Monday, June 7, 2010

Stephanie DeArmond: Text and Context By Molly Hatch

Stephanie DeArmond: Text and Context


Stephanie DeArmond’s work combines ceramics tradition with the ironic humor of appropriated text and kitsch imagery. Employing a wide range of influences from architecture, pop culture and art history, DeArmond is at the helm of an alternative craft movement revitalizing non-traditional materials in the art world. With an audience enamored with her work that ranges from subscribers of Elle and Ready-Made magazines to the readers of the popular blog: Design*Sponge, DeArmond’s sculptural and functional ceramics are not easily defined by the art-school limitations of sculpture, vessel and design.

At first glance DeArmond’s crisp letterforms appear to be factory made, cast from a plaster mold. This is in a large part thanks to her pointed reference to the exquisitely ornate 18th century porcelain dinnerware of the French Sevres and Vincennes factories. The overt decorative surfaces of DeArmond’s work immediately evoke the preciousness of your grandmother’s china cabinet—stereotypically looked at and rarely used. Upon closer inspection, the decals that appeared to belong to a museum class object reveal themselves to be an odd mishmash of kitschy florals purchased on Ebay—no doubt scraps left over from a hobbyist collection. This is just one of several layers of the high/low contrast in DeArmond’s work. Capitalizing on our expectations, the decals create fields of negative space allowing the viewer to read the surprising messages hidden in the detailed script of the letterforms. Drawn to the work of artists like Margaret Killgallen, Jack Pierson and Jenny Holzer and their use of text, DeArmond takes advantage of our cultural familiarity with traditional porcelain by using it to humorously parade appropriated text from subcultures of song lyrics, street signs and supermarket tabloids. “Something interesting happens when craft interacts with other creative/pop-cultural forces. Like ‘beat-box’ plus ‘oil painting’ plus ‘pom-poms.’ I think about how and why different materials and cultural references get placed into this high/low hierarchy. I find a lot of humor playing with that juxtaposition. Like Clement Greenberg versus Snoop, not that one is better than the other. I don’t know where Greenberg fits into my work, but I do know where Snoop does.”

DeArmond came to ceramics as an undergraduate at the University of Washington in Seattle. The strength of the ceramics area with its focus on sculpture and a strong visiting artist program gave her a good foundation in hand building. DeArmond made an influential move in 2001 to Minneapolis, Minnesota where she worked at Northern Clay Center. Her time there was focused on learning how to throw with porcelain, adding a new skill to her repetoire. She fell in love with porcelain mainly as a material with rebellious potential: “I was looking at a lot of work that was wood-fired or made with dark, earthy colors and for me the work read as very masculine. I wanted to do the opposite, to make super feminine pottery. Some of the [masculine] work [in Minnesota] is thrown loosely on the wheel and very expressive. I wanted simple forms--I wanted something plain. I wanted a clean look that could reference royal china or commercially made objects instead of granola-type chunky tableware. If I could put something subversive in my work I was interested in that--something that related to my experiences with urban life, something rebellious.” She began hand painting her cups with juxtapositions of text and image. “I thought text made the work more interesting than an image alone. I could show a different level of detail--a different line quality than the images I was making. I thought it made a nice visual contrast. It takes the image out of context and makes it more like a diagram or a drawing, it could be something else, more than just an image.”

It wasn’t until DeArmond attended graduate school at the University of Colorado in Boulder, that she began to think of the text as having potential as a three-dimensional form in its own right. “At some point everyone kept telling me to integrate form more with the surface decoration I was working with. I started cutting letterforms out of the middle of vessels, then experimenting with how a lid could reference a letterform, and several objects can form a sentence, like the classic diptych or triptych idea. Finally I dropped the vessel aspect of the work and made letterforms. I see these pieces as sculptural objects more than being about words or typography. I imagine them as vessels referencing historical ceramics, because of how they are made, as hand-built hollow objects.”

The large scale of DeArmond’s letterforms points to a direct lineage to commercial signage, one of her favorite sources for fonts. While in graduate school, the fonts became more decorative, sometimes obscuring the message hidden within. This requires the viewer to study the text as an object before understanding its content. “I like using really decorative text and subversively hiding a message within it--an unexpected message, another layer of meaning. I am thinking about abstracting type as form even more. I love how a typeface can reference a subculture, like you think of heavy metal or skinny jeans. It is great how type can go from having a really utilitarian use to something just poetic, straight poetry.”

Shortly after completing her M.F.A. in 2007, DeArmond’s work received a lot of press both online and in print. This visibility of her work led to at least one solo show and several exhibitions. “I like to think of my work in the context of our culture at large. So it was nice that I had exposure in these different venues [Elle, ReadyMade, New York Times among others]. It was a nice metaphor for looking at my work through the lens of popular culture outside of an academic context. It’s ironic that I’m interested in putting my work in a different context because it is so ceramic-y in nature. But I think its exciting when contemporary ceramic work shows up in mainstream media. It’s an opportunity for new dialog for both insiders and outsiders.”

In 2008, DeArmond moved to the Netherlands for two years while her husband completed his masters in graphic design. She found that the European approach to ceramics as a material was more interdisciplinary which resonated with DeArmond. “There was this different aesthetic there, ceramics is part of design. A lot of designers, like Hella Jongerius, work in ceramics but also design couches and other products. Ceramics is part of design— like interior design, product design. I like thinking about my work in the context of other creative fields. My influences are design, conceptual art and contemporary architecture.”

