Here at Middle-earth News we love to meet artisans around the world that share in our love of Tolkien. Not only is it great to have someone to “geek out” with, but knowing a craftsperson also means that all the objects of Middle-earth that you have dreamed about can finally become a reality in your home. Who among us hasn’t wondered what a Green Dragon mug would feel like heavy in your hobbit hands?
Functional Mud opened in February 2010 from Sean’s desire to fill a niche market and create something that he would like for his own kitchen. If you are looking for sturdy, rustic, Tolkien-themed pottery for yourself or an honorary resident of Middle-earth in your life, then look no further! The sturdy dishes, mugs, and cups will make the perfect gift for anyone in your life.
Recently, I had the honor of chatting with Sean Robinson, the creative mind behind Functional Mud an Etsy shop that specializes in the creation of Tolkien-themed pottery. Sean’s passion for Tolkien is only rivaled by his desire to create beautiful, flawless pottery. His dedication to the craft is apparent in not only his words, but by the obvious care that radiates from his dishware. Sean has graciously taken time from the potter’s wheel to answer our questions today: read on to hear about how he became a potter and delve into his creative process from start to finish!
Middle-earth News: When did you begin creating stoneware/pottery?
Sean Robinson: I took my first pottery class in 2003. I still have the first cup I made. It is an ugly little piece with wonky sides and a very thick base. It took one or two other classes over the next few years, not refining a skill but just as “something to do.” The week before I deployed to Iraq with my National Guard unit in 2005, I signed up for a class called ‘A Week on the Wheel’ at a community art center in Winston Salem, NC. I had an amazing time in that class. I was really into the planning and creation process of making functional and sculptural pieces from clay. (No, my mind was NOT on spending 14 months away from home in a desert) The entire pottery creation experience really struck a chord with me. In late 2007, I enrolled at a local university to complete my degree and part of my focus was studio ceramics. I was quickly reminded of the absolute joy of pottery making I experienced 2 years before. I have not stopped the creative and making process since.
ME: Can you take us through your artistic process like from inspiration to finished project?
SR: I usually begin my process with a few sketches or the research of a historically significant design. In the event of research, I look to see if I can remake pieces I find inspirational and put my own style into it. Some pieces I try to recreate as close to the original as possible, just to see and feel what the process of creation was like for the artist who made it before me. When I sketch out an idea, I like to draw measurements, cross sections and options of handles, lids and surface texture. Other times my creation process at the wheel is spontaneous and the results are pieces that are new and different.
Once I get a rendering or firm idea of what I wish to create, I weigh out some clay, center it on the wheel and start bringing my renderings to life. I would think that for most people, watching the process for pottery creation is lengthy and not as terribly exciting as watching a drawing or painting being created (think Bob Ross). I can throw a piece in a matter of minutes, but there is a refining and drying time that can last for hours or even days. Once the clay is at a drying stage called ‘leather hard’, I can add handles, lugs, the Pony, Dragon or Rohan medallion or carve designs into the clay. More days of drying time take the clay to the ‘bone dry’ stage when it is then ready to be put into the kiln to be bisque fired (about 1855 degrees F for 6 hours, then another 18 hours to cool). Once out of the bisque, I glaze the pieces either by dipping the pot into a bucket of glaze or brushing the glaze onto the pot. I also wash the Dragon or Pony medallions in either iron oxide or manganese, depending on the color effect I want. Different glazes give wonderfully different effects when combined with one another. I do one last firing to a temperature of about 2269 F to set the glaze on the pot. This last firing process takes another 24 hours. The kiln opening, once it has cooled, is always an exciting and anticipated event.
ME: What inspired you to begin creating Tolkien themed pottery?
SR: The inspiration to create Tolkien themed pottery came from my desire to fill a niche that reflected my personal interests. About a year ago, I searched around for anyone else making Pony or Dragon mugs, and as far as I can tell, no one makes handmade, ceramic mugs from specific locales in Middle earth. I had a desire to create souvenir-type mugs from both the Prancing Pony and the Green Dragon. Plus, I wanted to stock my own kitchen with rustic, home-style pottery.
I requested my father assist me which the creation of the original stamps I used to make the medallions. The stamps came from the design of a handmade wooden 11×18 inch Prancing Pony sign he made for my wife and me. He used his woodworking, design and computer skills to create a very intricate and beautiful Pony sign that could easily be displayed above Barliman’s inn door. Much to our delight a few months later we received a Green Dragon sign of equal beauty.
Bottom line is, I really like the world Tolkien created. With the exception of Tom Bombadil, it seems that everything in Middle earth has a reason for being there. It all serves a purpose. I wanted to create functional pottery that a person might see in their travels through Middle earth. Using Tolkien as a foundation to create rustic, functional pottery seems a natural starting place for me. He has provided us with variety of Middle earth cultures that allows for an immense variety of creative expression. I am always impressed with the fan made songs, paintings, drawings, costumes, and props I see.
ME: What is the most difficult part of your creative process?
SR: I think the most difficult part of the process is taking something common place, like a mug or pitcher or plate and making it unique to my world perspective. I believe that artists create art for themselves. They create art that they would buy or enjoy or display. If one person likes what the artist creates, then the artist is now making art for two people.
If I am lucky enough to eventually put a Prancing Pony mug or Green Dragon mug into the hands of every Tolkien fan in the world (that’s a lot of mugs!!), then my creative process is easier because I am making pottery for more people than just me to enjoy. I want my pots to reflect my interests and attract those with similar interests to mine.
