This month features the wonderfully kind and amazingly talented, Justin Lambert! Since completing school in 2003, Justin’s been making wood-fired and wood-soda fired pots out of his home studio (and anagama kiln) in southeastern Florida. I was first introduced to Justin’s work through my husband, Shoji, as the two of them were fellow Indiana University graduate students.
Justin’s pots are handsome, rich and warm. The forms swell with volume and the surfaces beg to be touched. The usefulness of his work is undeniable and his craft is impeccable. Justin’s pots are in regular rotation in my household as his work is a charming addition to any dining table.
In this interview, Justin speaks candidly and succinctly about life, teaching and the joys of the creative process.
I was surfing one day in the fall of 1997 with a friend, and he asked if I wanted to take ceramics with him. I was attending Florida Atlantic University as a computer information systems major, and he needed an elective to graduate. I said, “sure, why not”, I could use some elective credits as well. I enjoyed the class, and my first ceramics teacher (John McCoy) got me hooked.
Can you briefly describe your background and education?
I received my BFA from Florida Atlantic University in 1999, then spent a year at San Diego State University as a special student. In 2003 I completed my MFA at Indiana University, and returned to Florida.
How do you feel that your formal education (undergraduate-graduate school) prepared you for your career in ceramics?
In grad school I learned time management, work ethic, and critical analysis. It seemed there was never enough time in the day, and that is still the case today. I work at a comfortable pace, trying not to “crank” out work. That’s not to say I don’t make lots of pots, but I try not to set a numerical daily goal or watch the clock. I want to enjoy my time in the studio, and make every piece as best I can. Self critique is the most powerful tool from my formal education.
How would you describe your work? What is the inspiration for your pieces? How do you come up with new ideas? Can you walk us through your creative process when coming up with new forms/ideas?
I make clean, utilitarian, wood fired pottery, it’s that simple. Chinese ceramics, specifically porcelain from Song Dynasty, always holds my attention and inspires forms. Slip work and surface treatment are inspired by moving water. Long period swell lines wrapping into a cove or along a point are referenced in slip decoration. Flowing and pooling ash glaze remind me of waves washing ashore, and tidal flows. Shallow, snow melt, rock streams glisten like the “sparkly” ash glazed surface. My time spent out of the studio is sacred, and gives me peace and clarity. Each firing influences the work in a progressive manner, changing things ever so slightly in both the work, and firing schedule. I look at my work as a slow and steady progression of my aesthetic. I hope this helps me make “honest” pottery.
Intent, Content, Audience I think about these 3 words constantly, and ask if my work clearly communicates my ideas to the viewer. I ask if my work is contributing to the conversation of wood fired, utilitarian pottery. Finally, make lots of work, make lots of work, make lots of work, etc. Whatever you do, do it the very best you can. Nothing worth anything is easy, without struggle there is no accomplishment.
You’ve taught part time at universities, community colleges and art centers. How are you able to juggle teaching and studio work? What advice could you give to someone wanting to try to balance both?
My advice in trying to balance both, is don’t sacrifice your priorities. In my experience, my studio work suffered, when I was teaching 25 hours per week (plus commuting time to 3 different schools). Right out of grad school I accepted several part time teaching opportunities, which left me with 10-20 hrs a week in the studio at most. My work was not progressing, and at one point I felt the work I made in grad school was better than what I was making 5 years out of grad school. It was an unbalanced situation, I really wanted more time in the studio. 2 years ago I cut back on teaching, and gave myself 40+ hours a week in the studio. I really love teaching, and recently I’ve been enjoying giving workshops. If you want to land a nice teaching job, I think you will have more options if you have a solid portfolio. Several of my friends landed awesome teaching jobs right out of grad school, but I don’t think that is the norm these days. In the end, you have to decide what balance works best for you.
How has teaching impacted/enhanced your career as a studio potter?
Gosh, how has it not! Teaching has enabled me to communicate better with my peers, and firing crew. My studio practice is very solitary during the making, but very communal during the firing. With so many variables in wood firing, it’s very important to limit and control those variables to achieve the results I am looking for. Developing systems to clearly communicate stoking patterns, atmosphere indicators, etc. to my firing crew, isn’t much different than teaching ceramics students at the state college. In fact, most of the people who fire with me were students of mine as some point.
Wood firing is a community-building endeavor. Many potters who wood fire travel the continent and the world to help fire other people’s kilns. What are your thoughts about working in a tradition that takes many hands to accomplish certain tasks? What kind of advice would you offer to someone wanting to work in this tradition?
Build it, and they will come. Everyone who fires with wood falls into one of two categories (either the person who builds it, or the person that comes to help). I built a small kiln initially, and over the years a wood fire community has developed around my studio necessitating a larger kiln. 10 years ago, I couldn’t find but one or two people to fire with me. Now I don’t have space for all the folks interested in firing with me. I am grateful for all the help firing, splitting wood, cleaning the kiln, etc. In the beginning, I feel it is best to fire with as many different artists, in as many different kilns as possible. Everyone does it differently, and there aren’t any rules. I am always amazed at how each woodfire artist approaches the woodfire aesthetic. Try to gain a thorough understanding of how to fire a wood kiln, so you can adjust the variables to give you the appropriate results for your work.
