Tuesday, April 21, 2009

American Craft Magazine Interviews: Sanam Emami

STORY BY Molly Hatch

Can you tell our readers a little bit about yourself?
I am a studio potter and professor at Colorado State University. Except for the one year I lived in New York City, I have been teaching full-time since finishing graduate school in 2002.

For the past four years, I have traveled to Iran in the summers to see my family. The immersion of speaking Farsi and becoming engrossed in the daily life in Tehran for one month each year has had an impact on me. Although I was born in Iran, I left when I was six and had not returned since 1981. The visual and material culture in the Middle East has followed a different historical trajectory than that of the west. I am often drawn to Pre-Islamic and Islamic art in Iran and attempt to incorporate elements of these influences into my work. The influences are at time visually apparent on my forms and the patterns that are embedded in the wet clay, and at other times, they are only present in the method of juxtaposing selected patterns and images on the surface with silk-screened imagery. Some of my current work places abstract ornament next to more photographic images of nature. I am interested in playing with the idea of representation within the broad scope of Islamic art and architecture.

Can you describe your work, some of the ideas behind your making process and how you came to working in this way?
I work primarily in clay. Sometimes, my curiosity about other disciplines and activities such as silk screening and printmaking in general; on paper, on walls, on clay leads the work in different directions; however, I find myself focusing the majority of my studio time making utilitarian pottery and tiles.

Function is the predominant concept that ties my work together. Function and abstract ornamentation are constants. The idea of function is elastic and in flux. It is a starting point, a system that allows for endless imaginative solutions and variations. Within this framework, questions of form and surface arise and there is a play between the aesthetic and functional qualities of the pot or tile. My pots are time consuming, layered with multiple processes and yet still designed for daily use.

Can you describe a typical work day?
During the school year, my studio days are very divided. I work best when I have consecutive hours of studio time, but you adjust and find a way to get some things done. Currently my studio is at school and this means that at some point the studio is part of the office and the two are never completely separated. The winter break and summer break allow for a very different kind of studio day. That is the time when I can forget and put aside the daily activities of teaching and administration and focus on making pottery.

The type of studio day is organized around where I am in the process. I always try to throw on the pottery wheel in the morning. I am more alert and able to balance the physical activity at hand and the ideas that are swirling around in my head. Most other activities such as stamping, applying silk screens and trimming are done over the course of a few days when the clay is still wet and flexible.

How is your work studio set up and what do you value about it?
During the past ten years my studio space has changed almost yearly. My studio needs and set up are very simple. I need running water, a pottery wheel, a couple of tables and some shelves. I suppose what I value about the studio is that I have a space to work and that I am still excited and inspired to get to there and be with the work.

What is your background and education?
My undergraduate degree is in History with a focus on the Middle East. I always thought I would either go to law school or become a historian. I enrolled in art classes, mostly printmaking and ceramics, but these were among many of my interests at the time. Three years after finishing school, I decided to pursue a career in clay and enrolled as a special student at the University of Colorado, Boulder. After a two year residency at the Archie Bray Foundation, I began graduate school at Alfred University in 2000.

There’s lots of talk about formal training vs. “real world” experience amongst artists these days, and I see real value in both. Since you went the formal route, what do you think art school gave you (besides a degree) that you may not have received had you not attended?
I am not sure there is such a clear line or boundary between formal training and real world experience, nor has there been such a clear boundary for some time. Although most artists today do receive a degree from an institution, there are many other variables that factor into the impact of formal training. Timing is really important – when one finishes a degree and begins another. What one chooses to do before seeking a terminal degree also affects how the MFA will impact an artist. I spent seven years working, doing residencies, traveling, researching before entering graduate school. My two years in residence at the Archie Bray Foundation happened before graduate school. I learned from other more experienced residents about being an artist, multi-tasking and utilizing time: time to be in the studio, be productive and to value the time to reflect and talk about the work. This informative period had as much impact on my artistic development as did graduate school.

Many so called “real world” experiences are in place because of institutional and academic connections or support. We all need training and time to develop our skills as craftspeople. The systems and networks of apprenticeships are far smaller in the 21st century than the 17th or 18th century. The academic institutions provide not only precious time for the development of critical thinking and training, but also connect people to each other. This includes “real world” spaces. I think that the response to a question like this is very much directed by the question. If we approach these spaces as fundamentally separate, we continue to perpetuate the idea that they are not interconnected.

Could you describe some of the most influential and career changing experiences you have had since leaving school? What about these experiences was so important?
The most influential and career changing experience for me outside of school and academia was the year I spent prior to graduate school and the Archie Bray residency at the studio of Matthew Metz and Linda Sikora in Houston, Minnesota.

Matt stayed and worked in the studio during my first three months of my time in Minnesota. This time was invaluable for me. Matt was in the studio early in the morning, worked all day and often went back after dinner. He talked to me about the details of running and maintaining a studio. Matt and I often talked extensively about everything from pricing work, relationships to galleries, influences of history and the general state of contemporary studio pottery. He was very generous with his time and his ideas. He told me once that perseverance as much as talent was what kept more people in the field. I think he was right.

Is there anything you wish you had known when you were leaving school but didn’t that you might share with us now?
I thought that once I finished graduate school that somehow there would be more clarity about how to move forward and make decisions and make my work. I assumed that the failures would be less than the successes, and that the anxiety of being an artist and pushing through ideas and projects would diminish. I have been out of graduate school for six years and I realize now that those things will always be a part of the whole experience. Perhaps how one copes with the complexities and challenges changes as time moves on and skills develop.

How has your experience so far been different or similar to your expectations when you set out?
My one thought for this question is that I expected to have more consistency and continuity in my life after graduate school. Now I realize that many of the concerns that I had prior to graduate school were not the result of not having a degree, they are just part of the daily challenges that are necessary for growth and experimentation. They keep me interested, curious and wanting to rise to the challenges of going to the studio daily.

What is your relationship to design, craft and the fine arts? How do you see your relationship to each? Or one in particular?
Many philosophers and writers have written extensively about the problem of these historical divisions. The creative acts that inspire and have had a lasting impact on society utilize aspects of all three: design, art and craft. When these words get politicized and used to reinforce ideas of hierarchy, economic value and prestige, then I am wary of them. I think each generation, going as far back as Plato and others, have defined and redefined the role of work in society and the value of labor related to the human hand and head. As Richard Sennett writes in the The Craftsman, “Making is thinking.” I am interested in what we are able to create when we focus on the connections of these divisions and I can be the thinker and the maker.

Was there a point in your career that you made a decision to sell your work/pots for a living? Could you describe how you came to that decision?
I hope that decision is somewhere in my future, but I do worry about how functional pottery is valued in our culture. Sometimes I think that everything in the world, including painting, sculpture and glass, get more and more expensive. The vast majority of ceramics, and pottery in particular, seem to exist in a pricing range that was determined many years ago and has not changed over time. I think there is a big question for me about keeping the work accessible and trying to gauge value relative to the marketplace.

What difficulties arise in both making and selling your work and how do you overcome these?
Since I teach full-time, for me the difficulty is having the time to be in the studio. The selling of the work seems to be less of an issue. The pricing of work and the way our culture values the hand made and the functional pot seems to be the more pertinent question for me.

What is your relationship with galleries (on and offline)? How has that relationship changed over time? What role does the internet play in your work?
My relationship with galleries has developed slowly over the past few years. There is a lot of potential to link up patrons, artists and galleries online, but the question of quality and sifting through lots of information at once is also a reality of the internet. I have a website that archives past and current work, and often I think about selling work from my website. That may happen one day when I am no longer teaching full-time.

How does an artist go about acquiring business and marketing skills if they aren’t a natural at it already, and cannot afford to hire someone to help them? How do you market your work and what avenue has been the most successful?
I don’t even have a business card so I am certainly not qualified to answer this question. Ann Hamilton was visiting Alfred University a few years ago and said she spent three full months each year on the business and marketing of her artwork. I have colleagues who are also able to devote that much time to business side of things. I think perseverance and necessity are needed to create and market artwork.

Before and after graduate school, I said yes to every gallery and exhibition opportunity. I am trying to be a bit more selective now, but it is never easy or clear how and when to say no to an opportunity.

You must have some favorite designers that you look to for inspiration. What other artists’ inspire you? Where do you find inspiration for your designs?
Inspiration and influences can come from a photograph of an architectural structure, an historical pot as well as an excerpt of an essay or story. I absorb and fold inspiration into my pots from sketches, textures, shapes and the play between layering all these ideas onto clay. Often inspiration is not an immediate or direct step. Rather, it is an interactive and prolonged relationship that takes time to develop. I see many things that interest me, and sometimes the fun comes through sorting through the inspiration to find the particulars that need to move into the work.

Can you tell us about future projects?
I want to revisit the Tulip Vase. I am thinking of increasing scale and introducing new imagery on the forms. I also want to revisit a project I did at the end of my residency at the Archie Bray Foundation – tiles on a painted and silk-screened wall. I am also playing with color by working with both light and dark clay bodies. The shift has really changed the balance between the forms and the layered surfaces.

When you have a moment to actually breathe (!), what do you do for fun?
Bike rides, cooking meals at home and watching movies.

