Interview with Karen Swyler, by Molly Hatch July 22, 2009
M: Why don’t you start by telling us a little bit about yourself and your relationship to clay?
K: I grew up on Long Island. I spent a lot of time at the beach when I was a kid and I spent a lot of time outdoors. I think that the natural world has been a really big influence on my interest in tactile materials--touching things interacting with things. I collected shells. I was always interested in touching and the experience of feeling different materials in my hands. That being said, I think my mom is the biggest reason I am working in clay today. She is also a ceramic artist and she has a ceramics studio in her home. When I was growing up as a little kid I would play in her studio and make clay animals. I didn’t really get interested in it as a possible career until I was in high school. I think its kind of funny because I could have been making pots from the time I was ten years old. She helped me all the way through as I was learning. We were surrounded by her pots growing up--so my sister and I ate off her dinnerware, we drank out of her ceramic mugs and I didn’t think that was unusual, that was just typical. Today I have her old dinnerware. It is a really wonderful experience to eat off of the same plates that I did when I was 12 years old. She keeps making things. She is a retired art teacher, so now she is working in her studio full time. She is massing large amounts of work, so when she comes to visit me she drops off boxes in the garage. And she’ll say, “Oh honey, I just put out a box in the garage for you.” It’s more pots. She’s cycling through things and making new work. Its kind of funny but it is also really a special experience to be able to interact with these things again. It makes me think about the times I spent with my family growing up.
M: So the idea of relationship in your work…
K: Definitely. It is a lot about memory too. I can place myself in those times with those pieces. Growing up surrounded by this stuff that has such a memory is sort of poignant. It can be wonderful and painful at the same time. It actually shaped the things that I am thinking about when I am making my work.
M: So, could you describe some of your work and the ideas behind your making process? How did you evolve into making the work in the way that you do?
K: The evolution to me seems pretty natural. Because I grew up around all these pots, the natural thing for me to do was to make pots. I was making functional work in undergraduate school. In graduate school, I started to think more about the concepts associated with the work that I was making. Right before I went to graduate school my father passed away unexpectedly. I was kind of debating whether or not to go to school. I thought maybe I should stay at home and help my mom and my mom said, “You know, I haven’t ever asked you to do anything for me through this whole thing,” She said “I want you to go to school. I think it will be really good for you to go somewhere else and have this experience.” So I went off to school. I had a lot of unresolved issues thinking about the loss of my dad, which happened two weeks prior to getting into my car and driving out to Colorado. It was kind of a whirlwind for me. So I got there and I started making work and I didn’t really know what I was doing. I was kind of all over the place. I was thinking about my dad and I was trying to continue on. So the first year of graduate school was sort of working through those ideas. The natural result of that was making these pieces that dealt with personal relationships and how people relate to each other in familial and intimate relationships. I was missing my dad and I was thinking about all the things I wish I had said to him. He died unexpectedly so I felt like there was unfinished business. So I started making these things, like tea sets on trays. The trays were dictating a specific space for the cups and the cups began to become metaphors for people and human interactions. I liked the idea that I could make the situation to help foster the types of interactions between people. I wish I had more time. Today people are running around plugged into their ipods or technological devices and don’t spend quality time with each other like we should and I think that is one of the most important aspects of life. To make something to help other people realize that’s what is really important and beautiful is meaningful and I could feel I was doing something worthwhile. That is how the concepts evolved.
(My) work changed a lot later in graduate school. Jeanne Quinn was a really big catalyst for me. She had gone on sabbatical in Europe in 2001 and she came back with all these really wonderful little pots she had collected. Some of them had light glaze colors and some were unglazed. She said ”Karen you’ve got to try this. Look at these surfaces they’re sanded, they’re smooth, there is no glaze on them--I want you to try this,” and I tried it. That was a really big breakthrough for me (because) I started thinking about glaze in the way that I was thinking about the form. (I began) using it as a metaphor for clothing and thinking about raw clay as bare skin, the vulnerable quality that I was trying to get at with the work as well. I was looking at Eva Zeisel’s work in graduate school. She’s my ceramic hero. I just love her stuff. So she was an important influence.
