In a world of machine manufactured ceramics, Hand & Fire is a breath of fresh air. Sage Cortez, maker of Hand & Fire, is inspired by the philosophies of minimalism, Wabi-Sabi and the raw beauty of used goods.
1. Tell us a little bit about yourself.
My name is Sage Cortez. I’m a maker of objects—-ceramics and otherwise. I now live and work in a tiny town of 800 people in NorthEast Oregon, where the sun is bright, the air is dry and often snowy, and there are mountains that come up high from the ground. I moved here in December of 2020 from the rainy PNW, where my partner, Joshua and I spent our last 4 years building up our separate businesses. I own and operate Hand + Fire, which has morphed from a very small operation where I sold my own ceramics online, to a much larger scale of work that now includes objects made from wood, linen, varied metals, etc, all created by myself and/or a small selection of other makers who are very important to me.
I have a dog named Chai, who I spend practically every minute with.
I enjoy taking walks alone, picking up inspiring rocks, and going on drives down gravel roads on the side of cliffs with Joshua.
2. What got you interested in ceramics, when did you start making pottery?
I’ve made ceramics for a long time. Starting as a small child for fun, leaving it behind for many years, and then picking it up with great enthusiasm in college.
I never intended to be a potter though, I sincerely thought I’d only ever want to make sculptures and figurative work. But, of course that isn’t the case. I had a very inspiring teacher in school who convinced me (practically forced me) to give a go to functional work — and here we are.
3. What inspires your work and why?
A great many things. But most of all, landscape. Specifically, the one I now live in in Wallowa County.
I’m endlessly fascinated by the textures and colors of our ever-changing surroundings. I moved to this little town so I could admire it more closely and with dedication.
The way the land curves into high hills, creases with etched boundaries and vertical structures, and flattens suddenly intrigues me to no end. My work is often an observation of these natural and man-made landscapes.
4. What do you hope to inspire in others with your ceramics?
I hope to inspire an appreciation for everyday objects. To amplify and encourage the long term enjoyment in the use of a handmade object. I hope for people to find beauty in the texture and the differences and the purpose. And, for that object to have a life long after it leaves a potter's hands, serving whoever it comes across.
I hope the object and the person share a life—sending it with their families, enjoying a coffee in it, or chipping the rim during a good storytelling event.
5. What is a typical day like for you?
Since moving to a very small rural town on the Northeastern tip of Oregon, my days are a bit slower and more situational than they were in the past. A “typical day” is hard to pin down, so here’s a general idea of how many of my days go:
I wake up around 7 in the morning, make myself an espresso, water my garden, feed the animals, and sit in the sun or front room (depending on the weather) while I think over the day's tasks. Often there’s something needing built, or maintenanced, but most frequently there are many projects going on in the studio.
So I’ll put on my apron, walk across our property to my new-to-me studio, open the sliding barn doors, and start whatever tasks are necessary.
If it’s chilly out, a fire is started in the cast iron stove. If really cold (sometimes it gets into the single digits), I’ll run the gas heater, which sounds quite a lot like a jet taking off—so I try to avoid running it unless absolutely necessary.
When pottery is in the works, the first task is to bring out any green (still wet) pots from the insulated storeroom. Where I live now, many nights and days, winter and spring, fall below freezing. The studio isn’t currently equipped to handle the extreme transitions in temperature, so all clays and glazes and slips have to be kept in the small insulated space to avoid hardening into a cube of muddy ice. I’ll then pull out all of my tools, get water from the well-pump, and get working.
My duties include handbuilding and throwing forms, trimming leather-hard pots, slip and finishing work, loading the kiln, bisque firing, glazing, glaze firing, sanding, waxing, washing, and so on.
Lately, because the studio is unfinished, there have been a lot of construction projects, as well. Sometimes I split my day into sections—-starting with clay and, while pieces firm up, I’ll paint or install siding or build a shelf.
In the evening, after work is to a finishing point (or I’m tired enough to crawl under a table to nap, I’ll head back into the house to enjoy a dinner prepared by my partner, Joshua. Sometimes, we go out to the local tavern for a drink and a chat with other folks in town.
While things change from day to day, the most common thing throughout is enjoyable and rewarding physical labor.