I always like to ask, do you have any influential books or texts that you can recommend?
I just finished A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini and am currently reading The Craftsman by Richard Sennett. Other favorites include: Ornament: A Modern Perspective by James Trilling, On Beauty and Being Just by Elaine Scarry, Ornament & Abstraction, edited by Fondation Beyeler and The Persistence of Craft edited by Paul

American Craft Magazine Interviews: Jeanne Quinn

STORY BY Molly Hatch

Can you tell our readers a little bit about yourself?
I grew up in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., and spent a lot of my free time as a kid studying music. My non-structured time, however, was spent learning every craft ever invented. I went on to study art history and baroque music performance at Oberlin College. I wasn’t sure quite how to put that all together after I graduated, and I spent some time apprenticing to a woodworker and living on a commune in Tennessee. Then I apprenticed with a violinmaker in Italy; I came back to the U.S. and got a job making flutes in Boston. Making instruments was really interesting, and had this great quality of combining the act of making with hanging out with musicians. But after doing it for a while, you realize that it is all craft and not much about creativity. I needed to be inventing my own things—although relating them to use and the body, as musical instruments did, was interesting to me. I began taking some ceramics classes at a community center and did a bit of work as an assistant to a wonderful ceramicist, Anne Smith. I realized that ceramics was the thing—it had that history of relationship to the body, but had the possibility for all kinds of invention. I ended up becoming a student for a few semesters at the University of Colorado in Boulder, where I worked with Betty Woodman—she became a great mentor for me. I then went on to graduate school at the University of Washington. Two years after graduate school, I got a job teaching back at Boulder, and I’ve been there since.

Can you describe your work, some of the ideas behind your making process and how you came to working in this way?
For the past seven or eight years, I’ve been making installations, using multiple small parts to create a larger piece. They often reference decoration or the history of decorative arts in some way. I’m also interested in material as a metaphor. I’m interested in the dialectical nature of ceramics: soft and plastic to hard and immutable, permanent and fragile . . . these contradictory qualities invite endless exploration.

In 2001, I spent 8 months in Europe—most of it was at the International Ceramic Center in Denmark. They invited me to be part of a symposium called “Object and Installation.” Up to that point, I had been making vessels that I arranged in small groups, usually pairs, to create some kind of narrative still life. I thought it was interesting that they were inviting me to be part of a conversation about installation, as I hadn’t considered what I was doing to be installation—it was so small-scale. But simply having someone else frame my work around this question made me understand it in a new way: I started thinking about how the space between objects was as expressive as the objects themselves.

Can you describe a typical work day?
It varies tremendously. If I’m teaching, I generally focus on school for about 4 days a week. I try to spend at least one whole, uninterrupted day either drawing at home or working in my studio. I often hire an assistant during the school year—I like the rhythm of work that is imposed by needed to be ready to work with an assistant.

If it’s during the summer, or other time off, I usually spend one or two hours in the morning doing business work—correspondence, phone calls, working on a grant or proposal, etc. I pack a lunch and head to the studio and work steadily until dinnertime, listening to NPR all day.

How is your work studio set up and what do you value about it?
At the moment I am working in a studio in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. I share the space with a sculptor, Liza McConnell, who is a smart, funny person who I love to have around. I also have a stunning view of lower Manhattan, the East River, and the Williamsburg Bridge. I can watch the weather move in from the west, and can see when it is starting to rain at the Empire State Building; I know that it will hit Brooklyn a few minutes later.

It is a simple space; two large tables are on castors so that I can rearrange freely, depending on what I am working on—drawing, casting, installing, etc. I have aircraft cable strung across the ceiling at 1’ intervals, about 12’ up, so that I can hang things and see how they look.

So I value the view, the flexibility of the space, and the high ceilings. And the industrial beauty of the architecture. I value the incredible solitude of my studio. I feel free to experiment and try anything. It feels like a place of possibility.

There’s lots of talk about formal training vs. “real world” experience amongst artists these days, and I see real value in both. Since you went the formal route, what do you think art school gave you (besides a degree) that you may not have received had you not attended?
For me, as a student and now as a teacher, school’s greatest value is as a community. You meet a lot of people when you go to school. Some of the people who were most valuable to me in graduate school were not official faculty members, but artists in Seattle who had a connection to the school in some way. Jeffry Mitchell was a fantastic artist who periodically participated in critiques at UW; I admired his work tremendously and cultivated a relationship with him. He remains a dear friend. I had professors who helped me find a studio after graduating, who helped connect me with galleries and collectors . . . all of these things can happen outside of a school context, of course. I have also found residencies to be great places to meet other artists who can be helpful, both personally and professionally. But school concentrates people who are passionate about the same discipline, and provides a more formal space for important conversations to happen. I found that helpful as a student, and I value it tremendously as a teacher. It’s very stimulating. School keeps me from being lazy; there’s no time for it.

Could you describe some of the most influential and career changing experiences you have had since leaving school? What about these experiences was so important?
Probably the most important experience was my first extended time working in Europe. I began with two weeks as a guest professor at the Muthesius Hochschule in Kiel, Germany. I couldn’t have had a lovelier group of students—they were all women and they really took tremendously good care of me. We had a wonderful time talking about their work—there were some different sensibilities that were very interesting to me—but the important thing about that experience was realizing how similar we all were. The subculture of ceramics completely trumped the superculture of nationality.

I then spent a month working in a porcelain factory, Kahla, in the former East Germany. This was one of the hardest experiences of my life; in retrospect, I learned a tremendous amount. There were fifteen artists and designers who had been invited to work at Kahla Porzellanmanufacture; everyone spoke German except for a designer from Japan and myself. Almost no one in the factory spoke English. I was so accustomed to making allies through language, and this ability was rendered useless. I had to figure out other ways to navigate this incredibly rich situation without using the skills I always relied on. It was a great realization, ultimately, to see that I had more resources than I knew, but tremendously challenging and sometimes painful while I was there.

I then went to the International Ceramic Center in Denmark, where I spent seven months. I had a show while I was there at the Grimmerhus Museum, with Sadashi Inuzuka and Satoro Hoshino. That was the first show that I had in a non-commercial gallery, and so of course I made a large installation. I hadn’t previously thought about the unspoken agreement that had existed while showing in commercial spaces: I was agreeing to make things for sale. As soon as that was removed, my work changed. To my surprise. I hadn’t even realized that I was responding to that pressure.

Is there anything you wish you had known when you were leaving school but didn’t that you might share with us now?
I’m sure there is but I can’t think of it.

How has your experience so far been different or similar to your expectations when you set out?
Surprisingly similar. I ended up getting a teaching job, which is what I wanted. It has allowed me to pursue my studio life in a totally free way, to make whatever I like. That is an incredible gift. I always assumed that that was the way it would be; what is different now is that I realize how precious that is.

What is your relationship to design, craft and the fine arts? How do you see your relationship to each? Or one in particular?
I am interested in all three. I am constantly looking—and, most importantly, seeing things in person. I’m much more interested in going to museums than in looking at magazines, for instance, although of course I do both.

I think what is most important, though, is simply to be interested in my own work. It is easy to see something and say, “oh yes, that is what I should be making; if I make work like that I will be successful.” I have realized over time that introspection, investing time in my own ideas—wherever they come from—is what leads me to my most interesting work. Rather than worrying too much about what categories others might impose on it.

Was there a point in your career that you made a decision to sell your work/pots for a living? Could you describe how you came to that decision?
I’ve never done it. I’ve made my living through teaching. It’s always great to sell work, but I’ve never relied on it.

What is your relationship with galleries (on and offline)? How has that relationship changed over time?
I have worked closely with galleries in the past, although that is not happening at the moment. I have enjoyed those relationships—I have been very careful in choosing who I wanted to work with over an extended period. Currently, as I have been primarily making large-scale installations, I have been exhibiting in non-profit art spaces, museums, university galleries, etc—places where the market is relatively absent. Although I have sold some of these large installations, when it happens it feels like an accident. It’s not something I put energy into.

What role does the internet play in your work?
I put up a website about two years ago, and have been very glad that I spent the time and energy to do it. It’s great just to be able to refer people to the website when they are interested in my work. It’s also handy for me, to have a repository of all of my own information. When I need to look up the dimensions of a piece, it’s always right there.

Most inquiries about my work—invitations for shows, lectures, etc., come by email these days. I think that people are happy to have the website to reference—when someone else recommends me for a show, it’s easy for a curator to look me up.

I also use the web as a visual reference. I think that a lot of artists do this. I just discovered the photograph file at the Library of Congress that has tens of thousands of online images—I’ve been researching chandeliers for an upcoming project, and it is an incredible resource.

I’ve also been doing some collaborations over the last year or so. One collaboration started in person, in Brooklyn, and was completed at a distance—being able to send images instantly was critical. I’m just embarking on a collaborative group project, “Manufacturing Content,” which involves each of us using CAD programs to create designs that we will render using rapid prototyping technology. The whole project thus far has existed via email—we’re about t o meet in person for the first time.

What other artists inspire you? Where do you find inspiration for your designs?
Currently my favorite artist is Diana Cooper. I love the way that she makes drawing and installation into one thing. She also has a fantastic sense of play with materials—she really sees possibilities in things, all the while maintaining a very sophisticated sense of form. She’s super-playful and super-serious.

I also love the drawings of Nina Bovasso—again, colorful, playful, but very ambitious, very grand. Also Thomas Nozkowski. It’s so interesting—I’ve never been all that interested in abstract painting/drawing. But I find his work totally compelling. He is onto something big. I can’t name it but I sure recognize it.

The artists I’m interested in change all the time—I think it depends on what I need to learn at a specific moment. I study what I need to learn.

Can you tell us about future projects?
At the moment I’m working on drawings (perhaps not surprising, considering my answer to the previous question). I’m experimenting, trying to get my sense of materiality/physicality that exists in my installations into drawings. It has allowed me a lot of space to play, which has been great. I’m also interested to see where these collaborative projects are going.

When you have a moment to actually breathe (!), what do you do for fun?
The obvious answer is Aikido—it’s a Japanese martial art that I have been training in for about six years now. I like how non-verbal it is, especially after a day of talking, talking, talking at school. I find it very useful in a number of ways. I like being a student, having someone else in charge. I like learning something completely different. I like that it involves big movement, whole-body movement, instead of the micro-movements I make while working in my studio. It also gives me a great lens through which to look at the world, which is very different from the art lens.

