This November I corresponded with the exceptionally talented and social media savvy Adam Field! I met Adam in 2009 through a mutual friend and have been following his career ever since. His porcelain forms are austere and honest and the rhythm of his decoration is meditative and precise. In addition to his carved porcelain work, Adam is accomplished at producing traditional Onggi storage jars. He published a video a few years back highlighting the Onggi process. Click here to link to the video.
The combination of traditional Onggi fermentation jars and intricately carved porcelain works formed Adam’s career as a distinguished ceramic artist. In the interview, Adam discusses how he balances these two “lines of work” and how he’s been able to establish himself as a full-time potter.
How did you first get involved in ceramics? Can you briefly describe your background and education? My path to pottery was by way of photography. I was fortunate to have had some exceptional art teachers who gave me an early introduction to photography. But, the mass migration from darkroom to hard drive in the late 1990s left something to be desired for an idealist like myself. My disillusion with digital technology coincided with my introduction to pottery. Much like working in the darkroom, I found studio pottery to be a gratifying and challenging balance between structured technique, intuitive decision-making, and spontaneity. My education, after undergraduate school, has been largely self-directed and diverse.
Three experiences stand out as being most significant: learning to throw production ware as a studio assistant, working at a ceramic supply store in the Bay Area, and apprenticing at an Onggi studio in Korea. Throwing production early on was important because it challenged me to make the same form repeatedly, allowing me to hone in on the subtleties of crafting a form while developing skills in efficiently moving clay. While working at a ceramic supply store in San Franscisco shortly after graduating, I was often responsible for answering question from customers about everything from low fire china paint to cone 13 wood firings which led me to develop a habit of educating myself on a wide range of topics. During my time there, I was also encouraged by the owner to take workshops, which exposed me to a wide range of makers whose construction methods I had never seen before. Looking back, this was an essential period in my development.
My apprenticeship in Korea was certainly one of the more valuable experiences both professionally and personally. Being removed from my comfort zone (and nothing does this quite so well as being thrust into a foreign setting) forced me to discover who I was. The practical value of my apprenticeship was, in some ways, very similar to the value of throwing production forms in college. I didn’t have to think as much about designing a perfect form; I was instead focused on a single task. The thread that runs throughout much of my background is that all of these experiences
took place outside of academia and with some degree of practical application. My education has mostly occurred in a real world setting.
You spent a year in Korea learning how to construct traditional Onggi pottery. Can you talk about how this experience informed your work, work ethic and career path?
In 2008, I moved to Korea for a rare opportunity to apprentice at Ohbuza Onggi under Onggi master potter Kim Ill Maan for one year. Documenting and sharing ancient Onggi techniques offered me a unique glimpse into a disappearing ceramic tradition that has continued to play an important role in Korean culture. Engaging with those traditions, techniques, and people who are dear to me was very gratifying. I came to Korea with some solid skills in
the way of wheel-throwing and developing form as well as surface decoration. Through the apprenticeship process, most of those habits were transformed as my focus was placed solely on the repetition of the traditional Onggi form. Having to recreate these vessels allowed me to see form in a more specific way, giving me a precise vocabulary not just for the language of Onggi pots but also for the language of pots as a whole. I came back from Korea equipped with new approaches to describing and creating form.
An attention to detail extended even to the way the Onggi studio was set up. There was an economy of motion to how my teachers worked—all the tools were in the right place, and each movement would lead to the next action. As a result, I’m very careful to keep my studio clean and organized so that I don’t get in my own way with clutter. When I first arrived in Korea, the expectation at Ohbuza was for seven 12 hour days. Had I not requested less, this would have been the work schedule for the entire time I was there. Work ethic is essential to the Onggi studio culture.
One of the obvious results from my time in Korea is that I now produce a line of functional fermenting Onggi jars that is distinct from my carved porcelain vessels. But this unique experience also prompted me to document and share a glimpse into a Korean Onggi studio with with other potters around the world. While in Korea, I starting producing videos on traditional Onggi techniques and posting them on YouTube. The response to these videos was significant with total views approaching 250,000. The project has been seen around the world, and reached far beyond my intended audience of clay people. This inspired me to continue creating videos as a resource to my colleagues and to a broader audience than just those working in clay. When I returned from Korea, I found that people were more familiar with me and my work because of the videos. This eventually led to greater opportunities within the clay community.
