Fire and Smoke


Nell Devitt’s clay tiles

Working with clay, according to ceramicist Nell Devitt, is an organic process, but also challenging and stimulating both on mental and physical levels. Coming from a functional potter tradition, Devitt started to experiment with smoke firing processes when she took a raku workshop in 1977. Later, after a weeklong retreat in southern Indiana, she immediately felt an affinity and challenge with the immediacy of raku. Soon she began producing small raku jars and vases that eventually turned into larger ones and then transitioned to creating her wall tiles. That evolution that a working potter experiences she explains, “must balance the choice to follow the direction that their ideas take them and where the market place is pushing. I feel fortunate to have had marketplace success with what I consider my best work–which has helped me develop.”

Prior to moving to Indiana in 1978 to set up her current studio, Devitt apprenticed for a year with potter Ono Yoshi in Kasama, Japan. It was during that time that she learned an important lesson: to celebrate errors or the flaws that make an image come alive. “That esthetic infuses my work and my creative language. I continue to be interested in the imperfect, impermanent and incomplete found in nature and the world.”

Minimal art and Japanese aesthetic are important influences for Devitt, but inspiration comes from everywhere. In her travels, she always returns with objects made from clay. Yet because her work is primarily abstract and many of her clients live in urban areas, she sees how much nature influences her work. “But whether I am designing a leaf or a zipper the main focus is on simplification. Distilling down to the most minimal, I enjoy knowing that abstraction allows others to interpret different meanings.”

To outsiders, the setting for creating her tiles is pristine. Her farmhouse and attached studio sits on top of ridge surrounded by woods in southern Indiana. With sketchbook in hand, Devitt not only records her designs, but also concepts, meanings and her statements about her work. When she designs her images, Devitt enjoys taking an idea breaking it down to the basics. “The most simple way of seeing an object can be the most emotional and evocative way to experience the object.” And then there is working with clay and shaping it. “Clay responds to your hands, it is cold and palpable, it feels good. Time spent in the studio with my hands in clay is always satisfying, enjoyable and relaxing.”

To make the tiles, she uses a slab roller; a hand cut template is pressed into the clay to produce the basic pattern. Incising, carving, and scraping are used to add the textural detail of the tiles. A clay slip is applied to areas for the semi-gloss surface. The black color and straw marks are the result of a post-firing technique of smoking. When the clay reaches maturation temperature in the kiln, the tiles are individually removed and placed in a closed reduction chamber full of straw. The straw ignites, oxygen is cut off, carbon molecules enter the clay – the tile is changing. This technique produces the highly irregular, imperfect and uneven surface.

Devitt’s work has appeared in galleries, but for the most part she keeps a low profile, representing herself via her website where her portfolio is on view for potential clients to review her work. In addition, she highlights her most recent work via a newsletter. Ultimately though, her goals are simple and says that she “creates art that satisfies me, sell what I make, and make what I need to survive. I try to eliminate the non-essential in my artwork as well as my life.”

To learn more about Nell Devitt and her clay tiles, please visit