It took a pandemic for Derek Larson to discover, or more accurately, rediscover, his passion, his calling, his True North.
Growing up in Maryland, he was always creative.
“My mother is into music and I played piano and saxophone. I’ve always been artistic and filled sketchbooks,” he tells me. “In high school I chose visual arts over music and in grade 10 I took my first ceramics class. I fell in love with it. races.
Larson took a sculpture course in his freshman year, a portfolio construction ceramics course at the Corcoran School of the Arts and Design in DC, and a figurative sculpture course at the Torpedo Factory Art Center in Alexandria. But when he came to college, despite acceptances from such prestigious art schools as the Rhode Island School of Design, for some reason – he really can’t articulate it – he left art behind. him.
After a degree in communications writing from Boston University, Larson began a business career with advertising agency Arnold Worldwide and enjoyed working on Truth, the national anti-tobacco campaign focused on teens, but had little interest in product promotion. Eventually, he listened to his creative side and enrolled at SCAD to take a Masters in Sequential Art.
“I had done comics for my college newspaper and loved writing. I loved using clay for the character development part of the sequence art, concept design, world building , but even while I was working on my degree, I knew that wasn’t what I really wanted to do. I had found my way back to art, but I hadn’t gone all the way.
After his masters, he followed years of managing a small team of advisors who prepared SCAD students for their creative careers; working in restaurants; raise a son; opening a studio in City Market for a time where he painted and dabbled in other art forms. Corn,
“I knew something was missing…I got to the point where I wasn’t doing anything anymore. I was depressed and unmotivated 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 excellent instruction while being empowered to unleash their creativity.
Larson’s first class with Lisa was in February 2020, just before the pandemic shut down the studio for a few months. The Public Kitchen & Bar, where Larson worked at the time, also closed and, like many of us, he was given time…time to focus on his newfound passion. He brought clay and tools from the studio home and started creating.
“I did a few things around the house, but after about a week I settled into a routine. It was beautiful. I was taking long walks, listening to podcasts, listening to music, I was chatting with friends on a loudspeaker, studying the Tao, and trying to cultivate a “beginner’s mind”. It was my therapy. I was in the moment and in the present. The audience reopened briefly but then closed again due to a fire in the kitchen, so in all I had the gift of nine months to focus on my art.
Today, Larson crafts country homes, contemporary ships, mushroom gardens, whimsical characters like roosters and rabbits, and container ships, all engraved with his cartoon marks.
After the first firing, he uses a black wash technique on most pieces to achieve a more antique finish. Proficient at glazing, his favorite part of the process is the hand construction, “The wet clay part. Five minutes and I’m immersed. Hours will pass.”
In addition to two weekly open studio sessions at Savannah’s Clay Spot, Larson creates his ceramics in the dining room of his 1890s townhouse on Seiler Ave., firing them in a small outdoor kiln he inherited through his relationships at Savannah’s Clay Spot.
During my visit, the table is covered with a troop of small, complex mushrooms, cooked and waiting to be glazed. (Yes, I googled the collective name. A troupe!)
We discuss the problem that most artists ultimately face: do they continue to replicate what they know how to sell or do they follow their own creative path?
Like most, Larson is balancing the two right now. He works just one day a week as a waiter at Public, “selling the heck out of his fancy plays and mushrooms,” but planning new, bigger plays to push his creativity.
“My ego pushes me to hang in large galleries and create installations in huge spaces. I’m not interested in making ten times the mushrooms, but I’m interested in making bigger pieces which can be ten times more expensive.
In addition to working on art gallery pieces on a much larger scale, Larson is excited to explore the possibilities of creating vessels in collaboration with a local fiber artist.
“We will have embroidery, padding and fibers – the hard ones and the soft ones. Two contemporary crafts merged.
He is also inspired to make larger trays and mushroom caps that will hang on the walls, each piece uniquely marked with its characteristic doodles, stripes and marks. I admire a piece with multiple tiny square indentations created by inserting the top of a chopstick.
Having served as a career advisor to his alma mater, Larson is perfectly placed to build relationships with galleries in larger markets and with other ceramic artists who can help him on his artistic journey.
He is excited to travel more, enjoy “doing cations” and learnings, and networking with other alumni. He plans to write a proposal for the workshop program at the SCAD campus in Lacoste, France. (Stay tuned – he’s already imagining a magical sculpture garden of fairies, gnomes, mushrooms and country houses.)
Larson seems at peace with his progress and with the manifestation of new work – even a new and larger furnace – which he says will appear when the time comes. He is in the flow.
“I’m walking the path I’m supposed to walk. It is Taoism. All is well.
Find Larson’s work at ShopSCAD, 340 Bull Street and Gallery 209, 209 East River Street, or visit DerekLarsonCeramics.com and Instagram.com/dereklarsonceramics