You are the founder of the social media driven scavenger hunt known as Hide-N-Seekah. Can you talk about how you came up with this project and how it’s evolved since its inception? My return from Korea in 2009 marked an important milestone on my path to technological enlightenment—I bought my first cell phone…a smart one! The decade of industry research and development since my departure from the darkroom had seen major developments in digital imaging. Quality phone cameras had become ubiquitous and were now providing a quick intuitive photo option; it was like having my own pocket darkroom. New photo editing and image sharing apps like Instagram made it possible for me to connect with other image-makers and clay workers while fostering the photographic dialogue I had learned to love as a child. Instagram became my sketchbook with a window to the world, an easy way to gather and share my visual inspirations as they struck me. Unlike a sketchbook, the social aspect of Instagram informed and inspired my studio practice by providing welcome feedback on my posts and a continuous stream of fresh imagery from others. While Instagram had proven to be an ideal platform for creatively sharing and gathering images and ideas, it was lacking a large clay community. Through following professional skater Tony Hawk, I learned that Hawk connected with his followers through something called “finders keepers,” a game in which he would hide a full, autographed skateboard he had been using for the past few months and leave visual clues on his Instagram feed about its whereabouts. The first person that found the skateboard could keep it. In an effort to encourage more participation from clay artists, I created and
debuted a similar interactive Instagram scavenger hunt called Hide-N-Seekah around the 2013 NCECA conference in Houston, TX. The project was a success and participating artists gained an average of 500 followers to their Instagram feeds. The population of clay people on Instagram had grown considerably, invigorating the virtual exchange of information. I am optimistic and confident that communication within the clay community will continue to benefit from new social media platforms and future advancements in digital technology. If anything, Hide-N-Seekah has gotten harder to produce, because the hiders have more eyes of on them than ever. Logistically, it’s had to evolve in ways that would allow me to keep one step ahead of the seekers.
Like many potters these days, you’ve led quite the nomadic lifestyle, setting up a home studio in various locations from Hawaii to Colorado to most currently, Montana. Can you talk about your decisions to keep mobile and how it has influenced or affected your work? My decisions to move have been based on opportunities that I give real consideration to, allowing myself to think openly about the future. When possibilities are presented, I try to take advantage of them in spite of the difficulties that they sometimes bring. I have tried to live my life without fear, trusting that not only will things work out, but that risks I take will somehow contribute to my success. To me, success is defined as a growth in my work and deepening relationships to communities and people I care about. By being forced out of my comfort zone, I develop new ways of creating meaningful connections.
It seems as though you are always on the road giving workshops and lectures across the country. As a father of two, how do you balance studio/family/travel?
It’s a difficult balance, though working from home studios for most of our children’s lives has given us more time to be engaged and present than what a regular 9 to 5 job would allow. While traveling for workshops can be difficult not just on me but on Heesoo and the kids, the reality is that income from workshops has been a reliable source of financial support for our family. Also, the experiences and interactions with the greater clay community during these trips allow me to return to my studio energized and inspired.
Your wife, Heesoo Lee, is also an extremely accomplished ceramic artist. Do you two ever feed off eachother’s creative process or collaborate on pieces?
I would say that Heesoo and I act more as critical sounding boards for one another; we very rarely collaborate on pieces. When we met, both of us were well on our individual paths in regards to our studio practices. But to be able to have another person in the studio to bounce ideas off of has been extremely helpful over the years.
How do you come up with new ideas? Can you walk us through your creative process when coming up with new forms/ideas Ideas in my work originate from many sources. The first source of inspiration for me is often the most recent series I’ve made. I like that each cycle of work can build on previous ideas, pushing them in new ways. I’ve also become very
disciplined about photographing things in the world that strike me as interesting so that I can later return to the images in order to decipher my interest in them: is it their composition, line relationships, pattern? What about this excites me? Within the last five years, I’ve been
developing new forms by stacking fired pots in different configurations. This allows me to efficiently explore formal relationships of the vessel. Finally, I’m particularly interested in the idea of joining in on a conversation that historical vessel-makers have engaged in throughout history. Examining a skillfully made object from the past is not just about connecting to another human, but connecting to the unique act of creation itself. This excitement fuels my impulse to make.
Can you talk about your decision to simultaneous make both intricately hand-carved porcelain pieces and traditional stoneware Onggi fermentation jars?
For me the functionality of a pot has always been important though I was initially hesitant to make functional Onggi jars in the States. Over time, however, found that I felt a responsibility to carry on the tradition that my teachers so generously shared with me. Because of recent recognition of the health benefits from fermented food, there has also been a huge growth in demand for these vessels in America over the last several years. By working seasonally to accommodate this demand, I can diversify my income.
Because of the polar opposite nature of each of the processes, they both serve different purposes. The porcelain allows me to focus on detailed and time-consuming tasks while the Onggi offers a completely different rhythm of production. (It takes me 6 weeks to fill a kiln with carved porcelain, whereas it takes me less than 1 week to fill a kiln with Onggi jars). The opportunity to shift focus provides both physical and mental relief.