DeArmond and her family recently moved back to Minneapolis, Minnesota where she has set up a studio a few blocks from home. Settling back into American culture, DeArmond wonders how her time in Europe might affect her work. “Every time I move it changes my perspective. It changes the way I see things. You take a little bit of where you have lived with you. Environment changes your work and who you are as a person. It goes back to memory and idealizing the past. When I make my work I think about embodying joy or happiness. Drawing on happy memories is a natural source because [it makes] you want to keep going, you want to feel good.”

Like many of her contemporaries, DeArmond’s work is grounded in history and personal experience. Her poetic subversion of the hierarchies of ceramics places her in the middle of a clearly postmodern conversation about craft and its place in the art world. No doubt DeArmond will further establish her studio practice taking advantage of the glamour of porcelain and highlighting the idiosyncrasies of American subculture.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Interview with Karen Swyler, by Molly Hatch July 22, 2009

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.

Relative Permanence: The Vessels of Karen Swyler By Molly Hatch

Relative Permanence: The Vessels of Karen Swyler
By Molly Hatch

Working from her faculty studio at Green Mountain College in Poultney, Vermont, Karen Swyler employs what can be described as a thematic approach to her ceramic work. Concentrating on personal relationships and memory, her pieces rely on juxtaposition to one another to be complete both in concept and form. Swyler’s work is clearly grounded in the history of ceramics and the vessel, but through cutting and altering her thrown forms, much of Swyler’s work enters the realm of the sculptural. Her vessels act as metaphoric memoirs--as bodies relating to one another through proximity, palette, line and contour.

Swyler grew up on Long Island spending much of her time at local beaches collecting souvenirs of her outdoor excursions. With an art teacher for a mother and a physicist for a father, Swyler’s parents are no doubt a fundamental influence on her work. Her introduction to clay was crafting small clay animals as a child while her mother worked at the wheel in the ceramic studio in her childhood home. “(My father) 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 to study birds. So there is a part of me that works in that way too.” Swyler has fond memories of growing up surrounded by her mother’s pots, she and her sister thought nothing of drinking from their mother’s mugs. “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.” The consistent conceptual thread of relationships in Swyler’s work is grounded in memory. “To be able to interact with these things again makes me think about the times I spent with my family growing up. I can place myself in those times with those pieces. Growing up surrounded by this stuff that has such a memory is poignant. It can be wonderful and painful at the same time. It has shaped the things that I am thinking about when I am making my work.”

For Swyler, growing up surrounded by pots naturally evolved into becoming a ceramic artist herself. As an undergraduate at Alfred University, Swyler focused on making functional pots and continued that focus through her post baccalaureate year at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth and into her graduate studies at the University of Colorado in Boulder. Just before leaving the east coast to attend graduate school in Colorado, Swyler’s father passed away unexpectedly. With encouragement from her mother, Swyler attended the University of Colorado only two weeks after the loss of her father. “The first year of graduate school was me working through ideas, thinking about my dad, and the natural result of that was making pieces that dealt with personal relationships and how people relate to each other in familial and intimate (ways).” In this important transition time in her work, pots became metaphors for people. For example, through creating two cups with a shared saucer, two people having tea are forced to engage in a more intimate and controlled drinking experience. It was with the development of these pots that Swyler’s work began to foster prescribed interactions between people and pots as well as strong relationships between the pots themselves.

The raw porcelain surfaces and muted glaze palette of Swyler’s vessels developed later on in her graduate career with encouragement from professor Jeanne Quinn. “(Jeanne) had gone on sabbatical in Europe. She came back with all these really wonderful little pots she had collected. Some of them had light glaze colors and some of them were unglazed. She said, ”Karen you have got to try this. Look at these surfaces. They are sanded and smooth, there is no glaze on them. I want you to try this.” That was a really big breakthrough for me (because) I started thinking about glaze in the way that I was thinking about the form.” Swyler began to see raw clay as bare skin and glaze as a kind of clothing. Her use of the raw porcelain surface added a desired layer of vulnerability to the work.

Swyler’s use of color is inherited directly from her love of bird watching, an activity fostered by her parents as a young adult. Her favorite bird is the cedar waxwing for its subtle coloring that often informs her glazing decisions. The male waxwing is a little brown bird that has brightly colored tips on its wings and tail. These red and yellow tips are often hidden from view, tucked under its flesh and brown colored body and may be revealed in courtship. “There is something about the act of bird watching that I equate with making work. There is a 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.”

After completing her M.F.A. in December of 2002, Swyler left Colorado for a residency at the Archie Bray Foundation in Helena Montana. As a Lilian Fellow, Swyler took advantage of the creative freedoms integral to the residency. “(I had) time to make work in an unprecedented way. I didn’t have to deal with classes or other coursework, I could just make work. The Bray was a nice transition from academia to the real world. Now I work in my studio on my own and face a lot of the challenges (of making art) alone.” At the end of her two-year residency, Swyler sent out 30 applications to teaching positions throughout the country. Only two years after receiving her M.F.A, Swyler accepted a full time position at Green Mountain College in Poultney, Vermont where she is currently the Program Director in the Department of Visual Art and is in the midst of her fifth year running the ceramics area.

