Randy O’Brien: From Clay Slab to 3D, Vibrant Vessels

Writer Lisa Van Loo

Photography Courtesy of Thunderbird Artists 

Randy O’Brien’s tools may seem familiar: the doughy balls of clay, the spinning wheel, the sponges and the spray. They all fit in a potter’s studio.

But O’Brien—the featured artist at Thunderbird Artists Spring Carefree Fine Art and Wine Festival—is regularly taking a left turn where other potters may ordinarily play it straight.

Inside his Tucson studio, O’Brien relies on a process he developed over the course of 10 years to create otherworldly ceramics that, to the untrained, up-close eye, resemble tropical lava fields in the early stages of rebirth—or deep-sea discoveries known only to cold-blooded creatures looking for a safe haven in saltwater.

“I just set up all these dominoes, and everything falls into place,” he says.

O’Brien is one of 160 acclaimed artists who will be participating in Thunderbird Artists Spring Carefree Fine Art and Wine Festival, which will take place Feb. 28–March 1 in downtown Carefree.

In addition to the artists and their work, the three-day festival will also feature live music from violinist Teresa Joy, who will be performing daily throughout the event. She will be joined by her father—world-renowned flamenco guitarist Esteban—for special appearances. Premier contemporary jazz/funk group Afterglow is also scheduled to perform.

The festival will also feature an extensive collection of domestic and imported wines for tasting. For $10, patrons will receive an engraved souvenir wine glass with six tasting tickets, allowing them to stroll throughout the event, sipping samples while taking in the beautiful ambience of downtown Carefree.

The Magic of Mineral Formations and Lichens

O’Brien’s unique style, which finishes with an explosion of vibrant color over a glazed ceramic vessel, found its origin in the 1980s. O’Brien was experimenting, trying different types of glaze and surface treatments, finding himself eager to push the limits of a crawl glaze further, to new depths.

He tried different application techniques, and played with unconventional minerals, trying to create a glaze that was different than what was traditionally used. He was looking to take the cracks that formed in the glaze—features he refers to as platelets—to the next level.

“I had the idea of making those platelets several inches, and thick, so they have some real depth and they’re not just a thin skin over the clay,” he says. “So, it’s a three-dimensional sculptural form over the clay.”

And, after a decade of tinkering and adjusting, that is what he achieved.

“I’ve taken it to a scale where no one else is,” he says.

O’Brien, who started his ceramics career as a student at the University of California at Berkeley, has found a groove with the cracked ceramic vessels that he’s made his calling card. And, in recent years, he’s found ways to add a powerful punch to his work by injecting each piece with vibrant colors or combinations of colors.

“I was looking at mineral formations and lichens and corals and nature, and they can often be quite bright. I wanted to introduce brilliant color to my work,” he says. “Twenty years ago, these pieces were much more earth-toned. I’ve gradually gotten them brighter and brighter to as bright as they possibly can be.”

By bright, he means lime green. Or a combination of orange and yellow that creates an almost neon effect. Or a burning red, that stands up against and out from the dark, cracked glaze below it in a striking way.

Experimenting with Envelope Vases

O’Brien spends about 90 days a year on the road, traveling to shows throughout the country, which is nothing to say of the time he spent in Malaysia as a high schooler—where, as an exchange student, he learned he was completely enthralled with ceramics.

Formal training immediately followed his return to the U.S., and he quickly began creating and selling his work in order to pay for school.

“It gave me an unrealistic vision of how easy life would be as a potter,” he says of his early success. “It gave me a perspective that I couldn’t fail; that it was certainly doable. Because of that, I never gave up.”

He eventually earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University, and chose to explore and learn in Alaska before settling in Arizona.

“In the beginning, I lived very frugally and I spent all of my time in the studio,” he says. “I was just in love with it and wanted to spend all my time in the studio. I was working 16 hours a day, seven days a week for the first 10 years, just scraping by. But it helped me develop the skills I have now.”

O’Brien is currently relying on those skills—and new ones he’s picked up along the way—to create a new type of envelope vase for which he’s quite smitten, both visually and tactically speaking. He expects to feature a number of the envelope-style vases during Thunderbird Artists Spring Carefree Fine Art and Wine Festival.

“Those are hard for me to keep in stock,” he says.

They involve an altered process, different from the wheel-thrown, more functional, vessels he has spent years creating in his studio. Because of their shape, different steps are required, as is a new level of focus from O’Brien as he’s creating.

“The wheel-thrown pieces, I can just do it with my eyes closed,” he says. “I don’t even have to think. It was kind of holding me back from making something that was completely original.”

But the envelope vases beg him to critically analyze his every move.

“They’re more technically challenging. And, they’re more visually interesting,” he says of the pieces. “I have to be completely aware and focused on what I’m doing so I don’t mess them up. It’s very challenging. When I put them in the kiln, I breathe a sigh of relief.”


Thunderbird Artists Carefree Fine Art and Wine Festival

Feb. 28–March 1 | 10 a.m.–5 p.m. | Downtown Carefree | 101 Easy Street, Carefree | $3; youth under 18 free; additional fee for wine tasting 


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