After school, the work started to change but in more nuanced ways. A little bit more slowly, I was sort of fleshing out some of these ideas to a higher level of detail. Conceptually I am still working with similar ideas. The forms are changing now and I am really interested in cutting them apart and I don’t know why, but I love cutting leather hard clay and I love throwing on the wheel. I feel the uniqueness of each handmade pot is really important to the concept of the form. I have done some slip casting from time to time. I will go through stages where I am working on a slip cast project. I don’t want to slip cast these forms because I think that might take something away from their individuality. I am interested in making families of forms where forms have similar characteristics, but they are not identical. I don’t want to sit down and crank out 20 identical things because I think that would deal with a different idea and maybe not where my focus is.
M: The idea of touch is pretty integral in both the surface and the form of your work. That is something you began to talk about a bit. Do you think you could elaborate on that?
K: The feeling of clay in my hands is this wonderful experience. Maybe that is from my childhood, from my urge to be engrossed in my natural environment. Throwing and the touch involved in throwing is important to me. I am interested in fluid surfaces, so I will spend a lot of time sanding my work to make it really smooth and to make it alluring to people. I want the viewer to want to touch this thing. It is okay with me if they touch it. I want it to be the object that draws them in. I think that the look of the surface can do that and again, emphasize the ideas that I am working with. In some of the work you can see the throwing lines. I have been thinking about that a lot recently. I like that they are there. I’ll work to sand the surface to smooth, but clay has a memory and that is interesting to me because that is a concept I am working with. The idea that you can see subtly the memory of my fingers on the clay and my personal experience being put into this thing is really important. So a lot of these cut forms you can see the (throwing) line particularly on the inside. That is such an obvious metaphor for the human body, the interior/exterior. It is revealing this vulnerable interior and you get a glimpse of something personal inside. That is where my touch can be seen in the work.
M: I am curious about what a typical workday is like for you. I know you have told me in the past that you tend to make more in the summer and teach in the winter, could you describe some of your thinking about that decision?
K: I have two different kinds of typical workdays. I have my typical studio workday; I will probably work between 6-8 hours a day in the studio during the summer, 5-6 days a week. I have a studio at Green Mountain College, which is really nice because I get to use the facility. I use the kilns and I have access to the glaze materials. I feel like it is a nice reward for working here. I spend most of my time finishing my pieces and less time throwing them. When I say finishing I mean trimming them, cutting them, making the important decision about what the final shapes of the forms will be, refining them, sanding them--that kind of stuff. I will usually work for three weeks, do a bisque firing and then glaze intensely for a week. Right now I have a really large batch of work and I am just not ready to stop making. I feel like I am really in the groove with making. I’m going to keep making until I am ready to bisque. I don’t really have a set schedule; I work the way I want to work. If I am feeling like I am doing well and I want to crank out a 12-hour day, I can. The flexibility of the summer allows me to do that. I don’t teach in the summer. My goal is to have all this new work I am making now to be glazed and finished before school starts.
In a typical day during the academic year I’m spending all of my time doing things associated with teaching, so I don’t really spend a lot of time on my work. Maybe an hour or two a week, here or there, but it is unrealistic to put that pressure on myself. So my goal over the summer is to try to make a body of work to extend me through to the winter break. I’ll work for a few weeks over the winter break and get a few new pieces during that time. I think it is interesting to shift between teaching and making because by the end of the school year in May I’m really excited to get back into my studio again. I’m looking forward to the break from teaching. By the end of the summer I am looking forward to teaching again. Maybe I don’t have the time to make, make, make, I have time to think and look. When I get back into the studio again, I have mentally worked through those things and am ready to take the next step. I feel like time has to pass to allow time for change. Teaching certainly allows for that. I love teaching and I love sharing my work with my students. I think the fact that they get to see that I am a working artist is really important and inspirational to them. It gets them really excited about doing their own stuff. I think it’s nice that I’m able to make work in my studio here in the building where I teach. I can say, “this is what I am working on,” and I can bring them into my studio and show them what I am working on. It inspires what they do.
