‘Pottery Becomes Robot’ with artist Michael Klapthor

Michael Klapthor with his robots. (Photo: Isadora Pennington)

“I try to give them their own personality, a little hidden story,” said Michael Klapthor as we sat down to talk in his basement studio in Decatur. “The idea of a robot having a hidden personality is sort of a funny oxymoron.” 

Michael Klapthor in his home studio. (Photo: Isadora Pennington)

Positioned at his clay-stained worktable, Klapthor is surrounded by his tools and creations. A shelf of figurines and comic books is conveniently within reach of his pottery wheel. Next to an array of robotic creations, photographs of Michael with his wife and daughter peek out from the edges of a dry-erase board. Near the door, a utility sink occasionally lets out a gurgle of discontent. 

This is the home of Klapthor’s Universal Robots.

Michael Klapthor is a working artist and teacher who has been crafting joyful robots out of clay since 2012. He’s a regular at craft markets around the region, and his unique retro future designs include functional and decorative pieces. He makes mugs, planters, jars, and even pour-over coffee makers.

On a shelf are rows of mugs, vases, and planters shaped like robots and rocketships. Klapthor’s creations look deceptively like metal, with details that resemble rust around the edges. But all of them are made of clay and fired in a kiln, with the occasional wires or glass domes incorporated into the design. 

Born in Louisiana, as a child Klapthor moved frequently with his family to follow his father’s career in the Air Force. Eventually they landed in Ohio where they lived until his father retired when he was 15 and the family relocated to Augusta. 

Klapthor explained that living in Air Force bases was kind of fun in some ways, as being within the gated communities lent his family a sense of safety and granted him freedom. Klapthor recalls spending much of his childhood wandering the neighborhoods and woods around his homes. “I would tromp through forests, build things in the woods, stuff like that. I was really into exploring,” he said.

After high school, showing a promising artistic acumen, he enrolled at Georgia College & State University in Milledgeville where he studied sculpture and printmaking. Craving a more creative place to live, he ultimately made his way to Athens. 

“I worked at a place called Good Dirt, a community ceramics studio in Athens, and that was really great. It was a really helpful out-of-school education,” Klapthor remembered.

“I was making glazes and loading kilns and doing the grunt work at the studio, in addition to learning how to teach classes and do my own projects.” This exposure sparked a love for community ceramics studios that would lead his way to Atlanta.

In 2007 Klapthor scored an assistantship at the Callanwolde Fine Arts Center, and he described the experience as being like a graduate program. For two years, he created in a studio space there, attended critiques and mini exhibitions with his peers, and networked with fellow creatives. 

“It was sort of the best of both worlds. I got to engage with the community and also have that college experience with critiques and watching other artists’ works evolve.” 

At the time, Klapthor’s creations were mostly animal figures. He recalled the moment when he stepped back to consider his portfolio as a whole and noticed something odd – all of the animals were sitting or sleeping. “They weren’t really dynamic, and I realized I wasn’t excited by that work anymore.”

And so, just like that, Klapthor pivoted and began exploring, and tried making small robots. He was a regular fixture at Wonderroot back then, teaching classes in wheel throwing and finger sculpting. He started making these robot creatures and it was a welcome shift in his art practice. He later moved to Mudfire where he continued to develop his style. 

“It was a lot more fun, it was lighthearted,” said Klapthor. “I started participating in themed art shows and that felt good. It was very satisfying to build and create, and I didn’t have to dig down into the psychological depths to make them. It was just fun.” 

Klapthor said he has always loved robots, and especially is inspired by the rounded robots he saw in the comic books Megaman and Astro Boy.

For a while, Klapthor incorporated more real assemblage items, like watch gears, into his works. But he has discovered that sometimes the realness of those additions takes away from the overall effect of the piece. Now he prefers to make his own gears that are cartoonish enough to suit his purposes.

One of the most unique parts of Klapthor’s process is the way he uses wheel throwing to build the parts that are then combined to make a form. It’s almost like grown up pottery legos. 

“You can take a bowl and a cup, stick them together, and suddenly it’s a robot!”

He showed me the two parts that come together to create one of his smaller robot pieces. In a nearby storage bin are a selection of still-wet clay parts that will soon be transformed into an adorable robot creation. 

“When I was throwing on the wheel I wasn’t really satisfied just making cups and bowls. I kind of wanted it to be something more, and that’s where the interest in figure sculpture tied into it. I wanted to make sure that it was something that was unique and interesting to people.”

Today, he is focused on growing his home studio work, getting into craft fairs, boutique shows, and gallery shows, and keeping up his online presence and art sales.

“I learned in 2020 that you have to make sure your work is diversified in that way, because one of them might be gone,” explained Klapthor. “I have to keep all of those plates spinning. I think as far as the work itself, I am trying to dig in more on the nature themes, doing more animal pieces, like the fish and the birds, and playing around with live or sculpted plants. Just seeing where they work together.”

Klapthor’s Universal Robots can be found on his website, at craft markets, and one of his pieces will be on display during the Bountiful Earth art exhibition at the Avondale Arts Center opening April 20. 

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