I’m thrilled to introduce Doug Peltzman as Potter of the Month for April! I have been a fan of Doug’s work for years and continue to be intrigued by the striking architecture of his forms, his active surfaces and his unwavering attention to every detail. His work is inspirational, inviting, thoughtful, beautiful and incredibly useful.
I first met Doug in the fall of 2012 during the Utilitarian Clay Symposium at Arrowmont. Although we didn’t get the opportunity to chat much during our brief time there, I have had the pleasure of getting to know Doug as a fellow member of Objective Clay. It is an honor to be a part of the constant dialogue in our field and this interview is no exception. I hope you enjoy Doug’s feature as much as I did. Cheers!
How did you first get involved in ceramics? Would you explain your attraction to utilitarian ceramics?
I first got involved in ceramics by chance and luck. When I decided to go back to school, I already had three years of undergraduate education in painting and fine arts under my belt, and had spent the two years in between these undergrad stints working as a cabinetmaker. I think that this two-year break from school manifested a desire in me to make useful things. When I decided to go back to school, I really didn’t know what I would do. By serendipity, and for reasons I can’t fully explain, I took a wheel throwing class. A few weeks later, I took a shift at a wood firing, and I was hooked. It was like a new world unlocked for me. I’m not sure if I was attracted to utility at first, or if it was more about the connection to the material and the community.
Can you briefly describe your background and education?
I was born and raised in Commack, NY, a suburb on Long Island. My teens to early twenties were spent on a skateboard, honing my skills and style, and feeling like I had finally found my calling. It helped give me purpose, similar to what making pots provides for me now. From high school, I went to SVA for one year, and then I transferred to Pratt. I majored in painting, and spent my sophomore and junior years there. I took two years off and worked as a cabinetmaker, before deciding to go back to school and earn my BFA in ceramics from Suny New Paltz in 2005. In 2010 I earned my MFA from Penn State.
How do you feel that your formal education (undergraduate-graduate school) prepared you for your career in ceramics?
I think it helped make me a really skilled maker and critical thinker. My work ethic was established long before college, watching and learning from my parents, and spending countless hours on my skateboard. I think higher education does some things really well, and others not so well. How to make a living as an artist is not easy, and there are no clear suggested tracks to success. But, the more I teach, the more I realize that academia isn’t built to provide you with all of the answers and skills to being a full time artist. You have to seek them out. That desire has to come from within. I was fortunate to work for my undergrad professor, Mary Roehm. Looking back on that time, I think I learned as much from being Mary’s assistant as I did from taking her classes. Also, and equally as important, she exposed me to her lifestyle and her collection of pots. This showed me that pottery was not
just something to major in, in college; it is a lifestyle, one that I felt a connection with. I think school makes you a strong problem solver and provides a network of like-minded people. In grad school, I was lucky to work with Chris Staley, Liz Quackenbush, and Del Harrow. I was able to move through ideas and get constant feedback. They all provided diverse perspectives and challenging questions. Grad school allowed me the freedom to play, to find my voice, and to develop a critical dialogue. School was invaluable for me, but so was the summer I spent as an assistant at Peter’s Valley Craft Center. I think if you want a complete and well-rounded education in clay, you must get outside of academia too. My advice would be to visit artist’s studios, take workshops, go to nceca, be a summer assistant, but mainly, to immerse yourself in the field.
Where do you gather inspiration for your work?
I find inspiration for form and surface by observing patterns and compositions in nature and industry. Recently, I have been looking at early atari video games for source material. Some of the forms I make are reminiscent of smoke stacks, old Tupperware cups from the 80’s, Wedgewood and Staffordshire ceramics that I grew up seeing/living with, ancient pottery (Mimbres and Jomon), and old metal objects that I find/collect. The paintings and writings of Agnes Martin, Paul Klee, and Wassily Kandinsky have also been a major source of inspiration and influence. I am always negotiating with function, trying to find a balance between highly crafted utilitarian pots and engaging active objects to look at.
How do you come up with new ideas? Can you walk us through your creative process when coming up with new forms/ideas?
For me the process of developing a new form is painfully slow. I tend to think for a long stretch about an idea, draw quite a bit, and sort of go through a long editing process, before I even make anything. Recently, I started making handbuilt dishes, pots for nuts and candy. I have a Staffordshire dish that was my grandmother’s; I remember she always had thin mints in it. I kept it in my studio for about a year. I thought for a long time about how I could translate my love for that dish into a form that I could make. The idea for these new oblong and square dishes grew out of this process.
You use various clay bodies for your work, some porcelain and some earthenware. How does working at these different temperature ranges help you to process ideas? Can you talk a little bit about how your palette changes when you use a light clay body versus a dark clay body?
