Someday, Casey Zablocki wants to build a room's worth of ceramics, from the tables to the chairs to the end tables to the couches.
He's made most of those furnishings individually. At his shared studio in the Rattlesnake Valley, a recently completed chair, made entirely from clay, rests on a small palette and concrete blocks. Weighing 300 to 400 pounds, it resembles a weathered stone ruin from an ancient culture that somehow predicted the stern concrete designs of 1960s Brutalist architecture. In some spaces on the front and back of the chair, he's crafted rough, exposed sections that imitate the deterioration you'd see in an object hundreds of years old.
A small end table likewise appears to be cut from stone. Large jars are textured with sometimes rough, organic surfaces and flowing, melted glaze from the high temperatures of a wood kiln.
He likes the ambiguity when you first see his work. Maybe it was buried in the earth for years. Perhaps it pulled up from a shipwreck. Maybe that sake cup is a relic from Japan or Korea.
The ambiguity probably comes from the broad list of things that inspire aspects of his work.
"I'm not afraid to take influence from anything," the 35-year-old said recently.
That could be artists or the landscape.
"You see a lot of Montana in my work, the places I've lived," he said. The mountains and the way that glaciers and water carve and shape the rock. Or the Southwest desert and rocks carved or blackened by sand. Or the Victorian-style homes in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan where he grew up.
Ceramics runs in his family: His uncle was an artist and teacher. He and his brother both studied it in college, and his cousin is finishing a master's degree in it.
Along the way, he's picked up ideas from artists like metal sculptor Richard Serra, Missoula furniture designer Ty Best, the abstract expressionist painter Franz Kline, or the South Korean ceramicist Lee Hun Chung.
All of Zablocki's recently completed work is bound for New York City, where it will be displayed and sold at Roman & Williams Guild. R&W is a high-end interior design firm and Guild is its new storefront, which has a display space, restaurant and bookstore.
Guild, which opened last December, quickly was featured in Architectural Digest magazine. The article was accompanied by photographs of interiors with one of Zablocki's chairs. Other photographs spotlighted his cups and jars.
Wallpaper magazine wrote, "From La Soufflerie glassware and painted stoneware by Andrew Mcgarva to Finnish reindeer fur hides and sculptures by the Montana-based artist Casey Zablocki, this trove of treasures is every design buff’s (and magpie’s) fantasy."
The firm recruited him to sell his work exclusively through Guild, meaning he can't sell his work around Missoula, where he's lived since 2013.
He came to Montana to work at the Clay Studio of Missoula. As part of a two-year wood-kiln residency, he taught classes and oversaw the firing of its Anagama kiln out in the Big Flat area.
Firing a wood kiln is an undertaking, lasting eight to 10 days and requiring a large group of people to keep the fire going through the night. Among the rewards are the unique textures when pots are exposed to temperatures above 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Ash from the wood marks the pots in sometimes unpredictable ways and glazes melt and run down the side of the pots.
He makes his own clay bodies, modeled after ones from Japan. He's tweaked them over the course of years, so that the surface finish resembles melted glass with deliberate cracking so they look aged.
Going into a firing, he said "there's always an element of surprise, and I enjoy that. I don't want to get bored," he said.
During his residency, Best hired Zablocki to make some ceramic furniture pieces for his company, Caste Design. Best, a Montana native, sells his furniture pieces around the world, some of it built in one of his workshops here in Missoula.
"He's an amazing, driven, hard-working person," Zablocki said. Taking what he learned from Best, Zablocki began experimenting with all-ceramic furniture. The centerpiece of his last show before leaving the Clay Studio in 2015 was his first chair.
Zablocki did his post-baccalaureate study at Montana State University, where ceramicist Josh DeWeese heads the program. DeWeese helped line up Zablocki a monthslong gig as a studio assistant for Lee Hun Chung, a South Korean ceramic artist. Chung, who Zablocki called "an amazing designer," makes furniture and apprenticed Zablocki in the art.
"I came back from Korea with all this energy to build my own work," he said. He made a table long enough to seat six people at matching black-ceramic stools. The ends of the table were large ceramic pieces and the tabletop itself was wood, like a butcher's block. Le Petit Outre displayed it in December 2016.
Guild contacted him and began discussing items they wanted for the storefront, including his sculptures, cubist forms with strong lines either curving or sharp, plus furniture and chairs.
Zablocki said pieces conjure a certain feeling when they're scaled up in size, "taking some command" when you walk into a room.
You might not realize the chairs, which weigh upward of 300 pounds, are hollow unless give one a light tap and hear a light reverberation.
They're constructed from flattened slabs of a clay body he mixes himself that's intended to bear extra weight. His design for the interior has structural supports; the parts of the exterior where it appears damaged come courtesy of bricks and other tools.
"I'm quite destructive with it," he said. He adds clay and takes it away or carves it up, loosely following the small-scale models he makes in advance. Stark, smooth sections are balanced by the cratered ones.
For Guild, he built a new type of furniture, a bench that measures three feet in length and a foot and a half in height. It has a diamond-quilted texture that he said was complicated to create — creating the indentations for the lines risks cracking.
The high heat of wood firing is rough on ceramics. The chair sat in coal beds for five or six days, resulting in the heavy surfaces. The quilted bench has a blackened coloring in some sections.
"I need to have change and growth," he said. "I want my work to keep on growing; I don't want to just be stagnant the whole time."
He likes to place his pieces down in the firebox to get some of those effects, which is risky despite the precautions he takes. It could break, an outcome that he's abnormally blase about.
"When ceramics break, it makes more room for growth," he said. "I've lost a lot of work in my life, and you can either dwell on it or get over it and go forth and forget about it."
He once built a pot so tall he could fit inside of it. After transporting it in the back of a truck, up winding logging roads to the kiln, it fell apart when they were removing it from the pickup. He laughs when telling the story, where many people would seem traumatized talking about hours and hours of work disappearing in a second.
Zablocki criss-crossed the country, studying with artists and supporting himself by working restaurant jobs — he specializes in Italian food.
In the summers, he has another business: Kiln Bread. He and a former co-worker from Le Petit, Dan Venturella, bake European-style recipes to sell at the Saturday market. They make their own cultures and mill some of the grain, and bake it in a custom wood-fired oven.
He just bought a house with his fiancee, who supported him through moves and career changes that come with an art career. Even with a new place, he'll probably continue working out of his current studio space at Steve Saroff's place. The two became close friends after Saroff took a class at the Clay Studio. They redid Saroff's studio, and the shared workspace keeps him from "talking to the pots" during the long days at work.
"I've always had this net of support that's around me," he said. Art was just a small part of it.
"I've had people around me who've just been amazing."