M: There is a lot of talk amongst artists and designers about real world training versus academic training. I would like to know what you think that art school gave you (besides the degree) that you might not have gotten in a non-academic setting.
K: I had experience in three different schools for my training. One of the most important things for me was being around other people that were really interested in making work. I suppose the traditional stuff would have been difficult to get if I had been out on my own. Like learning how to do glaze formulation, learning how to fire different kinds of kilns, learning how to talk about work, being exposed to historical and contemporary art… I think it would have been really difficult for me to get those kinds of experiences if I didn’t have that kind of training. It puts you in the situation where that stuff is much more readily accessible than it would be if you were out in the world on your own. One of the most important things for me was being in a system where I felt I was supported. I would say particularly in graduate school and in my post baccalaureate year where I really felt encouraged and enthusiasm from my professors. I was surrounded by people who were working really hard. That was motivational. It’s hard to survive as a studio artist. I knew I never wanted to try to make a living off of my work because I felt like if I did that I might get burnt out and not want to do it anymore. I hoped that would never happen. When I found out how much I really enjoyed teaching, I thought it would make sense to go that route. Graduate school seemed like a natural progression for me. Putting myself in the environment of education, learning and people that were all enthusiastic about similar things was really important. Without that I wouldn’t have been able to affect the change in my work as quickly as I have. For me, it was important to got through the academic system. I think its interesting, when you leave school then there you are, on your own. Finally nobody is telling me my work is bad, nobody is telling me I need to do this or do that, “What do I do now?” It is really wonderful and it is really scary at the same time. That’s why I was really lucky to end up at the Archie Bray Foundation. I was there with other artists who were in a similar situation. Being in a group, working together and working as hard as everybody did, there was fodder for the work to continue progressing. It wasn’t like I was out there on my own. I was part of this community of artists and for me it was really important to be part of a community, to have that experience--sort of a once in a lifetime experience--really helped my career in a number of ways. The publicity I received from being associated with the Archie Bray Foundation was wonderful. The connections I made with the other artists were also important. The Bray was a nice transition from academia to the real world, where now I am working in my studio on my own and facing a lot of these challenges alone.
M: Are there other benchmarks in your career since leaving school that have been major influences or career changing?
K: Being at Archie Bray was important in so many ways. That experience gave me time to make work in an unprecedented way. I didn’t have to deal with classes or other coursework I could just make work. I entered a lot of juried shows when I was at the Bray. I entered every juried show that there was. Initially, I got rejected from a number of them and I just kept doing it over and over again until I started to get accepted. Suddenly my work was being accepted into shows. By the end of my time at the Bray I was getting invited to participate in shows without applying for them. That gave my career a lift in terms of exposure of my work. The transition from that mode of working to working in an academic settling, doing the teaching, doing the administrative work, was a major change that I had to get used to. The first year was the biggest challenge. Now I have established a rhythm, I know what to expect with my classes. Since then, I would say the biggest challenge is not having as involved or as large a community where I teach, it is a little bit more difficult to get the kind of interactions I was getting at the Bray and when I was a student. This is the longest I have lived anywhere since I went to college. Reflecting on the completion of my fourth year here is almost mind-boggling, where did the time go? Here the change in the work is happening a little more slowly and that’s ok, that is to be expected.
M: Everyone has different things that mark their career. Sometimes it is moving somewhere…
K: I think about phases in my life as far as different places that I have lived, my time in Montana, my time in Colorado, and my time here. Being at the Bray was a wonderful little community, but it was so wonderful and so perfect it wasn’t reality. The reality is that sometimes I work long hours, that teaching and making work is a challenge and sometimes a struggle. I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t love because it is such hard work. I don’t think anyone would ever leave the Bray if they didn’t make you leave after two years. I was really fortunate to be there at the time that I was. The other artists there at the time were really devoted to their work. We had a really nice social situation, which was such a bonus.
M: I am curious about things you might have wished you had known when you were leaving school. How has your experience since leaving school different than what you expected it to be?
