Earth as a Medium

Woods Hole potter Joan Lederman works with deep-sea sediment from all over the world.

By Kelly Chase | Photography by Julia Cumes

In her Falmouth studio, potter Joan Lederman pulls out a rectangular box that’s filled with wet mud. The shiny silver matter was extracted from the ocean floor 4,500 meters below sea level. If you look closely, stuck in the mud’s gray coat are tiny sand-colored specks. These are called foraminifera; scientists at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute less than a mile away study these fossils for climate change. Lederman studies them, too.

When applied as a glaze to Lederman’s clay pieces and fired in the kiln, these tiny particles disintegrate and interact with other minerals in the glaze creating unpredictable patterns and shapes. Her first time experimenting with ocean sediment as a glaze was in 1996 when a crane operator from one of WHOI’s vessels brought her a bucket from a recent voyage. She began experimenting with different temperatures and ratios. “I became a possessed person,” says Lederman. “I never got the same results twice, even with the same sediment. It was enough to make me hyper-committed.”

Joan Lederman in her studio.

She began receiving buckets of sediment from all over the world and each had its own unique attributes: In the Chukchi Sea between Alaska and Russia, the mud deep on the ocean floor is cold gray; in the Gulf of Mexico it’s a smooth brick-red color. In the Mediterranean, it’s gray with thin swirls of red-orange.

Glazes on Lederman’s pots and plates derived from deep sea depths look as if they could wash ashore after years of turning in the tides. Because of the unpredictable nature of her medium, no two creations are alike. In her studio cupboards, masking tape labels rows of pots by region—Alaska, Antarctica, Penobscot Bay. She has received sediment from about 100 places; on a map in her studio red pins mark the location of each extraction.

The artist has received buckets of sediment from all over the world and each had its own unique attributes.

Lederman had never heard of the scientific theory Snowball Earth, which claims that 635 million years ago Earth was covered in ice and slush, when WHOI scientist, Peucker-Ehrenbrink brought her a bucket of the ancient powder from an outcrop valley near Fransfontein, Namibia. “We talk about the earth as a blue marble, and Snowball Earth refers to a time when scientists believe the earth was covered with glaciers—even the equator. It could have looked all white, like a white marble,” says Lederman. When applied to porcelain and ceramics the results vary.

“On a vertical surface it runs and flows—I never expected a rock would melt into something so fluid, but it did. On porcelain it’s very white and on clay it has brownish-golden tones because clay underneath comes through and reacts with Namibian rock powder.”

All artists talk about happy accidents, but Lederman’s whole life has been a series of serendipitous events. She grew up summering near the ocean in Rockaway Beach, New York, went to Boston University and earned a bachelor’s in painting—the one thing that caused time to stand still for her. “When I painted, I had no concept of time,” explains Lederman. “I just became so immersed and there was nothing else that I did that allowed me to feel that way, so I went to art school, which is a really weird reason I think.”

After college, Lederman moved to Vermont, where she wanted to teach but was missing one credit—ceramics. She enrolled at Goddard College and took an independent study with Phil Holmes, a teacher she credits for her lifelong passion. “He was such a good teacher for me. He never gave me any more than I needed. I was always out on a limb. I was always stretching towards him, he would give me content verbally, but it didn’t mean anything until I was on the journey myself and then it began to click,” remembers Lederman.

Finished works include mugs, bowls, jars and urns.

As an artist living in Vermont, Lederman found herself involved in numerous side gigs. She was making pegs for a post-and-beam barn and two of the carpenters were from Woods Hole. She was curious about their town, so she went. “Living in Vermont I learned a lot, but it was very isolating and there weren’t a lot of job opportunities. Also, in order to have an interesting life you had to drive a lot. I did drive a lot, but I just didn’t really want to anymore. Then I came down to Woods Hole and it tapped a very old memory system of when I was a child in Rockaway Beach.”

The studio space came from a friend. She was invited to spend the summer in the boathouse that was occupied by a sailboat. She slept in the loft space that whole summer next to the window. “At the end of that summer the owner said, ‘If you buy me a tarp for my boat you can stay.’ I have been here ever since,” she says, smiling.

Forty-one years later, here she sits on her potter’s bench. A beam of afternoon light pushes through her open studio door. She’s off a dirt road and steps away from the ocean, so close you can hear the soft crash of waves as they roll in. There’s a small bit of beach next to a Coast Guard building on Vineyard Sound where she likes to collect seaweed for her pieces and go for swims. On this day the water is sparkling blue and smooth as it stretches across to Martha’s Vineyard. It feels like the edge of the earth, it’s certainly the edge of the Upper Cape, yet for four decades Lederman’s path has paused here, permitting her to pursue her passion and allowing dust to settle in her studio from the farthest reaches of the earth.

The small loft space above her studio has a view of Vineyard Sound.

Lederman’s studio, near Woods Hole, is a former boathouse.

Gathering seaweed.

Comments are closed.