The (Ceramic) Elephant in the Room
But you and I, we've been through that, and this is not our fate
So let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late".

Bob Dylan,  All Along the Watchtower

As I become increasingly concerned about the impact of global warming on our planet, I am looking for ways that will allow us to continue to work with clay while at the same time reduce our energy consumption.  Every time I fire a kiln, either in my studio or at school, I am cognizant of the effect on the environment. Over the course of my career,
I have made thousands of ceramic forms, both pottery and sculpture. In the process, I have consumed a lot of fossil fuels, probably more than my share. When I factor in the work of my students for the past thirty-plus years, the number of fired pieces would reach tens of thousands.  There are a lot of ceramic artists in this world with similar stories.

Ceramics is one of many human activities that burn fossil fuels and release greenhouse gases during the production process, whether using gas or electric kilns. I doubt that scientists studying climate change have given much thought to ceramics specifically as a source of our climate issues. If they have, emissions from ceramics would be found to be a portion of all industrial emissions of carbon dioxide which, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, constitute 20% of the total of U.S. emissions. Ceramics is a small part of a much larger problem.  No matter how small, given what is at stake, we should give it some serious thought, and search for effective solutions. For those of us who are teachers, this is an opportunity to inform our students about the impact of human activity on our planet.

I have no illusions. My guess is that all ceramics could come to an immediate halt and the amount of carbon we humans put into the atmosphere will continue to rise. So, even if this is a merely a symbolic gesture, it is urgent for all of us to be both conscious of and conscientious about our use of fossil fuels.

The sculptures, Nature Morte, are a commentary on our present dilemma. In making these sculptures, I did find a more energy-efficient way of working with clay. They are modular forms, once-fired in a small electric kiln to a relatively low temperature(2100o F.) and treated with a non-fired surface. Since the completion of these forms in 2013, I have decided that the most effective way for me personally to address this issue is to stop using fired clay in my work. I am now experimenting with other, more energy efficient ways of making sculpture. Currently, the only solutions to making ceramics more environmentally sound mirror the solutions found in other arenas—reduce waste, increase efficiency, use local materials and products, recycle. This is how I am approaching my work in the classroom. We will find a way forward that preserves both the environment and the rich ceramic tradition which has played such a significant role in the development of humanity.

Steven Portigal
Artist’s Statement July 2015


1979 M.F.A., University of California, Los Angeles

1975 B.A., California State University, Northridge


1990-present Professor of Ceramics and Three- Dimensional Design,
Cerritos College, Norwalk, California

2000-2008 Art Department Chair, Cerritos College
Norwalk, California


2006 Guest Curator, “62nd Annual Scripps Ceramics Annual", Scripps College, Claremont, CA


2006 “Four Stories”, Shane Keena, Cindy Kolodziejski, Steven Portigal and Akio Takamori, California State University, Los Angeles Fine Arts Gallery


The Long Beach Museum of Art

Lynn Myers, Pasadena, California

Lannan Foundation

Simon Rattle, Berlin, Germany


1 comment | Post comment

Hello Steve, Marlene and I were students & friends with you at CSUN. You and I were in the Ceramic Arts Department in the 1970s-1980s. It’s good to see that you’ve stayed with it and made a place in the in the field of Edication/Ceramic Arts. Marlene and I received our teaching credentials and both taught for LAUSD for well over 30 years. Best Wishes for the New Year!
-- Nick Leone, 1/2/24