What does a typical workday look like for you? I tend to work best late into the night, so I often get started mid morning and will be in the studio until 1 or 2 AM. This allows me to complete professional tasks like emailing and phone calls during regular business hours.
What is your most valuable studio tool? The honest (and possibly unpopular answer) is my camera. It allows me to capture, record, process and revisit visual ideas that I hope to continually incorporate into my work.
At what point in your career did you make the decision to sell your pots for a living? Could you describe how you came to that decision? Being a family of 4 with two working-potter incomes, what choices/sacrifices have you made in order to construct sustainable careers that support your entire family?
I started selling my pots for a living in Hawaii. I arrived there with a job moving furniture for interior designers and was simultaneously selling my work at the local farmer’s market on the weekend. Both of these experiences helped me to realize that there was a demand for the work I was making, not just at the market but for the interior designers with which I worked. I gradually transitioned into selling my work full time by taking on fewer hours moving furniture and spending more of my time making pots until I reached a point where being a full time studio artist was sustainable.
I made a choice early on that I would hold myself to strict standards of professionalism in my work in order to give my career as a Potter the respect that it deserves. I believe that this has had an impact not just on the way I conduct business, but on the work itself. More specifically, I’ve made a decision to diversify streams of income in my practice. This includes not only having two lines of ceramic work—carved porcelain and Onggi—but also in developing a strong social media presence, working
with Ceramic Arts Daily to produce an instructional DVD, and maintaining a regular workshop schedule. Sales of Heesoo’s work have always been a helpful source of income for our family. Living with the uncertainty of reliable income can be difficult, but the primary sacrifice is probably time, which means making the time we do spend together as a family as meaningful as possible.
Your work is in numerous retail galleries across the country. Can you talk about how you selected the representation you did? What kind of advice could you offer someone wanting to approach galleries for representation? The first set of criteria was a strong online presence as well as an active brick and mortar gallery space. I also looked to galleries that were representing some of my favorite ceramic artists. While many of my peers have told me that they never solicited a gallery for representation, actively pursuing relationships with galleries has been essential to developing exhibition opportunities for me. Not having had the same network of connections as someone coming out of graduate school gave me more motivation to approach galleries in the first place. I also regularly applied to juried shows that often led to future invitations to exhibit. If I was giving someone advice on how to approach galleries for representation, I would recommend conducting oneself professionally in all aspects from emails to image quality to prompt follow-ups. This also means presenting one’s work with consistency and quality on all fronts.
Which marketing venue(s) (website/social media sites /galleries/studio sales/etsy/craft fairs/etc.) have you found to be the most lucrative for your work? Throughout my entire career, the artist program at the Four Season’s Resort has been by far the most profitable venue. However, a desire to be closer to family and an interest in pushing my work in new directions brought us back to the mainland where I was no longer surrounded by such a high concentration of customers. I found that social media provided new ways of connecting me with my customer base. I have chosen not to target one specific online venue, but rather try to have a strong presence on multiple social media platforms and in online galleries. Right now, the majority of my income comes through email orders (mostly Onggi), direct sales at workshops, and gallery sales. Each venue introduces my work to a different cross-section of people.
As a current resident at the Archie Bray Foundation, you are lucky to be immersed into a large community that supports ceramics. What are the most important steps you take to market your work to your local audience when there isn’t this type of instant community of support? In Mauii, Durango, and Telluride, I made it a point to sell at local farmer’s markets, not because it was necessarily the most lucrative venue, but because I believe in the ideal of connecting directly with the local community. Involvement with farmer’s markets put my work in a specific context. Selling alongside farmers and other artisans and craftspeople in the area became a way to educate and connect personally with customers. This included not just discussing the functional or technical aspects of my work, but communicating the philosophical role of handmade pots directly to the customer. The contacts that I made from the summer farmer’s market helped to build a local following that eventually translated into studio sales throughout the rest of year.
Finally, what advice can you give aspiring potters trying to make a living? Make the work that you love making. It can be a trap to be successful with work you’re not excited about. Challenge yourself to continue growing that work in new directions.
Once you are making pots you‘re excited about, it’s important to support your efforts with professional behavior. So much time is invested in the aesthetic considerations that go into making good pots. I believe it is important to give all other aspects of one’s career the same degree of consideration. My advice can only be based off of my experiences, but I believe that much of the success of my career has come through building upon opportunities that exist outside of traditional boundaries. I want to be clear that there is nothing easy about making a living as a potter. It is a difficult and nonstop task. But, when approached as an artistic venture in itself, it can be extraordinarily fulfilling.
To find out more about Adam and his work, please follow these links: