Forrest Lesch-Middelton makes an impression – Petaluma Argus Courier (blog)
By KATIE WATTS / Petaluma Towns Correspondent
‘‘Everyone has a memory of having touched their first piece of
clay,” says Forrest Lesch-Middelton.
He was a 14 and has spent more than half his life molding clay
into works of art. This year he is taking things to the next
level, launching a new line of decorative tiles that has
garnered national attention.
Lesch-Middelton, 30, was in his senior year of high school when
an amazing teacher passed along her philosophy that clay is the
“It’s everywhere,” he says. “You can’t go into a culture
without seeing some piece of ceramic history.”
His pots and tiles combine Lesch-Middelton’s two great loves,
clay and history, a match he describes as sharing “the world’s
history through pattern, surface and a passion for today’s
forgotten people and places.”
As much as Lesch-Middelton loves to work with clay, he love to
talk about clay. “I’ve been an administrator and teacher in the
art world for years,” he says. “I travel all over to teach.”
Armed with art degrees from Alfred University in western New
York and Utah State University, and a stint as resident artist
at the Mendocino Arts Center, he co-founded a ceramic arts
center in Berkeley and ran the pottery program at the Sonoma
Over the past decade, Lesch-Middelton invented a technique for
transferring Islamic patterns onto clay, using it to create
such things as minaret bottles that echo the Sultan Hassan
Mosque in Cairo.
Several years ago, he and his wife realized there were
potential customers who couldn’t afford to buy a pot. “So I
made tiles in the $12 to $14 range so they could buy
something,” he says.
The rest was a matter of being in the right place at the right
time. A publicist came into his booth the Mill Valley Art
Festival, liked his work and had connections.
“The next thing I know, I’m in the New York Times,”
Origins, his first collection for the tile company Clé, was
featured a month later in Architectural Digest, and by March
the artist had so much business he had outgrown his home
In March he launched a Kickstarter campaign for $20,000 to
scale up production to meet the demand, receiving pledges of
$25,415 from 236 backers.
His eastside studio is so new and business has been so
demanding, Lesch-Middelton says he has barely had time to get
settled. His wife’s job requires her to travel, and they have
two young daughters, ages 2 and 5.
“I haven’t even had time to organize the studio,” he says.
“Between work and the kids, I’m getting about four hours of
sleep. It’s like art school. You leave the studio between
midnight and 2 a.m., then you’re the first one in the door.”
Lesch-Middelton laughs. “I’m freaking out. I just want to make
tiles and pots.”
To create the tiles, patterns are silkscreened onto slabs of
clay that look like giant blocks of chocolate. Most of the
patterns, he says, are middle Eastern in origin, “and, in turn,
those patterns were influenced by the Chinese,” he says.
“My work is about the lineage of material. No two tiles are the
same, no two are perfect. It’s the imperfect nature of the
technique that makes the work look old, like it has history.”
Architectural Digest described their appearance as reminiscent
of Moroccan mosaics, while the Times said they resemble the
products of an ancient civilization.
While Lesch-Middelton won’t get into the discussion of art
versus craft, he believes strongly that to advance the medium
of clay, all knowledge should be shared. “Nothing I do is
For a long time, he explains, the history of clay was an
industry, “and industry is about protecting knowledge.”
Colleges began sharing information, “with the thought that if
students are going to learn, they wanted to find all the
information so they could learn it.”
He learned his image transfer technique from other sculptors,
figuring out how to do it on pots.
“I transfer the image to a cylinder, then reach into the
cylinder and stretch the clay,” he said.
Lesch-Middelton doesn’t glaze the exterior of the pots or
tiles, so the finished products look weathered. And the clay is
vitrified stoneware, so it’s waterproof and walkable.
“I’m able to make tile like no one else because of my history
and dedication,” he said, adding, “it’s almost absurd that
pottery, the most primitive medium, can have this depth.”
Tile prices range from $7.50 for a 3-inch unornamented
square to $28.50 for a 6-inch square with pattern. Information:
(415) 887-9011 or cletile.com.
For more information about Lesch-Middelton, visit flmceramics.com.