Michele Michael, who discovered ceramics in 2010, likes to create utilitarian objects for the tabletop, loving the feel and meditative properties of the clay in her hands. She is always experimenting with new techniques and processes to make her housewares, like painting freehand with indigo and cobalt underglazes. / Photo by Michele Michael
Michele Michael and Patrick Moore understand the importance of ordinary days and have a renewed appreciation for the concept of time.
Today, Michael creates ceramics that reflect the natural beauty, quiet, and peacefulness that surround her in midcoast Maine. Mostly she creates utilitarian objects for the tabletop. She builds, fires, and glazes her wares—typically porcelain, sometimes stoneware—on the first floor of, or in season outside on the porch of, a light-drenched, barn-style studio that she shares with her husband, Moore, a woodworker.
Michael came to ceramics serendipitously back in 2010. At the time, she and Moore were leading a higher-octane lifestyle in New York City, where they owned a successful prop house together. Michael curated a large collection of tabletop items that she would rent out for photo shoots for magazines, cookbooks, and advertising. Moore built surfaces and other props for their business and also sets for film and music videos, often out of wood he salvaged from dumpsters at construction sites around the city.
On one fateful spring day, Michael ventured into a ceramics studio in their Brooklyn neighborhood (to see if they had any plates or bowls she might want to buy for her inventory), then on a whim signed up for a class that started that very week. It was kismet. Michael loved everything about her experience: the feel of the clay in her hands, the meditative process of forming it into her desired shapes, the warm and supportive community of fellow makers.
“In my career as a magazine editor, then photo stylist and business owner, I was constantly multitasking,” Michael said. “Right away, it felt so good to do something where I was fully in the moment, plus it was just nice to be using my hands to make something again.”
Here, Michele Michael created texture by rolling out the clay between two pieces of handwoven linen. / Photo by Michele Michael
Within just three years, Michael and Moore had sold their apartment and moved full-time to what had until then been a summer home in the small town of Dresden, Maine. By consigning their prop collection to another company similar to theirs, they could keep some of that income stream flowing while changing their way of life dramatically. They would build a studio where Michael could devote herself to her ceramics practice and Moore could do his woodworking.
Today, they are able to live a life they fantasized about away from the city: in sync with not only the natural world that nourishes them but also the creative curiosity that drives them. Michael creates her wares—mostly platters and vases—and then photographs and posts them to their retail website, called Elephant Ceramics, in batches several times a year. Moore’s one-of-a-kind cutting boards, which he makes out of birch, maple, black walnut, cherry, oak, and hickory he sources from a nearby mill, are also for sale on the site. Inventory sells out fast but isn’t replenished until months later, when they feel ready to create a new body of work.
Patrick Moore seeks out wood with unusual grain with which to make his cutting boards. As he cuts, planes, sands, and finishes each piece, his aim is to showcase and maximize the wood’s natural beauty. / Photo by Michele Michael
“We are constantly in a process of learning and trying new things,” said Michael. “I can’t imagine a life without making things. I think it’s in my DNA.”
In between these bursts of making, the two are able to slow down and enjoy ordinary pleasures: walks, birdwatching, gardening, cooking nourishing meals, kayaking on the river that borders their property—and following those ever-important whims. Moore might transform random lobster rope that washes up on the beaches into boat fenders and other nautical knots, weave sticks and saplings collected while pruning in the yard into vessels to be used as planters or compost bins, or teach himself to knit, inspired by a collection of old needles he picked up at a yard sale. Michael sometimes sets off on trips to faraway places and takes workshops—block printing in India, ceramics and cooking in Japan, and weaving in Mexico so far—or she might stay home and hook a chair cushion using yarn from her stash and strips of wool cut from old clothing.
As Michael shared, “Often my inspiration comes from an idea of something I’d like to have but cannot find. I think making things yourself helps you see the value in items that are handmade. You realize how much goes into something that is carefully thought-out and crafted. It also teaches you patience."
With our hands, we take agency over our lives. We connect with others, past and present, near and far, with a similar passion. We feel a sense of belonging, not only to one another but to the planet.
In 2017, at age 22, Sara Trail launched the Social Justice Sewing Academy (SJSA) to empower youth to advocate for social justice through textile making. Though she was notably young to found a nonprofit, she was not new to sewing. She took needle to cloth for the first time at age 4, under the guidance of her mother and grandmother, and quickly showed a propensity for it. Within a few years, she had gained mastery and could sew clothing, quilts, and upholstery. A wunderkind, by age 15, she had written a book for other kids, Sew with Sara, about how to sew and sell one’s work, and licensed her own pattern and fabric collections.
She was, for all intents and purposes, content with her sewing practice. “I liked the freedom and independence it gave me,” she recalled. “I liked the idea that I could make something that was going to last and that I could do something that a lot of other kids my age couldn’t do.”
And then her attitude—and self-expectation—changed profoundly in 2012, when Trayvon Martin, a Black teenager in Florida, was shot by a white man for no apparent reason other than he thought Martin looked suspicious. “I went from wanting to learn skills, make gifts, master something to knowing I needed to take the skills my mentors had given me and use them for a purpose,” Trail said. She made a fabric portrait of Martin wearing the hoodie he had on the night he was shot, and that quilt became the seed of SJSA.
Sara Trail’s handmade quilt, Rest in Power, commemorates the life of murdered Black teenager Trayvon Martin and marks her first experience combining her lifelong interest in sewing with social activism. / Photo courtesy Social Justice Sewing Academy
Today, Trail describes the volunteer-run organization she founded as a 21st-century sewing circle that bridges social, racial, ethnic, generational, and geographic lines. The quilts begin in workshops in schools, community centers, and prisons across the United States. Participants, typically aged 12 and up, create art blocks to express their concerns, thoughts, and beliefs, gluing fabric in place if they are not inclined to sew.
The blocks are forwarded to volunteers around the world to finish the necessary stitching and join them together into a patchwork. Hundreds of SJSA quilts have gone on to be exhibited at quilt shows, museums, and galleries nationwide.
Trail often thinks back to the time in middle school when she was teaching sewing to kids in her neighborhood. “My class was $75 and my students were rich white kids. Low-income kids couldn’t pay that much to learn how to make something they may or may not have even liked in the end or end up using. Through conversations, especially with my parents, I realized what a privilege it was to make.”
She now seeks to pass on that privilege, an understanding of the power that resides in our hands, to make textiles—and to make change.
This block, made by SJSA participant Autumn Roberts during a workshop on the Cheyenne River Reservation in South Dakota, is a statement about culture and tribe. Her artist statement: “…I created this as an image of what had happened at the DAPL [Dakota Access Pipeline protest] camp. I shall be the change the reservation will wish to see. / Photo courtesy Social Justice Sewing Academy
“I want to make sewing accessible and equitable,” Trail said. “I want to make quilts that matter.”