As preparations for the upcoming NCECA Conference are keeping a lot of us busy this time of year, I thought it was the perfect opportunity to publish an interview with a potter whose work I’ve admired for years: Emily Schroeder Willis. In 2002, my sister and I drove from Anchorage, AK to Rochester, NY. On the way, we stopped in Helena, MT to visit the
Archie Bray Foundation. While we were at the Bray, I purchased a gem of a bowl of Emily’s that I still use all of the time. The pinched surface of Emily’s work begs to be touched. This bowl has a glossy, opaque neutral glaze on the bottom and an exposed porcelain texture at the rim. The interior is drenched with a thick, blue celadon glaze with large crazing marks that remind me of deep glacial crevasses. A single drawn line rolls over the pinched marks like a lonely road meandering over rough terrain. This graphic element is something that Emily still explores in her work and is a lovely contrast to her pinched process marks. If you are attending this year’s NCECA Conference, come see (and touch) Emily’s work in person at the Objective Clay booth as part of NCECA’s Gallery Expo (Hall A). Enjoy the interview! How did you first get involved in ceramics? Can you briefly describe your background and education? Technically speaking, my first clay experience was when I was little, maybe 8 years old. I don’t even know why, I certainly don’t think I had asked for it, but my parents got me a battery operated “wheel”. It looked more like a record player than a potters wheel. I think it ran on 4 D sized batteries. I actually still have the plastic tools that go with it believe it or not! It must have been a meaningful gift because I kept pursuing ceramics after that. I am really lucky because both my Junior High School and High School both had strong ceramics programs. We had gas kilns at both schools with wheels for everyone. We fired to cone 10 and had a huge variety of glazes. I really loved it, but didn’t think I would ever do it full time.
I went to the University of MN for my undergrad and started off as a landscape architecture major. I quickly switched when I had my first ceramics class there. Geof Wheeler was my instructor and Leanne McClurg was my TA! Later on I did a residency at the Archie Bray, a post-baccalaureate study at the Australian National University and graduate school at the University of Colorado, Boulder. How do you feel that your formal education (undergraduate-graduate school) prepared you for your career in ceramics? My grad school and undergrad were two very different experiences. The University of MN was quite traditional and more technical, while my grad school experience was more about challenging those traditions. But, I think that is a typical difference between grad and undergrad. I was taught by Mark Pharis and Margaret Bohls, and Mark had been taught by Warren Mackenzie. So, for a long time I had the “Minnesota Potter” lifestyle dream in my head. The goal was to get a farm somewhere, set up a studio in the barn, make work and live off that. I saw several artists in Minnesota do that: Jeff Oestreich, Linda Christianson, Bob Briscoe, Warren Mackenzie, Maren Kloppmann… Graduate school was a huge awakening! My first year at CU Boulder none of the other graduate students made pots. Many of them were educated in a much broader language of art, but only a few were educated in ceramics in the same technical manner as I was. I will still never forget one of my fellow grads telling me “Glaze comes in a jar, clay comes in a box.” I am very thankful for my education at the U of MN, teaching me about the techniques and basic practices of ceramics. At CU, I realized that I could make work that reached beyond people just in the ceramics world. It has helped me push my work further than I initially felt comfortable with. In graduate school, you took time off from making pottery and explored other means of expression. How did that work inform your current work? At CU I learned to be much more innovative and creative in my practice. It really helped to broaden my perspective on art and specifically in my own practice. Like you said, I made almost no pots in grad school, and in my current studio practice it helps me to never say “no” to any ideas that I have floating out there, regardless of how crazy or harebrained they seem. There are many times I wished I could take a respite from making pots to try out some other ideas, but just don’t have the space in my studio to work in two types of methods. Could you describe some of the most influential or career changing experiences you’ve had? The Archie Bray has definitely been a very influential place. It was the first time I really got to make work and figure out what my voice was. I would also say my semester at the Australian National University (which I did between undergrad and the Archie Bray) was very impactful. Janet DeBoos teaches there and she was amazing to work with. She encouraged me to hone in on the important elements of my work: form and surface. She constantly pushed me to pair everything down and simplify more. I still think back to some of the critiques I had with her. She is incredible. You spent a year as a visiting artist instructor at Alberta College of Art and Design? How did teaching impact your art-making? I almost put ACAD down as a career changing experience! Greg Payce and Katrina Chaytor who teach at ACAD are two incredible educational powerhouses! My year at ACAD was great because I taught 2 classes each semester and then had a studio to work in full time. It was great because they have such a good curriculum for their students and I always feel that when you push your students hard to try new things, you always end up pushing yourself really hard to try new work. You took on a job at Lillstreet Art Center for a few years. How did your position there help prepare you for your current business ventures? What did you learn that surprised you? I was the Director of Artist Programs at Lillstreet. For my position I actually ran Artist-in-residence program, helped facilitate ceramics workshops and assisted in organizing events with the artists who rented studio space at Lillstreet. It helped me learn more about the artist community here in Chicago. I began to develop their artists-in-residence program by connecting the artists with a variety of people (curators, artists, educators, business people) to help them get networked in