Settling into juggling her career as a ceramics professor and artist, Swyler has deveopled two very different kinds of workdays. During the summer, she focuses on making work for shows that she has scheduled for the upcoming year. Spending roughly six days a week in the studio for eight or so hours at a time, Swyler’s studio practice is uninterrupted by the diversions of academic responsibilities. Her goal is to complete a body of work before school starts up in September that will carry her through until the winter break in December. She works less frequently in her studio during the academic year. “It is interesting to shift between teaching and making. (My) ideas that are fresh and new settle and I have some time to think about them. Maybe I don’t have the time to make, make, make. I have time to think and look at (the work). 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 for change.”

Swyler’s elegant groupings of vessels continue to employ similar conceptual and formal elements to that of the traditional still life. By focusing on the nuanced relationship between two or three forms she encourages close inspection and even touch. Her employment of negative space, small concentrations of color and subtle lines drawn between pots encourage the viewer to look more closely as the pieces reveal themselves slowly over time. Inspired by ceramic history, family and ornithology, Swyler’s poignant vessels encourage the exploration of our intimate lives.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

January 20, 2010

Deborah Schwartzkopf: Full Circle

by Molly Hatch Read Comments (0)

Pitchers, to 15 in. (38 cm)  in height, wheel-thrown and altered parts combined with patterned slabs that were shaped with hump molds.

Pitchers, to 15 in. (38 cm) in height, wheel-thrown and altered parts combined with patterned slabs that were shaped with hump molds.

Deborah Schwartzkopf seems to feel most at home in the back of her glossy black pick-up. I met her for the first time as she was pulling pots out of the back of her truck to set up our shared sale table for “Salad Days” at the Watershed Center for the Ceramic Arts in Newcastle, Maine. In the back of her truck under the cover of a cap, a platform was installed to create a comfortable place for sleeping during her long drives across the country and weekend-long pottery sales. Under the sleeping platform, Schwartzkopf stores everything from a small bag of camping spices to her glazes and a back stock of pots. That evening, we were both invited to stay with fellow potter Ingrid Bathe. I happily accepted the cushy place to sleep while Schwartzkopf opted to make her bed in the back of her truck parked in their driveway, insisting that she would be most comfortable there. Her truck has likely been the most consistent roof over her head since Schwartzkopf finished her MFA at Penn State in 2005.

Schwartzkopf darts a thrown cylinder that will become a tapered section of a pot at the Walnut Creek Art Center.

Schwartzkopf darts a thrown cylinder that will become a tapered section of a pot at the Walnut Creek Art Center.

Schwartzkopf’s first introduction to ceramics was through a high school running start program in Seattle, Washington. She transferred to the University of Alaska in Anchorage in 1999 where her studies in ceramics intensified after taking a beginning-level course with visiting artist Pam Pemberton. While her studies at the University of Alaska were mainly with Steve Godfrey and Robert Banker, Schwartzkopf worked with Kris Bliss and Peter Brondz who mentored her career as a studio potter outside of the University. “(Working with them) really brought me into clay, because I needed a practical application for my degree,” she explains, “I came from a real working family and the whole idea of being an artist was pretty foreign. . . . My mom taught me to sew when I was young. My dad is a woodworker. I grew up making useful objects. My grandparents immigrated, they came from a life where you make or grow what you need. To give handmade gifts was a way of showing affection and caring in my family . . . so I needed something that was real and practical. That was really what drove me into ceramics,” she continues, “I felt like I had a way to exist. I loved it. It was a way to make it turn into a life instead of just something you study in school. I think that happens with a lot of potters. It’s not just the artwork, you love the lifestyle.”

This article appeared in Ceramics Monthly magazine’s February 2010 issue. To get great content like this delivered right to your door, subscribe today!

While living in Montana, Schwartzkopf transported ware to the Archie Bray kilns through the snow in her truck—in four-wheel-drive, low gear.

While living in Montana, Schwartzkopf transported ware to the Archie Bray kilns through the snow in her truck—in four-wheel-drive, low gear.

It was during her undergraduate career that Schwartzkopf developed her distinct approach to her complex utilitarian forms. As a result of the separate handbuilding and wheel-throwing studios in the ceramics department at the University of Alaska, Schwartzkopf developed two bodies of functional work, each constructed in very different ways. “It was good because I experimented a lot more in totally unrelated ways with the same material.” As she grew as a student, Schwartzkopf merged those two processes within the same body of work, incorporating her inherited skills as a seamstress into her process. “Sewing is something I think particularly influences (my work). It starts with this flat two-dimensional piece that you turn into a hollow form. So learning how to fit flat material to a body is really similar to making paper patterns into voluminous pots.” Inspired by industrial designer Eva Zeisel and the buildings of architect Frank Ghery, Schwartzkopf’s pots marry the clean lines of modern architecture and the asymmetry of the natural world. The result is a vocabulary of forms that sing of the softness and malleability of wet clay and retain the rigidity of vitrified porcelain.

Vase, 5½ in. (14 cm) in height, thrown and altered base with slab-built openings.

Vase, 5½ in. (14 cm) in height, thrown and altered base with slab-built openings.

