A Heritage in Clay

Business administration seemed sensible, and Hadrian Mendoza ’96 worked hard to fulfill major requirements in his first three years at Mary Washington. Then came senior year, with only electives left to take.

Mendoza filled his schedule with drawing, painting, and poetry – and a ceramics class that would prove life-changing.

Working with clay lit up Mendoza’s brain like nothing had before. “It’s so natural,” Mendoza thought. “You take dirt, you use fire, and then you have a permanent object. How awesome is that?”

Clay and fire lured Hadrian Mendoza off a conventional business administration path and into a career as a ceramic artist.

After two semesters, he asked Lorene Nickel, now a professor emerita of art, what it would take to make a living as a potter. Was it even possible?

Her answer, he remembers, was something an earnest business major had to consider seriously: It was possible, and he could be good at it. But it might not ever be lucrative.

Mendoza had gotten into culinary school, but he never even sent a deposit. A year at the Corcoran School of Art in Washington, D.C., wasn’t the right fit, either.

Instead, he returned to the Philippines, where he was born and still had family. He served a yearlong apprenticeship with potter Jon Pettyjohn in the rural province of Laguna, in the mountains south of Manila.

Then he, Pettyjohn, and Pettyjohn’s wife, Tessy, opened a pottery school that drew students from all over the Philippines. Over several years, Mendoza taught others as he experimented with pottery forms, kilns, and glazes.

He embraced the challenge of large, structurally complicated pieces that blend artistry and physics. Works in his Balance series spin aloft from small bases, seeming to defy gravity.

He evoked his heritage with works inspired by the Manunggul Jar, a burial jar dating to 890-710 B.C. that was excavated intact from the Philippines’ Tabon Caves and is considered a national treasure.

The ancient jar held worldly goods that the deceased would take to the afterlife, but Mendoza’s most recent Manunggul series sculpture is hollow in the center, reflecting his belief that the dead don’t need possessions.

“It’s not the material things that set you up,” he said. “It’s the way you live your life.”

Those aren’t empty words for Mendoza. In 2009, he and wife Kim moved with their two daughters to Fairfax County, near relatives and Kim’s job at the World Bank in Washington. It was good for the family but humbling for Mendoza, who left his house, his studio, and a comfortable reputation as one of the top ceramic artists in Southeast Asia. Here, as just another unknown potter, he had to re-establish his art roots.

Now he teaches, creates, and sells his work at the Workhouse Center for the Arts in Lorton, and he’s making connections with local artists and gallery owners. His works can be seen online at hadrianmendozapottery.com.

He’s found a balance, too, between his business administration major and artistic sides. In 2014, he said, he had his best year financially in 19 years doing pottery, and he hopes to outdo that this year.

“I make things to make a living,” he said. “But I make it first with my heart.”