The Clay Artist Channeling the Sonoran Desert Into Next-Level Dinner Plates

Echoes of nature and the Sonoran find their way into Baron's artisan dinnerware.
Echoes of nature and the Sonoran find their way into Baron's artisan dinnerware. Chris Malloy
Joan Baron, an artist who shapes clay, keeps handmade ceramic leaves in a bowl by the ocotillo fence in her front yard. A former art director at a tile company, she has crafted and laid, in her kitchen, a mosaic of the Jordan River flowing between her island and stove. At the back of her house, her studio shines with sunlight streaming in through high windows. Here, she shapes ecologically conscious bowls, plates, and other dinnerware inspired by the Sonoran Desert.

As Baron applies glaze and fires clay, the sun passes from the left windows to the right. The sun’s transit is one of many deeply considered elements that shapes Baron’s dinnerware. And just as they shape the dinnerware, these elements, through the dinnerware, reach the food.

click to enlarge Joan Baron holds a plate with inset porcelain in her spacious studio. - CHRIS MALLOY
Joan Baron holds a plate with inset porcelain in her spacious studio.
Chris Malloy
“It’s a difference in the emotion and energy,” Baron says, citing one primary difference between her plates and factory porcelain. “It’s a sort of intelligent energy that happens because I’m partnering with the sun all day.”

But this south Scottsdale ceramist partners with the sun in other non-obvious ways as well. Some 65 percent of the energy she uses is harvested by the solar panels from her roof, an admirable percentage when you consider how much juice it takes to keep kilns between 1,700 and 2,300 degrees. She uses clays from places like the Colorado River, a wide-open place ruled by sun. And the colors of our daytime desert sky and flowers even make their way into her work.

Baron shapes smooth roundish dishes, glossy centers speckled white to twilight-blue.

She crafts red plates inset with white porcelain, wheel-thrown tequila shooters with the faces of desert animals, stackable bowls like fluted aquamarine clamshells.

She molds square plates that aren’t square and look like a desert night sky, a slashing band in one corner the color of your favorite hiking trail during rain.

click to enlarge The earthtones and blues of the desert sky drip into Baron's plates. - CHRIS MALLOY
The earthtones and blues of the desert sky drip into Baron's plates.
Chris Malloy
But she does much more than dinnerware. From clay, Joan Baron also makes tiles, vases, vessels for fresh-cut herbs, potholders that use three or more colors, and a variety of public art. She works beside Ali Mariles Golamb, who has been with Baron Studio for 13 years. Baron’s public art lives in places like the Desert Botanical Garden and Phoenix Children’s Museum. Her culinary pieces can be found at The Breadfruit, Essence Bakery Cafe (come the winter holiday season), and online (soon) or at her studio by appointment.

“Eat real food from real bowls,” she says, reciting her motto and smiling. Baron practices what she preaches, as she keeps chickens and a garden of everything from artichokes to chiltepines, spilling from her backyard and into the dirt suburban lane behind her house. She also has an old culvert and roof-drainpipe system rigged in her backyard, allowing her to store 400 gallons of rainwater, some used in ceramics production. “Use more clay, less plastic,” she says, reciting another.

click to enlarge Tequila shooters show the faces of desert animals. - CHRIS MALLOY
Tequila shooters show the faces of desert animals.
Chris Malloy
When showing her art, Baron gives sunny outdoor venues priority. The natural world is her wellspring of inspiration.

“Hiking is huge for me,” she says, explaining plate design. “Just seeing the patterns and how a slight change in elevation will change the rock formation, and then you’re walking through a motherlode of rose quartz. And then it switches, you go around a curve and now it’s black slate. Or you see where rocks have tumbled down from the latest rainstorm.”

There is a rough elegance to her work that mirrors that of the Sonoran Desert. Jutting lips and edges. A robust, surprising minimalism. Asymmetry and earth tones.

These tendencies seem to lengthen in her pointed, four-sided plates. “You might wonder how these angular, very modernistic pieces were informed by nature,” she says. “Well, slate material is very angular. Big pieces of shale will come off, and then you get to see the interior boulder, and it’s layers and layers and layers of this angular piece of material … that informs the shape.”

The blues of the Sonoran sky above the boulder and the Western Blue Flag flower peppering around trickle into plates, too.

click to enlarge Baron displays two ceramics designed to hold hot pots and plates. - CHRIS MALLOY
Baron displays two ceramics designed to hold hot pots and plates.
Chris Malloy
When concepting dinnerware, Baron thinks beyond aesthetics. Many of her touches are functional. For example, she added a square grip to the convex base of dishes. “I was really studying what someone in the restaurant has to do to bring out a plate,” she says. Curling your hand around the grip, you secure the plate more surely. When placed on the table, the plate rests on the square grip and is less likely to slide.

Other pieces, like bowls for a single ice cream scoop, have "feet" designed purely to lift them off the table. “It elevates the piece,” Baron says. “So the same way that it’s lifting itself up, it lifts us up. It’s another brain connection in how things can make us feel if they’re designed with intention.”

For all of the visual gravity that food has, for how hungry our eyes have become in the digital age, not many chefs pay much attention to the vessels that carry their food to you. It’s an understandable element to overlook, considering the more pressing concerns of profit margins and ordering ingredients and orchestrating the kitchen.

click to enlarge These tiny bowls get high. - CHRIS MALLOY
These tiny bowls get high.
Chris Malloy
But still, dinnerware like Baron’s can bring another dimension to dinner, a dimension that softly pulses with the land and her influences and makes the meal better, just like the right herb showering or citrus squeeze can.

“I don’t want it to be precious,” she says. “I want it to be used and enjoyed. So what if it gets a little chip on the corner? If it’s fired properly, then it’s just as good on the edge.”

Baron even designs the underside of her plates: furrows, color swirls, creamy porcelain inlays. Just like the inscription on the inside of a knight’s breastplate — not necessary, but the kind of next-level intention that adds something vital.

“You always want to provide surprises for people,” she says. “They pull your spirit up.”

Note: You can learn more about exhibits and events on Baron Studio’s website. There, in the coming weeks, you will be able to see and buy dinnerware.
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Chris Malloy, former food editor and current food critic at Phoenix New Times, has written for various local and national outlets. He has scrubbed pots in a restaurant kitchen, earned graduate credit for a class about cheese, harvested garlic in Le Marche, and rolled pastas like cappellacci stuffed with chicken liver. He writes reviews but also narrative stories on the food world's margins.
Contact: Chris Malloy