Shortly after finishing school, it became clear to Schwartzkopf that she needed to develop the surfaces of her work and refine her handbuilding skills. In a move that introduced her to the ceramics community beyond Alaska, Schwartzkopf packed up her truck and left to do a year of independent study at San Diego State University in California. During this time, Schwartzkopf focused on glaze chemistry, creating her distinct vocabulary of oxidation glazes ranging from glossy bright accents to soft pastel matts. “I want my work to look like it could be made out of the glazes. I want the work to look natural—where variation is (seeming to) occur because of a natural process. Whether it is because it grew like that or because the wind blew on it . . . I want the (glaze) accents to float on the body of the piece so it creates depth based on color and contrasts of shiny versus matt.”

Teapot, 11 in. (28 cm) in height, handbuilt with multiple slabs shaped over hump molds.

Teapot, 11 in. (28 cm) in height, handbuilt with multiple slabs shaped over hump molds.

This concentrated effort to develop her palette proved worthwhile as she was accepted to the MFA program at Penn State University starting in the fall of 2003. Schwartzkopf is clear that her reasons for attending graduate school were grounded in developing her career as a studio potter. “I wanted two years of feedback and practice before I had to be a real potter. It led me into a deeper search of myself. I feel like in the school system (compared to working on my own) my learning curve was a lot higher. . . . Everyone else around me was failing too, and I could learn from their mistakes and get more feedback.” Her graduate school experience pushed her to refine conceptual ideas about the relationship between form and surface as well as the importance of color in her work.

After finishing her MFA in 2005, Schwartzkopf traveled to China as a resident artist at the San Bao Ceramic Art Institute in Jingdezhen, directly followed by a residency at the Archie Bray Foundation for the Ceramic Arts in Helena, Montana, as a Lilian Fellow. Schwartzkopf describes her experience at the Bray as a career watershed. “When I got out of graduate school, I got into the Bray and got a fellowship, which was my highest goal. It happened, and it seems completely unbelievable . . . the Bray has given me a supportive community. It was amazing interacting with so many artists and meeting people from all over with so much energy, experience, and skill.” To propel her career forward and begin to earn a living as a potter, Schwartzkopf researched galleries that she felt her work might fit into and sent out over 15 packets in January of her first year at the Bray. “I was really well received—actually a little too well; I had five or six shows that year and (my career) kind of snowballed from there.”

Vase, 3 in. (8 cm) in height, thrown and altered base with slab-built openings.

Vase, 3 in. (8 cm) in height, thrown and altered base with slab-built openings.

Since leaving the Bray in 2007, Schwartzkopf has taught as a visiting professor at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, Massachusetts College of Art and Design in Boston as well as the Harvard Community Arts Program in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In addition to teaching in universities, she has taught numerous workshops. She has also been a resident artist at the Ceramic Center in Berlin, Germany, and Mudflat Studio in Somerville, Massachusetts. Schwartzkopf has come full circle in her recent move across the country back to her hometown of Seattle, Washington, where she is an artist-in-residence and instructor at Pottery Northwest for the next two years. The nomadic nature of her lifestyle has become an important part of Schwartzkopf’s understanding of her place in the world as a potter. “I feel like you have to strive, and it’s worth it. I look at all the jobs that people do, and I feel so lucky that I get to make pottery. I enjoy the process as a whole.” With her approach to clay, Schwartzkopf stretches, cuts, and folds the material into new and exciting utilitarian forms, challenging us to pay closer attention to the moments and places that accent our day to day.

For further information about Deborah Schwartzkopf, and to see more of her work, see

the author Molly Hatch is a potter and author living in Florence, Massachusetts. See

Want to read more about what Deborah has to say about her work?
Check out the full transcript of Molly Hatch’s interview with Deborah Schwartzkopf.

Interview with Deb Schwartzkopf

January 20, 2010

Interview with Deborah Schwartzkopf at Mudflat Studio, July 2009

by Molly Hatch Read Comments (0)

This is a full transcript of Molly Hatch’s interview with Deborah Schwartzkopf that was done in preparation for the article “Deborah Schwartzkopf: Full Circle“, which appeared in Ceramics Monthly magazine’s February 2010 issue. To get great content like this delivered right to your door, subscribe today!

Molly Hatch: Start by telling a bit about yourself and your relationship to clay. How you started…

Deborah Schwartzkopf: How I started…(the) first time I was ever in a ceramics class I was in high school in a running start program (you can take college classes while still in High School). But I didn’t really latch onto it (clay). I also took photography and political science and drawing.

When I was 19 or 20, I transferred to Alaska after a year and a quarter at school in Seattle. I needed to kind of have some space to away from, you know, the roots. I needed to have other people informing my life. I wanted to be alone which is a good place to do that, in Alaska. So I went there and took a class with Pam Pemberton–a beginning ceramics class–and I really liked it so I kept taking (ceramics) classes. I also took classes in sculpture and jewelry. Steve Godfrey and Robert Banker were my two main teachers up there. That’s where I really started studying intensively. I had two mentors up there Kris Bliss and Peter Brondz. So that really brought me into clay because I needed a practical application for my degree. I came from a real working family and the whole idea of being an artist was pretty foreign. So I needed something that was real and practical–a cause and effect situation. That was really what drove me into ceramics…

M: So that was part of your motivation to make utilitarian pots?

D: Huge motivation, because I felt like I had a way to exist I guess, it wasn’t just…. I loved it (making art) it was a way to make it turn into a life instead of just something you study in school.

M: Interesting parallel, I think I had a similar reason for making functional work as well…

D: Yeah I think that happens with a lot of potters. It’s not just the artwork you love the lifestyle. The lifestyle that sounds so wonderful like having a beautiful home, you know with a garden and having roots which I have, but they are all over the place. They aren’t just in one place.

