Michael Sherrill began his career as a craftsman and ended up an artist.
Actually, he’d take issue with that oversimplification. A Charlotte-raised, world-renowned “materials-based artist” (which is how he describes himself), he doesn’t want to be compartmentalized. He agrees with what Chinese artist/activist Ai Weiwei said on the topic.
“Someone asked Ai Weiwei if he was an artist or craftsman,” Sherrill said. “He answered: ‘I’m not a loin, and I’m not a T-bone. I’m the cow,’ ” Sherrill said. “Both of them can exist inside the same person.”
Not only is Sherrill’s artistry inextricable from his craft, but the artist and the work are impossible to separate, said Annie Carlano, the Mint Museum’s senior curator of craft, design and fashion. She is the curator, along with guest curator Marilyn Zapf (assistant director and curator at the Center for Craft, Creativity and Design in Asheville), of the Mint’s retrospective on Sherrill, which opened in late October. The exhibition, which moves to the Smithsonian after its Charlotte run, contains about 60 works Sherrill created from 1977 to 2017.
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“Michael has a curiosity and an awe about the natural world that’s evident in his sculptures,” Carlano said. “He’s a deep thinker with a poetic sensibility. He’s a Southern artist who’s globally fluent.”
Sherrill has come a long way from his dad’s machine shop on Fifth Street. It was there he first began tinkering and trying to, he said, “figure out the material world ... I could draw and paint, but what I really wanted to do was make something.”
He started making leather goods. (“It was the ’60s,” he said. “Everyone was into leather.”) He discovered clay when he saw a traditional potter from Matthews using a potter’s wheel at a Boy Scout event. “I couldn’t take my eyes off the wheel.”
When his junior high school art class went to Festival in the Park, it was the first time he’d thrown clay on a potter’s wheel.
He had talent.
“All the right mechanics were there,” he said. “And it made sense. My father’s world was filled with spinning things. This felt comfortable.”
Sherrill has dyslexia and “scraped by in school,” he said. So, finding pottery was like being thrown a life preserver in the deep end. It was more than a new hobby; it could become a legitimate vocation.
Need a tool? Invent one
He began working in his first studio – an out-building behind Steele Creek Presbyterian Church – as a high school student.
A student teacher at Denver High School introduced Sherrill to the Southern Highland Craft Guild, a network of markets for N.C. mountain craftspeople. “I heard you could make a pretty good living,” Sherrill said of becoming a full-time potter.
He’s done much more than that. His nonfunctional teapots, which he no longer produces, sold for $15,000 a piece two decades ago. His sculptures, made from metal, glass and clay, are in the Smithsonian, the Clinton Presidential Library and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. He gets commissions from CEOs across the country for single works that take four or five months to complete.
He’s a mostly self-taught artist, yet his intricate pieces don’t have the primitive quality often associated with the works of self-taught artists (think Grandma Moses or Howard Finster). Sherrill gleaned what he could from watching others – then carved out a unique path for himself. “When Michael couldn’t find the tools to do what he needed, he just invented them,” Carlano said.
“My education was like a smorgasbord,” Sherrill said. “I got a big plate and took what I could from a bunch of different sources. I couldn’t afford to go to Penland, but I could go there and watch from the wings.”
After leaving Gaston College after just a year, he built a modest studio in Hendersonville, N.C. His landlord gave him the lumber for the project.
Herb Cohen, a former Mint curator, took notice of the work Sherrill was producing. “Herb gave me a little show at the Mint on Randolph when I was just 23 years old,” Sherrill said. That began a relationship between artist and museum that’s spanned more than four decades.
When Carlano joined the Mint in 2009, she was smitten with Sherrill’s “Temple of the Cool Beauty” (also titled “Yucca”), then on loan from an Atlanta couple. Carlano said the piece had “technical virtuosity” and “the wow factor.”
It was then she began talking to Sherrill about a retrospective, an exhibition that typically comes in the latter years of an artist’s career. But Carlano said Sherrill is doing the best work of his long career now. She expects him to have “another 20 years of surprises for us.”
There were rules?
There’s never been anything typical about Sherrill – and that includes his career trajectory. “Most artists have a long mid-career,” said Carlano. “There’s usually a long period of experimentation and growth. It’s astounding how swiftly Michael moved to a mature period.”
Here’s how Sherrill explains it: “I didn’t know I wasn’t supposed to do it, so I did.”
That’s the punchline to a story he tells about visiting his brothers – Bix, an artist, and Scott, a lawyer – in New York in the mid-1970s. Sherrill wandered into a Soho gallery – he can’t recall the name – and showed the gallerist photos of his work. He walked out with an offer from the gallery to host a show for him. His astonished brothers told him: “That is not how this usually works.”
“Call it Forrest Gump Syndrome,” Sherrill said. “I had no idea there was a prescribed way to do this.
“In fact,” he quickly added, “there is no prescribed way.”
Sherrill’s career proves it. He now has a permanent outdoor sculpture at Icheon World Ceramic Center in South Korea. And he leads a staff of 11 in his Bat Cave, N.C., studio.
That sounds like glassmaker Dale Chihuly’s model. Are there similarities?
“Dale was the first to break through that artificial wall between art and craft,” Sherrill said. “I tried to crawl out right behind him.”
Sherrill’s work now exists purely to be admired. You can’t drink from his pieces, or serve food out of them. But all the work is rooted in his lifelong fascination with making things.
The high school kid at the potter’s wheel and the globe-trotting, cerebral artist? They’re like the art and the craft – indivisible.
Michael Sherrill Retrospective
Through April 7, 2019, at the Mint Museum Uptown; 500 S. Tryon St.; www.mintmuseum.org.