Mark Tarabula: Being hands-on in his journey as a ceramics artist

Category:  The Arts
Thursday, January 30th, 2020 at 7:51 PM
Mark Tarabula: Being hands-on in his journey as a ceramics artist by Zeila Hobson

Mark Tarabula, a third year graduate student pursuing a master’s in ceramics at EU, fell in love with pottery before middle school. As a fourth grader in South Detroit, Tarabula connected with his art teacher, “Mr. K,” who enlisted the students to make “pinch pots” to sell at a school fundraiser. 

“The glaze inside of mine crawled,” said Tarabula, “which is technically a flaw, but it looked like a brain and I thought it was awesome. My parents bought it — it is still in their house.” As Tarabula got older, his love for working with his hands only grew. In high school, he took extra classes to hone his pottery skills. 

Though he loved to make art, Tarabula did not initially see being an artist as a viable career; neither did his parents. Instead, he pursued teaching and an undergraduate degree in art education at Northern Michigan University. He was getting certified to teach K-12, but Tarabula had dreams of professorship. Two years into his undergraduate program, he sat down with his ceramics instructor, who told him his dream of being a professor would require graduate study. 

“I called my parents right after that meeting and told them I was switching solely to ceramics. I gave them the reasons and they were OK with it,” said Tarabula. “I started selling work here and there and getting opportunities within the ceramics world. Since then, they have been super supportive.” 

After graduating with his bachelor’s in ceramics, Tarabula took three years off from school. He spent a summer working at a fine arts camp, apprenticed to Justin Rawshank in Indiana, and spent a year in Iowa for an artist residency. Tarabula also spent a couple of years at a Gallery One Studio where he was paid to teach ceramics classes and be a “tech”; he maintained the glazes and kilns in the latter role.

According to Tarabula, an artist residency is a program offered by an art center or school wherein an artist is given studio space at the facility or campus to hone their skills. There are different types of residencies: some offer studio space for the artist in exchange for working for the facility, while others offer teaching positions. “High end” residencies, as described by Tarabula, will pay the student a stipend and even provide housing. 

Ceramics residencies are unique in the fact that there aren’t many of them. Tarabula estimated that there are several in each state, unlike residencies for other mediums. He attributes this difference to the fact that studio space for ceramics artists is so specific and vital. Unlike other mediums that can feasibly set up a studio anywhere, such as for illustration or painting, ceramicists require special machinery and kilns. Tarabula asserted that residencies are a great way to network, get to know different studios, and gain experience with different kilns. His own residency experiences created a strong foundation for his graduate work, as did his strong undergraduate education. 

Regarding his ceramics pieces, he said, “I bounce between pottery and sculpture.” Tarabula’s “functional” work is comprised of beautifully thrown cups and mugs in a variety of jubilant colors and styles. He explained that this approach makes these “more sellable” items, because “not everyone can afford a $1,000 sculpture, but many can support me by buying a cup.”

His sculptures are more emotive, often depicting human forms and limbs in abstract positions. “I didn’t realize for a long time that my sculptural work was so much about relationships in my life. I have an identical twin, and I would use identical limbs in different ways to see how they would be the same or different, kind of how my brother and I developed at the same time and look the same but are no longer identical. Developmentally we’ve changed over time and some of my pieces reflect that relationship,” Tarabula said. 

The relationships he has with others, particularly his familial relationships, translate into his work via color, as well. “I was choosing colors based on my relationships,” he said, going on to describe his use of his father’s favorite colors: Michigan blue and gold. “I was always dressed in red and Brian was always dressed in blue, and I use those colors a lot even though they don’t necessarily go together in terms of color theory.” 

Ceramics works are notorious for breaking inside the kiln or displaying entirely different colors than those expected from the glazes applied. 

Speaking on the patience required to be a ceramicist, Tarabula explained: “In pottery, you don’t get attached to a piece until it’s out of the kiln. Some things you have to put on a shelf and forget about for six months, until you look at it again and realize it’s not so bad, because you’re no longer holding onto the expectation of how you wanted it to turn out before.” 

This flexibility in expectation is inherent to being a ceramicist. “I think the main difference with ceramics (from other art forms) is that we put a piece into the kiln and wait for days to see the result,” Tarabula said. 

Other mediums, like painting, allow the artist to see the progression of the work as it is finished. “We potters make the thing, we color the thing, we fire the thing and maybe it will come out the way we want.”

Tarabula works with a variety of kilns. “I do a lot of electric firing, but I also enjoy wood firing.” He continued, “With wood firing, there are a lot of bad surprises that actually turn out well.” 

Wood kilns are actually Tarabula’s favorite to work with because it satisfies his need to be hands-on. “It’s a lot of physical demand; you have to sit and watch the kiln for days straight and split wood to keep it going. I like the involvement with the work that wood kilns require. With an electric kiln you basically just turn it on and walk away.” 

However, wood kilns aren’t conducive to the bright colors Tarabula is incorporating in his latest projects, so he has recently utilized the electrical kiln far more.

Identifying personal traits of his that make him an excellent ceramicist, Tarabula said, “I’ve always been dependable in my work, which I’m proud of.” 

It’s not just the long hours in the studio or kiln maintenance that require his dependability; wood firings at EU are organized by grad students. Tarabula helps ensure enough wood has been split and that there is always someone watching the kiln, among other duties. This leadership role highlights his ability to stay focused as much as his artwork does.

Inspired by “a little bit of everything,” Tarabula often looks to figurative painters and photographers as muses. He enjoys translating the flat, framed human forms into ceramics work. Tarabula is also heavily influenced by sculptor Stephen De Staebler, whose pieces are more “raw” than other artist work. Tarabula is drawn to preserving the natural edges and contours of ceramics material instead of polishing and smoothing it. 

Regarding his experiences at EU, he was quick to praise his mentors here: Lee Rexrode and Chuck Johnson, whom he described as “there for every student.” These professors recently enabled students to raise thousands of dollars, tear down an older kiln, and replace it with a kiln chosen by graduate students. Though the university does not offer teaching assistantships, both professors have also been willing to provide different forms of instructional opportunities.

Other students have also made Tarabula’s EU experience a memorable one. According to him, the ceramics students support and motivate each other to stay on task and to remain active in the art community. The ceramics network is a close-knit community, per Tarabula, and is exemplified by its national convention, held by the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts (NCECA). He pointed out that other mediums have regional conferences, but a national conference is unique to the ceramics world.

Tarabula’s future plans are “up in the air.” He hopes to land another residency and get an adjunct teaching position after graduating with his master’s. His advice to artists, budding or otherwise, is as follows: “Never stop. Even if you just have an hour to sketch something or read an article. It’s so hard to restart after you stop creating — just keep going. If you’re not getting three rejection letters a month, you’re doing something wrong.”

To see or purchase Tarabula’s work, follow his Instagram: @marktarabula

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