I also love to cook, and I spend a lot of time reading/thinking about food. When I am in New York, I work as an intern at Murray’s Cheese, and I have learned a lot that way. I love it. I have also met a lot of high-level New York foodies.

I always like to ask, do you have any influential books or texts that you can recommend?
I think that fiction ends up influencing me more than anything else. Or occasionally movies. Some idea will strike me, some emotional state, some character, some sensibility . . . something will catch my imagination and get me going. Currently I’m working my way through the books of Walter Mosley (incredible characters, incredible prose) and Haruki Murakami (it’s like Japanese magical realism).

Any last golden nuggets of information you would like to offer up?
Be yourself. If that means making art, great. If it means finding another way to express yourself, do that. If you end up making art, make work that is important to you. All of the other motivations will fade away.

Sarah Archer of GHP Essay for "Obamaware"

The full article can be read on Ayumi Horie's website. Click here to follow the link.
Kitchen Table Politics: ‘Obamaware’ Campaigns for Change, One Mug at a Time
2 comments Published by Sarah Archer on Tuesday, October 14, 2008 at 10:23 AM

About the Author
Sarah Archer is the Director of Greenwich House Pottery in NYC. She received her BA from Swarthmore College and has an MA in the history of decorative arts from the Bard Graduate Center. Sarah has worked at Price Glover, a New York antiques firm with a specialization in 18th Century British and American decorative arts, and during graduate school she was an intern with Garth Clark Gallery. She was a curatorial assistant at the Museum of Arts and Design before joining GHP. Her writing has appeared in Ceramics: Art and Perception.

by Sarah Archer

“The moment one picks up one of these objects to read it, one is already partly enveloped in that aura of home and hearth, and so one drops one’s defenses and is perhaps more receptive to the message the object contains.” Garth Clark, The Artful Teapot, 189.

On October 15th, 27 top American ceramic artists will unveil a diverse group of cups, plates and other pots called "Obamaware" as a fundraiser for Barack Obama's presidential campaign. What a great idea! A convergence of the handmade aesthetic beloved by progressive Americans, a 'green' object you can use over and over, and a way to support the arts during difficult economic times. What better way to support the candidate for change? It turns out that the Obamaware artists are in good company - some of the most fascinating episodes in ceramic history testify to the subtle but enduring power of pots to convey both food and ideas. Ancient Greek potters used scenes from well-known myths to comment on Athenian politics. One 16th century German potter decorated a jar with imagery that promoted controversial new Protestant beliefs - and went to jail for it. Pots have long played an important supporting role in conversations about politics in the domestic realm, or as politicians like to say, "around the kitchen table".

With the presidential race still close as of September 2008 and in atmosphere of urgency and hope, the Obamaware artists from across the country quickly mobilized their grassroots support for the campaign by organizing a sale of Obama-specific pots. Obamaware artists Garth Johnson and Ron Philbeck as well as ceramic artist Kristen Kieffer and have drawn attention to the event with thoughtful blog postings. Obama-related art and craft projects have popped up all over the internet: The Obama Art Report (a blog that tracks and highlights projects) and The Obama Craft Project are just two examples, both designed to raise the profile of the campaign and collect money for it. Many of the examples are prints, posters and graffiti, photographed in situ, where they can presumably be seen by hundreds of passersby, drawing attention wherever they are installed. The Obamaware pots, on the other hand, represent a different strategy - they both are and are-not-exactly public art. Notice of the pots will reach clay enthusiasts and Obama-supporters online, a place without geographical boundaries, but once purchased they will ultimately do their campaigning on a much more intimate scale, and that intimacy (a quality derived from the functional pottery format) is what gives the project its narrative power.

A key feature of Obamaware that distinguishes it from its ceramic antecedents is its reliance on a tool that potters as recently as the early 1990’s did not have: the internet. The ability to share images of Obamaware pots on websites, blogs like Design*Sponge and Daily Kos, or social networking sites like Facebook means that the project has the potential to circulate widely in the digital sphere. This visual circulation occurs in advance of an object’s journey to its new home, where it will be used, admired and shared with guests to spark conversation. Of course seeing images of a pot is not a substitute for holding it in one’s hands or viewing it in person. But the ability to view the imagery on a pot and to understand its intended function serve the purposes of a project like Obamaware. It’s a means of portraying Obama as an appealing candidate and conveying the grassroots passion of the artists involved. Viewers can choose the imagery they want on their new coffee mug, commemorative Sarah Palin beer stein or "¢hange" dish knowing that the piece will represent a way of both supporting a cause greater than themselves and displaying their own values.

Obamaware artist Donna Flanery summed it up well when she said of her pieces, echoing Garth Clark’s comment on narrative teapots: “the idea is to portray Obama as friendly and personable. Having tea with someone is an act of giving them your attention. The cups are intended to be functional and to provide the viewer with the feeling that they are attending a tea party - that they can have tea with the president.” Buy purchasing a piece of Obamaware, a person engages in this kind of metaphorical intimacy (combined, perhaps, with the feeling that the mug or bowl is akin to a piece of fantasy White House china). The buyer is figuratively opening their home to a candidate who is still relatively new to the public eye. Who is Barack Obama and what can we expect from an Obama-Biden administration? The Obamaware artists have sought to answer that question for the few remaining undecided voters (or those who can still be persuaded) by expressing in their pots the best arguments in favor of his candidacy as they see it.

Despite their diverse aesthetics and approaches to this project, the Obamaware artists all seem to have one thing in common: they wanted to do something more than just make a monetary donation to the campaign. Volunteering is usually too time-consuming for all but the most disciplined among us, and a donation that most of us can afford to make probably seems like a drop in the bucket (although Obama is known as the candidate whose rapid rise was fueled by a wave of small contributions.) A work of art, however, is literally something that only one artist can do, a unique contribution, and it fits seamlessly into the work-life of a busy professional ceramist, making the “no time to volunteer” problem moot.

All Objects Communicate Something

Signs and symbols in the decorative arts are so prevalent it is difficult to think of an era or medium that has not incorporated them. The reading and interpretation of symbols, from coats of arms, insignia and initials to specific plants or animals, is one of the most basic tools for situating decorative arts in time, place and social context. At all times, we are surrounded by objects that have been designed and crafted or manufactured, their creation informed by hundreds of decisions at every stage about form, color, texture, decoration and function. So much can be read from the objects we live with that an entire academic discipline has emerged to investigate the meanings of things: material culture studies. Decorative arts and design communicate with us even as they meet basic domestic needs like seating or coffee service. Whether the intended message is status and prominence (luxury) or humility and simplicity (austerity), it is almost impossible to view an interior with neutrality.

People buy things for their homes that communicate to visitors and reinforce a self image they hold or want to hold. In turn, designers and craftsmen attempt to tap into design zeitgeist by incorporating larger cultural trends into household objects. In the first half of the 20th century, particularly thanks to industrial designer Raymond Loewy, many household appliances appeared “streamlined” (a quality that doesn’t add much to the actual function of a refrigerator). This was a deliberate attempt to convey a desirable sense of progress because the sleek look of streamlining echoed automobile, locomotive and jet design. Today, those same appliances as well as cell phones, iPods and computers might be slim and brightly colored to convey a sense of individuality and hipness, or to make the device seem more approachable. Communication through objects works in multiple directions. Consumers choose things that send the right message about who they are or want to be. Designers try to harness that desire to sell their products. And in some cases makers (and regimes) produce objects with the hope that consumers or viewers will adopt the ideas that the objects express. It is this last type of object that sets the stage for Obamaware.1

Ceramics have an almost limitless capacity to serve as a canvas, thus they are a natural outlet for narrative. Political ceramics in the context of contemporary sculpture today is well-situated in the art world. This month the "All Fired Up" ceramic events taking place in Westchester County includes an exhibition curated by Judith Schwartz of ceramic artwork called "Confrontational Clay", a group of ceramic sculptures that directly reference conflict and struggle. Mid-century functional ceramic masterpieces of lyric simplicity by potters such as Hans Coper, Lucie Rie, Gertrude and Otto Natzler or Eva Zeisel (a ceramic designer, not a potter) are well-represented in important collections and museums. But when more recently created ceramic objects enter a contemporary museum or a gallery today, their functionality is usually symbolic. Utility is the message, rather than the actual purpose of the piece. Such works, ranging from Cindy Sherman's “Madame de Pompadour (née Poisson)” porcelain service, to Maret Oppenheim's “Object (Le Déjeuner en fourrure)” (the famous fur-lined teacup), and Judy Chicago’s “Dinner Party”, use the recognizable utilitarian forms of tableware to convey a message to the viewer, usually a commentary on themes of of domesticity and gender.2 The Yixing revival teapots of Richard Notkin address serious topics from nuclear war to homelessness. The pots are created in the hyper-real mode of traditional Yixing teapots that were carefully sculpted to resemble bamboo and other natural forms.3Functional yes, though Notkin's pots are so highly esteemed and collectible it is doubtful that they get a great deal of everyday wear. Obamaware, conversely, is functional in a rhetorical sense: its aim is to bring a political message into the kitchen or the dining room, not a museum or a gallery.

Obamaware in Historical Context
There is nothing in ceramic history exactly like this project, but there are many examples of ceramics that bear imagery with political messages and, like Obamaware, most of that imagery comes from other media - prints, drawings, oral history or myth. The 27 artists who created work for this project are drawing from the existing repertoire of imagery and words that are understood to signify the Obama-Biden campaign: images of the candidate himself, the blue and red campaign logo, words like “hope” and “change”, and countervailing imagery from the McCain-Palin camp, which is uniformly presented in a satirical vein. Many of the historical examples discussed here are commemorative, or represent the views of artists responding to events in their own time. Obamaware, by contrast, is anticipatory: the artists involved are hopeful that the election will have a particular outcome.

