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Maker to Know: A Ceramist Creating Insect-Adorned Plates

By Alex Frank

 
 

At an age when most kids spend their waking hours playing video games, the ceramist Marc Armitano Domingo — not yet in high school, and living in Northern California — was learning a 15th-century instrument and yearning to take Communion. “I wished I was more Catholic. My older brothers had to go to Communion and I wanted to be cool like them, but my parents didn’t make me. And so I begged them. I wanted to dress up in the little suits!” says Armitano Domingo, now 21.

As for the Renaissance instrument, it was a viola da gamba, a bowed string instrument which he continues to play today, and which he first encountered in the studio of his seventh-grade cello teacher. “It was for nobility,” he explains. “France has my favourite repertoire. You have to be so beautiful and expressive and delicate with everything.”

Ryan McGinleyThe ceramist Marc Armitano Domingo with four of his handmade porcelain plates — and his viola da gamba.
The ceramist Marc Armitano Domingo with four of his handmade porcelain plates — and his viola da gamba.

Delicacy is central to Armitano Domingo’s creative approach — not just in his playing, but also in the new collection of handmade porcelain plates and cups that he recently launched under the name Botticelli Ceramics. He is currently training on the viol at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore as a part-time student. He spends the rest of his time in New York with his boyfriend, the photographer Ryan McGinley, and at pottery workshops at Columbia Teachers College, firing plates in unusual, even uncomfortable, motifs.

Botticelli CeramicsTwo pieces by Botticelli Ceramics.
Two pieces by Botticelli Ceramics.

Armitano Domingo has been making amateur ceramics and clay figurines since childhood — and says he has often been inspired by the stop-motion animation of Tim Burton — but Botticelli represents the first time he is selling his work, which includes dishes, tumblers and mugs. There are plates depicting angelic scenes accented with gold leaf; one dish features a pair of raised breasts in the style of Saint Agatha, who, in paintings by artists like Francisco de Zurbarán, displayed her martyrdom by serving her chest on a platter. Many pieces have deliberate chips and cracks that give them a fragile appearance. Some are also decorated with colourful three-dimensional worms and insects. “I take class with mostly old ladies,” the ceramist says. “Everyone was grossed out at first, but now they think they’re cute.”

Ryan McGinleyArmitano Domingo with two Botticelli Ceramics plates.
Armitano Domingo with two Botticelli Ceramics plates.

The pieces are inspired by Renaissance and Baroque art, as well as late 17th-century Dutch still-life paintings. “Paintings of flowers and foods often had nasty slugs in them,” Armitano Domingo says. “They were into the grotesque back then. In the Petit Trianon at Versailles, they have a mini tea set with little painted bugs.” Indeed, the works of artists like Pieter Claesz, Jan van Kessel, Maria Sibylla Merian and Jacob Gerritsz Cuyp in the late 1600s often featured bountiful displays of fruit being overrun by insects, said to be symbols of the fleeting nature of beauty and the inevitability of decay. “There’s an irony,” says Armitano Domingo of his work. “People think bugs aren’t a good thing to have around food, but I always eat off my bug plate.” It’s also, perhaps, a vision of the future, when it is possible that we will all be eating caterpillars as protein when meatier options are endangered. “My parents are from Venezuela, and there I had a red ant sauce that was really spicy and nice,” he says.

There is an alluring, if unnerving, sense of decay in Armitano Domingo’s work, but it’s only skin deep; the plates, he assures, are dependably sturdy because he uses a rare high-temperature gas kiln that reaches highs of around 2,300 degrees. “I expect people to eat off of them!” he says of his pieces. “They’re just like every other plate you’ve ever had.” Yes, except for the shimmering iridescent worms.