It took a pandemic for Derek Larson to discover, or more accurately, to rediscover, his passion, his calling, his True North.
Growing up in Maryland, he was always creative.
“My mom is in music, and I played piano and saxophone. I was always artistic and filling up sketch books,” he tells me. “In high school I chose visual arts over music and in 10th grade took my first ceramics class. I fell in love with it. I had a natural gift and was off to the races.”
Larson took a sculpture class in his junior year, a portfolio-building ceramics class at D.C.’s Corcoran School of the Arts and Design and a figurative sculpting class at the Torpedo Factory Art Center in Alexandria. But when it came to college, despite acceptances from such prestigious art schools as the Rhode Island School of Design, for whatever reason – he really can’t articulate it – he left art behind.
Following a degree in communications writing from Boston University, Larson began a business career with Arnold Worldwide advertising agency and enjoyed working on Truth, the national teen-focused anti-smoking campaign, but had little interest in promoting products. Eventually, he listened to his creative side and enrolled in SCAD to take a Masters in Sequential Art.
“I had made comics for my college newspaper and loved writing. I liked using modelling clay for the character development part of sequential art, the concept design, the world-building, but even as I worked on my degree I knew it wasn’t what I really wanted to do. I had found my way back to art, but I didn’t go all the way.”
After his Masters, there followed years of managing a small team of advisers who prepared SCAD students for their creative careers; working in restaurants; raising a son; opening a studio in City Market for a while where he painted and dabbled in other art forms. But again,
“I knew something was missing…I got to the point where I wasn’t doing anything. I was depressed and not motivated to do much. I didn’t see a path... And then I took a ceramics class with Lisa.”
He is, of course, referring to Lisa Bradley, the owner of Savannah’s Clay Spot and the subject of my first column for Connect Savannah. As I wrote then, Lisa has an almost magical little space on Barnard Street where students receive great instruction while being empowered to unleash their creativity.
Larson’s first class with Lisa was in February of 2020, right before the pandemic shutdown the studio for a few months. The Public Kitchen & Bar, where Larson was working at the time, also shut down and, like so many of us, he was given the gift of time…Time to focus on his rediscovered passion. He took clay and tools home from the studio and started creating.
“I did a few things around the house, but after about a week or so, I settled into a routine. It was beautiful. I’d go on long walks, listen to podcasts, listen to music, chat to friends on speaker, study the Tao and try to cultivate a ‘beginner’s mind.’ It was my therapy. I was in the moment and in the present. Public reopened briefly but then shut down again due to a kitchen fire, so in all, I had the gift of nine months to focus on my art.”
Today, Larson makes cottage houses, contemporary vessels, mushroom gardens, whimsical characters like roosters and rabbits, and container ships, all etched with his signature cartoon-like markings.
After the first firing, he uses a black wash technique on most pieces to achieve a more antique finish. Proficient in glazing, his favorite part of the process is the hand-building, “The wet clay part. Five minutes into to it and I’m immersed. Hours will go by.”
In addition to twice weekly open studio sessions at Savannah’s Clay Spot, Larson creates his ceramics in the dining room space of his 1890’s rowhouse home on Seiler Ave., firing them in a small outside kiln he inherited through his connections at Savannah’s Clay Spot.
When I visit, the table is covered in a troop of intricate little mushrooms, fired, and waiting to be glazed. (Yes, I Googled the collective noun. A troop!)
We discuss the problem most artists eventually face – do they continue to replicate what they know will sell, or do they follow their own creative path?
Like most, Larson is balancing the two right now. He is down to working just one day a week as a server at Public, “selling the heck out of his whimsical pieces and the mushrooms,” but planning for new and bigger pieces to push his creativity.
“My ego drives me to hang in big galleries and create installations in huge spaces. I’m not interested in making ten times as many mushrooms, but I am interested in making larger pieces that can be ten times the price.”
In addition to working on fine art gallery pieces on a much larger scale, Larson is excited to explore the possibilities of creating collaborative vessels with a local fibers artist.
“We’ll have embroidery, stuffing, and fibers – the hard and the soft. Two contemporary crafts melding.”
He’s also inspired to make larger platters and mushroom caps that will hang on walls, each piece uniquely marked with his signature doodles, scratches, and markings. I admire a piece with multiple tiny square indentations creating by inserting the top of a chopstick.
Having been a career advisor with his alma mater, Larson is perfectly poised to make relationships with galleries in larger markets and with other ceramic artists who can aid him on his artistic journey.
He’s excited to travel more, enjoy ‘make-cations’ and apprenticeships, and to network with other alumni. He plans to write a proposal for the atelier program at SCAD’s campus in Lacoste, France. (Stay tuned – he’s already imagining a magical sculpture garden of fairies, gnomes, mushrooms, and cottage houses.)
Larson seems at peace with his progress and with manifesting new work – even a new and larger kiln – which, he feels, will appear when the time is right. He’s in the flow.
“I’m walking on the path I’m supposed to be walking on. It’s Taoism.” All is well.
Find Larson’s work at ShopSCAD, 340 Bull Street and at Gallery 209, 209 East River Street, or visit DerekLarsonCeramics.com and Instagram.com/dereklarsonceramics