Why A Montana Artist Compares Baking To Making Ceramics


Artist Casey Zablocki in his studio

Montana artist Casey Zablocki in his studio.

For much of his career, Casey Zablocki spent his days moving from one flame to another. The Missoula artist worked in kitchens, often baking bread in wood-fired ovens to support his ceramics practice, which centers on wood-fired stoneware. “There is an overlap between clay and bread, for sure,” says Zablocki, reflecting on his nearly two-decades-long career. “The tactile element of manipulating the clay and dough is similar; I’ve always been intrigued by earthy, organic, crusty surfaces.”

Vessels on a shelf.

Zablocki’s textured, organically colored ceramic vessels and sculptures fill his Missoula studio.

Vessels on a shelf.

Zablocki’s textured, organically colored ceramic vessels and sculptures fill his Missoula studio.

Hands shaping clay.

The artist carefully shapes clay.

Notebooks with drawings

Although the majority of work is ceramics, they start on paper in his notebooks.

Black and white sketches in Casey Zablocki's studio

Zablocki displays sketches of work in progress in his studio.

As his practice continues to rise to new heights, Zablocki finds himself in the studio more often than the kitchen these days. His large-scale abstract sculptures, many of which function as seating or tables, are painstakingly fired in massive anagama kilns. The cave-like, wood-fired kilns have been used by artisans for centuries, and while the firing process is labor-intensive—each session can last up to 12 days, with flames stoked around the clock to maintain temperatures up to 2,300 degrees Fahrenheit—Zablocki revels in it. “There’s a risk in wood firing,” he notes. “You put everything you have into that kiln, and you never know what will come out—maybe that’s why I do it.”

Zablocki’s distinct approach is distilled from years of study and apprenticeships around the world, including Finland and South Korea. “I’ve been testing recipes for clays from all around the U.S.,” Zablocki says. It’s his unique mixtures that, along with ash that lands on pieces during the firing process, yield the mottled textures and moody colors of his signature style—he doesn’t use glazes. “The last ingredient is the atmosphere of the firing, created by how much and what type of wood I use,” the artist says. His current go-to blend of 90 percent fir and 10 percent cottonwood is what he has found best for wood firing in Montana. 

Right now, Zablocki is working on developing new methods and the tools needed to expand the scale of both individual pieces and his artistic practice. “I always want to progress,” he explains. “Small sculpture is fine, but it’s different when there’s something larger than you in the room.” With visions of building an even more sizable studio and kiln so he can continue to make work on a monumental scale, Zablocki is ready to put all his chips on the table. “The next steps for my practice are big,” he says. “You have to put that energy out into the world and hope it comes back to you.”