November 29, 2017
As quickly as he shapes and fires them, Neal Martin's herd of ceramic creatures are flying off the shelves.
By Erin O'Brien
Meet the MeBähs: inviting little ceramic friends that are a study in threes. Each has a trio of horns, legs, eyes, and arms. Per their creator, Neal James Martin ’84, however, the MeBähs' form is replete with mystery and complexity, despite being based on the stable tripod design.
"They're kind of like foo fighters in World War II that are holding the universe together," says Martin. He notes that the ceramic vessels are mere representatives. The real MeBähs are "massless and smaller than a photon," he explains.
"These are the physical manifestation of what they would look like if they existed physically," Martin says. He rotates a MeBäh as it leans bravely into the wind. Or is it twirling an invisible hula-hoop? Taking a bow? Martin slowly lifts it to a perilous height and its affable grin transforms to an uneasy frown.
"Who knew these things were afraid of heights?" the artist muses with wonder. "They don't take on personalities until they're halfway put together. They make me laugh. I love these things."
The would-be Pygmalion is at a satisfying juncture in an unconventional creative career. Raised in a deeply religious family, he was all but thrown out of Northwood High School in suburban Toledo after publishing the inaugural issue of the Underground Press. He painted murals in homes before enrolling in CIA, where he earned his degree in Illustration and minored in Ceramics. "I escaped to Cleveland in 1978 and never looked back," he says.
While a CIA student, he moonlighted at WRUW, Case Western Reserve University’s radio station, where he spun discs and rubbed elbows with the likes of Echo and the Bunnymen and Joey Ramone.
He had another gig as well. "I taught a Bible study in college and I wish I hadn't," says the now self-described "militantly agnostic" Martin. "I wish I had had those five years without distraction."
Martin touts his CIA years, noting the tutelage of instructors such as Judith Salomon and William Brouillard in Ceramics and the late op art champion Edward Mieczkowski.
Post-CIA years included a rollicking stint at the legendary Wax Stacks records in Cleveland Heights. He did freelance illustration work for area publications and eventually embarked on a 15-year career at Ernst & Young, working in graphic design and interactive media.
After he had his fill of corporate America, Martin headed to Cleveland State University to explore his love of science and earn an Ohio license for teaching high school. But when the reality of the classroom came to fruition, the chemistry just wasn't there. He left after a few months.
From there, Martin dived into the art that he'd only dabbled in before: ceramics. After growing bored with cups, an idea bloomed — along with a sketch of the first MeBäh. The resulting ceramic creatures commenced to "take over the world" in spring of 2016.
"It wasn’t until they were in my hands that I realized they were smiling," he says. Within a year, he was selling the curious tri-footed imps as fast as he could pull them from the kiln. He is unsure of the herd's total number but estimates it's more than 400. His goal for 2018 is to unleash 500 more MeBähs upon the earth, which may include a series or two. A Jackson Pollock-inspired MeBäh might launch an artist series. Another styled à la poison dart frogs could become part of a charitable line benefitting the World Wildlife Fund.
In the meantime, Martin is buttoning up details on a new affordable community studio for Cleveland-area ceramic artisans and basking in the fruits of his craft. "I am so delighted and humbled by the success of these things that I’m overwhelmed."
Neal Martin and his wards are at Oddmalls; at the Third Fridays events at 78th Street Studios; at the Canton Museum of Art's Artisan Boutique; and on Martin's Etsy shop (AvantPotter). He can be found on Instagram at nealjamesmartin and on Facebook at neal.martin.311.
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