Artist Spotlight: Kid at Heart

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With the energy and eagerness of a child, Mark Issenberg crafts unique, ash-glazed pottery full of charm and function.

by KATHRYNE SLATE MCDORMAN  |  photos by RANDY GRIDER

Every kid on earth loves playing in the dirt, but few find ways to make art out of it. Mark Issenberg, officially an adult for many of his 63 years but still possessing childlike enthusiasm, has found a way.

His prize-winning pottery has all the qualities of innocent abandon fused with finely honed artistry. His joy is palpable: “I love clay. I love feeling the clay, looking at clay, digging clay, exploring the mountain for more clay.”[s2If !is_user_logged_in()]

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[/s2If][s2If is_user_logged_in()]His fascination with shaping that clay was nurtured by two Florida high school art teachers and legendary folk artist Charles Counts. Issenberg met Counts in Miami at a workshop and, in 1968, followed him to Lookout Mountain to serve as his student and apprentice. “Of course I was left behind, supposedly ‘in charge’ of the studio,” he chuckles, whenever Counts needed time away to set up booths at the art shows offering his latest creations.

Issenberg remembers his delight especially at one such show that was adjacent to Counts’ land and studio. This show was one of the first clothesline outdoor art shows known by the charming moniker Plum Nelly. Stories abound about how this name came to be; most plausible is that a tidewater Virginia relative of Chattanooga artist Fannie Mennen, who originally owned the property, remarked that the land was “plum out of Tennessee and ‘nelly’ out of Georgia!” Every  October from 1947 to 1973, this show featured the best artists in the Lookout Mountain area, including Counts and his wife, Rubynelle, a weaver.

Although Issenberg returned to his native Florida to complete a college degree, work as a firefighter for 18 years and earn a captain’s rating in sailing, he never forgot the mountain or his passion for the potter’s art. Today, decades after the young apprentice was left at the shop, Issenberg operates Lookout Mountain Pottery on the property where the old art show was held and has built his home right at cliff ’s edge, using salvaged materials from an older home nearby.

He celebrates the legacy of the land he now calls home and admits that nostalgia played a part in buying it. “I had to get on a waiting list to buy the property,” he says. “We also wanted the view. I mean, why live on a mountain if you don’t have a view?”

Although only the stone chimneys of Mennen’s home and show site remain, its ghosts provide connection to and inspiration from the past. The closest town is Rising Fawn, Ga., a name Issenberg and I agree is about the most beautiful title one could imagine for a community.

Issenberg’s pottery, like its creator, is full of energy and wit, and, as he describes it, features “ever-evolving forms.” Not content to produce only standard shapes, Issenberg ventures into asymmetrical and whimsical pieces, bending and pocking the surface of the clay to reflect natural rhythms and space. His earthenware  towers stand in groups along his driveway as modern totems, some with onion-shaped domes and others resembling artistically stacked and twisted stones. Inside the studio, one large bowl called the Lizzella texture bowl combines turned-on-the-wheel technique with a hand-shaped rough lip and feet. Its interior  surface suggests a pebble-strewn pond bottom. He also creates face jugs, widely known in Appalachian folk art, especially in Georgia. Folk historians believe they were used to store homemade whiskey in past centuries; their frightening visages were intended to keep children away.

Smoother, wheel-thrown items such as pitchers, mugs, bowls of all sizes, casserole dishes with covers, tea kettles and vases are gracefully shaped and glazed with Issenberg’s famous ash glaze, which varies in effect from one piece to another. Pieces are fired in one of his four kilns. The look of each finished piece and the way the glaze sets or runs in the 2,250 F heat is deter mined by the type of kiln – wood, gas or electric. The object is to bring out the colors of nature, from  robin’s egg blue to harvest tones, and use them to complement human art.

Issenberg unabashedly embraces utility in his pottery. He says it is a “true compliment” when his platters and bowls are used, even if they are occasionally broken. “I don’t make dust collectors,” he says.

As I watch, he takes blobs of clay from a bucket, places them on the wheel and in minutes beautifully renders a handsome, sturdy cup with a comfortable handle and a thumb rest that he takes great pride in shaping. The mug, smoothed by hands, board and sponge, is cut from its base with a wire cutter and placed on a rack to dry a full day before being fired. These hearty mugs are suitable for the stout coffee he and Nona Martini, his wife, prefer. They are both connoisseurs of fine coffee beans and regard drinking such a rich brew in a lesser vessel a violation. Sampling his fine coffee, I must agree.

In addition to creating pottery, Issenberg, along with Nona, grows all manner of plants that are both decorative and edible. His green house is filled with plants as varied in shape and sensitivity as orchids, succulents and bromeliads, but pride of place is given to the bonsai plants he propagates and nurtures. He is most proud of his bonsai Jabily and Socatra trees, native to Madagascar. “How cool is that?” he asks.

Issenberg believes his gardening informs his pottery, especially his bonsai planters. “I know what the plants need: elevation and drainage,” he says.

Somehow it seems appropriate that he shapes not only the earth into pots,but also transforms plants growing in those pots into artistic pieces. He might sell some of his bonsai, if asked. Nona cultivates most of the outside gardens, filling them with flowers and vegetables. Her brother built the chicken coop, which features a stained glass window.

There is a magic about visiting Lookout Mountain Pottery. Indeed one friend has described Issenberg as a gray-bearded, practical wizard, and I found that to be true. As an artist, he embraces the mystery of what may emerge from the kiln at any firing. He has compared it to opening gifts on Christmas morning – a delightful surprise. One can buy Mark Issenberg’s pottery elsewhere, but a trip to his studio and its historic location is a special treat. The entrance is marked by an old pickup truck and various agricultural and artistic accoutrements. The gallery operates on an honor system, so when Issenberg is not there, one can pick out a piece and leave money in a jar…a kind of trust no longer found in most businesses.

In spending time with Issenberg, I notice that his favorite word is “totally!” This is fitting for an artist who radiates kinetic energy and an all encompassing love for his art. He is a gracious host to visitors, opening his studio and gardens to those who seek his art. Upon leaving the studio we wound through woods to find the highway to Trenton. There was a driving rain as we peered ahead, looking for familiar landmarks. Then suddenly a mama deer and her fawn appeared through the fog and ran across the road right in front of us. As we reached the highway, the sun broke through the clouds and a rainbow formed over Cloudland State Park –where, incidentally, Mark Issenberg’s work is also for sale.

As if that were not enough beauty, as we descended into Trenton and wound around the steep hairpin curves, the setting sun picked up the golden-red glow of leaves and pine needles carpeting the woods. The old mountain was bathed in warm light as if to affirm that earth arts are a natural part of its long life. The ephemeral presence of the little fawn and the rising rainbow remind us of the fragility and beauty of that art.

To learn more about Mark Issenberg and Lookout Mountain Pottery, visit lookoutmountainpottery.com.

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