an AC/DC fan and a Led Zeppelin fan. I like Lady Gaga and Britney Spears. I have pretty eclectic taste. Any kind of coffee-shop music is good for working. Especially when I'm by myself and throwing a pot, I feel akin to that same artist. I'll hear the music get really intense, and I know there [were] people putting it together [and think to myself], “Where did they come up with that?” I see my pottery in the same way, too.
Do you feel connected to history when you make pottery?
I do know the recipe for certain glazes the way some people know the recipes to make a cake. These recipes have been handed down for thousands of years. Some of my favorite glazes are actually from the 1600s in Japan, called shinos. The texture and color are special, they behave in their own way, giving special effects in the light. We stand on the shoulders of thousands of years of potters, because really all of our current technology and lifestyle is based upon controlling that hot fire and breaking down the earth like volcanoes do. I feel connected to history all the time. I want to finish my pieces, with my name and date on it, in a way that people will appreciate it who will never ever know me. They will judge me, they will know it was made by a human, but it is truly treasure, because it won't go to the landfill. It might go to a secondhand store or be handed down in a family, but I always keep in mind that these will last.