6. What’s your process for creating your pieces?
Someone once told me I approach everything from making in clay to having a conversation in a very similar way — first roughing it out and then working my way back in and refining the details.
I think that’s pretty true.
I don’t very often sketch or plan out new work. Mostly, I start with the material, “sketching” several objects in clay, hoping to find a shape that feels aesthetically and functionally worthwhile.
7. Tell us a bit about the special techniques you use, and why you use them.
I use a variety of traditional clay working techniques and methods to create my work. Always, I have my own take on these techniques, but the practices come from methods passed down from potter to potter,
Most frequently my pots are made from a method of clay-working called “slab building”. A flat sheet of clay is rolled out by hand or by using a slab-roller, it is then smoothed and pressed to align platelets in the clay to assure strength, and then cut into the pattern of the desired object. Once cut, the slab of clay can be rolled, folded, draped, and so on, to create a functional object.
While I very much enjoy throwing on the wheel, the process of slab building is my favorite due to its versatility. When given a sheet of clay, you can start with any shape you like—building a pattern to create an object with or without symmetry, harsh angles, or engrained textures. There’s no force providing motion or mandatory roundness but your two hands and the clays intrinsic tendencies to slump and stretch. I enjoy the openness in shape and the time it takes to achieve.
This term refers to the process of hollowing a solid block of clay into a functional object. This method is one that requires time and meditative action, as it takes careful consideration and patience for the object to reveal itself from the clay. The final form is a collaboration between artist + material. It requires both skill and sensitivity to allow the clay a choice in what it becomes. The entire process demands that the maker slow down to enjoy a moment with the material.
When finishing pots I lean towards textural and organic surfaces with stark contrasts and unforced patterning. Slip has a way of lending a hand to these aesthetics in a very sensitive way.
I have a selection of methods I use when finishing a pot with slip, I’ll outline my two most common.
The first, is hakeme—-an age old technique of applying slips with heavily bristled brushes and/or creating obviously brush-applied markings to the surface of pottery. This method can create freely formed and organic patterns or precisely applied, yet sporadic markings.
Next is a more haphazard application, where I rub on layer after layer of slip to the exterior of a pot using my hands. It results in an almost opaque, irregular surface which I use to etch into with pine needle brushes or serrated tools to expose the deep browns of the clay from underneath. Once fired to bisque (just before glazing), I sand the exterior thoroughly to give it an eggshell-like quality to the hand and eye.
8. If you weren’t doing this what would you be doing?
I would probably still be working at the same little cafe I waitressed at for 5 years, or maybe I would have pursued my other idea of becoming an archeologist.
9. How does sustainability fit into the work that you do?
I wish to promote sustainability by creating from quality and responsibly sourced materials, objects that will last for their owners. Not only longevity-wise, but also functionally and aesthetically speaking. I desire for my work to outlive “trends” and continue to be a valuable tool in one's everyday life, hopefully helping to eliminate single-use products.
If a mug made from locally sourced clay, the purchase of which supports a small business, is used and enjoyed until the moment it’s dropped, then we live in a little better world than one where a plastic bottle would take its place.
As for the rest of my business, with Hand + Fire I work to be as environmentally friendly as I can within reason (and location). The wood used to create boards and furniture are sourced from local shops providing lumber from downed or unhealthy trees. Our fabric products are dyed with naturally sourced botanicals: either grown, foraged, or using parts of veggies/weeds that are usually wasted. The jewelry is often made from metals typically overlooked, and adorned with handpicked + natural objects.
I try to be realistic with my goals, using paper in place of bubble wrap where I can, bio-corn packing peanuts instead of foam, and reusing any boxes or plastics that come my way. Sometimes it isn’t possible to completely eliminate certain usages of widely available products, but as long as we do so where we can, we’re making a step in the right direction.
I feel it’s the smallest thing I can do as a business owner + individual to help our environment. If this potentially affects others in some small way and encourages them to do the same, we’re on our way to a more sustainably run system.
10. Where do you hope to see yourself and your work in 10 years?
Continuing to make and live a creative life.
I’d love to have a couple of makers/creatives working with me in the studio. I want to build out a couple of solar powered primitive cabins for residents. And I want my studio to be 100% insulated. Ha!
10 years ago, I had no idea I would be where I am: so I just hope it’s happy, healthy, and making.