How do you market your work to your audience (galleries/studio sales/craft fairs/etc.)? What venues have you found to be the most lucrative for your work?
I had a pretty decent run on Etsy a few years back, but my lack of desire to spend time on the computer left my shop in the dust. I have a few studio sales each year, and host private studio visits by appt. Of course, selling direct is the very best way to get the most money for your work. Lately, I’ve been working more with some well known ceramics galleries. I really like this type of venue for many reasons. I ship 20-30 pots at a time to each gallery, so it’s a nice way to share a firings worth of pots with my audience. The best part is the viewer is able to handle the work, and it certainly gets my pots into the hands of people far away from my studio. The galleries work hard to share my work with their clients, and I can refresh their inventory every firing. We fire every 6 weeks, so it’s a great way to get new work to my audience. Facebook and Instagram are good vehicles to keep folks informed on where they can handle my pots. I keep my website updated fairly well with current shows, firings, studio practices, etc. My plan is to spend more time selling online direct from my website within the next year, but feel it’s important to establish good relationships with galleries right now.
How did you arrive at the decision to settle and build a studio? What were your must-haves when building your studio and choosing a location?
Grad school was the first time I was away from the ocean since I was 12, so I was pretty anxious to return to the salt. Jupiter, FL has a town feel, dog friendly beach, great boat ramps and fishing, is close to family, has warm weather, and I grew up surfing the area. My house is 10 miles from the beach, but zoning allows me to have my anagama in my backyard and home studio. There really was not any wood firing in this area, or much in Florida 10 years ago, so I knew I had to build my own kiln. It’s been wonderful having my studio, and anagama just steps away. I can peek out my bedroom door and check on the kiln while someone else is firing, how cool is that!
What does a typical workday look like for you? How much do you spend on marketing vs. making?
I wake up with the sun, have coffee and breakfast, play with the dogs, and into the studio by 8. I tend to be most productive in the morning, so I try to ignore any emails, calls, etc. I take lunch around 12, play with the dogs again, then back in the studio. I tend to take care of email, calls, packing work, etc. in the afternoon, or early evening. My wife is in her third year of pharmacy school, so I like to have dinner ready when she gets home. I probably spend about 20% of my time taking care of marketing, and 80% working in the studio (which includes packing work, cleaning work, prepping for a firing, etc.).
At your pottery, you constructed a smokeless anagama kiln. Can you talk a little bit about a “smokeless” wood kiln, where the idea originated, how it was constructed, etc. Can you also talk a little bit about the critical things to consider when building a kiln? Which resources (books/magazines/websites) did you find the most helpful?
Up until 2 years ago, I was firing with mostly pine. Pine gives off a lot of smoke when it burns, so I started to think about ways to reduce the smoke coming from the chimney. In conversations with Bede Clarke, I tried what he did in his anagama at school with mixed results. I needed a larger chamber to burn the excess fuel, bricking in an empty space was not enough to combust the excess fuel. I added a chamber on the back of the anagama, half is used for soda, half is a series of “flue walls”. I have fired about 40 times since living here, but figured if I could eliminate any smoke my neighbors would continue to be happy. (To view stoking videos of Justin’s anagama, click here)
As for kiln design, it’s really up to the individual. Size being the most crucial decision, followed by a design that will give the results desired. The web is an amazing research tool. I designed my kiln based on all the different kilns I have fired, too many books to list, and countless designs researched on the web. In the end, I would make a few changes if I built my kiln again. Kiln design preference is a constantly evolving variable, as the work changes so will the kiln. I am on my 5th kiln design at my studio in 10 years. Prior to building any kiln, try to fire as many different kilns, with as many different people as possible, that’s the best research you can do.
You recently started an apprenticeship program. How did you arrive at this decision and what are the specifics of the relationship (how long is the apprenticeship/what is expected/what are the privileges/exchanges/etc.)?
The apprentice program started by coincidence. Matthew Falvey was a student at FAU who had been firing with me for his last year of his BFA. When he finished, we decided to work more closely for the next year. I enjoy the conversations that take place between serious artists, and this was the perfect opportunity. Of course I could use help with all tasks associated with wood firing, and I am eager to teach wood firing techniques. It’s really a win, win situation for everyone.
Would you be willing to share some advice for potters who are thinking about hiring an assistant/apprentice?
Finally, What advice would you give to aspiring potters who are looking to set up a studio and make pots for a living?
Work hard, stay out of debt, don’t take student loans if possible (there are plenty of great programs offering substantial financial assistance), find a clay community where you feel comfortable, even better if you can “sell” a good number of pots local and direct, make lots of pots.