K:I am doing what I hoped I would be doing. I hoped I would get a college teaching job and I have a college teaching job, I feel really fortunate to have this job. When I finished graduate school there was a period where I was really ill, nobody ever found out what was wrong with me. I was kind of knocked out of my life for about three months. That was about the time I would have been applying for jobs and residencies and I couldn’t do any of it. I remember Jeanne (Quinn) saying “See if you can apply for the Bray. Just do one thing, I know you don’t feel well.” I went back home to stay with my mom for a while, she cared for me and helped me with my application for the Bray. I didn’t apply for any other jobs or residencies. When they accepted me to the Bray I was flabbergasted. I didn’t know where I was going or what was wrong with me. Being accepted to the Bray was so lucky for me because I didn’t have the energy to apply for anything else. From there I applied to every teaching job there was out there. I did 30 job applications. I spent $1000 on slides. My husband was very supportive of me. When I got this job I didn’t really know what to expect. I had never taught full time before. I didn’t have any idea about the obligations in addition to teaching associated with a position like this. When I left the Bray I didn’t really have any notion of wanting to end up in a specific geographic location. I think that some people decide, “I want to live here, and then I will look for a job in that particular location.” I never felt that way. My family is on the east coast and my husband’s family is on the east coast, so we were both really happy that I got a job here in Vermont.
M: How do you see your work in relationship to craft and design as well as the fine arts? I think that for me CU brought al lot of that to the forefront for me because they were questioning that so hard, specifically the relationship ceramics has to both craft and fine art.
K: I felt supported by the ceramics department when I was at CU and I was the only one making pots. It was interesting. Students in disciplines other than ceramics had a really difficult time talking about my work. One of my friends who was in grad school with me said one day, “I’ve got this idea.” I was frustrated some of my peers wouldn’t talk about my work. She said “Karen, take one of your teapots and put it on the floor and then they’ll talk about It.” and I said “Of course they will.” Taken out of context suddenly it was sculpture and she was right. In my M.F.A. thesis defense I remember Scott (Chamberlin) asking me what the difference was between my work and Eva Zeisel’s work. I admire her work and the work she does as a designer, the design of shape line and volume--those kinds of things. She casts multiples and my pieces are handmade, they have finger marks on them and the marks of my touch. There is a different kind of intimacy that is conveyed by my work.
As far as art versus crafts, I try to talk about this with my students. It is so over talked about that you should just get rid of these words and this language. If people can get past the past and the fact that something has a function and that that doesn’t detract from its value, we can appreciate all art in the same way. The problem is history. The hierarchy that has been established in the arts is part of the problem. If we could work to change that it wouldn’t perpetuate itself.
M: It seems to me that the fact that a large amount of your work is functional adds to the conceptual ideas that you are working with.
K: Functional pieces have a third dimension to them, another layer, not just concept and technique, there is a function to them as well. I am making both functional and sculptural work right now. I have been doing that for a while and I continue to do it. It doesn’t bother me. I have been thinking about it and I kind of keep wondering if I should abandon doing this kind of work or that kind of work. Sometimes I feel different ways about it. Right now I am excited about some of the vessels that I am working on that are not functional. But I don’t think that means I need to abandon the functional work. They inform each other. I do think that the venues the work can be shown in change. That is interesting and frustrating. I am still figuring out what venues are appropriate for my work. That continues to be a challenge--when its sculpture versus functional that changes where work can be sold and shown.
M: I am curious what you have done to develop relationships with galleries both on and off line. How that has changed over time?
K: I could probably do more marketing of my work and approaching galleries. I don’t do as much of that as I would like, primarily because I have a teaching job. I have been working with three galleries recently that I think do a good job of representing my work and I continue to keep those relationships going. As far as getting myself out there, I think the website is probably the best way to do that. I have had a website for four years or so. What is nice about the website is you can put work up there and you can let it sit there and people see it, then they contact you. I suppose a privilege of having a salary is that I can pick and choose the opportunities as they come to me. I can be a bit pickier, in terms of figuring out which opportunities are appropriate I’ll look at the work of the other artists that the gallery is showing and see if my work makes sense in that context. I want to make sure I am putting my work in a place where it can be best understood and displayed appropriately.
