From a quiet studio in Quakertown, Maxwell Mustardo makes ceramic art that has people talking

"I get really frustrated with work and writing that's cut off from people. I try to make things accessible to everybody as much as possible. Not everybody's gonna be like, ‘Oh my god, Peter Voulkos bottle forms.’"

Maxwell Mustardo wants to make glass wrinkle. Well, he’s done it already. Kind of. A blue pot Mustardo fired is undeniably wrinkled on the underside curve. But it’s certainly not enough wrinkles. No way. 

It’s a new challenge for the young ceramist who’s already made an imprint in the art world; a checkpoint in the “endless rabbit hole” that is ceramics. It only took about 500 tries.

“I basically spent six months working on this with no results a year or two ago. And now I’m finally getting back to it, and I’m feeling pretty dedicated,” Mustardo says. “At this point I’m totally jaded; I was kind of just like, ‘It’s never gonna work out.’ But when something like that happens, I’m like, ‘Oh wow.’”

The success of the blue pot has Mustardo rededicated to the pursuit. He very quickly deflects when asked if he’s pioneering this technique, visibly pained by such grandiosity, and quickly pointing out that at least one other ceramist did it once.

We leave the blue object and walk into the basement studio at the Takaezu Studio in Quakertown, where dozens of Mustardo’s ceramics rest in various states of construction. Maxwell picks up an elephant, tiny and white with an elongated trunk; a beautiful little thing he did not create. That’d be Toshiko Takaezu, the celebrated Japanese-American ceramist who worked and lived in the studio from 1975 until her death in 2011. Her work was exhibited around the world, she earned honorary doctorates from a half-dozen universities, including Princeton, and whose work was the subject of several books.

Mustardo puts the elephant back on the shelf alongside a dozen other “little chotchkies” Takaezu and her apprentices created over the years—there are so many little gems like this that it’s hard to know what to do with them. Though Takaezu’s fingerprints, and her art, are all over the studio and the surrounding grounds, the basement workspace is now Mustardo’s domain. In the corner are anthropomorphized ceramic pots the size of a child. Mustardo works mostly in solitude here, but he jokes that it feels as if his creations sometimes keep him company.

The studio is a comfortable, familiar place for Mustardo; somewhat of a home. He grew up near the studio in Quakertown, a sleepy collection of buildings—housing a gravestone engraver, a school, a post office. It’s a stretch to call it a town, even by New Jersey standards. When he became interested in ceramics in high school, he started coming to Takaezu to create pieces. He eventually graduated from the New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University in 2017, and has gone on to win multiple awards for his work, which ranges from brightly colored amphorae to bulbous, billowing stacks, doughnut-shaped ceramic toroids, mugs, pitchers and more.

And, in short, his work is blowing up. Mustardo recently opened a solo exhibition in Stockholm; his work is on display at Culture Object in New York City; there are plans for an opening in Mexico City. You can also see his work at the Hunterdon Art Museum, or at an open house on June 18 at the Takaezu Studio celebrating the titular artist’s would-be 100th birthday.

Mustardo is still figuring out how to process the success he’s earned from his artwork.

“Having any success whatsoever, let alone what’s happened in the last year or even the last month has been totally crazy. And, I don’t know, I haven’t haven’t figured it out yet. I haven’t processed it,” Mustardo says.

In our conversation, we talked more about how he might process his success, but also attending Quaker boarding school and getting punched in the face at a clay convention; less sensationally, we hit on his creative process, originality, and navigating the art world.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What’s Quaker boarding school like?

Oh, it was lovely. I have to [admit], I ended up getting kicked out. But it was a pretty good place. You know, those Quakers, they’re alright.

Wow. Why’d you get kicked out?

Moral bankruptcy. Ah, you know, drugs, I guess. Pot and so forth.

Well, you’re an artist.

Yeah, exactly. I went to Alfred University the following year, and I had gotten accepted and I told them, “You know, I got expelled from high school.” And they’re like, “Did you feel like you had to tell us that?”

[We’re looking at half-constructed gray bulbous stacks.] So this is the structure of what you create. What material is this? 

