Let's confront the elephant in the room first.
Alex Matisse, who at 27 is just making a name for himself as a potter who turns bold yet graceful vessels from juice-cup small to elephantine tall, would no doubt prefer that we not. He doesn't even mention his great-grandfather Henri Matisse, the immortal French painter and paper cutout artist, on the website of his East Fork Pottery in Marshall, N.C.
Alex Matisse can understand that people are curious about the family connection. And, after all, he's in Atlanta this weekend to exhibit for the first time in the prestigious American Craft Council Show at Cobb Galleria Centre while, lo and behold, Henri is being featured across town in the High Museum of Art exhibit "Picasso to Warhol: Fourteen Modern Masters."
Cool, right? "Complicated" is the word Alex repeats.
"The last name is wonderful," he said. "But it can be a pretty heavy-duty legacy to live with sometimes ... especially when people come up and ask you about it. And you kind of disappear, actually, because what they see is this massive old dead guy."
Alex, who was born in 1984, is in fact fond of the art of that massive old dead guy, who died in 1954. He's already seen Henri's works at the High and was impressed. And though he summarily rejects the notion of talent being passed down through bloodlines, he did allow: "The connection I feel there is his work can be understood. Anybody can look at most of his paintings and ... see beauty in them."
That's precisely what Carr McCuiston, the owner of Buckhead's Signature Gallery, saw when Matisse approached her to carry his pots, many of which he embellishes with serene flowers or simple blades of grass.
"Alex's work is beautiful," she said. "He works in an increasingly popular tradition that combines [old-time] Southern firing methods with British and Asian influences. His undecorated forms are elegant, and his mastery of slip trailing, or drawing, on the surface sets his work apart from other young potters. He is also very serious and driven about his work."
Indeed, both over the phone and on his blog, Matisse comes across as wholly committed to his craft.
"I'm an obsessive, intense person," he said. "Anything I do, I either want to do it completely or not at all."
That goes back a ways. Given the choice to play basketball or play with clay in seventh grade at his Massachusetts boarding school, this son of sculptors chose the pottery studio and fell madly, deeply in love, eventually specializing in hand-built sculpture of faces and masks. "It was a funny, odd feeling that I hadn't felt before," he recalled of his start. "Total infatuation."
Yet he thought he was done with ceramics, ready to move on to studies more academic, by the time he enrolled in Guilford College, a small, Quaker-rooted liberal arts school in Greensboro, N.C.
There, in 2005, he came under the tutelage of Charlie Tefft, himself a fine studio potter, who exposed him to North Carolina's distinguished pottery-making traditions, refueling Matisse's interest in making. Until he met Tefft, the New Englander was unaware that he had wound up in a state where pottery prowess is handed down through generations -- totally "serendipitous," he said.
Soon he was continuing his education in apprenticeships with highly regarded Tar Heel potters Matt Jones and Mark Hewitt. Like both of them, he burns his wheel-thrown pots in a wood-fired brick kiln, a highly temperamental process known to turn teetotaling master potters to drink.
Readying for a gallery exhibit drawn from his first two kiln firings, he wrote on his blog in June: "The pots here represent the quiet and slow struggle that any young potter must undertake, usually alone, if they are to slip the fetters of their teachers and begin to speak for themselves. The early days of any great pursuit are a maddening and fantastic time ... terrific failures, highs and lows, gnawing panic and so much great unknown."
Matisse now sounds more confident about facing that challenge. He said he loves the hard work of firing the kiln, loaded with as many as 500 stoneware pieces of blended North Carolina clays, by feeding it planks, gradually over two days, until it's an angry orange inferno belching out soot-black smoke. "I like hard work," he said. "You're essentially responsible for every degree it's climbing up to 2,350 degrees."
He's starting to get more recognition for the pottery that emerges from that kiln -- honors such as a solo show of his largest vessels coming up in May at the Bascom visual arts center in Highlands, N.C., and his acceptance into this weekend's American Crafts Council Show, one of youngest of the 225 top U.S. craftspeople selected.
He finds satisfaction that these doors are opening because of his output, not his name.
"This is also tied into maybe why I'm making pots here in North Carolina, which is, partially, I felt like my name almost didn't matter," he said. "What was more important was that I was making good pots. It feels wonderful to be respected for something that is really just your own."
American Craft Council Show
10 a.m.-8 p.m. March 9, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. March 10, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. March 11. $13 one-day ticket; $20 three-day pass. Reduced admission Friday after 5 p.m.: $5. Under age 12, free. Preview party: 6-9 p.m. March 8, $75 (includes food, drink, three-day pass; benefits the ACC). Cobb Galleria Centre, 2 Cobb Galleria Parkway. 1-800-836-3470, www.craftcouncil.org/atlanta.