M: I suppose that’s something they (universities) don’t really prepare us for…

D: No, not exactly, hah hah…

M: Do you think that your move to Seattle will slow some of that moving down for you?

D: I’m not exactly sure. I’m moving there with Daniel, my boyfriend and I’m reluctant to say I’m settling there but it is also something that I want. So I don’t know, I’m just going there with kind of open expectations to see what happens. I think we are hoping to stay there for two years, maybe a little longer. It’s different when you are making decisions with somebody. I have been moving every single year for the last three years. I’m really tired of that and I can’t say that is over. I’d like to not move around so much…

M: Right, but it’s an opportunity for a long-term position?

D: It’s up to two years.

M: So to get back to your talking about your interest in utilitarian clay, could you expand on your ideas, your making process, how you came to working the way you do and describe how your process has evolved?

D: In Alaska there were two ceramics studios because of a merger between a Community College and a Vo-Tech College. One studio was at one end of the campus and it was more predominantly hand built and sculptural (clay) work and the other side was high fire wheel thrown, functional. I took classes in both (studios) and I had two separate bodies of work. One was wheel thrown and the other was pots, but they were more sculptural than functional–they were only hand built. So I feel like that set me up for being able to experiment in a lot of ways. (It) was also irritating–having to work in two studios at the opposite ends of the school but it was good because I experimented a lot more in totally unrelated ways with the same material. I feel like as a process I merged those two things so now I do a lot of both within the same body of work. I throw a lot of parts but I also hand build a lot of parts with slabs. So that was the beginning of my process as far as construction goes.

M: Sewing and other craft processes influence your work as well?

D: I come from a family of people that make things. My mom taught me to sew when I was really young. My dad is a woodworker. I grew up making stuff. My grandparents immigrated, they came from a life where you make everything, all the blankets, I mean anything you can make, you make. So I did a lot of handcrafts like crocheting and other things. I feel like if there was an opportunity to make something for someone it was made. It was a way of showing affection and caring between people in my family. Food was the same way. Making as much food as possible was a way of showing love. It came out of a family that struggled, that food was a gift. Sewing was something I think particularly influenced the way that I see things because it starts with this flat 2-D piece that you turn into a hollow form that moves around and doesn’t just have straight lines necessarily. So learning how to fit flat paper like things to a body is really similar to making paper patterns into volumous pots.

M: This is a tough question to answer because you have been moving around so much…there are key aspects to each of our studios that we set up and always keep the same. What do you require in your studio space?

D: That’s interesting because this space is the smallest space I’ve ever worked in and it really taught me the baseline of what I need. I need a lot of shelving. I built all the shelving in the studio. I painted the walls because the color of the walls influence how big something feels I painted it yellow and white which makes it have a brighter feeling. I really want windows. Making every space do something. Every space has to have an actually function. I always need a table. I do so much slab work that I need a space to roll out slabs. A wheel and a banding wheel are two really important tools. I also have a small box of hand tools. It’s all I need every time I do a workshop….Square bats, I can throw 50 cups and not have them spread out really far.

M: So when you are throwing you would throw on a bat?

D: I learned not to throw on bats but I started throwing on bats because I throw a lot of my work without bottoms and its makes it more difficult to pick up with out squishing it. I don’t want that kind of fingerprint on the work, I don’t want it to look messy and sloppy.

M: So your forms are often made with the bottoms added?

D: Yeah…

M: What does your normal workday look like?

D: I’m a really bad person for routines. Seriously…I try to have some goals for the day, which is one of the only routines I have. It varies so dramatically. I can’t glaze and make things here. So there isn’t a steadiness for making things for deadlines. I try to make extra for deadlines. Here my rhythm has been really strange because I have to stop and then haul everything to another facility to glaze.

M: Which has been Mass Art?

D: Which has been Mass Art.

M: You really haven’t been doing firings here?

D: No, I only did one glaze firing here…Mass Art has this gigantic glaze room and a spray booth that works really well. I store all my glazes there. I have 20 glaze buckets. For me it just made sense. Even in other facilities where I have everything in the same space I always work cyclically and make work for three or four, maybe five weeks. In my best health I fire a glaze kiln every month and a half or two months. January, February and March I just got through Christmas and I have to breathe. Usually it’s pretty cyclic.

M: You are firing gas kilns?

D: I fire in oxidation. I find that gas kiln oxidation firings aren’t as clean as electric and I think that’s good for my glazes that they get a tiny bit of variation as opposed to an electric kiln.

M: Do you want to talk a little about your forms? You have incredibly smooth surfaces on your work, could you talk about that?

D: My glazing…I guess I want my work to look like it has a skin on it. Like it could be made out of the glazes. I don’t want it to look super plasticky. I want it to look somewhat natural, where the variation is occurring because of a natural process. Whether its because it grew like that, or because the wind blew on it which happens when you spray glazes…or because fishes have speckling on the top of their back and on their bellies. (I am) referring to those sorts of natural markings. I also want to reference the more technological world. That is where the accents (on the surfaces) come in. Well actually, those are similar to bird markings too, its kind of a combination between those two things. Looking at things like traffic lights or brake lights and what they’re telling you what they are lighting up. What other markers I see around. Even how extension cords are orange so you don’t trip on them as often. Like bird markings are a seductive call if you will, or even wearing lipstick. I want those accents to kind of float in the body of the piece so it creates depth based on color and shiny versus matt. So, often the accents are shiny the overall glazes are matt.