the city. It was really great. When I left, they decided not to hire anyone and let the artist-in-residence program run itself. What I learned there was that running an art center and a gallery is a LOT of work. It’s a lot of organizational, people and communications skills. I also saw how much social networking and advertising was part of the day to day routine. I don’t think I realized what a big difference that makes to a business. I think as artists, we often focus on the work and not on the other end of the business model. I personally struggle with that because it takes me away from the making process, but it has caused me to see how it can help in your studio practice by getting out the word! In addition to being a studio artist, you currently work a full time job. You are also one of two directors of an artist collective named Objective Clay. How are you able to balance studio time with work life and maintain a strong voice in the field? Oh my goodness. I don’t feel that I balance things well, honestly. I feel balance is a constant seesaw. Some weeks I am cranking in the studio, other weeks I am focusing on Objective Clay projects and then other weeks I try to get out and enjoy life in the city! I truly feel that balance is a myth. You have published numerous articles in a number of highly respected ceramics periodicals. What kind of advice could you give to others wanting to publish their writings? Pay attention in English class! It has been surprising how much writing has become part of my practice. I always pounded into my students’ heads that writing was an important part of being an artist. Many of them scoffed at my writing assignments and I would be hard on them about it. To anyone looking to publish their writings, I would encourage them to simply submit them to magazines they are interested in. You never know what they could be looking for! Your article may be a perfect fit! Could you talk a little bit about why you choose to make pinched forms. What is it about the process/results that you find necessary for your work? I started making pinched forms because I got tendonitis when I was young. The tendonitis was due to a combination of circumstances, but nonetheless, it is the reason why I unwillingly switched from working on the wheel to handbuilding. Believe me, I was not thrilled about it. What I have learned to love about this process is how every mark of my process is recorded on the surface. Clay is such a remarkable material and I love how it responds so immediately to my touch. Now I really embrace that imperfectly marked surface because we live in a society so devoid of touch, what better way to combat that absence than to make work that celebrates that! How do you come up with new ideas? Can you walk us through your creative process when coming up with new forms/ideas? I do a lot of reading, looking and sketching. I look at historical forms , read DWELL magazine and I will also go to places like Design Within Reach and look at furniture, lighting and other objects for the home and see what other contemporary designers are making. What does a typical workday look like for you? My full studio work days are rare and on those days, I typically go through my email and try and respond to questions or galleries in the morning right away. I hate checking my email, so I like to get a lot done in one sitting. When I get to the studio, I usually either sketch or peruse through my sketchbook at ideas I want to be working on and then get started making. I work on anywhere from 6 -12 forms simultaneously because of how slowly I work. By the time I get to #6, #1 is usually ready to be worked on again. When I get stuck, I usually go for a walk in the neighborhood. I always feel like that helps to get my juices flowing and give me some ideas. What is your most valuable studio tool? NPR (National Public Radio), without it, I would be lost. You recently moved into a new studio space adjacent to the Nevica Project in Chicago. What were your must haves when choosing a location? Well, I am actually in the process of looking for a new studio space. Nevica is doing well and they need the entire space! So, my current list of must haves: sunlight, 1st floor (or easy access, no hauling clay up 3 flights of stairs!), sink, bathroom and clean. Safe location is actually the #1 living here in the city because you can find a lot of cheap rent places in sketchy locations. Since I work at night mostly, I don’t want to work in a place that I have to worry about getting mugged or having the wheels stolen off my car. Which marketing venue(s) (website/blog/galleries/studio sales/etsy/craft fairs/etc.) have you found to be the most lucrative for your work? Are there other methods of marketing that you’re thinking about taking on? I think I have tried all of the methods you have listed. I feel like each year things shift. Some years, I do really well in galleries, other years I do really well at selling out of my own studio during community events, some years I have big commission projects . I think you try everything and see what works. Two artists have given me a few pieces of sound advice regarding selling your work: First, one full time potter told me to expect to live in a location 10 years before I really started to turn a profit. That has taught me a lot about connecting to the people in your community and the important role “place” plays. I have definitely noticed more sales out of my studio, when I am connected to a community. Second, another prominent potter told me if a gallery hasn’t sold work in 7 months to ask for it back. I think I used to be a lot more lenient with galleries. It might simply be that gallery isn’t the best fit for my work, so why not send it to another place where it might sell better? You don’t want to walk into a gallery and see work you made 5 years ago still on the shelves. Finally, what advice can you give aspiring potters trying to make a living? Keep your chin up! Being an artist is one of the most lucrative and difficult jobs out there. Passion can only get you so far; sometimes you need to push through really tough times both financially and creatively speaking. I always recommend recent graduates to stick together. There is nothing better than someone who understands your pain and passion to help push you through those difficult moments in life. For more info about Emily and her work, please visit her website: emilyschroeder.com