The colors come out of the kiln in a swirling pattern of otherworldly shapes.
Orange, blue, green and yellow mix in geodesic patterns, a crystalline sheen bouncing off as each passes through the light. Shaped into snowflake-like patterns, the delicate contrasts look like flowers blooming.
Adam Egenolf has developed the glazes he uses, taking advantage of elements such as copper, cobalt and zinc oxide. Actual crystals grow on the vases, plates and other ceramic pieces he makes, creating an appearance that is unique to his work.
Egenolf has been transfixed by the ways that crystalline glazes add depth and movement to his work since he first encountered it 12 years ago. Now, the Nineveh artist is one of the top crystalline glaze masters in the country.
“It’s very visually unique. In a gallery of five or six different ceramists, it really stands out. It’s hard for a ceramist to balance between sculptural beauty and function, and Adam does it perfectly,” said Gabe Colman, curator of the Venue, a gallery in Bloomington where Egenolf’s work is featured.
Hunched over a dusty pottery wheel, Egenolf shaped his next batch of work. Carefully speeding up and slowing down the wheel, while keeping constant pressure on the lump of clay, he created a gracefully curving vase in a matter of minutes.
That piece, along with dozens of others, will be fired in a kiln that bakes the clay at 1,800 degrees. Once it is rock-hard, Egenolf uses his homemade glazes to create patterns on the piece.
Baked again in the kiln then cooled at a slow rate, the glaze liquifies and crystals grow. The effect is one of waves and water flowing.
“I’m trying to show in these that it’s not just growing crystal. You can use them in all kinds of things that you’d use normal glaze for, as far as color and texture,” he said.
His workshop, tucked into the hills just south of Sweetwater Lake, was filled with mugs, plates, tiles and other pieces that need to be stained and fired in the kiln.
Egenolf had been interested in ceramics since he was a student at the University of Southern Indiana, and found the techniques of throwing on a pottery wheel came easily to him. When he started selling his student projects, he realized it could become a career.
Originally, he wanted to teach ceramics. But after experiencing art fairs and selling his work that way, he decided to pursue his art professionally.
“I grew up on a farm, so self-employment runs in the family. When I realized I could do this, it really appealed to me,” he said.
While working at the University of Southern Indiana after receiving his bachelor’s degree, a friend introduced him to crystalline glaze. The method causes large crystals, up to 3 inches across, to grow in the glaze when fired a specific way.
He was intrigued by the designs the crystal made when baked in the kiln and tried to figure out the method on his own.
He practiced for hours, firing the kiln to certain temperatures and creating glazes from chemical elements. Those pieces started making up the bulk of his sales. He tweaked his technique, working side jobs to fund his art.
After three years, he decided to earn his master’s degree from East Carolina University, specializing in crystalline glaze. He essentially taught himself.
“I didn’t sit down with somebody and they showed me what to do next. I read some books, did some research and just jumped in,” he said. “The amount of steps that it took, if I knew in the beginning, I probably wouldn’t have done it.”
Egenolf is one of the few artists in the country doing crystalline glazes. He is the only touring artist employing the method in Indiana, though he is sure that others are experimenting with the process.
“Expense is a big thing. The materials are more expensive, since the ingredients are things that other people don’t use in their glazes,” he said. “And at the beginning, there’s a huge loss rate, like less than half of what you make is going to turn out like you want it. All those things are enough of a deterrent to want to do it on your own.”
Egenolf’s work is both functional and artistic. The mugs and plates he creates are meant to be used in everyday life and are durable enough to be microwaved and washed in a dishwasher.
At the Venue, where Egenolf’s work is continually one of the best sellers in the gallery, shoppers are fascinated by the mugs and cups that he creates, Colman said.
“Not all art looks great and can be used on a regular basis. Adam does that very well. It’s very utilitarian,” he said. “He’s probably in the top-five of our selling artist in any medium. People respond to it.”
Summerfair is a Cincinnati art expo that brings more than 300 fine artists together with more than 20,000 guests. Egenolf will be showing his ceramics at the festival for the first time May 31 through June 2.
The pieces he submitted stood out among the festival organizers and jury, Summerfair executive director Sharon Strubbe said.
“His work is absolutely exquisite. Everything is hand-thrown, high-fired and crystalline glazed. It’s contemporary, but also looks very traditional, almost takes an Oriental look. That’s really hot right now in the art world,” she said.
Strubbe also complimented the functionality of his work, with useful items such as pitchers and cups that were made with a highly decorative manner. She described his vases as “museum quality.”
But Egenolf also crafts wall art that takes full advantage of his crystalline medium.
In one piece, three tiles come together to make a winding river. Another one looks like a view from space of the Florida Keys.
“I’m using crystals to give you the sense of waves and color and texture. It’s a different way of showing it,” he said.
Though he does show some work at galleries such as the Venue, Egenolf does most of his sales at art shows from Minnesota to Miami. He participates in 20 to 25 each year and needs to create thousands of pieces just to keep up with demand.
But he has found that letting people get a look at his unique work up close is the best way to sell.
“I just let the pottery do it’s job. It stands out. One perk of making your own glaze is you can decide how vibrant to make it,” he said.