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InteriorsStudio Tour

Studio Tour: Abigail Murray

by Kelli Kehler

In Detroit, Michigan’s historical Indian Village, on a property it shares with a home, you’ll find an old car collector’s garage standing steady despite its 1910 beginnings as a sanctuary for cars made in the early 1900s by the Anderson Electric Car Company. Soaring arched windows cast in high-fire masonry block let in an abundance of light, as do the cupola in the vaulted ceiling and its neighboring skylight — all told, the old garage feels more like a church. For ceramicist Abigail Murray, this church-like garage serves as her home studio, and drives a newfound dream that was born of a major life change.

“Inspired by a request for dishes from a friend and a re-prioritizing of my life after my child [was born], I founded my brand in 2012,” Abigail shares. “I now run my independent ceramics company from my studio in Detroit, using a combination of hand building and slip casting techniques. My pieces are influenced by the intimacy of the relationship between pots and their users.”

With Abigail’s ceramics company underway, her husband got tenure at the University of Michigan while the family was living in Ann Arbor. They were hoping to move to Detroit and find a home with ample studio space so Abigail could run her business from home. The couple set their sights on the Indian Village area, and a year and a half ago, bought their current home with a 575-square-foot garage onsite that was perfect for Abigail’s studio.

“The garage that became the studio hadn’t been rehabbed, probably ever,” Abigail recalls. “The floor was heaved, the windows were painted shut, the plaster on the inside was crumbling. It was still so beautiful though, we didn’t want to change much. Since we had to redo the floor anyway, we decided to put in radiant heating. My old studio was on a slab and the floors were so cold in the winter I had to wear Sorel [boots] inside to keep my feet from getting cold. It was pretty great to avoid that problem.”

All windows were taken out and restored, doors were remade as exact replicas of the originals (to shut properly and be airtight), and the whole interior was plastered cupola to baseboard to eradicate the garage’s original lead plaster walls.

“My goal was to not mess it up,” Abigail admits. “It was in a Packard Car advertisement in 1916 and shortly after we moved in, a Packard collector who was coming to town contacted us to see if the garage was still there and asked if he could bring his car over to take a picture. We said ‘sure,’ and it seemed even more important to keep it close to the original, at least on the outside.”

With the garage studio’s renovation behind her, Abigail can work from the backyard of her home while her five-year-old son plays outside — a privilege that isn’t lost on her. But as working from home often presents distractions (“weeds that need to be pulled, vegetables that need to be picked, laundry that needs to be done, etc.”), Abigail is happy to periodically check her work/life balance as a tradeoff.

“I feel so incredibly privileged to be able to work in this space and to be in this neighborhood,” Abigail shares. “People take a lot of pride in caring for their historic homes and showing them to the community through things like the Indian Village Home Tour. And it’s pretty great to be able to go check kilns in my bathrobe.” —Kelli

Photography by E.E. Berger / @eeberger

Image above: An inspiring place in which Abigail creates her stunning ceramic forms. The new plaster work and grand windows create a lofty, light-filled space ripe for both discipline and creativity. 

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“Opening the doors up in nice weather is wonderful,” Abigail says. “I can look out at my garden to one side of the yard, and my son playing on the other.”

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“We built shelves in the bricked up exit that used to open up to the alley, but kept the sliding barn garage door because it just seemed wrong not to.”

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Handy utility shelves tuck away plaster molds in which Abigail makes her slip cast work.

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Abigail explains her process: “Slip, or liquid clay, is poured into the molds and allowed to partially dry. Then you pour away the excess slip and pull out the piece. Here you see molds that are ready to have the slip cast piece taken out.”

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“Once the pieces come out of the molds, they air dry until they become what is known as greenware.”

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Abigail at work in her studio, with a cameo by her son.

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“I received my MFA from Cranbrook Academy of Art and spent years making sculpture and installations. I participated in artist residencies and programs around the world, including EKWC in the Netherlands and Akademie Schloss-Solitude in Germany.” More about Abigail’s process: “Before they go into the kiln I clean up the edges and the lip of the pieces by hand. Here you can see some of the drips on the edge of the bowls that will get evened out and smoothed down.”

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Work methods become a display of art, “I am always testing materials and ideas to create new work. These are some samples of different glazes on regular porcelain as well as black and grey porcelain.”

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“I’m lucky to have storage and a place for plaster work in the basement of the house, so we were able to keep things pretty minimal and clean in the studio, really celebrating the space as it is. It feels like a church.”

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Stunning finished works fill the shelves in the garage studio. “After they are fired to the bisque stage, I glaze all the pieces by hand. I’ve been using a lot of cool grey, pink, and pale green, as well as the natural white of the porcelain.”

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“The doors were trickier to restore, and no matter what we did they’d never shut properly or be airtight,” Abigail notes of the renovation process. “We decided to have them remade by a company called Virtuoso Design. They made them match the original doors exactly, except with insulation, double pane windows and hardware that makes them easy to keep open in the summer.”

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What Abigail loves most about her 1910 converted garage studio is made possible by grand windows, soaring ceilings, a cupola and a skylight.

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“A plan of the studio space with the work tables, kilns, storage, and slip mixing machines in place.”

SOURCE LIST

-All ceramic pieces and plaster molds made by Abigail

-The tables are slate chalkboards saved from a old school that Abigail got from a former neighbor

-The supports under the slate tables are unistrut metal framing systems. They were designed by University of Michigan faculty.

-The doors were done by Virtuoso Design

-The windows are by Window Hugger

-The plaster work was done by Hoffman Plastering

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