Ceramics, along with metal, glass and stone, are much more likely to survive the ravages of time than organic materials like paper, wood and fabric, thus much of what we know of ancient and some medieval cultures comes from the ceramics they left behind. A long-established prejudice within Art History still exists towards ceramics and other decorative arts, thus scholars who were taught to value larger-scale works such as frescoes, painting, sculpture and architecture more highly tend to regard ceramics as a mere taste of what an ancient culture's "real" art looked like, dismissing pottery as a derivative art form. It is certainly true that archaeological remains give us at best an incomplete picture. But this, as we ceramophiles know, misses the point entirely since the goal of narrative functional ceramics is to bring commentary into the home where ideas can be shared on the micro rather than macro level; the "major/minor" debate of art versus craft is a red herring that sheds no light on either category.

An important distinction to note about political ceramics from other time periods is that while grassroots ideas are more often expressed in the efforts of studio potters or those of small workshops, factory china is more likely to tow a 'party line', as it were, reinforcing ideas that support a particular ruling party. One challenge we face in interpreting politically charged narrative ceramics from the past is that we have only limited knowledge of the circumstances of their creation, patronage and contemporary reception. In addition, we are able to see only what survived - not what was deemed too offensive or controversial before it was smashed and discarded. Ceramic historian Matthias Ostermann notes that as 21st century viewers, we have a habit of reading "real events" from the artwork of previous eras, despite the fact that narratives, though perhaps politically charged and realistically rendered, may not have been as literal as they may appear.4

Among the earliest examples are the narrative ceramics of ancient Greece and they are some of the most expressive ever produced. Close reading of certain scenes from Greek mythology in concert with knowledge of actual events has led scholars to interpret some examples as political commentary. The best known proponent of these theories is the eminent British archaeologist and professor emeritus at Oxford Sir John Boardman concerning Attic black-figure pottery from 6th century BC Athens. He writes that that during violent periods, imagery of warfare would appear more frequently in ceramic decoration, with qualities like patriotism and heroism depicted in the actions of mythical characters.5 The more interesting question, he wonders, is why certain characters and not others? What significance do these choices hold? Mythological characters did not necessarily bear a one-to-one relationship with real statesmen or warriors, but they could be conflated to represent important personal qualities and cultural or geographical associations.6
Representations of Herakles (better known as Hercules, his Roman name) appeared all over Athens in the 6th century BC. The image of his head was carved on pediment statues in the Acropolis, and the prevalence of his image was much greater in Athens than anywhere else in Greece during this period (see figure 1). Boardman theorizes that the reason for this is Herakles’ association with the goddess Athena, his patron and defender. Athena is also the eponymous goddess of Athens, leading Athenians to adopt Herakles as an heroic symbol of their city-state. During much of the century, Athens was ruled by a series of tyrants. One named Peisistratos returned to power in Athens in 550 BC, arriving in a golden chariot next to a woman dressed as Athena as he rode towards the Acropolis. The black-figure amphora (wine jug) whose decoration is attributed to an artist known today as the Priam Painter depicts Athena and Herakles in a similar scene as Athena drives Herakles up to Olympus. Vase imagery like this (see figure 2), Boardman argues, was only one way in which the figure of Herakles was asserted as a particularly Athenian hero; pedimental sculptures in public areas, songs, poems and storytelling would have reinforced this idea. Thus Peisistratos’s theatrical chariot ride into Athens would have resonated with a public well-versed in the associations between their long-established myths and their contemporary political scene. They would have understood implicitly which hero he was supposed to represent. The transmission of these images probably ran in two directions - the images were influential to the people who bought the pots, but potters and painters only used them because they held significance for their clientele. It is most likely an example of ceramics as an expression of zeitgeist rather than systematic propaganda.

The Community that Drinks Together Thinks Together

Later examples that emerge from better documented periods give greater insight into the role of household objects as didactic tools. Art historian Andrew Morrall demonstrates that in Reformation-era Germany, the home was increasingly becoming the site of moral education as the authority of the Catholic Church was being challenged. This cultural shift breathed new life into the narrative power of household objects which could now be put to work as the bearers of ideas, illustrating events or concepts visually so that children could be made aware of their meaning. Morrall tells the story of a Nuremberg potter named Paul Preuning who was actually jailed in 1548 for creating a jug featuring a crucifix accompanied by a piper, a drummer and a peasants’ dance (instead of the traditional St. John and Virgin Mary). The depiction of this scene evoked the peasants’ war of 1525 - an uprising which had been sparked by economic and religious unrest during the Reformation.7 The brightly colored jug decorated with religious scenes shown here is attributed to the workshop of Paul Preuning (see figure 3) - the original vase discussed here did not survive.8

Morrall closely examines the relationship between print and ceramics - the question of whether a particular image holds special meaning when it is applied to a utilitarian object as opposed to a broadside or book, and whether the utilitarian, domestic role of the objects was the primary reason for their success as vehicles for narrative. Morrall points out that the Preuning incident occurred the same year as the controversial Augsburg Interim, a decree by Holy Roman Emperor Charles V that reintroduced some (but not all) Catholic practices into the Protestant states of the Empire. The deeply unpopular Interim inspired critical and satirical printed matter as well as ceramic objects among the Protestant population. Morrall describes a tankard from the third quarter of the 16th century (ca. 1550-1580) that features a three-headed monster representing the pope, and Jesus addressing the Devil saying “depart from me Satan to the Interim!” Morrall’s interpretation of this symmetry between opinions expressed in printed broadsides and the vivid, scathing critique presented on this tankard is that the social act of drinking together reinforced the narrative content on the tankard (or any decorated vessel) as shared belief, further bonding members of the community - in this case, fellow Protestants. Likewise at the table, vessels bearing religious imagery would have dovetailed perfectly with what Morrall describes as the almost “sacramental” nature of food and drink, and the saying of grace before a meal.9 Referencing the communal world of the beer hall, John Byrd has created commemorative Sarah Palin ceramic steins (”Palinsteins”), that echo the satirical tone of the anti-Interim tankard.

The tavern-centered political culture of 17th century London, where shared drinking vessels were the norm, sustained potters who created works in the slipware tradition. Garth Clark writes that as newly fashionable delftware and stoneware became established in England, potters in the more traditional slip-decorated earthenware ramped up their creativity and produced some of the most vibrant pots of the era. The old Anglo-Saxon custom of sharing warm beverages from a single vessel continued well into the 17th century and was evidenced by the tyg, which takes its name from the Anglo-Saxon tiegel.10 The tyg had handles on all sides (usually at least three) to enable anyone sitting at a table to grab it. The beverage of choice was posset, a brew of curdled milk mixed with wine or beer and spices that was a mainstay of the British tavern.11 Tygs, along with the earthenware pitchers and pots, frequently bore political slogans, advice to the sinner, or simply cheerful reminders to enjoy food, drink and good company. During the Puritanical rule of Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell (1653 - 1658), however, the messages grew increasingly serious. Clark points to an example from 1656 bears the message “PITTY THE POOR AMEND THY LIFE / AND SENNE NO MORE”. Eat, drink and be pious.

Tin-glazed wares (including English Delftware) are made from a sturdy stoneware clay body with an opaque white glaze allowing painters to apply decoration in a variety of pigments, opening up new avenues of expression. “Show plates” were created for special occasions and meant to be displayed, or used only on very special occasions, thus they were more likely to survive than utilitarian pots. The two show plates in figures 4 and 5 are lively examples of English Delftware designed to commemorate two figures who were key in the restoration of the English monarchy after Cromwell’s death. The plate in figure 4 depicts the King himself, Charles II, framed in a romanesque archway and posed in his coronation robes, majestic long hair (a wig) around his shoulders, and a jaunty foot tilted outward, just hinting at his famous pleasure-loving temperament. Figure 5 shows General George Monck looking stately and purposeful on horseback, a Royalist during the civil war who was instrumental in the restoration of the King in 1661. By contrast with the seriousness of the text-only admonition to repent on the previous decade’s Cromwellian slipware, the vivid illustrations on these Delftware plates with their expressive drawings and bright colors convey the spirit of celebration and relief that accompanied the Restoration. Diana Fayt’s Obamaware platter is similar in scale (17” in diameter) and features a portrait of Obama along with the candidates names and the word “hope”, as well as a donkey symbolizing the Democratic Party.

