As you enter the studio at Siena Heights University, you’re greeted by the sound of a potter’s wheel humming along accompanied by music in the background. Across the room, his face radiates an infectious joy as his hands shape a ball of porcelain into a slender vessel. An expression of humble satisfaction in creating fine art. “I just can’t believe I can do this! I’m capable of it!”
For Dennis Swartzlander, it all started his junior year in high school in the mid-1970’s after his family transferred to Adrian, Michigan. He took a “blow off” ceramics class, choosing the course for ease, but quickly became hooked on making pottery. He credits his teacher, John Hartom, with investing numerous hours, exposing him to the works of well-known ceramic artists. As a student, Dennis showed he was serious about ceramics. His teacher responded by taking him under his wing.
After graduating high school, he set aside ceramics for about 5 years to work in the newly started family printing business. On a trip to a gallery at Arrowmont in Gatlinburg, TN, his passion for collecting artwork began.
Several years later, he decided to try his hand at art again, signing up for a watercolor class. However, he says, “I was awful at it!” In 1999, his wife saw an advertisement for a Toledo Potter’s Guild ceramics class suggesting he give it a try. He responded, saying, “I’ll take it, but if I start, I’m not stopping.” True to his word, Dennis has not stopped creating beautiful pottery! He continued his learning by taking ceramics classes at Siena Heights University, Ann Arbor Art Center, Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts in TN, and other workshops.
Dennis enjoys working with his hands by throwing pieces on the potter’s wheel. In one setting he creates several favorites, such as tea pots or vases. He’s intentional to work with a variety of forms in order to stay competent in creating them all.
Similar to his personality, his style is simple. His pieces speak for themselves without screaming with pretentiousness. He has learned that he needs not over-do it when creating, but stop before the process has gone too far.
Swartzlander is currently exploring crystalline glazes which requires a specific process. He works with a homemade porcelain recipe specially suited for the glaze. The shape of the thrown piece is also important when using this glaze. Typically the form is a thin necked vase verses a rounded form or bowl-shaped form. The glaze, brushed on thickly (1/8-3/16”) is runny and therefore must follow the form from top to bottom. Dennis moves away from the standard shape to a more vase-like form for a new variation, while still allowing the glaze to run.
This crystalline glaze has a glossy, iridescent, metallic sheen. It contains zinc oxide which causes crystals to seed (form) during the firing process in a special kiln built specifically for this type of glaze. The piece is fired at 2,300 degrees, then reduced to 1,900 degrees and held there anywhere between a few hours and up to ten. This holding state allows the crystals to grow.
However, the glaze outcome or crystalline placement cannot be completely controlled. Factors such as clay body, heat, oxides, and hold time in firing can allow a little control, but each finished piece is a unique surprise as the kiln is opened. Although it is not recommended, Dennis cannot resist sneaking a peak into the kiln after the temperature reaches a specific cooling level to inspect the results of his creations.
Dennis is not only a professional artist, but also a teacher at Siena Heights University. An adjunct professor, he instructs students in beginning and intermediate wheel throwing. He also teaches adult community ceramics classes throughout the year. You can find him demonstrating the course skills briefly, then walking among the students encouraging them. To students new to throwing, he often encourages, “Patience wins out! Don’t get frustrated. This should be a fun class.”
Dennis has learned “the more you know, the less you know”. Therefore, he holds to a mentoring attitude with specific students. For the past few years at Artalicious, he brings along an upperclassman who shows talent in ceramics exposing them to the workings of a fair: the preparations of getting pieces ready, pricing, display, sales, and interactions with potential customers. It is a beneficial learning partnership, of which he happily mentors the emerging artist. This year, Emily Egan will be displaying her work alongside his at the fair.
Plan to stop by Dennis’s tent at Artalicious and inspect the details of the beautiful, crystalline glazed pieces.
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