M: It seems like you are doing a similar thing in the forms as well. Where you have fluidity, or an organic quality, but then also a rigidity that you might find in architecture.

D: Yeah.

M: Do you think that living in Boston or living in the city has affected you one way or another or are you holding onto some space from before?

D: I don’t know. I have this personal theory that when you get out of the place you are is when it actually affects you more. I feel like right now maybe I am still thriving off being in Ohio and the country more you know? But I don’t really know, I do really like looking at the buildings here. I guess when I think of the technological aspect I’m not really thinking of it always in terms of buildings that I see. It is more the contrast I see between people-they are these soft squishy things but they have teeth. Or even with birds, they are these puffy, fluffy things but they have this (hard) beak. I really like Frank Ghery’s buildings. He is an architect that I seek out.

M: Is that because of his use of materials or shape?

D: Mostly shape. I feel like there is this great parallel between how buildings are often squares with box windows and box doors, but his aren’t. But (his) still function and they inspire people because of the space they take up and the space they give. I think pottery can do that too. Based on tradition, you can take (clay) and morph it into something that’s not necessarily what is expected of it. It can make you more aware. It can change the way you see what you are holding because its not what you would expect.

M: Like a traditional cup versus non traditional…

D: Sure. I’m really interested in form. I approach my work really formally. It is often out of shape and surface that I am moving forward. I really want everything to function. I am really fascinated by that tug of war between surface and form and form functioning.

M: Its rare that I see a physical texture in the surface of your work. I feel like there is a glaze that might have a texture but there is a lot of visual texture, through mottling or dots. Why no texture?

D: Well I just don’t have a knack for it. I think my professor Steve Godfrey in Alaska uses texture in a really beautiful way. I feel like that’s the only kind of texture I could imagine liking. Then it would look just like his work! So I guess its something I have stepped away from. I also like the feeling of the surface when its just this taught curve it feels like its opening, I’m referencing flower petals and how they expand and have that really high energy when they are just starting to pop. I guess I’m just not that interested in texture. And also my process doesn’t lend itself to texture because I’m always scraping and surforming. I want my pots to look fluid, but I’m not fluid. I have enough going on in the pots right now.

M: One of the things we have talked about is school and education. There is talk in the larger craft world beyond ceramics of real world training versus formal training. You and I have chosen academic routes. It would be interesting to hear about undergrad and continuing on to get your masters. What is some of your thinking around formal education and its relationship to teaching and making pots?

D: My experience in school was fantastic. Every place I went. In Alaska, in San Diego, in Pennsylvania…

M: Was San Diego a post baccalaureate?

D: It was an independent study for a year and I went there because I wanted to study glaze chemistry. In the programs I was in, there was a lot of freedom. They were really studio-based and I spent all my time working in the studio. I didn’t go to graduate school so I could teach. I went to graduate school because I wanted two years of feedback and practice before I had to be a real potter. It kind of led me into a deeper search of myself, which I found really meaningful. Being in the school system as compared to working on my own, I feel like my learning curve was a lot higher because everyone else around me was failing too and I could learn from their mistakes and get lots more feedback. I felt like it was a good opportunity. I guess I am also intensely competitive, so it was a way I was introducing myself to the ceramics circle, and that wasn’t working on my own– hoping they would find me. I was pushing really hard to get myself into every single circumstance that I could to grow and to get my work more known. I have to say though, without the experience of working for those two potters, I don’t think I would have done what I did….

M: The mentors that you had?

D: The mentors that I had taught me that I could make a living and have a balanced life. Which is not what I have yet, but it’s my goal and so that is what really keeps me going. Even though I have chosen a more academic route. My real hope is to someday offer some sort of work situation to somebody if they want to work in a ceramics studio and see how somebody actually makes it happen. I’d like to teach maybe one class on the side. I don’t think that full time teaching is what I’m the best at. I love it. My one year at Ohio was wonderful. I feel like I learned more than anyone around me. It was really challenging. I think that the school system is really important because it challenges you to think, to improve your ideas. I think that sometimes it doesn’t cover enough of the basics about efficiency. What you are actually going to do with this–how you can really live off of what you do? I think that learning how to live off of what you do can sometimes be really stunting. I think there is just a really fine balance that’s hard and I think it’s very individual. Some people do really well immediately selling work. I didn’t really sell my work a lot until I was at the Bray. I had a long time where I wanted to sell my work and I sold a few things. Most of it I gave to my mother and I think that was healthy for me because it allowed me to experiment longer without consequences and make things that didn’t really work for longer. I think everybody has to seek out their own way. I think both are valuable and if you can do both, so much the better.

M: One of the things I’m interested in your practice as a studio potter is what your relationship to marketing is, how you are using the internet as a tool and generally your approach. I have had to figure out the different ways to navigate my career as a potter on my own through talking with people. It sounds like you had somewhat of a similar experience?