Porcelain Party Line: Political Narratives in Factory China
One example of a ceramic object designed to communicate with both its decoration and its shape is the “Etruscan Scrolled Vase” made at the Manufacture Nationale de Sèvres in 1813. The vase was designed to imitate the ancient two-handled amphorae that early 19th century archaeologists were discovering in Italy at the time. The decoration of the vase has a very specific narrative: the scene is entitled “L’Entrée à Paris des oeuvres destinées au musée Napoléon”, and it presents an idealized view of antiquities from Rome being wheeled into the Louvre (temporarily renamed “La Musée Napoleon” between 1803 and 1814). Famous works like the Medici Venus and the Laocoön are carried by soldiers in dashing costumes. The painter, Beranger, decorated the neck of the vase with cameos depicting important figures from antiquity. The medallions on the terminals of the vase’s handles feature reliefs of Napoleon, Pericles, Lorenzo de’ Medici, and Augustus.12 The narrative here is clearly designed to equate Napoleon with great patrons of the arts from previous eras - even the shape of the vase, a porcelain version of a Greek amphora (see figure 6 and figure 7, detail), is part of the story. Art historian Steven Adams identifies a major shift in the nature of Sèvres decoration resulting from Napoleon’s patronage of the factory. While the monarchy was still in power, the decorations on Sèvres porcelain were generally pastoral, pleasant, ahistorical and detached from politics. After the revolution and under Napoleon, the imagery becomes a catalogue of Napoleon’s accomplishments - necessary for a new leader who needed to prove his worth, but unnecessary for an established dynasty who had perhaps assumed that the ‘divine right’ needed no explanation.13

The Imperial Porcelain Factory in St. Petersburg (known during the Soviet era as the State Porcelain Factory of Petrograd) was found to be full of unfired leftover porcelain blanks when the new Soviet factory administration took over. Because the double-headed eagle of the Tsars was on the underside of the blanks, and the china painters had to blot them out (figure 8). The challenge of transforming these blanks posed design challenges for the new craftsmen both literal and figurative: how was a regime that supposedly despised luxury and class disparity make use of fine porcelain? The solution was to use the blanks and decorate their surfaces with imagery that would support the ideology of the new Soviet Union.14 The factory did not mass-produce this new china but had painters hand-decorate the blanks. Craft was viewed as a politically important symbol of peasantry rather than a quaint anachronism in the Soviet era.15

Two themes in particular survived the transition from Imperial to Soviet porcelain: the military and peasant life. Under Catherine the Great, the Imperial Porcelain Factory produced wares with decorations that alluded to the strength of Russia’s navy. Scenes of country life were, as in Marie Antoinette’s France, presented as sweet and romantic visions of simpler times. The Soviet versions of these vocabularies of images were depicted with a very different slant: low-ranking foot soldiers were held up as true heroes (to the exclusion of higher ranking officers) and peasant life (along with that of the factory worker) was celebrated for its importance to the greater good rather than as a pastoral idyll. 16The text on a plate by Mikhail Mikhailovich Adamovich from 1922 (see figure 9) reads “He who does not work does not eat”, a phrase from Saint Paul in II Thessalonians 3:10 that echoes a Soviet ideal. A rendering of Lenin smiling is accompanied by supplementary ration card and a workers ID card.17

Naturally the closest comparisons available for Obamaware are patriotic ceramics from the United States. Some of the earliest pots that bear national symbols were made abroad in England and China for the American market. The ability to transmit printed designs to Chinese or English workshops meant that almost anything could be effectively reproduced by craftsmen abroad and shipped to America. The copying was often excellent, though some of the famous icons have the tentative look of an overly-careful copy. A hard paste porcelain pitcher circa 1800-1815 (figure 10) in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art features a portrait of George Washington based on an engraving by Philadelphia artist David Edwin.18 Though probably best described as a near miss in terms of actual resemblance, the depiction of Washington’s face has an undeniable charm. The existence of pieces like this remind us that the vocabulary of desirable images used for decoration developed in the course of a dialogue between ceramics and print, just as it did in Paul Preuning’s day.

Several examples of Chinese export porcelain feature an American icon, the bald eagle, which was adopted as the emblem of a patriotic fraternal organization called the Society of the Cincinnati about a year after it was used in the design of the Great Seal of the United States (figure 11 and figure 12, detail). The Society was established in 1783 in New York state by officers who fought in the American Revolution. George Washington was the Society's President General from 1783 until his death in 1799. The Society’s name commemorates Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, a Roman hero of the fifth century BC who twice refused compensation for his services defending the Roman Republic in battle, instead returning to his farm to live as an ordinary citizen. The virtues of self-sacrifice and patriotism resonated with Society members and engendered a kind of understated pride in their accomplishments. The motto of the organization is omnia relinquit servare rempublicam - “he abandons everything to serve his country”.19 This plate in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art bears the ‘Angel of Fame’ displaying the blue and white ribbon and emblem of the Society. A service with similar decoration and patterns was owned by George Washington.20

Several nineteenth century examples reinforce the way in which commemorative ceramics utilized popular images and then served to circulate them further. The American Farewell Tour of the Revolutionary War hero Marquis de Lafayette, a figure who represented the cause of liberty both in France and in the United States, triggered a wave of patriotism and nostalgia in the 1820’s. Lafayette served as a General during the American Revolution and later as a leader of the National Guard during the French Revolution. President James Monroe invited him to tour the United States in 1824-25 in anticipation of the nation’s 50th anniversary. Commemorative objects including furniture, paintings, ceremonial weapons, drums, engravings, fans, snuffboxes, handkerchiefs, jewelry, medals, quilts and of course ceramics were produced and consumed in great quantities. The enthusiastic response was unprecedented, and indeed it sparked one of the earliest organized patriotic decorative campaigns in American history. The reverence for Lafayette was such that one earthenware pitcher (see figure 13) depicts him on one side and George Washington on the other side.

The “Century Vase” (see figure 14) is one of several large-scale works that Karl Müller designed for the Union Porcelain Works booth at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition of 1876. Six relief panels on the body of the vase illustrate iconic scenes from American history, including the Boston Tea Party and William Penn's Treaty with the Indians. References to the natural landscape and wildlife of the country are also referenced: bison heads serve as handles, and smaller animal heads decorate the lower third of the vase.21 Images of a steamship, a telegraph, a sewing machine and a reaper are also shown to illustrate a century of American progress. And the image that is featured most prominently of all is none other than George Washington, rendered in bisque bas-relief profile and crowned by an American eagle with gold bolts of lightning and stars.22

One of the most iconic Washington images of all is featured on the Trenton Vase which, like the Century Vase, was made for a World’s Fair (figure 15). The large porcelain urn was made for the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in 1904 features a rendering of Emanuel Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware of 1851. The Leutze image was widely circulated in the second half of the 19th century in the form of lithographs and became an icon of patriotism that we still recognize today. All of these examples were conceived of, designed and produced to communicate something to a particular audience; the fact that they still exist and that most are in museums attests to the fact that they probably succeeded in finding favor with their intended audience (the exception being Paul Preuning’s jar, which did not survive.) In each case, the imagery chosen to decorate the ceramics came from another medium: a myth, a drawing, print or engraving. There was a connection between the imagery on the pot and another source of visual information, so that the pot reinforced or capitalized on an existing image or idea; this was the source of the decoration’s narrative power.

Likewise, Obamaware artists Jill Oberman and Ayumi Horie have both drawn inspiration from Presidential campaign buttons and posters from the mid-20th century, an era that now seems somewhat less rancorous than the present, and highlights the desire among Obama supporters to emphasize the positive. And how many people would see the various pots discussed here? We could estimate dozens or perhaps hundreds in the case of Greek and Renaissance German examples, perhaps many thousands in the later examples, particularly those that appeared at the widely attended 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition and 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition. But in general, these decorated pots would never have the audience of a piece of monumental sculpture or even a widely published novel. For a field with a niche appreciation like ceramics (despite the medium's ubiquity in daily life) broad appreciation of specific pots is exceedingly rare among the general public. Yet with enthusiasm for the campaign at an all-time high, news of Obamaware is being circulated far and wide, beyond the usual ceramic audience. Coverage on numerous blogs has increased traffic on Ayumi's website by 1700% from its usual levels.

The Obamaware project has elicited a range of responses from the artists involved, from earnestly hopeful to cheeky and irreverent. The element of kitsch in the work of John Byrd, Peter Morgan and Garth Johnson provides comic relief, while the more straightforwardly celebratory offerings of Diana Fayt, Donna Flanery and Janice Jakielski are joyous mementoes of a campaign that has (relatively speaking) eschewed negativity and inspired so many first-time voters. Montana-based artist Beth Lo, whose pieces feature both images of children cheering for Obama (as well as satirical renderings of nude McCain and Palin with the caption "Republicans New Clothes") hopes that the pieces will become reminders of "a time when all worked so hard and celebrated a good cause for a good man, for the good of the country." The Obama-Biden campaign has inspired these 27 artists to produce work that expresses their hopes, and in some cases their fears, in a intimate medium that has a unique ability to commemorate events and instill values. Obamaware pots are now part of the the public sphere, where their form and content can encourage the sharing of views and ideas - that is, before they are sold and end up where they truly belong: at the kitchen table.

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Copyright Sarah Archer 2008 ©

The views expressed in this essay do not represent those of Greenwich House Pottery or its parent organization, Greenwich House Inc.

1 Not all expressions are literal: abstraction and non-narrative can be a form of communication, too. In the 1830s, the British Parliamentary Select Committee on Art and Manufactures expressed concern that the country was falling behind competitors France, Gemany and the United States in the quality of its decorative arts exports. The familiar call for “good design” was initially an economic imperative, followed quickly by a moral backlash against the gratuitous over-decoration of objects and the use trompe-l'œil design - what we now know as the Design Reform movement in Britain.

2 Ceramics from the Ancient Near East, Greece, Rome, Asia and the Islamic world are more readily celebrated for their function under the aegis of archaeology. They tell us something useful about the time and place where they were made, and that, apparently, merits an unquestioned place in museum displays without the mantle of “craft”.

3 Clark, Garth. The Artful Teapot. New York: Watson-Guptill, 2001, p. 30.

4 Ostermann, Matthias. Narrative Ceramics. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006, p. 18.

5 Boardman, John. “The Sixth-Century Potters and Painters of Athens and Their Public.” Looking at Greek Vases. Tom Rasmussen and Nigel Spivey, eds. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991, p. 86.

6 Beard, Mary. “Adopting an Approach II.” Looking at Greek Vases, p. 21.

7 Morrall, Andrew. “Protestant Pots: Morality and Social Ritual in the Early Modern Home.” Journal of Design History 15.4 (2002): 263.

8 Coutts, Howard. The Art of Ceramics: European Ceramic Design 1500-1830. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001, p 51.

