CONCORD — It’s easy to see in Paul S. Briggs’s sleek, tortured ceramics a vision of bound souls.
The artist is captivated by beauty and rhythm. But in his “Knot Vessels” series, on view in “Empowering Voices” at Lucy Lacoste Gallery, elegant architectonic forms are literally tied up in knots.
It’s his second series about confinement, after last year’s “Cell Personae.” Briggs saw “13th,” Ava DuVernay’s 2016 documentary about systemic racism in the American prison system, and he read Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow: Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.” The injustice ate at him.
Briggs, 57, has done some prison ministry.
“I worked with a young man who got himself into trouble,” the artist said. “This guy’s persona, his life, is marked out for him. The system is with him for the rest of his life.”
Briggs’s career in clay, which started when he was a student at Alfred University, took an extended detour when he became a Baptist minister. His father, a minister in New York’s Hudson Valley, got sick in the mid 1990s. Briggs went to help with the church. He worked on interfaith initiatives; he helped create a shelter program.
“I knew it was not sustainable,” said Briggs, who sees making art as a spiritual practice. “I need my down time. I need my solitude. I’m an artist.”
As a ceramicist, he loves the technique of pinching clay, coaxing it into form — no additions, no subtractions. His pinched vessels, which you can see on Instagram (@psbriggs3.0), are foliate and serene.
“The pinching is just soothing,” Briggs said. “My kids call and say ‘Dad, why are you up so late?’ I’ll say, ‘I’m having a nightcap.’ They know I’m pinching.”
But DuVernay’s documentary and Alexander’s book shook him up, and he saw clay as a way to address the injustice. The stuff of the earth, in the hands of this artist, becomes the stuff of the soul — as rugged yet fragile, and as filled with potential.
“I’m always in conversation with it,” he said, “battling the humble material of the clay.”
He set to work making the 25-piece “Cell Personae” series — clean, black, boxy constructions containing or wrapped in bars. They’re constructed from clay blocks, a technique called slab work.
“Knot Vessels” is similar — dark and interlaced with ropes. Because these works have interiors and exteriors, there’s something metaphorically human about them.
“You see knot tied upon knot,” said Charles Stigliano, a professor at Massachusetts College of Art and Design. Briggs taught there in the 1990s, was a student in the 2010s, and is now back on the faculty.
“You feel in that tangle the accumulation of time, and a greater sense of history. And trying to understand this time, our time, is like unraveling all the knots,” Stigliano said. “It’s beautiful but painful.”
Yet the works are abstract enough to address everyone’s life.
“They reference all of us,” Briggs said. “The first person to purchase one was a gay white man. I told him what the work is about, and he said, ‘I relate to this work.’”
After leaving the ministry, the artist returned to MassArt and got a master of fine arts in 2014. The Black Lives Matter movement was rising and racial themes imbued his thesis show, but the work was multimedia. Clay, for Briggs, retained a purity.
“If clay showed up in those pieces, it was not politicized,” he said.
These latest, more pointed ceramics couldn’t escape their worldly context.
“His work is so much about grace and beauty, ordinarily,” Stigliano said. “But when the first knot piece appeared, it was as if he couldn’t do that anymore.”
Briggs, a contemplative man, has become an inadvertent activist. In 2018, he helped found the Color Network, an alliance of artists who advance the work of ceramicists of color.
“We’ve all been saying ‘I didn’t know there were that many Black potters out there,’” he said. “We’re asking, ‘What is it to make art as a person of color in these times of uprising?’”
Clay is versatile. Briggs can get lost in it, savoring its plasticity and its changing properties as it stiffens from wet to leathery and beyond.
“It amazes me every time,” he said. He hasn’t abandoned his pinch pots, which bring him peace. But these days, there are social questions that open-ended, lyrical art is uniquely equipped to pose.
“I’d love to just deal with pure aesthetics,” Briggs said. “But I can’t just keep doing that with everything going on.”
At Lucy Lacoste Gallery, 25 Main St., Concord, through Oct. 10. 978-369-0278, www.lucylacoste.com
Cate McQuaid can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.