Ian McDonald started making ceramics when he was 17, and never looked back. Growing up in California’s Laguna Beach, a town that was founded as an artist’s colony, it never occurred to McDonald, now 40, to do anything else. His school mascot, The Artist (complete with a brush, palette and beret), captured the spirit of the place – even his star-athlete older brothers took art classes. 

Mesmerised by the ceramic projects they brought home, McDonald began taking courses where his teacher, a professional artist, demonstrated that pottery could be both a craft and career. ‘I’ve always thought about ceramics as something that will last forever,’ he says. ‘That’s part of the reason I keep coming back to it: you’re creating a strange kind of document that is going to exist in the world.’

Keen to explore clay’s full potential, McDonald apprenticed local potters as a teen, before turning to freeform sculpture and mobile-like mixed-media installations, often comprising ceramic objects strategically placed on or hung from a wood shelf. McDonald’s 2013 show, ‘Parts and Pottery’, at San Francisco’s Rena Bransten Gallery, signalled a return to his traditional training, hybridised with his most recent work. The visually complex, architectural ceramics on view – akin to parts of a fantastical steampunk machine – were each thrown on the potter’s wheel in pieces and then assembled to form a single vessel.

McDonald continues to experiment with these shapes in ‘Index, Thumb, Thumb, Index’, a presentation of some 30 works at Patrick Parrish that marks the artist’s first solo exhibition in New York. ‘The title refers to making a frame with your hands,’ he explains. ‘I make this vocabulary of forms, and improvise within that frame.’ Select works consist of clay objects arranged on custom powder-coated steel trays, while others stand on their own. The ceramics follow the same making process as those in ‘Parts and Pottery’, with a few twists: some were extruded, then chopped up and re-assembled; others feature asymmetrical appendages that were sliced off of another piece. ‘I see them as constructed objects,’ McDonald says. ‘Even though they’re thrown at the wheel in parts, they are also built later on. The pots themselves are constructed.’

Each shape begins as a sketch in McDonald’s notebook, usually drawn in profile. In order for the parts to fit together (a single object may be formed from as many as ten pieces), they need to be measured. McDonald uses a caliper (the tool used by surgeons to evaluate skulls) to ensure each piece ends at a certain width so it will fit into its place in the shape. He then pieces them together, covers the object in glaze and places it in a gas kiln, where it is heated using reduction firing, a method that reduces the amount of oxygen inside. The process produces a molecular change in the glaze and clay, creating rich variations in the object’s colour and texture – ‘not a toilet-bowl industrial surface’, McDonald explains.

The forms themselves are derived from lamp shades, umbrellas and McDonald’s own musings on pottery, where practitioners often conceive objects in vertical proportions. ‘I’ve been thinking about making things that are low,’ he says. ‘Some pieces in the show are only five inches off the ground, hovering like a Roomba. Part of it is about combining those two forms, where a vertical piece has a lower one that comes across it.’ Other shapes are informed by architecture, where a tall central core is cut with tiered discs for dimension. The ceramics and steel trays were manufactured in Eugene, Oregon, where McDonald currently resides.

While every exhibition is an opportunity to learn, this exercise has taught McDonald to embrace his roots as a studio ceramicist – a title he would have rejected a decade ago. ‘This show has deepened my understanding that this is what I really am,’ he says. ‘Ideas are born in the studio, and come from the process of making things there.’