9 Morrall, p. 268.

10 Clark, The Potters Art, p. 19.

11 The posset pot, usually a stocky cylindrical form with a lid and small spout, virtually disappeared with the welcome arrival of coffee and tea in the 18th century.

12 Sèvres: Porcelain from the Sèvres Museum, 1740 to the Present Day. London: Lund Humphries, 1997, p. 56.

13 Adams, Steven. “Sèvres Porcelain and the Articulation of Imperial Identity in Napoleonic France.” Journal of Design History 20.3 (2007): 183.

14 Wardropper, Ian, et al. News From a Radiant Future: Soviet Porcelain from the Collection of Craig H. and Kay A. Tuber. Chicago: Art Institute of Chicago Press, 1993, p. 14.

15 Ibid, p. 15.

16 Ibid, p. 16.

17 Ibid, p. 68.

18 “Jug, 1800–1815”. Metropolitan Museum of Art, Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, Oct., 2008.


19 “Society of the Cincinnati China Plate and Bowl”, Smithsonian National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center, Oct., 2008.


20 “Plate, ca. 1784–85”. Metropolitan Museum of Art, Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, Oct., 2008.


21 Frelinghuysen, Alice Cooney. American Porcelain: 1770-1920. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1989, pp. 177-179.

22 Peirce, Donald C. “The Century Vase in the High Museum of Art.” Magazine Antiques, Jan., 1997.

American Craft Magazine Interviews: Ayumi Horie

STORY BY Molly Hatch

Can you tell our readers a little bit about yourself?
I work as a studio potter in the Hudson Valley of New York, making functional pots in earthenware with animals drawn on them. Every few months, I travel to teach workshops and do visiting artist engagements at universities and craft organizations around the country and internationally. Additionally, I’m on the Board of Directors of the Archie Bray Foundation, the oldest residency in the country devoted exclusively to ceramics. Six years ago, I bought a hundred year old country church with a dilapidated building attached to it that I’ve since renovated into my home and studio. My studio is sandwiched between my living room and kitchen on one side and the back yard on the other, so my studio life feels very integrated with the normal rhythms of maintaining a home; I stoke the wood stove, snuggle with my dog (who’s usually glued to the woodstove), have a snack, check my email, pull some weeds, stack some wood, and then go back to the studio. A great day in the studio might include making a table-full of forty bowls with some new twist in the ribbed pattern, while listening to a nail-biting audiobook, and having a delicious lunch outside with a friend.

Can you describe your work, some of the ideas behind your making process and how you came to working in this way?
My work is largely informed by the process by which I make it. I try to rely on the skill I have in the moment of making and accept what my state of mind brings to it. My cardinal rule is not to overwork a pot, but rather to throw it or assemble it with freshness and candor. If a tear develops, I patch it with a band-aid of clay; if a pot is accidentally dented, it becomes another thing that defines its character. There is great pleasure in understanding a pot’s history of making and seeing that it might have a certain awkwardness or vulnerability.

At Alfred as an undergrad, I developed a process called “dry throwing” in which I trim to center using a pin tool, scoop out the inside using a loop tool and thin out the walls by pushing them out with a rib. I use no water because I like the surface of moist clay, rather than wet. This method allows me to preserve the inherent textures in clay that I love- the stretching, cracking, and sagging. Fingerprints have a different kind of crispness and I can coax out a delicate edge of a line on a massive wall. Using this method, I can also work more spontaneously and intuitively because I don’t have to wait for the clay to dry out quite so long. When I glaze, I try to keep up the same level of spontaneity and intuition so I can keep things fresh. I’ve found that if I set up 100 cups to glaze at once, my exhaustion and desperation at coming up with new ideas and variations pushes me to take risks and grow.

Can you describe a typical work day?
I typically work a 10 hour day, 12 if I have a show coming up, and at least six days a week. 6-8 hours is production time with at least 2-4 hours of computer and other work sprinkled in. I work in month-long cycles of production/dirty work followed by administrative/clean work where I photograph, post new work on my website, pack and ship. This seems to work well for me, as I need time to reload my mind and think how the next generation of pots will shift.

How is your work studio set up and what do you value about it?
I’m thankful everyday that I’m not in a basement studio, as ceramic artists often are. When I renovated, I made sure that I had plenty of light and air for my own mental health as well as for the pots as they dry. In the summer, I can open the doors to let air circulate and in the winter, southern exposure and the low sun bring direct light into the studio where I can lay out my pots. I’ve also set up a work area just outside my studio door where I can dry pots and do dusty work.

What is your background and education?
I have a BA from Mount Holyoke College, a BFA from the New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University and a MFA from the University of Washington in Seattle. My background is as a documentary photographer, I worked for a few years after college shooting for weekly papers in Seattle. I can still see parallels between my photo work and my functional pots; an interest in everyday life, a love of material, and formal compositions that are softened by texture and a bit of disorderliness.

There’s lots of talk about formal training vs. “real world” experience amongst artists these days, and I see real value in both. Since you went the formal route, what do you think art school gave you (besides a degree) that you may not have received had you not attended?
My formal art school training gave me a solid technical foundation, a broad network of friends and colleagues, and most importantly, the ability to critique my own work. I value the opinions of certain friends, but on the whole I feel that I have a decent sense of how my work needs to develop and when I’m being too safe and conservative. While pushing work to a new level can be very uncomfortable, I am my own harshest critic.

Could you describe some of the most influential and career changing experiences you have had since leaving school? What about these experiences was so important?
My work is largely made for other people. Of course, I have the need to make things, to work with my hands and be creative, yet the thing that is most important is that the work comes full circle by finding a home and being used. To this end, community has been crucial to both my studio practice and to the business of selling work and having it exist in the bigger world. I make work within a community whether they are physically present or not and I make work to foster community.

My two-year residency at the Archie Bray Foundation in Montana came at a moment when I knew just enough to survive in a ceramics studio but not enough to really thrive on my own terms. What the Bray gave me was endless encouragement in the studio and countless role models of artists who had designed balanced, meaningful lives. Having smart, funny, kind people around the studio made taking chances a whole lot easier. It also gave my pots a place in the world through local sales and national exhibitions. The community that exists there and the network of people internationally who are connected to the Bray continue to feed my work and life.

Is there anything you wish you had known when you were leaving school but didn’t that you might share with us now?
In school, I never heard the words pottery and small business spoken together, but this is the reality of it, with its extreme swings from small bookkeeping details to a larger creative vision. My photographic skills have come in handy with publicity and computer skills are essential for dealing with galleries and websites. They also never told how hard I would work or how much fun I would have.

What is your relationship to design, craft and the fine arts? How do you see your relationship to each? Or one in particular?
I love calling myself a potter; the word itself has no airs or smugness and carries with it a sense of timelessness. Nearly everyone, in every geographic place and at every point in time since human beings created settlements, has understood what a potter does; I feel I am part a meaningful continuum.

I’m much more comfortable with the moniker of craftsman and designer than I am with artist. I’m a craftsman in the sense that I’ve largely committed myself to one material and am concerned with function, use, and accessibility. I’m a designer in the sense that I understand how my aesthetic translates into various materials and am happiest when I have various side projects in media other than ceramics. Spending three years renovating my house full time helped hone my aesthetic more than anything else. Making daily decisions about trim, shingles, gutters, mullions, and tread thickness made certain aesthetic patterns evident to me and even brought more clarity to my ceramic work.

I’m much more interested in practice than theory. Rather than talk about something, I prefer to just do it, get my hands dirty and explore first-hand the problems and solutions to a project. Tacit knowledge, the knowledge that comes from repeating something over and over until it’s embedded in one’s body or mind, is something I seek as much as explicit knowledge, which is the more quantifiable, rational rules that define work. When one makes the same basic thing again and again, as a potter does, problems and interests shift. This repetition never bores me. While I’ve been throwing the same basic cup shape for the past twelve years, I can see a clear progression in its changing. My throwing has become softer and the cups feel more attuned to gravity. The back and forth of thinking and making, thinking and making fine tunes my ideas and opens up the possibility for a spontaneous touch. A poke in the belly of a wet cup or a green dot by a monkey ear could be just the thing to clarify the identity of a pot. Having an open-ended process in which anything is possible without consulting others or disrupting production, as a designer might have to do, gives great freedom, potential, and satisfaction. I’m entirely self-sufficient in my creative process.

I see elements in my work as relational, so I rely on intuition to navigate through problems. For instance, the height of a cup, the position of a handle, the waver in a lip are all elements that change from cup to cup and also relate to each other in different ways each time. When I decide which animal to draw, what gesture it will take and at what scale to draw it, I’m making decisions based on the relationship of all those elements to each other and to the drawing. Almost none of it is planned out; if it was, my work would lack freshness. I love more than anything the possibility of acting spontaneously on a pot, so that it truly is a singular object and an object which is a record of a collection of moments in time. This is also a way of creating value through impulse and chance. Locking myself into a perfect prototype doesn’t appeal to me, as it might a designer, at least in ceramic studio work. Using intuition and tacit knowledge to give a pot what it needs in that moment is dependably exciting.

Was there a point in your career that you made a decision to sell your pots for a living? Could you describe how you came to that decision?
It was clear to me once I committed to going back to school for ceramics, that I would make my living selling pots. I felt that the only way I could make something good was to devote myself entirely to it.

What difficulties arise in both making and selling your work and how do you overcome these?
Being a studio potter, especially one whose work is so dependent on a particular touch and intuitive decision-making, makes it nearly impossible to out-source any work, the way most businesses do these days. It’s a very old-fashioned model, complete with a studio assistant who works an average of twelve hours a week for me. My assistant helps with jobs that do not need my hand but take a lot of time, such as loading and unloading the kiln, prepping clay, packing and shipping. Having control over the entire process on-site allows me to keep my standards high and gives me flexibility, because I don’t have to rely on anyone else. The downside, of course, is the amount of time and energy involved.