These are all clay. So using two different kinds of clay, this gray stuff is really sandy. And then the sort of tan beige stuff next to it has really big chunks of grit. Like beefy bits of sand, kinda like a brick clay body, I guess.

So the consistency of the clay matters to you. Is it just playing around with a bunch of different materials to find out what you like?

Definitely. A lot of the work in the [Hunterdon Art Museum show] is coated in fluorescent plastics and stuff. But the clay body is pretty important. Like some of those fuzzy pieces … basically I take the grit that’s in here and I take a sponge when it’s all done and I pull that grit to the surface. So it’s like this pebbly sort of nodule-y surface. And then the plastic that I spray on it builds on the topography and creates those little nodes and fuzzy patches.

How does an amorphous stack come to be? Do you have an idea of what you want it to look like or is it all born out of the creation process?

Some of my work is personal forms, like the toroids, which are those donut type things. There are the amphorae, which are historical references. These sort of more lumpy ones … I’m copying this modern potter Peter Voulkos’ forms, these stacks as he called them. And he was really famous for abstract expressionist ceramics. He was this big, macho dude, like, shirtless and grunting, and, like, doing cocaine and being an alcoholic, you know, throwing 200 pounds of clay on the wheel. And he’s big and brash, like, stabbing these pots and cutting holes in them and stuff. His work is really romantic, from what I can tell, as a ceramicist looking at it, it’s just amazing, like letting clay do what it wants to. Clay withstands pressure really well. It’s built for pressure, not tension. It loves to crack; it’s earthy and dusty and everything. So I tried to channel some of that romantic sensual energy, and make all of his hard edge, violent stuff into soft and sensual [objects].

With some of those objects, you look at it and as just an observer who doesn’t know a lot about art, but is drawn to this item, you see things that you naturally pull from your own life. You see a donut, you see an apple, you see a moldy peach, you see reptiles. When you create something, you’re not thinking, ‘I’m gonna create this specific object,’ but do you see it at the end of it?

Salman Rushdie is one of my favorite authors. I love that sort of maximalist frame where, you know, something could be anything. So, I don’t think about that particularly, but I love that. And having the broadest possible appeal is definitely important, because going to art school and whatnot, and I also got an art history degree, I get really frustrated with work and writing that’s cut off from people. Like, so much eye-rolling these days about the art world. I try to make things accessible to everybody as much as possible. Not everybody’s gonna be like, ‘Oh my god, Peter Voulkos bottle forms.’ Like, that’s cool, but they’ll get something else out of it. 

Art has been either a passion of yours, or you found a facility for it early on in life?

My parents are involved in the art world. They’re not artists per se, but they’re fine art photograph conservators.

What is that? 

Well, so like a $3 million photograph at The Met gets stabbed with a pencil or the glass breaks or light damage or something… they’re involved in fixing those issues.

That’s a pretty big job.

It’s pretty cool. My mom recently became the head of photograph conservation at The Met, and my dad runs his own private practice in Milford. So as a kid, I was schlepped around to museums all the time. I went to The Met hundreds of times basically. 

Just as a human being, being in a peculiar world—the art world—and making a career of it, are there things that frustrate you about it or that you love about it? Anything surprising that you weren’t necessarily anticipating? Your parents are in it, so you knew a little bit of it going into it.

I like the angle that they introduced me to the art world, which isn’t like, “You’re an artist and artists can do whatever,” and so forth. But they’re involved in art business, basically, which is a huge side of the art world that not many people have access to. Nobody even talks about conservation in art school. But whether these things have archival qualities,  for the next 20 years or 100 years, whatever, is pretty important. 

Things that have surprised me; for one, until five minutes ago I basically was completely broke and never made any money from my work. But suddenly things were selling, which is totally crazy. Like one of those pieces from the show just got put on hold for [very famous R&B artist, name redacted for privacy].

Holy shit.

Yesterday. Yeah. Which is like, what the…?


I don’t know, stuff like that has been happening with increasing frequency, which is very startling. So, never would’ve expected that to happen. Let alone right now.

Do you concern yourself when you’re making things that you want people to like them and to buy them? 

