By ADAM SCHREUDER/Montana State News
Amidst the suburbia of Bozeman there is a house plastered in telltale signs of creativity. Its neighboring residences serve as the epitome of the American dream: two-car garages, well-manicured lawns, a child’s bicycle here and there.
This particular house, however, is not concerned with these status symbols. Instead, it boasts upwards of 30 ceramic pots and vases on its front porch alone; most intact, some broken by weather and even others that appear to have been damaged before — only to be meticulously pieced back together by their eccentric creator. Their birthplace was once a two-car garage that was entirely gutted and rewired to accommodate their earthly womb — a massive ceramic kiln.
The mastermind behind the creation of this ceramic display is David Dennis, who graduated from Montana State University with a focus on ceramics. One doesn’t need to have been to Dennis’ house before to know which one it is; the permanent taupe footprints that lead from his walkway, through his house, and into his garage studio make it quite discernible to anyone passing by.
In the past, the perpetual presence of clay and excessive pottery was a point of contention with his neighbors, but he quickly learned that his art could remedy their disdain by simply gifting it amongst them.
According to Dennis, “they put up with a lot of my shit, I never have enough room for all my work so the porch has become another work bench. Not to mention I just built a wood-burning kiln in the backyard for the winter, so they’ll have to put up with the smell and the smoke that puts out. Really though, they’re all pretty cool about it. I just say, ‘Hey, next time you break a dish, come to me and I’ll replace it with something custom.’ People don’t want to be a bummer, and I don’t want to be an asshole. So far, that’s been working out for me.”
As Dennis moves through his house toward his studio, it’s apparent that no surface is left untouched by ceramic projects; every item in the house has at least some amount of dried clay on it. Dennis’ clothes (perhaps a little too tight despite his small frame) are crusted with dry clay, as well as his hands. He looks like he himself is in the process of becoming a ceramic statue. He grabs an obscure tool that resembles something from a dentist’s office, and his eyes light up with excitement.
“I traded a buddy for these, and he like, liquid f****** forged them, and then fastened them to these cherry handles. So these will outlast me for sure!” When asked what he traded for these sturdy tools, Dennis’ face flushes a little with embarrassment.
“He wanted a bong. Never did one of those, but it seems to be a popular demand on campus. It was cool, I learned a lot from doing that, but I don’t think I’d continue making them because I like my art to have depth behind it. Right now, for me, that means harvesting my own ingredients (clay) and cultivating them all the way to the finished product, which is usually a vase or some type of dish or cup. These items are challenging to throw (the action of shaping the clay on the wheel) in terms of perfection, but at the same time it’s sort of like meditation for me. Who knows, maybe one day I’ll find that same depth in ceramic bongs, but for now I really like what I’m doing, and I want to continue to hone that skill.”
Dennis is serious about furthering his ceramic skills on a daily basis, and he immediately sits down at his pottery wheel, undoubtedly to begin another work of art. The low consistent hum of the wheel seems to have a calming effect on Dennis, and I can’t help but think of Pavlov’s dogs.
“Sorry, hope you don’t mind dude, that recorder of yours is giving me the willies,” and with his apology he grabs a large chunk of ivory clay and begins centering it. A few silent moments pass as he begins to raise his clay slab into a curvaceous, aesthetic shape that begins as a column but gradually evolves into a miniature cookie jar. He wipes the wet clay off of his hands and onto the dried layers that cake the thighs of his jeans, reaching into a tin box to produce a hand-rolled cigarette. He sparks it and inhales, mulling the smoke in his mouth.
When I asked how Dennis first was introduced to pottery, he claimed that, “it was sort of random that I got started in ceramics. My mom signed my brother and I up for a class when we were about eight, and needless to say I was way more into it than he was. We didn’t know that I had ADD at the time, but they noticed that ceramics calmed me down,” he laughs, “I was a pretty hyper little kid. I was actually below the age limit to enroll in the class, but my parents argued and got me in. I loved the teacher though, her name was Bobby Frankel. She was pretty unsure of me being so young in her class, but I ended up being one of her best students and stayed friends with her until she passed away. It definitely all started with Bobby.”
Although Frankel may not be around anymore, Dennis’ obsession and attention to detail with clay is truly inspiring, and something his mentor would certainly be proud of. He attaches significance to every ounce of clay he pulls from the earth.
“The clay I have here I actually dug out from the bottom of a fence post hole on the farm I work on sometimes. It took a shitload of time to get it looking this pure, but there’s all kinds of ways to extract clay,” he explains as the smoke accentuates his words, “I just prefer the more time consuming method because it gives each piece a little more of a journey from the ground to the finished product.”
It’s clear that Dennis has a passion for the medium of clay itself, and that passion extends into a trend that Montana is known for; coveting and treasuring anything that is local.
“People don’t typically think of art as local by itself. They usually think of the artist as a local person. I haven’t always been local, but more than half of my work was pulled directly out of Montana ground, and that excites the hell out of people.”
He briefly removes his hands from the wheel to grab a neon green disc a little larger than a silver dollar, and begins to perfect the lip on his cookie jar, wiping off the excess clay into a waste bucket in quick fluid motions.
“Harvested clay isn’t necessarily any better quality than store bought clay, but it’s the idea behind where it comes from that makes people willing to spend a good amount of money on it. I’ve sold local plates for triple what ‘regular’ clay plates sell for.”
A reminiscent moment passes, and Dennis chuckles with pride as he reflects on past ceramic sales.
“I brought a family a vase made from their own land, and they thought that was the bee’s knees, man. They said this would stay in their family for as long as it would last. Having someone tell you that about your art is kinda life changing, and that’s why I do it. Makes it all worth it.”
– Edited by Jack Seeger