By KATIE WATTS / Petaluma Towns Correspondent
‘‘Everyone has a memory of having touched their first piece of clay,” says Forrest Lesch-Middelton.
He was a 14 and has spent more than half his life molding clay into works of art. This year he is taking things to the next level, launching a new line of decorative tiles that has garnered national attention.
Lesch-Middelton, 30, was in his senior year of high school when an amazing teacher passed along her philosophy that clay is the universal language.
“It’s everywhere,” he says. “You can’t go into a culture without seeing some piece of ceramic history.”
His pots and tiles combine Lesch-Middelton’s two great loves, clay and history, a match he describes as sharing “the world’s history through pattern, surface and a passion for today’s forgotten people and places.”
As much as Lesch-Middelton loves to work with clay, he love to talk about clay. “I’ve been an administrator and teacher in the art world for years,” he says. “I travel all over to teach.”
Armed with art degrees from Alfred University in western New York and Utah State University, and a stint as resident artist at the Mendocino Arts Center, he co-founded a ceramic arts center in Berkeley and ran the pottery program at the Sonoma Community Center.
Over the past decade, Lesch-Middelton invented a technique for transferring Islamic patterns onto clay, using it to create such things as minaret bottles that echo the Sultan Hassan Mosque in Cairo.
Several years ago, he and his wife realized there were potential customers who couldn’t afford to buy a pot. “So I made tiles in the $12 to $14 range so they could buy something,” he says.
The rest was a matter of being in the right place at the right time. A publicist came into his booth the Mill Valley Art Festival, liked his work and had connections.
“The next thing I know, I’m in the New York Times,” Lesch-Middelton says.
Origins, his first collection for the tile company Clé, was featured a month later in Architectural Digest, and by March the artist had so much business he had outgrown his home studio.
In March he launched a Kickstarter campaign for $20,000 to scale up production to meet the demand, receiving pledges of $25,415 from 236 backers.
His eastside studio is so new and business has been so demanding, Lesch-Middelton says he has barely had time to get settled. His wife’s job requires her to travel, and they have two young daughters, ages 2 and 5.
“I haven’t even had time to organize the studio,” he says. “Between work and the kids, I’m getting about four hours of sleep. It’s like art school. You leave the studio between midnight and 2 a.m., then you’re the first one in the door.”
Lesch-Middelton laughs. “I’m freaking out. I just want to make tiles and pots.”
To create the tiles, patterns are silkscreened onto slabs of clay that look like giant blocks of chocolate. Most of the patterns, he says, are middle Eastern in origin, “and, in turn, those patterns were influenced by the Chinese,” he says.
“My work is about the lineage of material. No two tiles are the same, no two are perfect. It’s the imperfect nature of the technique that makes the work look old, like it has history.”
Architectural Digest described their appearance as reminiscent of Moroccan mosaics, while the Times said they resemble the products of an ancient civilization.
While Lesch-Middelton won’t get into the discussion of art versus craft, he believes strongly that to advance the medium of clay, all knowledge should be shared. “Nothing I do is proprietary.”
For a long time, he explains, the history of clay was an industry, “and industry is about protecting knowledge.” Colleges began sharing information, “with the thought that if students are going to learn, they wanted to find all the information so they could learn it.”
He learned his image transfer technique from other sculptors, figuring out how to do it on pots.
“I transfer the image to a cylinder, then reach into the cylinder and stretch the clay,” he said.
Lesch-Middelton doesn’t glaze the exterior of the pots or tiles, so the finished products look weathered. And the clay is vitrified stoneware, so it’s waterproof and walkable.
“I’m able to make tile like no one else because of my history and dedication,” he said, adding, “it’s almost absurd that pottery, the most primitive medium, can have this depth.”
Tile prices range from $7.50 for a 3-inch unornamented square to $28.50 for a 6-inch square with pattern. Information: (415) 887-9011 or cletile.com. For more information about Lesch-Middelton, visit flmceramics.com.