That’s definitely one thing that I did sort of angle for in school. I did some installations, just stuff you put in a gallery and then it collapses into nothing, and you put it in the dumpster afterwards. And I realized that was untenable. In order to be able to keep doing that, you have to have something that can sell from that. So I am product-oriented for sure, which is good as far as making a sustainable practice. I know a lot of artists who have a day job and then they do their art and make no money from it. But I just have to do this all the time. I enjoy it too much. And yeah, I’m amazed. It’s, like, kind of working out. So, so far, so good.

You mentioned that one of your intentions is to create a softer version of Voulkos’ sculptures. Do you concern yourself with originality at all? I mean, do you have to be the first person to do something or is it all just a conversation?

There are definitely lines. Rauschenberg or Jasper Johns, or whoever had that thing about like, ‘After 40 years, go for it. It doesn’t matter. Like, do whatever.’ And I do agree with that. I don’t think you should copy people who are making fresh work; you can’t just cannibalize that stuff. But there’s some things like copying these amphorae; it’s a historical form, it’s a ceramic archetype. And I kind of feel the same way about Voulkos’ stacks. Like he’s a titan of 20th century ceramic art. And I see so many people copying contemporary gloopy glaze artists, I’m kind of like, if you guys are just gonna blatantly copy him, I don’t know, I can do a sort of tongue-in-cheek copy of this other guy. This project is kind of combining a couple people like Ken Price and Chris Gustin and Peter Voulkos. So in copying multiple people, you’re kind of not copying any of them, in a circuitous way. I guess it’s maybe quoting, or something like that. Quoting more than copying.

I didn’t mean to imply that you’re copying anyone.

No, it’s totally relevant. Because I’m calling them by his titles. … It’s also very interesting, you know, he was making bottle sculptures, which sounds like an Onion article: “Alcoholic man makes sculptures of bottles.”

Well, you made the shot glasses. What materials were those and what was the creation process for how those came out? Because, again, you can pull away a whole bunch of different associations and meanings from them.

So they’re porcelain with glaze, like somewhere between clay and glaze that I can build with, sort of like wet sand that kind of piles up, slops on. So you can slowly build up those tendrils. I was sort of forced into doing that because I got punched in the head at this clay conference and my retina tore in half and detached and I had to get surgery. I’ve since had three. But for like a month I couldn’t lift anything more than five, 10 pounds. And my eye was inflated with a gas bubble that was pressing up against the tear. So I had to keep my head straight down the entire time and not lift anything. So I was like, “Ah, I gotta work.” So I made these really tiny things; I’d never worked that small with that much intensity or anything. So for that month, I figured out how to build with glazes and make tiny things.

So it was born out of your necessity to create, but also the constraints that you had; all good art is born out of constraints and necessity.

Definitely. I certainly would not have made those otherwise. And then I tried to scale them up the following year; I got a lot of hand cramps. It’s a really tedious process.

How did you get punched in the head at a clay conference?

Defending this lady’s honor, some stranger I’d never met. We spent the whole night buying each other whiskeys and stuff. And then at the end of the night, these two guys who had been real jerks came up; they were just stupid, I guess, not real jerks, but they became real jerks and got in her face, she got in theirs. Then I stepped in between them and was like, “You guys should leave.” And the one guy punched me and then the bouncers came and just murdered them. And we left. It was all very quick, then like five days later, I just like, “Ooh,” and went completely blind in that eye over the course of like 18 hours. That was very alarming.

Do art functions like that typically get wild?

Oh yeah, yeah. That’s misleading of me. I have to admit, it wasn’t at the clay conference, it was just we were in town for the clay conference. There’s a bar. I do like that angle there, people are like, “Holy shit man, these ceramic conferences are crazy.”

It’s a great image. So, how much do you go with the process of creation versus what you have in your head? Like, if you make a mistake do you… and I don’t know if you make mistakes, you might not.

Of course. … Well, so the amphorae are very symmetrical, orderly. They’re very logical. These [stacks] are much more freeform; kind of like anything goes and, compositionally, if I make something that looks really awkward down here, like one side folds out and  cantilevers out in a weird way, I can balance that out later by having another element that finds some harmony. So these are really fun. 

