C California Style

Fired Up

by C California Style

A fashion designer from Milan takes refuge in Santa Barbara—and in a new decorative art.

Can a stationary item be in motion? Before answering, examine a Miri Mara vase. Its shapes are so compelling that one’s vision can’t help but trail its pattern around the vessel. “Texture,” Fatmir “Miri” Mara explains, “it really speaks, gives movement. Like velocity.” Perhaps this is what Diana Vreeland meant when she said, “The eye has to travel.”

Mara’s effects are diverse: geometric patterns; a line playing with shadow; weathered snakeskin of layered glazes; and a kind of hypnotic, smooth matte finish begging to be touched. These surfaces and silhouettes play into a balance of extremes. Angular vases with decoration worthy of an African mask reflect primitive, earthy stoneware. It could be mistaken for centuries-old bronze. Conversely, there’s simple, solid geometry channeling the modern. Two plates stand upright and parallel with a chamber for florals in between—reminiscent of the Bauhaus’ triangle-circle-square. And some series take the middle path; his sleek interpretation of an ancient Greek Cycladic visage, for one.

Ceramics is a relatively nascent passion of Mara’s—and not his first. His formative career was fashion: five years at Alta Moda in Rome with Renato Balestra and the next 19 in Milan prêt-à-porter, designing and consulting for manufacturers including Cadette and Gherardini with partner, now husband, Rick Perkins. Twelve years ago, at 42, they retired in Santa Barbara. “The creative part was suffering more and more,” he says, “so it was time to leave.”

Mara’s galvanizing experience was seeing a documentary about Japanese pottery. Ceramics had never interested him before, yet he signed up for a class at Santa Barbara City College, where he’d been taking art classes. “I loved it from the first day,” he recalls. His structures could not be accomplished on a wheel, so he preferred to sketch pieces and hand-build. Soon enough, what began as a hobby turned into a business.

A low point hit in 2008 when they lost everything in the Tea Fire, including his entire body of ceramic works (about 80 pieces) and his cahiers. The collage journals contained the sketches, cutout photos, phrases and pictures of museum pieces that fuel his oeuvre, from those Cycladic heads to the engravings on Italian banknotes that inspire many of his etched surfaces. He immediately began to search for new creative juice. He says of journaling: “[What] you start to see in a museum or a piece of architecture or a piece of a mechanical part can really get in the back of your mind, and then that detail, you can reproduce in shapes.”

In January 2013, Miri Mara collaborated with architect Michael David to renovate and open a production studio near a tiny market and automotive center in Carpinteria. The adjacent showroom was ready less than a year later. In the tidy space, next to two pottery wheels and a slab roller, there’s room for prototype creation. Production ceramist Ransom Urbanowicz assists in all aspects of slip-casting, especially the (literally) heavy lifting. When liquid “slip” is poured into trunk-size molds, the plaster pulls moisture out of the clay until the “magic moment” when the walls are just thick enough to pour out the remaining composition. A glass case holds the fresh greenware as it fully dries. Eventually, the bisque pottery, which congregates near two electric kilns, is ready for texturing, glazing and firing. A central island with an exhaust system is strewn with combs, wire brushes, sandpaper and myriad texturing tools. A mad scientist-like panoply of oxides and color mixes in jars, meshes, and a spray gun are hidden in the glazing corner.

For this practice, patience is a virtue. About 70% of the works survive from start to finish, and it’s a minimum of four days per piece. What isn’t relegated to test bins is proudly walked next door. “I make just what I like to make, and it’s not according to people’s ideas,” Mara continues. “To me, the achievement is to have a personal style about what I make.”

From Corso Como to Carpinteria, could he have foreseen such a second act? He picks up a power drill. “If you told me my life would be Black & Decker? No way.” 5292 Carpinteria Ave., Carpinteria, 805-220-6285.

Written and edited by Alison Clare Steingold.
Photographed by Nancy Neil.