M: Are there places, artists or other sources you look at for inspiration?
K: I am a bird watcher. That is an important influence on my work. I have been watching birds since I was a child. Why are they interesting to me? There is this amazing variation in their plumages, their shapes and their sizes. They are graceful and elegant. So when I am making work I am thinking about bird form, colors and shapes. It influences the design of the work. There is something about the act of bird watching that I equate with making work. There is this level of patience you need to maintain. Sometimes you will get a little glimpse of this amazing bird you have been waiting and waiting to see. It is this patient perseverance that gets rewarded…sometimes gets rewarded and sometimes it doesn’t. I think that makes it even more meaningful. In terms of thinking of how to mark different moments in time I remember the birds that I saw in Montana, the birds I saw in Colorado and the different birds I have seen here since I have moved to Vermont and how they mark different passages of time. I keep a “life list.” I have this dog-eared bird book. I think my parents got it for me when I was thirteen and I’m still using it. It’s horribly out of date. I should probably use a different book, but I’ve got my whole “life list” in there. Anytime I see a new bird I check it off and it’s a really important thing to me, like a catalog of my experiences. I can remember different places and specific moments in time. I can remember when I saw this bird and that bird—it’s like this cataloging of things collecting of things. I associate it with patience and passage of time. My favorite bird is a cedar waxwing. It’s a little brown bird that has these weird waxy tips on their wings and tails. Biologists think it has something to do with mating. You usually don’t see them when you are looking at them. We are fortunate to have them here so we see them from time to time. They flock high in the trees and they are hard to see but sometimes you get to see the red waxy tips. It is a very subtly colored bird, fleshy colored brownish. It looks like it has been airbrushed. Those subtleties inform glazing decisions that I make.
The influence of my professors was really important and of course my mom. The biggest influence of all, growing up around her pots. My dad too, in a more subtle way. He was a physicist so he had this analytical, scientific way of looking at everything. Before I decided to pursue a career in art I almost went to college for biology to study birds. I thought I would go into science. So there is a part of me that works in that way too. That probably has something to do with this collecting and cataloging of the birds. I think those are the fundamental influences, family. I can appreciate different work individually but experience was the most important influence of all.
Historical ceramics. I love historical ceramics, Islamic and Iznic ceramics in particular. I love that stuff. You might think that’s funny because it’s so heavily patterned. The calligraphy is just amazing. There is this beautiful gestural quality in it that I pick up and enlarge into the line of the form.
M: Any influential books or texts?
K: I just read for a second time now, this fabulous book “Only A Promise of Happiness: The Place of Beauty in a World of Art” by Alexander Nehamas. He’s a philosopher. He talks about the history of beauty in the art world. It’s amazing. His main point is that beauty gets a bad rap and it’s often seen as trite or insignificant. He goes into explanations about why this is and talks about Plato and Kant. I think that modernism was the death of beauty. What I like about it is that it is accessible and easy to understand. It is well written and thoughtful. I agree with his sentiments quite strongly because I want to put beauty into the work that I make, I think its important. What he concludes is that it’s a risk to look at a beautiful object or to own a beautiful object because he says beauty is only a promise of happiness. If you surround yourself with things that you think are beautiful, instead of being rewarded with happiness you are often disappointed. It’s a risk. It’s about love and relationships--all of these things that are all kind of put into these objects that you look at and want. That’s the most interesting thing that I have been reading recently.
M: Any last sort of nuggets of information you can offer up?
K: its funny to try to reflect on where I am and what I’ve done. I am grateful for the support of my family throughout my education. I wouldn’t have been able to end up where I am if it weren’t for them emotionally and financially. I don’t have large college loans. I am very lucky. It is hard enough to live off of a teacher’s salary. That family support was really critical to doing what I want to do. I was really fortunate to have a family that supported me and believe that this was a viable career path. For me now figuring out when to say when and devoting time to other aspects of my life is the next step. Finding a balance is important in everything that you do. I knew that if I tried to be a studio artist I would burn out. I go through phases where I am not excited about my studio work. I will admit that. But I know that that will pass and it does pass. I like the cycle.