One of the things that is important about ceramics is its longevity—I know when I fade, the material will still hold its form. I am aware of the generations of ancestors who support me when I am working with my hands. My fingers are their fingers. Through making I preserve what must be remembered. I build vessels that are revealing of the skill, labor, and knowledge that holds together each coil.
Coiling is a process of repetition. Clay is rolled into long cords to be bound together. These strips of clay are also described as ropes or snakes. The snaking coil makes sense to me, given the active nature of clay. It can be a partner or an adversary. The coils can recoil if you have not yet learned to charm them.
My clay is coily like my hair. I form it into Afros, curtains of clay coil and curl. Think of the way wire wraps closely around its spool. Coils have the memory to snap back into their shape, no matter how many times they are disturbed. Coils create volume, take up space, and have potential for boundless creativity in their presentation.
Coiling, as a synonym to winding and spiraling, exists in opposition to straightness. Coiling is a process with no easy way to make harsh edges or rigid corners. It is a forgiving and flexible process with room for ambiguity. It is symbolically queer.
Time stretches out before me winding and unwinding in lengthy coils. The string of moments unfolding connects us in an unbroken line to those before us and after. I seek inspiration in the silhouettes of the daily vessels from West African traditions. I long to liberate them from the museums where I have encountered them. I see the love in their craft and in the signs of time-worn purpose. Through learning the ceramic language of my ancestral homeland, I hope to refill for myself the history, community, and living context that was poured out when they were stolen. The skills present in the Kurumba storage vessel and Nupe palm wine vessel deserve the appreciation scholarship gives Greek amphora and the Chinese teapot.
Each vessel I make is patterned with rhythm. Layer after layer builds when I press into the clay, becoming a tally of moments passing. I shape the vessels to catch what slips through our fingers. There is comfort in having a place to store what we struggle to hold onto: memories, traditions, and cherished moments that are eroded by time. Artifacts are our teachers, we learn from them, one day teach alongside them, and hope they will bottle our own knowledge for the future.
Shea Burke holds a BFA from Alfred University and an MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. They have participated in multiple exhibitions including Mindy Solomon Gallery, Miami, FL; Harvard Ceramics, Cambridge, MA; Ikeda Gallery, Manhattan, KS; Alfred University, Alfred, NY; and SAIC, Chicago, IL. They were the recipient of a Zenobia Award for a residency at Watershed Ceramics in 2018 and was a Studio Fellow at Northern Clay Center, Minneapolis, MN.