What is your relationship with galleries (on and offline)? How has that relationship changed over time? What role does the internet play in your work?
I have several galleries that I have casual relationships with and several wholesale accounts, but I’ve tried to keep these limited. Over the past few years, I’ve found myself being overcommitted and overwhelmed so I now try to be realistic about how much I can produce while keeping the quality of work high and carving time out for research. Unlike industry, which makes a commodity, a handmade pot coming out of an individual studio is made with a different intention. Profit is not unimportant, but the relationship created between object and maker, object and user, maker and user are key. Recently, I’ve made a conscious commitment to put even more time and care into each piece, so that the fact that it’s handmade becomes even more crucial.

While some potters recoil from computer work, I love the process of taking and posting new pictures, updating my home page, and designing postcards. I spend quite a bit of time on the internet and on my website. Because it’s the primary way people do research and because it’s my most important outlet for sales, I’m fairly diligent about keeping it up to date. The best thing about having a presence online is that I’ve developed relationships and friendships with people who buy my work or simply email to exchange dialogue. In the past, when I was selling wholly through consignment galleries, I felt totally uniformed about where my pots were going and what, if any, effect they were having on people. The internet has opened up a great community for me.

How do you market your work and what avenue has been the most successful?
Links, blogs, and postcards that are beautiful or funny enough for recipients to want to keep.

You must have some favorite designers that you look to for inspiration. What other artists’ inspire you? Where do you find inspiration for your designs?
Mostly I look to antiques for inspiration- primitive American furniture and Japanese folkcraft and woodblocks mostly. When I travel, I also seek out antique store to see what gorgeous handmade or constructed thing I can find. Ceramic artists I love include Annabeth Rosen, Ryoji Koie, Jean-Nicholas Gerard, and Michael Connelly. Designers I admire include Tord Boontje, Hella Jongerius,Sori Yanagi and Piet Stockmanns and my favorite illustrator is Sara Varon, who wrote Chicken and Cat.

Can you tell us about future projects?
Aprons for potters and porcelain pulley lights.

When you have a moment to actually breathe (!), what do you do for fun?
At the moment I’m in Denmark doing a residency at Guldagergaard, and my favorite thing to do here is ride fast on country roads with no clue of where I’m going or what’s around the bend.

I always like to ask, do you have any influential books or texts that you can recommend?
Right now I’m reading The Craftsman by Richard Sennett

Any last golden nuggets of information you would like to offer up?
I’m working on dreaming more.

Ayumi will be holding a pottery sale with guest artist Julia Galloway on October 25 and 26, 2008. The studio is located at 167 Cottekill Road, Cottekill, NY.

American Craft Magazine Interviews: Christa Assad

Christa Assad: A Life Made from Mud

“Making utilitarian objects appeals to my practical side, yet the romance of being a potter seduces my dreamier side. ”

STORY BY Molly Hatch
PHOTOGRAPHY BY Robert Schlatter

The California-based artist Christa Assad has spent the last 14 years exploring the ins and outs of an existence as a studio potter. Her adventures have taken her from Pennsylvania, to Indiana, Colorado, Nova Scotia, China, Greece and seemingly everywhere in between. American Craft caught up with her just as she was preparing to leave the Kansas City Art Institute, where she had been teaching, to set up her new studio in Berkeley. In a whirlwind conversation, Assad offered her views on what it takes to make your life out of clay.

This Article is from the October/November 2008 Issue.

Christa Assad has spent her life traveling, learning and pursuing her many passions. These many experiences eventually led Assad to her career as a ceramist.

Can you tell our readers a little bit about yourself?

I’m a studio artist with past-life imprints of a gypsy and a nomad.

Can you describe your work, some of the ideas behind your making process and how you came to working in this way?

My work is primarily in clay, though anything involving designing, engineering, and constructing holds my interest. I was accepted as an undergraduate student at Penn State to study aerospace engineering, enjoying physics, chemistry, and geometry in high school. Back then I even had a grasp of calculus! Now I’m much more interested in the hands-on. Making utilitarian objects appeals to my practical side, yet the romance of being a potter seduces my dreamier side. Ultimately I think it is a lifestyle choice that brought me to this place in my career. The Potter is an unusual figure in today’s social order – a maverick and inventor functioning slightly on the fringe of society. The pace and length of the work cycle also appeals to me: on average I have a month or two month-long cycle of making a series of pots, glazing and firing them. I don’t often engage in year-long projects, for example, and I feel much more comfortable with a quicker turn-over rate, more rapid results, and more frequent check-points with my work.

Can you describe a typical work day?

Wake up at 7:30 to catch an 8am Bikram yoga class; walk to my studio, then sip on some coffee while I plan my attack for the day. Wedge up enough clay for the morning agenda, throw until lunchtime (2pm). I like to spend the afternoon and evening trimming or assembling work from previous day’s throwing. I have several damp boxes to keep things flowing, never allowing for waiting time. After another contemplative (or social) coffee break, I lose track of time until around 8 or 9pm, usually roused by hunger! While living in San Francisco for the past 7 years, I routinely went out to hear live music after dinner…oh, you asked about the work day…but seriously, rocking’ out to good bands is a HUGE part of my life. It inspires me.

How is your work studio set up and what do you value about it?

Hmmm, right now I’m in transition – moving from Kansas City (teaching job for one year at the Kansas City Art Institute) to Berkeley, California, where I’ll soon be set up in a brand-new studio! I am very excited about this new opportunity, sharing a gorgeous space with artists Rae Dunn and Josie Jurczenia. I think what I value most in a studio is GOOD ENERGY. It sounds California-hippy, I know, but from my experiences I know that chemistry between studio mates can be incredible — or not so – which will definitely affect my productivity accordingly. I’ve been very lucky — sharing a space with Rae Dunn and Mary Mar Keenan in my previous business venture, Verdigris Clay Studio + Gallery, was extremely positive. For seven years we shared a very small studio space, focusing a lot of energy on our consignment gallery that featured all local clay. We managed to let our business evolve naturally, and our personalities melded just as comfortably.

I think ceramic artists work well in a communal environment, sharing kilns and retail space, along with ideas and adventures. From my past studios I’ve learned that it’s smart to have a small area dedicated to the display and sales of finished work – whether you have a retail gallery or not. It’s important to reserve some space for the pieces to live and be viewed outside of the rest of the dusty clutter of the studio…that is, if you’re interested in selling the work! Even if you don’t care about sales, seeing the work properly displayed and lit is just as vital to artistic growth, encouraging room for contemplative thought and study.

Otherwise, my studio equipment “needs” are very basic: a wheel, a kiln (right now I’m using an electric kiln), a table, some shelves and ware boards, my throwing tools and some clay and I’m set! I make an effort to keep it simple so that I’m not reliant on a lot of cumbersome, expensive, specialty machines or materials.

What is your background and education?

I grew up in a suburb of Pittsburgh, PA, graduated Valedictorian and punk-rock poster child. Ran around Europe on a study-abroad program through Penn State, and there went my engineering aspirations! How can you visit Rome and think about pursuing anything other than art! I changed majors about nine times and ended up in the ceramics department my senior year of college, as a beginner under the guidance of Dave Dontigny of “Super Mud” fame. Little did I know that my next professor, Department Head Chris Staley, was one of the best potters in the U.S. He took an interest in my work, pushed me hard and encouraged me to pursue ceramics as a career. At the same time I was urged by my college advisor to apply for a Fulbright Grant – and I had the grade point average, professional recommendations, and guts to try. At that point I had nothing to lose, and everything to gain…that’s the best part about being 20-something and naive! Staley had referred me to Walter Ostrom at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, who helped me work out a proposal and budget for a year of study in Canada. I was awarded a Fulbright Grant that year, and Walter was my host and mentor. That year (1993-‘94) was an incredible, pivotal year for me.

Just like following clues of a treasure hunt, I picked up the clues to my life-path from teachers like Chris and Walter. Walter’s clue was to go to Anderson Ranch Arts Center, in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. Doug Casebeer, director of the clay program there, invited me to spend 9 months as a resident artist, during which time I think I realized I was a “for-lifer” in clay. Residencies are ideal opportunities to gauge your commitment level to your work, and to try the lifestyle of a self-employed artist on for size (it doesn’t fit everybody). The veils of student life and familial security are lifted and there is just you and the studio – it’s sink or swim! I was slightly paralyzed by the freedom at first, but soon established a work schedule for myself, along with regular visits and conversations with other resident artists at the Ranch. I took my first wholesale orders, made wares for a local restaurant, and experimented a lot with pricing my work. It was the perfect time and place to practice the potter’s life while still in the supportive, nurturing environment of an arts center.

Two years later I went to Indiana University for graduate school – a well-endowed, well-equipped three-year program, complimented by an incredible art museum on campus. During that time I built my first kiln, engaged in my first collaborative projects, and began building a network of peers and clients. Those three years at I.U. helped me to gain confidence in my work, and to build the exhibition record I had begun while in Canada and during my residency. Really, it all blended nicely into what is now my professional studio arts career. I was 29 when I finished grad school, and I think it really benefited me to have spent those four years in between undergraduate and graduate studies working to build my portfolio, and also testing the waters of full-time studio practice and production. I also dealt with the sudden death of my mother during that time, and the notion of adjustment and adaptation to all of the circumstances surrounding this type of loss.

There’s lots of talk about formal training vs. “real world” experience amongst artists these days, and I see real value in both. Since you went the formal route, what do you think art school gave you (besides a degree) that you may not have received had you not attended?