The Takaezu Studio.

If you have an idea that pops into your head for something not in one of these forms, do you put it on hold? Do you ever just end projects because you’re ready to move on to the next challenge or form?

Definitely. And sometimes, like… I made a ton of these stacks. I spent a month making these stacks and I was like, “Oh my god, I don’t know if anybody’s gonna like these.” I had a lot of fun, but now, you know, I have 20 of them. I need to stop otherwise I’m gonna have a house full of these really fun stacks that nobody likes but now [very famous R&B artist’s] got one, so I’m like, “OK, I’ll make some more.”

Some things flash past and I’m like, “Oh, that’s a great idea,” and then I get swallowed up with other things. I wanna make these tulipieres, these 17th-century Dutch tower vases that are stacked modularly, like box vases for tulips. And they’re really decadent and awesome. And I’ve been trying to figure out how to make some 10-foot-tall pieces. So I’m gonna make these 10-foot-tall, modular tulip vases that I’m super excited about. That was a vague idea I had a year ago where I was like, “Oh, tulipieres. That’d be great,” but I totally forgot about it until now. Now that I don’t have impending deadlines, I get to do some experiments and fail and fuck up and do new projects

The idea to build on other traditions or other work, does that come from your own studies in art history, from your parents’ work, from your own ongoing research?

I’ve always been interested in what people were up to in days past. So now channeling that is actually pretty important. Looking to the past and revamping some things, redesigning things… it’s slowly becoming clear that that’s foundational to what I do. 

When you say historical quoting, does that come from a variety of sources, photographs, other artwork?

It’s on a case-by-case basis. The amphorae are specifically quoting Roman amphorae as opposed to the Greek ones. So, if you’re familiar with the Roman amphorae or the Greek amphorae, they’re symmetrical and beautiful and have really lovely proportions and so forth. But the Roman ones, basically they invented glassblowing or got it from Egypt and the Middle East. And glass became the luxury material as opposed to ceramics, and ceramics became relegated to the huge commercial operations. So, they’d make thousands and thousands of these for storing oil and wine and shipping around town. And they became really sloppy and rough, you know, the handles were just squished on and they just seemed way more human and personable and charming; rather than the pictorial, Greek ones. So I wanted to sort of channel that figurative energy, the sort of awkwardness and so forth into those forms.

I thought I read somewhere that you were interested in integrating more functionality into your work. Is that still the case, and what does that look like in a piece like these stacks and amphorae?

So these are functional, you know.

You could put wine in there if you wanted to.

Sometimes you have to really want to use it, but having function, at least in the room— you know, not that it has to be used—but that it can be used, and it’s certainly referencing a functional form. On one hand I’ve been working with Culture Object in New York City, that’s a luxury design place. And it’s actually pretty crazy seeing some of these in use with the interior designers. … Working with Damon [Crain], he really encourages functionality is relevance, more or less. Like painting and so forth can be trendy and things will change, but you know, a vase is a vase. Things really haven’t changed that much like stylistically; things evolve, but function is relevance and grounding.

Granted that you’ve been a lot of places—and I don’t know how much you’ve created the places that you’ve been around the country, around the world—does the place that you’re at change your mindset, which then changes what you create?

Definitely. I mean, one is just availability of space in the studio and storage. When I was living in Houston I had like a tiny apartment and tiny studio space. So all the work is very small. Here, there’s tons of studio space. … Conceptually I tend to be pretty myopic and inward-looking or something like that. There are some exceptions; I did a residency in Rome in the fall and really tried to respond to a lot of the historic ceramics that I was seeing there.

Are you surprised by your success at all? Because you’re a young dude. Are you surprised at how quickly your work has caught on and resonated with people?

Yes. Entirely. I feel incredibly lucky for many reasons, like having access to a studio like this I know is not a normal thing, that’s for sure. So trying to really take advantage of the affordances given and so forth. 

For more of Mustardo’s work, go here. For more information on the Takaezu Studio and the June 18 open house, go here. Mustardo’s work is on display at the Hunterdon Art Museum in Clinton until Sept. 4.