Deep-Sea Vessels

June 13, 2011

Text by Janice Randall Rohlf

In the long shadow of the world-renowned Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, a modest, peak-roofed structure sits on a promontory above Vineyard Sound. The sailboat once housed within these shingled walls was jettisoned years ago. In its place, a soft-spoken former art teacher hunches over a potter’s wheel. She has tied a clay-spattered apron around her waist and nudges dark, silver-streaked curls back beneath a baseball cap. Here on Cape Cod, historically a haven for creative types, such a scene is not uncommon. But the objects Joan Lederman produces at her studio, The Soft Earth, are in a class of their own. As the artist puts it, these utilitarian artifacts are “clay canvases for geological stories,” representing a territory where art and science collide.

The Arabian Sea and Lake Titicaca. The Galápagos, the Mediterranean and Antarctica. It is from the seafloors of these and other exotic locales that Lederman gets the sediment deposits, sometimes millions of years old, that she waters down to glaze her stoneware and that, by extension, have molded her career. Equal doses of naiveté and persistence had a lot to do with it, too. “Discovery is all about mistakes,” she says. And taking chances.

A New Haven, Connecticut, native drawn to Woods Hole by the ocean, the potter received a surprise visit one day from Chris Griner, a research-vessel crane operator she barely knew. He held out a bucket of mud from a box-core sediment collection that he had been about to hurl overboard. Thinking it was too good to go to waste, and with Lederman in mind, he saved the sample and delivered it to her door. Fortuitously, the kiln at that moment was fired, and Lederman, curious by nature, put a glob of the mud in the 1,700-degree fire. To her surprise, it melted. She experimented with it as a glaze, and the results were extraordinary.

Pointing to designs that resemble branching in trees, arteries, the root systems of plants or a river delta, she says, “In the kiln, the mud self-assembles like that.”

These dendritic patterns are caused by foraminifera, ancient shells of marine organisms. Unlike industrially produced glazes, these glazes of oceanic origin don’t require separating and remixing chemicals; they have a life of their own.

In the fifteen years since Griner brought her that first batch of mud, Lederman estimates that she has experimented with more than a hundred sediment samples from around the globe. Her studio holds a world map of the seafloor riddled with red pushpins, each one indicating a source of sediment. On an opposite wall, floor-to-ceiling shelves display her wares. Her one-of-a-kind, mostly earth-toned pieces bear inscriptions in Lederman’s own wispy calligraphy, documenting the provenance of the sediment she used: the ship name, cruise number and date, latitude, longitude and depth of the sample. Lederman’s stoneware is often sought out and commissioned for sentimental reasons. “Sometimes people bring me materials with special meaning for them, like sand from where they were married,” she explains. Her objects commemorate occasions from graduations to burials.

Not surprisingly, Lederman thinks of planet Earth as a living system. She champions composting and admits that one of her retirement fantasies is to grow sprouts as a primary food system. “Gardening is pretty big for me right now,” she says. “Mostly vegetables, whatever keeps me healthy.” Her daily activities, like lugging heavy, plastic-wrapped packets of mud, provide all the exercise she needs. But Lederman’s healthy glow and gentle manner disguise a fierce determination. She has produced a painstakingly detailed timeline extending to 2019 of one scenario for how science and art can work together, and she’s been invited by Georgetown University to present it in the context of a show of her work early next year.

Early in her marriage, Lederman’s guitarist husband, Perry, died, much too young. “His death boosted my courage to commit to what I felt was most important,” she says. “To use time well, ask for help and take calculated risks.”

As for her achievements, she says, “I’m grateful that I acted on some hunches when all I had was faith that something wonderful was about to happen.”

Editor’s Note Joan Lederman’s gallery is open by appointment, (508) 540-5237. To see more of her work, visit

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