Obviously my formal training and “real world” experiences have been rather intertwined. I found value in the structured curriculum of a four-year degree program, as well as the actual classroom and studio dynamics. Also, I didn’t exactly attend art school, I went to a state university both for graduate and undergraduate study. The open-forum style lectures at Penn State encouraged discussion, debate, and ultimately comradery and peer support. As an undergrad I studied a lot of academic courses like Astronomy, Anthropology, Symbolic Logic, and AP English. These courses definitely impacted who I am as an artist today – and the practice of persuasive writing, developed from years of answering essay-question exams, has been particularly useful in my grant-writing pursuits.

While pursuing an MFA at Indiana University I was awarded a teaching assistantship all three years – an unparalleled opportunity to teach at the university level while still a student. I led courses in ceramics and 3-D design fundamentals, and gave my first lectures and demonstrations in front of a group. It also put me in the position of leading group critiques and grading others’ artworks. I’m not sure that I would have experienced anything like this in an apprenticeship situation.

Could you describe some of the most influential and career changing experiences you have had since leaving school? What about these experiences was so important?

As already mentioned, Anderson Ranch was a life changing experience because there I was first confronted with the isolation of working in the studio, and the unstructured, open expanse of time of a studio art lifestyle. Both can be crippling, and at the Ranch I learned how to schedule my studio time and invite others in for discussion when needed.

After grad school, I’d say the most influential event was going to China for six weeks. It was such an eye-opener: an education not only in ceramic history, but also in cultural evolution…it left me wondering about our corporate-run culture, our big-box mentality and greedy capitalism. My parents had started up a few small businesses when I was younger, but now my convictions about the value of mom-and-pop shops were stronger than ever. My greatest fear is total homogenization of American culture, and ultimately, world culture (I guess that’s globalization!). Now I’m getting all punk-rock on you again…but there is a point here. This existential crisis of sorts, in response to my time in China, led me to the next milestone of my life. I joined forces with Mary Mar Keenan and Rae Dunn who had just launched the small business venture I would be committed to for the next seven years — that is, Verdigris Clay Studio + Gallery. Our shared devotion to clay and to serving the local ceramics community created a contagious enthusiasm and growing momentum that was surprising even to us. We hosted events, took on interns, and consigned the work of more than thirty California-based artists. Our business plan developed and grew as we experimented with inventive methods of advertisement, publicity, and sales tactics. Often I regretted not taking a business course while in college!

Is there anything you wish you had known when you were leaving school but didn’t that you might share with us now?

Uh, that I should have taken a business course in college?! Otherwise, (I didn’t even do this, but…) I want to warn you all: DON’T TAKE OUT LARGE STUDENT LOANS FOR GRAD SCHOOL!!! You can get tuition waivers and stipends if you apply to the right places, and avoid falling into debt. It is extremely challenging to start out as a studio artist straight out of grad school if you are $60,000 in debt!

How has your experience so far been different or similar to your expectations when you set out?

When I was an undergrad I thought I would mimic my professors’ lives. When I got out of grad school I thought I would have my own studio and store front. Turns out I don’t like to work alone, and I don’t have time to teach!

What is your relationship to design, craft and the fine arts? How do you see your relationship to each? Or one in particular?

I pick ALL OF THE ABOVE. I’m really tired of the arts/crafts argument, and I think it’s just recently been changed to the art/design argument. I see myself as an artist who designs and crafts functional vessels from clay and other earthy materials. I always did like to hang out in the sand-box my parents built for me in our back yard!

Was there a point in your career that you made a decision to sell your pots for a living? Could you describe how you came to that decision?

Being a nomadic gypsy, I always sold my pots – even in my first semester of throwing – or traded them with anyone who would buy me a warm meal. It’s as natural to me as making. Although personally I would prefer to barter than exchange paper for everything…and so I do. For instance, right now I am working with a graphic designer/letterpress printer on a new business card – and trading pots for the fee! I also am trading pots in exchange for photography service…AND for help with moving my home and studio to California.

What difficulties arise in both making and selling your work and how do you overcome these?

The hardest part is asking the price your work and time really deserves. People seem to undervalue functional pottery, and it is our job to educate the public. It needs to be a group effort, a movement of sorts, to get the value and prices of pots up to where they should be. Why shouldn’t we be paid for our time like everyone else?

The hardest part about making is keeping the momentum going in the studio, even when inspiration is lacking. I try to work through the inevitable dips in enthusiasm – or I go to the museum. I need about three times the input for any output, so sometimes it is crucial that I stop and do some research. I’m not one of those people that can find all of the answers in my own work. I have to go out and look around, travel, read, and of course, rock out.

What is your relationship with galleries (on and offline)? How has that relationship changed over time? What role does the Internet play in your work?

I ship my work out to about a dozen galleries across the country. The specific galleries have changed over time, but the routine is pretty constant: ship out a small body of work to each, then replenish as necessary. Wait for the commission checks to come in. The Internet is beginning to play a slightly larger role in the promotion and sales of my work. I recently took control over my own website (http://www.christaassad.com), changing the format to a blog template that is easy for a Luddite like me to manage. Now I feel much more connected to my peers and clients, and anyone can comment on my writing or images there.

I think what has changed most over time is the familiarity galleries have with my name and my work. Stick around long enough, and people will notice you!

How does an artist go about acquiring business and marketing skills if they aren’t a natural at it already, and cannot afford to hire someone to help them?

Is it bad if I say, “trial and error”? I guess you could take a course at a local community college… I see emails all the time about workshops on this type of thing. Personally I couldn’t stand to sit through one, but a good potter-friend of mine, Whitney Smith (see http://www.whitneysmithpottery.com) does this kind of thing all the time – for sales/tax tips, business plan writing, grant writing, etc. And she’s the smartest business gal I know, besides Ayumi Horie, of course (http://www.ayumihorie.com).

How do you market your work and what avenue has been the most successful?

The most successful marketing venture for me has undoubtedly been the Artstream Nomadic Gallery (http://www.art-stream.com). Artstream is an entrepreneurial venture devised by potter-genius Alleghany Meadows of Carbonale, CO. Begun as a grass-roots style collaboration between Alleghany and five or six other potter-friends, the gallery was born from an old 1967 Airstream trailer that Alleghany and crew gutted and converted to an exhibition space specifically for utilitarian clay vessels. When not docked at the Aspen Farmer’s Market, it has traveled from L.A. to N.Y.C., putting contemporary ceramic art on the street. I’ve been involved with this project for seven years now, and I credit its iconic magnetism with boosting my career most. If you haven’t heard about Artstream you can see some pictures on my website, its own site, or even visit its MySpace page (search ARTSTREAM) and add us! The power of Artstream is strength in numbers: put a group of energetic potters together and bring the wares directly to the market. Have wheels will travel.

You must have some favorite designers that you look to for inspiration. What other artists’ inspire you? Where do you find inspiration for your designs?

I try not to assimilate the work of other clay artists into my own, and instead look to industrial design and architecture for functional tips. Inspiration can be found in the most unexpected things, and usually whacks me in the face right when I’m not looking! I do love the work of Anish Kapoor, Marek Cecula, Sam Chung, Peter Beasecker, Jason Walker…I also have tons and tons of respect for Eva Zeisel, Betty Woodman, Beatrice Wood, and Marguerite Wildenhain.

Can you tell us about future projects?

I’m thrilled to tell you about the very recent publication of the book, “Searching for Beauty: Letters from a Collector to a Studio Potter,” for which I wrote the introduction. It’s the culmination of a five-year collaboration with academic, collector and author Dr. Richard Jacobs, whose philosophical and emotionally-charged writings use pottery-making as a metaphor for life. Dr. Jacobs has written more than 1,000 pages to me over the past five years, and together we have presented two exhibitions, several public lectures, and a panel discussion at the National Ceramics Conference (NCECA). The book is the first of a two-volume set that chronicles the 75 letters and accompanying bibliography of texts referenced throughout the discourse. Published in Wales, UK, and not yet distributed in the U.S., you can have a copy shipped directly to you…go to: www.kestrel-books.co.uk. The book has received fantastic reviews in England, Canada, Australia, and the U.S., and I highly recommend it for your personal library!

Also a 13-stop Artstream tour could be shaping up for October, with the Smithsonian as our headliner. We are in the process of lining up workshops at universities and arts centers on the East Coast, where, at each stop, we will also set up an exhibit of functional wares by about a dozen nationally renowned potters. That’s quite a lot of set-up, tear-down and pack-up – people have actually asked us if we leave everything set up when we drive! Truth is, the Artstream crew feels a lot more like roadies than rock stars.

On the heels of that trip could be a visit to China in late October for the 1st annual International NCECA conference – I’ve been invited to be part of a panel discussion arranged through West Virginia University about international educational programs.

Last but not least, there’s my new studio collaboration with Rae and Josie.

When you have a moment to actually breathe (!), what do you do for fun?

Uh, besides rocking out to live music? I hula-hoop, drink tequila, crack jokes and laugh a lot…oh, and travel to distant lands whenever financially possible.

I always like to ask, do you have any influential books or texts that you can recommend?

Of course I will take this opportunity to shamelessly put in another plug for Searching For Beauty. A great book about sensory stimuli is Diane Ackerman’s, “A Natural History of the Senses.” Some of the old staples are still in circulation for good reason: Rhodes, Rawson…and of course Garth Clark, as a contemporary critic. As a teaching tool I recommend Julia Galloway’s Field Guide for Ceramic Artisans – it’s invaluable to professionals and aspiring artists in our field. I encourage all of my students to buy it (mailto:jmgsac@rit.edu).

Any last golden nuggets of information you would like to offer up?

It’s pretty simple – just keep working. Many artists fail because they quit. Success is just a matter of perseverance; sooner or later, you will arrive.

Gimme More!