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Plant Lover

Author: Susan Regan
Issue: April, 2009, Page 50
Photography by Brendan Moore

Ceramist Mike Cone says he is passionate about both pottery and plants. Here, working in his studio, the artist makes a planter by hand-forming clay around a mold and meticulously imprinting a repeating design.
Artist Mike Cone’s
fascination with desert vegetation results in
botanically inspired pots

The first thing you should know about ceramist Mike Cone is that he loves plants. To be more precise, he’s a die-hard enthusiast. “I’m a plant fanatic,” he admits. “I’m a species freak.”

Cone’s Phoenix home and garden are filled with flora well-suited to the Sonoran Desert, from arid-adapted orchids to his all-time favorite Madagascar palms. So, 10 years ago, it was a natural transition for Cone to shift the focus of his work from figurative sculpture to crafting vessels for plants.Today, his signature Spiny pot, with its distinct “pinched” design, is easily identifiable to fans of his work.

Cone’s ceramic creations are fanciful, brightly colored and reveal ardent attention to detail. He may use a small handmade ceramic flower stamp to manually press a repeated design around the outside of a pot, or layer his custom-mixed glazes until just the right finish is achieved. Likewise, his in-depth knowledge of arid plants and how to grow them in the desert enables him to make stoneware planters that work well in the Southwest. For example, many of his pots perch on hand-rolled clay feet that elevate the vessels off the ground, which means that ants and termites are less likely to nest underneath.

He also crafts designs that are devised to hold specific types of vegetation. His orchid planters, for example, have extra ventilation, while water “wells” are a must in pots for carnivorous plants, in order that the roots can access water as needed. Of late, the artist has expanded his repertoire to include a series of decorative tiles that can be arranged to form outdoor wall decor, and floating ceramic shelves suitable for alfresco kitchens, living rooms or planting areas.

Cone uses a small finial to add a design to a planter.
Cone says both plants and pottery have piqued his interest since his youth, spent near Oakland, California. He recalls having an artistic streak when he was young and points to his grandmother and mother as his earliest inspirations. Cone would tag along with his mother to ceramics classes, and as a teenager took a job pouring molds at the local studio. There, he learned a variety of techniques from the artists who taught workshops. At the same time, Cone found himself intrigued with the Southwest and its diverse plant palette. In 1987, after a stint in the business world, he decided to follow his heart and move to Arizona.

The self-taught ceramist worked at his craft on weekends and in his spare time for several years, steadily building a client base and establishing a foothold in the artistic and gardening communities. He is a founding member of the annual Hidden in the Hills Studio Tour that is held in north Phoenix, as well as vendor chair for the Central Arizona Cactus & Succulent Society’s annual plant show and sale at Desert Botanical Garden. Seven years ago, Cone began devoting his attention to pottery full time; he says it was the realization of a dream he has had since he was 15.

Jane Evans, co-owner of Plants for the Southwest—a Tucson nursery that specializes in cacti and succulents from deserts around the world—has been carrying Cone’s planters in her store for more than eight years. She says customers enjoy the fun colors and shapes, while she is impressed with the artist’s attention to such requirements as proper dimensions and drainage. “As unusual as our plants are to the plant world, his pots are the perfect complement,” she comments.

For Cone, being able to merge his passions for pottery and desert plants allows him to enjoy the best of both worlds. He sums up his approach simply: “Plants and art—they just go together.”

The color of this red vessel complements a grouping of English daisies.

Cone collects arid vegetation from around the world. Here, he placed a Lachenalia aloides v. quadricolor, a bulb from South Africa, in a Box pot.
The artist’s Spiny pot (left) holds a Mammillaria lenta cactus, while a dwarf butterfly agave is showcased in a green footed pot.
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