D: Penn State is where I went to grad school. I feel like my professors were incredibly supportive but at the same time there wasn’t a lot of “in order to succeed you should do this.” And partly because I don’t think its that clear cut. Everybody’s paths are different. I was really lucky to get the Bray right away I didn’t have a reality kick as hard as some people might. When I was there I decided that I needed to get my work out there because I made a lot of work and nobody knew where it was and nobody knew who I was. I needed to change that, so I used the internet to research galleries. I looked at a ton of galleries and sent out about fifteen applications in January when I knew everybody was going to be slow because I don’t want to be sitting at the bottom of the pile. I wrote them a short letter saying “I think my work might do well here can you take a look at my images.” I was really well received, actually a little over well! I kind of got myself into a…I had five or six shows that year and its kind of snowballed from there. I also entered every single juried art show there was, which cost a fortune. At that point I felt like I was investing in my career. So that’s what I did. If the juried show went well and sold, sometimes I would call and ask if they would like more work. At the very end of grad school I got a website which cost me a fortune–well for me. I also paid the guy who built the initial page to give me lessons on how to maintain the site. He taught me how to make the gallery with images. Now I can add and totally change everything. I keep up with that which makes me insane. Every time I move, I send a card which keeps people updated as well.

M: Describe some of the more career changing moments or places since leaving school. Clearly the Bray and teaching. Is there anything else since leaving school that stands out in your mind as career changing?

D: I feel like I am more of a cumulative effect person. The Bray was a huge thing for me to launch myself off of, but Ohio was equally difficult and wonderful at the same time. Being in a school system after two years of making was a challenge. Learning from having to do critiques was really amazing and being in the atmosphere of questioning every single thing again. I hadn’t been really doing that as much. I had just been living off of all my questions from grad school at the Bray. Then coming back here, I felt like I have got to do the same thing, I’ve got to let go of the questions, at least internalize them. I feel like that is something that I really enjoy, although I don’t want to keep traveling for a job and keep doing residencies. I’ve got to figure out something else…

M: Well you have done a lot of travel–we haven’t really talked about that …

D: I feel like that affects me more than anything. Each time I think this time it will be easier because I have done it so much and its not. There’s a whole new system to learn a whole new social circle to learn and a whole new everything. The things that should be easy aren’t, then you break your foot (Schwartzkopf broke her foot shortly after beginning her residency at Mudflat in the fall of 2008)…every single move has taught me so much even simple things like learning what other people are into like restaurants or music. It s amazing to be in this city and learning about all the museums and how to get in free. The traveling stretches me a lot. I really like it. It makes me nuts but right now I’m completely ready to move. It’s not because I don’t like it. I’m just ready. When I say that I’m not sure if I’m settling in Seattle its because I’m not sure that I know how.

M: What were your expectations for your career as an undergrad and how have they been realized or not realized now that you are here?

D: As an undergraduate I wanted to be a potter. Just like my mentors. I actually built a cabin, a studio and a kiln up there (in Alaska) and left it all because of relational difficulties and because I realized I needed to be in a more “in the loop” atmosphere. I mean, Alaska is fabulous, but one of the reasons it’s fabulous is because it’s removed. That’s also a less wonderful thing if you are trying to learn and inject yourself into a community that is not where you are. I took down my kiln and rebuilt it in someone else’s place and left. I did that special student (in CA). It was difficult but good for me. My expectations when I got out of graduate school…at that point I got into the Bray and got a fellowship which was my highest goal–and it happened! It seems completely unbelievable. I didn’t really now what I would do after that. I am swayed easily by people and opportunities. That is kind of what I am doing right now. I am working intuitively at this point.

I really want to make pots the most. I really feel like I need the social part of being an artist which being a potter doesn’t always give you. Whether it’s teaching or something else.

M: So we talked about a few of your influences. Are there other artists or designers or places you look for inspiration?

D: I really appreciate strong women like Lucy Rie and Eva Zeisel. I’ve read up on a bit and look to for inspiration. The fact that they succeeded in their age and the age they lived in. They made work that’s beautiful in really different ways. I have to say I’ve had so many good teachers. In grad school I had Liz (Quackenbush) and Chris (Staley). But John Utgaard was there. I have just gotten to work with so many great people.

When I was first starting ceramics I took every single workshop I could possibly afford. I like paying attention to what people are making but I really try hard to just be in the world. I’m really interested in the slow food movement. My hobbies take so much of my extra time.

M: Future projects? Anything under wraps that you are working on?

D: I’m trying to figure out working larger using similar techniques which is difficult, it is not similar. Someday I’m going to go to Kohler. When I first applied there I had this (she points to a large hand built piece in her studio) in my brain but I didn’t have any sort of image to apply with. I want to get a studio. I want to try to have a home.

M: So we’ll keep an eye out for bigger pieces?

D: Yeah.

M: Are there any books or texts that you read for inspiration?

D: I have been reading Eva Zeisel “On Design” It’s really a good book. I recently read a “Natural History of the Senses.” Studio Potter-Everybody should get Studio Potter.

M: Do you have any advice for people launching themselves or getting started?

D: Work hard. I think hard work pays off. I don’t have any tricks. I feel like putting yourself into really educational situations that will make you go insane will stretch you really really hard. I think being stretched hard–as far as how much information you can absorb and learn from is really important for me. Inundating yourself, because you can never absorb everything, even if you’re only giving yourself three things. If you are giving yourself 25, then maybe you are absorbing 20 of them.

M: It seems like you have persisted. Working hard is an underlying thing you appreciate…

D: Yeah, I feel like you have to strive and its worth it. All the time I go around here and I look at all the jobs that people do, and I feel so lucky that I get to make clay. I enjoy the process as a whole. Other people value potters bringing attention to what we do every day.