ME: How long you been a fan of Tolkien?
SR: Tolkien fandom came late in life to me. As exciting as Rankin-Bass’ The Hobbit was, it did not have a firm grasp on my imagination. I remember thirty years ago, seeing the Lord of the Rings novels on my father’s bookshelf, but being young and not into reading, I found the books not only intimidatingly lengthy but of no interest. As years passed, I kept hearing from friends of how epic and amazing the stories and characters of Middle earth were. I thought I might need to check into this Lord of the Rings story. The first time I read Lord of the Rings was in 1999. I was hooked. The movies came out a few years later and the visual interpretation of Tolkien’s world, for me, opened the limitless possibilities of Middle earth. Since then I have read and re-read nearly all of Tolkien’s published work.
ME: What is your favorite Tolkien book, and who is your favorite character? Why?
SR: The Silmarillion is currently my favorite Tolkien book. I love the depth of the world Tolkien created. I believe Tolkien sets up an amazing history in this book. The Silmarillion has a wonderful creation story as impactful as any real or imagined culture could produce.
As far as a favorite character, I lean towards Gandalf. I like the fact that the Valar recognized they were flawed enough to have to send assistance in the form of Gandalf to council the people of Middle earth against Sauron. Clearly Gandalf is very wise and compassionate. It would be a fine world if all people aspired to a high level of wisdom and compassion. Gandalf is into the affairs of the inhabitants of Middle earth enough to guide them, but not to force them, towards his task of what needs to be done. He is like a middle-man between the Valar and Middle earth peoples. I like his humility to be a wanderer and his insight and council towards others in times of despair. I find him to be a very honorable being who understands the necessity of his role in Middle earth.
ME: Who do you think would have the best dishware in Middle-earth?
SR: Over an intense dinner discussion a few days ago, I discovered my dear, beautiful wife Ada prefers the dishware of the elves. She imagines their place settings to be elegant and ethereal in quality, yet sturdy enough to honor the immortality of the elves.
I, however, prefer the dishware of Beorn. I imagine his homemade dinnerware being rustic and earthy. The attention to detail in his carvings would be incredible. He is not just eating dinner off a slice of log, but supping out of a beautifully turned wooden bowl perhaps made from burl. I picture his deft hands pinching a mass of clay dug from the bank of the Great River of Wilderland into a fine drinking cup.
ME: What sort of projects can we expect to see from you in the future?
SR: My latest inspiration is to create sets of elvish and dwarvish styled goblets. I envision goblets that reflect the tall, graceful, elegant figures of the elves and, in artistic
contrast, sturdy, rustic, dwarvish drinkware. The elvish pieces may have an art nouveau hint to them whereas the dwarfish pieces may have a more geometric form or surface treatment.
I am developing orcish style cups featuring the White Hand of Saruman. These cups need to be ugly enough for an orc to use but not so repulsive that nobody would want one for their Middle earth themed dinner party.
I am tweaking my mallorn plate design and I want to develop the idea into a set of bowls and cups incorporating the mallorn motif.
I have a huge desire to reproduce Bilbo’s teapot and tea cups. This project has been put on the back burner for some months. I have collected images and done sketches and made measurements of the design. I believe once I complete a few of these teapot and teacup sets I could start offering them to those who come to my etsy site.
Now then, my question back to the readers of this article… What ceramic projects would YOU care to see from me? Throw some ideas at me please. I am always open to requests and love artistic challenges. [Editor’s Note: Please leave comments below about what sorts of projects you would like to see from Sean or contact him directly through his shop!]
ME: Do you have any advice for aspiring artists or potters?
SR: My advice to aspiring artists or potters is to create what you love. Study your art form, research it’s history and development, go to workshops, watch online instructional art videos, learn from anyone and everyone, immerse yourself whenever possible in your craft. If it takes years for you to get where you wish to be, then enjoy your journey of discovery. Never stop perfecting your craft. Be a brave risk-taker in your art.
Something I have learned as a potter is to only show your best work. I have many near-beautiful Pony mugs and Dragon mugs that have very minor flaws, for example a small pinhole in the glaze, or the mouth of the mug is not exactly a circle shape due to warping. They are all functional and very usable, but sometimes there may be a slight imperfection that degrades the ergonomics of the piece. In my opinion they do not pass my quality control. I would never sell these because I want to be represented by my best work.
ME: If you could spend the day in Middle-earth how do you spend it, and why?
SR: Wow! Great question. A day in Middle earth would be too short of a time to spend in such a rich world. However, I think my wife and I might enjoy a leisurely boat trip down the Anduin. I am not sure how far we could get in one day but I think putting the boat in the water at Carrock would be a great starting place. We would float past the Gladden Fields (apparently some history involving a piece of jewelry exists there?), on past Lorien (stop off for a bite to eat and a lengthy song with the elves) through the Argonath (great photo op) to the Falls of Rauros. Probably best to put ashore before the falls.
I think the idea of spending only one day in Middle earth is like getting a one-day pass to Universal Studios in Florida or the Uffizi in Florence, Italy. There is WAY too much to see and experience for such a short time. So instead of decimating myself on trying to see and do and experience everything in Middle earth (or having to choose one amazing thing over the other), we would take the leisurely route and experience a relaxed slice of Middle earth. We could move at our own pace, see what we want to see and experience what we want. All this without waiting in the long lines to get into the Green Dragon or being jostled out of an all-you-can-eat buffet in Erebor by an extensive family of dwarves or having the orcs at Minas Morgul lose our room reservation.