Dean McRaine spent over 30 years working in obscurity, the kind of obscurity the potter describes as “total,” “complete” and “absolute.” A large part of his lifetime was devoted to developing his art. The last decade has represented a huge leap into colored clay, a period filled with inventiveness in terms of mechanics, a fierce attraction to energy, and incorporating painting values into the art of clay. After decades of working with clay, and a “learning curve” of five years figuring out techniques with color, he says he made his first “successful design.” Others might say he achieved mastery.
A team of videographers from Art Insider discovered Dean’s work on Instagram. They came to Kaua‘i to shoot a video of his clay-making. Over the course of four hours, two cameras captured the detail of the technical process they dubbed “psychedelic pottery” in the tag of the video, picking up on the term Dean used to describe his forms. Basically, the video that first appeared in March 2018 went viral with 30 million views and counting (https:// www.facebook.com/thisisinsiderart/videos/artist-makespsychedelic-pottery/715002562003644/). Dean became an overnight sensation. No longer the quasi-solitary potter tucked away on a back street in the small east side town of Kapa‘a, a dot in the middle of the Pacific, he became a global phenomenon. Consequently, he cannot make enough pottery to keep up with demand. His online Etsy shop is empty except for the addition of a wait list. In Kapa‘a, he has enlisted other talented colleagues to engage in collaborations to increase his production and share in his creativity and success.
While the video highlighted his technical process, very little has been written about the artist’s creative process, a fascinating part of his long exploration with clay. As a former family therapist, he is insightful into his own motivations and behaviors as an artist. He definitely sees himself as a craftsman, as the kind of guy who likes to make things, from guitars at one point to building his studio and making all the furnishings inside. In terms of “artistry,” he has been drawn to the works of indigenous peoples, especially the yarn art designs of the Huichol of Central America and the traditional art of Aboriginal Australians. It is possible to see “auras” around the images, reflecting a mysticism and spiritual tradition that has not been dimmed by contemporary culture. The “altered state of consciousness” that inspires their art affects the Kapa‘a potter, who makes the striking observation that Huichol art “knocks you out of the physical world.”
Dean’s creative instincts are spurred on by his interest in energy. In the last 10 years, he has discovered that he can tap into the energy of colors to “manifest” energy, to “communicate” energy. He had never thought it would have been possible with clay until he discovered colored clay. As a self-described “old hippie turned New Age hippie guy,” he has always had the desire to “see something beyond three dimensional reality.” Looking closely at the way color is utilized in his work, one can see how much fun he has offsetting colors while at the same time letting them flow into each other. He sees himself as being able to think about “basic color ideas that painters get to think about,” an unusual experience for a potter. The techniques he invented to make psychedelic clay enable him to focus on “foreground and background, hot and cool (color) values, hue and saturation.” For example, he experiments with placing “one color, very saturated and rich, next to one that is more pastel.” As a result, the pieces seem to be flowing, vibrating, changing and stretching the boundaries of the forms. The color shift is so continuous that one is presented with the full effect instead of the separate elements of the progression. Dean likes that the colors move into each other believing the “smooth kind of flow comes closer to imitating the way the natural world is” and is more similar to “the way light works.” Natural colors are not fixed as they change with the light. He mentions the “millions” of greens we see on Kaua‘i thanks to changing light. Abstractions from the natural wonders of Kaua‘i are represented in his art. A pale orange and vibrant red fish, weirdly scaled and shaped, pulses against a background. Other organic forms seem to be imaginings of bird feathers, the inside of nuts, and all sorts of waves.
His studio is intentionally named LightWave Pottery. Dean cites the “quality of light” on the Garden Island as a major influence owing to how much light there is. He observes that “Kaua‘i is a mecca for light workers,” “yogic, psychic and spiritual,” who try to tap into the energy of the island. It seems the island has also provided him with the protected space he needs in order to create, encasing him in beauty as he, in turn, encases beauty in forms. According to the artist, “The beauty of Kaua‘i flows through me and comes out in the pottery.” He goes on to say that artists are always influenced by their environment, pointing out the seasonal changes reflected in Japanese ceramics, with an “aesthetic, restrained, soft and muted,” perhaps reminiscent of winter. Although Dean is able to analyze different influences on his work, he maintains that, above all, his creative path is “very intuitive.” Indeed, it seems to stem from some inexplicable internal spring that is, frankly, bubbling over.
One of his admirers gave him the supreme compliment, “Your pieces are happiness made solid.” It can be said as well that his pieces are close to the dance, echo with the chant, and resound with the laugh. He admits to having “a little magician in him,” something he says “we all have,” enchanted that “it is a wonderful and powerful place to be.” He also identifies with the “lover archetype,” describing how it “governs the artist” in the desire to be joined with something greater than oneself. For Dean McRaine, his art is a “tremendous affirmation of existence,” a “way of saying I am.” He believes he could never be without his “creative outlet.” “It is like food to me. You cannot live without food.” We are certainly delighted he has shared his feast with us...all that mirth and merry-making, and abundance of energy.
I am grateful to my daughter-in-law, Renée Parker Johnston, a respected ceramicist in her own right and long-time friend and colleague of Dean McRaine, for her contributions to this story, especially in terms of helping me understand an artist’s creative process.