Under the Scope
MIA VAN ZElST
A special feature in many of Scope’s exhibits is the unique “horsehair” pottery created by Mia van Zelst. Actual hair from the tail or mane of a horse is used to create the patterns on the surface of these vessels.
Although Mia is skilled in many types of firing methods, she specializes in horsehair firing. She became interested in this technique after attending workshops on raku, smoke firing, and the application of horse hair to her pottery. Simple and elegant forms, smooth polished vessels, and unpredictable and interesting surfaces created by the horse hair became the focus of her work.
To obtain the very smooth and polished surface, Mia burnishes each piece. When her vessels are dry, they are coated with a very fine clay slip called terra sigillata. Two or three coats are applied to each vessel. When the terra sigillata is dry, Mia patiently polishes or burnishes each vessel by hand until it is completely smooth and shines! If you rub too hard, the pot breaks! If you don’t rub hard enough, there is no shine.
Mia then fires the polished vessels in an electric kiln to 1830F. In a second firing, the vessels are heated to about 1050F and then removed from the very hot kiln. Strands of horse hair are quickly applied to the hot clay surface of each pot. The horse hair strands leave a carbon trail and smoke shadows giving each pot a unique design. If the horse hair is not applied within 45 seconds of being taken out of the kiln, the horse hair will not leave the carbon pattern! Mia has experimented with other types of hair, including dog hair, finding that short dog hair leaves smaller star-shaped designs. After the hair is applied to the hot vessels, they are allowed to cool slowly. Because the clay is not fired to a very high temperature, these vessels do not hold liquid.
The exact origin of horsehair pottery is not known but the technique is believed to have been discovered centuries ago by the Native American Navajos. Legend is that a Pueblo woman potter discovered it when her long hair accidentally blew on a pot and made an impression on the hot surface of the clay. Liking the result, she experimented with other materials such as straw, pine needles, feathers and horse hair. The horsehair pottery technique still is widely used by the Navajos who commemorate the importance of horses to their life and culture through this pottery.
Born in Rotterdam, The Netherlands, Mia first studied pottery in Rotterdam and at the Hazelshorst School in Delft. She continued her studies after moving to the U.S. taking classes in ceramic design at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. She moved to Alexandria, VA in 1984 and became a juried member of Scope in 2003.
Torpedo Factory Art Center
105 N. Union St.
Ground Floor, Studio 19
Alexandria, Va 22314.
Spring 2021 Hours:
11:00 a.m. - 5:30 p.m. Thursday - Sunday
Check the Torpedo Factory website for any changes to the building open hours. www.torpedofactory.org/todays-hours/