M: Thanks….

This interview is supplemental to Molly Hatch’s article, “Deborah Schwartzkopf: Full Circle“, which appeared in Ceramics Monthly magazine’s February 2010 issue. To get great content like this delivered right to your door, subscribe today!

Workshop with Molly Hatch at 4th and Clay


Friday, October 16, 2009

Molly Hatch Cover Article of Pottery Making Illustrated November 2009

October 7, 2009

2-D to 3-D: Using Image Transfer and Mishima Techniques to Make Drawings on Pottery

by Molly Hatch Read Comments (10)

If you’re drawn to drawing on clay surfaces, but haven’t quite mastered the ability to get your two-dimensional ideas onto your three-dimensional forms, this post is for you. During her undergraduate years at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, potter Molly Hatch mostly focused on drawing. Then in her final year, she learned how to combine drawing and printmaking skills for surface decoration on pottery, and the rest, as they say, is history. Molly went on to earn her MFA in ceramics and just recently finished a residency through the prestigious Arts/Industry Program at John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan, Wisconsin.

In today’s post, an excerpt from the November/December 2009 issue of
Pottery Making Illustrated, Molly explains how she uses image transfer and Mishima techniques to create her drawings in clay. Plus she shares her slip and engobe recipes. - Jennifer Harnetty, editor.

Mishima is a traditional Korean slip-inlay technique. The Korean pots you see with mishima decoration typically use several colors of slip in the same piece. I basically use the same black slip recipe for all of my mishima drawing. I always reference a pattern when I am drawing on my pots and sometimes I use a template to transfer a detail of the pattern.

In this case, I am using the template to transfer the bird in the pattern onto the cup surface. I make my templates by laminating my own drawing of a found pattern. This is helpful if you are trying to make multiples, but still requires a lot of drawing and interpretation because you are drawing on a three-dimensional surface.

Be sure to download your free copy of the Buyers Guide to Ceramic Supplies and Materials for a comprehensive listing of manufacturers and suppliers, along with valuable studio resources.

A laminated paper template of your drawing can help maintain consistency in a design when transferring images to a set. All of my mishima is done when the pots are a dry-leather hard. Usually they are ready to draw on just after trimming is finished.

Gently wrap the laminated pattern around the cup and use a quill or dull-tipped pencil to trace the image, taking care to position the image exactly where you would like it to be on the cup.

Remove the template to reveal the transferred tracing image. Use the transferred image as a guide for drawing deeper lines into the surface.

After going over the tracing, finish off the rest of the drawing freehand, using the template as a visual reference. You do not need to draw very deeply into the surface for mishima to work. I often feel as though I am just scratching into the surface of the clay.

Brush the surface of the pot with a soft-bristled brush to get rid of crumbs, which could mar the surface. Brush the surface of the pot with a soft-bristled brush to get rid of crumbs, which could mar the surface.

Apply a layer of stain over the drawing using a wide brush. Once the pot has dried back to the dry leather-hard state and any sheen on the slip has gone, wipe away excess slip from the surface of the pot using a clean sponge. You need to clean the sponge often during this process to avoid streaks on the surface of the pot

Drawing Tools
There are many tools you can use to incise the surface of the pot for mishima. I have gone through stages of preferring particular tools. Pencil-style X-Acto knives, commercial stylus carving tools (sold in ceramic supply stores), African porcupine quills (available at Santa Fe Clay) amongst others. My current drawing tool of choice is a calligraphy pen with exchangeable metal tips. It is the same kind of pen that you dip in ink and would use to do traditional calligraphy; I just use it on clay instead.

Pictured here (from left to right): X-acto knife for drawing into the leather-hard clay; African porcupine quill (I got mine from Santa Fe Clay) for drawing and transferring images into the leather hard clay (different line quality); $1.00 Chinese brush for brushing on the slip after I have drawn into the leather hard clay; Extra soft men’s shaving brush for brushing away the crumbs of clay (I got mine at a flea market because really nice ones are really expensive!); natural sponge: for wiping away the slip after I have brushed it onto the pot.

Adding Color
On many of my pots, I add color accents to the mishima pattern through painting. I do all of my painting after the pot has been bisque fired and before I do any glazing. For the color, I use a cone 04 vitreous engobe that I mix myself, but commercial underglazes also work well. If you use an engobe, combine it in a 1:1 ratio with mixing-medium using a palette knife until it is well mixed. The mixing-medium helps make the engobe more brushable and thins it out so that you can build up color in layers, similar to painting on canvas. This layering makes for more solid colors with less visible brush strokes. The engobe recipe that I use tends to flux a bit at cone six but it can still be used to fill in the line drawings on the bottoms of pots. After I finish adding the color, I use a clear glaze over everything then fire the work in oxidation to a hot cone six.

Slip and Engobe Recipes

Andrew Martin’s Brushing Slip
(up to cone 10)

Raw Material

Ferro Frit 3110

Ball Clay

Mason Stain (for black use MS 6600)





Vitreous Engobe
(cone 04 to cone 6)

Raw Material


Ferro Frit 3110

Ball clay (Kentucky #4 or OM 4)

EPK Kaolin

Glomax (Calcined Kaolin)




CMC (dry)

Macaloid (dry)


See images of Molly Hatch’s finished work at

An expanded version of this article is included in the November/December 2009 issue of
Pottery Making Illustrated.

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