I can trace my love for range in temperature and clay to my formative years wood firing. I was always drawn to the buried crusty iron rich pots, as well as the vitreous porcelain
glazed surfaces that a wood kiln can yield. So, for me, working in earthenware and porcelain feels natural, each body of work informing the other. Different clays provide a new canvas and a new problem to solve. I like to use the analogy of watercolor for porcelain, and oil paint for earthenware. With my porcelain pots I focus more on using color to delineate shifts in pattern, composition, and line. The translucent porcelain is the backdrop for my glazes, much like the white paper is the backdrop for a watercolor
painting; the white clay color is key to making the glazes glow. With my earthenware pots the focus is more on using color to fill space or play with interlocking shapes. The satin lowfire glazes I use are opaque, with breaks of red clay coming through. The rich red clay becomes a backdrop almost like an under painting would serve as a ground for an oil painting.
What is your most valuable studio tool? Why?
Hands down, my metal rib, it removes my throwing lines and refines my pots in a way that my hands never could. Also, I like to take the cheap ones and cut them in to shapes that fit in small areas. A close second is my small red rib by mud tools, I’d be nothing without it.
You have taught university classes in the past and are currently teaching a few classes at Hartford Art School. How does teaching affect your studio practice?
That’s a good one. I have been a full time studio potter for the most part since I graduated in 2010, and I love being my own boss. But with being your own boss comes sacrifice and very long hours. So for me, teaching has been a love/hate sort of relationship. I love how teaching gets me out of the studio and out of my head, and also hate it. I love the rhythm of making everyday, getting intimate with a body of work, and having something to show for my time and labor, and teaching disrupts that rhythm. The thing I love about teaching though, is helping students find their way through clay. It has been so nice to share knowledge and technique with students and see the direct impact that it can have. Also, on the practical side, having some idea of what my income will be on a monthly basis has proved to be a stress reliever. So, while it’s been a compounded few months of making and teaching, with no down time, I have welcomed it.
As a new mom, I was surprised by how little studio time I was able to fit in after my daughter was born. As a father of two, how are you able to balance studio and family? Do you spend your time in the studio differently now than before?
I think most artists with kids will answer this question a little differently, although, one common thread will probably be the sacrifice and sleep deprivation that takes place. My wife (Pam) is really the key to the whole operation. Being a father can be tough at times, but being a mother, let alone a nursing mother, can be far more demanding and exhausting. My wife takes the brunt of the daily parenting duties while I work full time in the studio. My studio is in our house, which is great because I can lend a hand if need be, and the kids can see me throughout the day. The downside is that some days can be noisy, chaotic, and fractured at times. I have never been a 9 to 5er in the studio or a night owl,
I’ve just always been a workhorse, and that’s what I’ve continued to do. Luckily for me, I have a wife who is a potter, and the best thing I have going for me, she understands the demand, the sacrifice, and the ridiculously long hours it takes to be a full time artist. The main thing is to make the most of every moment, and do more work with less time. We are figuring it out on the job, and it’s been a total free for all.
What does a typical workday look like for you?
Wake up 6:15am, Breakfast Routine 7-8:30am, Studio 8:30-12:00pm (This consists of any number of tasks including but not limited to: making, emailing, instagraming, ordering, inventorying, packing, phone calls, shipping, glazing, constructing, organizing, testing, cleaning, documenting, uploading, resizing, editing, etc…) Lunch 12-12:45pm, Studio 12:45-5:00pm, Dinner/play/bath/bedtime 5-7:45pm, Coffee break 7:45-8pm, Studio 8-10 or 11pm, Fall asleep on the couch 10:30-11:30pm, Sleep 12am -6:15, Repeat.
At what point did you make the decision to sell your pots for a living? Could you describe how you came to that decision?
When I got out of grad school like most in our field, I applied to a bunch of teaching jobs. After coming close and not landing anything, my wife and I decided our best option was to move in with my parents and establish my studio practice. During that year and a half, I had the freedom to continue to grow and develop my work. I spent that time building relationships, making lots of pots, and getting my work out in the world. I really loved the rhythm of making pots everyday. The more I worked full time, the less I thought about applying to teaching jobs. I just couldn’t imagine spending my time any other way.
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 sell my work through galleries, my online shop, objective clay, pottery shows/sales, and my studio. I have found that when I have work on objective clay and in my online shop it sells pretty regularly. My goal in the next few years is to pair down the galleries and sell exclusively through my studio, my online shop, and objective clay. I don’t consider myself to be all that savvy when it comes to scheming about marketing strategies. Over the past few years I have loved the community and sharing network that instagram has opened up. It has proved to be a marketing strategy without intending to be. I have used instagram to promote online sales and upcoming pottery shows. It’s been a great way to keep people in the loop and engaged in what I’m up to. Also, Objective Clay has been such a rewarding project to be a part of. I am honored to be a part of such a dynamic group, and proud of
what we’ve accomplished in such a short time. With fourteen unique perspectives, we always have the next venture in sight. I’m looking forward to what the future holds, and excited about the possibilities.
Finally, what advice can you give aspiring potters trying to make a living?
Work hard. Be open. Be an active participant, and expect nothing in return.
For more info about Doug and his work, please visit his website: dougpeltzman.com