With a new year on the horizon, I’m excited to close out 2014 in style with Bryan Hopkins! Bryan consistently impresses me with his innovative, architectural forms and his inquisitive, technical research into soft-paste porcelain. His range of work is smart and sophisticated, yet approachable and honest. In the interview, Bryan explains what keeps him engaged with porcelain, what outlets are best for his work and why he chooses to use “common” textures for his surfaces.
How did you first get involved in ceramics? Can you briefly describe your background and education? Both my parents were teachers, and although my mother taught pottery and sculpture in a high school, my brother and I were not exposed to art. My father taught mathematics and played sports, and I gravitated to those activities. I went to college for mathematics and had to take an art elective to graduate. A friend was taking ceramics so I decided to sign up, too. Within a semester I had dropped my math major and started taking art courses. I graduated with a B.S. in Liberal Studies with minors in Art, Photography, and Political Science. My MFA is from SUNY New Paltz in Ceramics.
You settled in Buffalo, New York and set up a personal studio. How have you been able to establish yourself in your community and gathered support? When I moved to Buffalo I decided to join a group studio (Buffalo Arts Studio- BAS) as opposed to working in isolation. The BAS had about 20 artists then(we have 40 now), and no specific ceramics area. Another artist and I gathered support to build a clay center as part of the BAS (which is a 501(C)3 org.) complete with a designated kiln room, teaching classroom and 8 clay artist studios. There was an opportunity to run the gallery space of the BAS so I did that for about 6 years, being paid if there was money available- and there usually was not. The time spent doing that was a great introduction to the Buffalo art scene, and led me to have the confidence to curate and set up regional and national ceramics exhibitions
What decisions went into you selecting a place to settle? The woman I was dating in grad school lived in Buffalo, and when I visited it seemed like a good place. The idea was to give it a try, and that was 19 years ago. Buffalo has a lot of opportunities for people who are looking, and the city really is what you make out of it. And I did not have to have a full-time job, other than my studio, to support myself. My mortgage now is less than my rent was in college in 1989, and it makes a big difference in my approach to my studio practice when decisions are not based on selling to make ends meet.
You teach part-time at Niagara County Community College. As a potter who also teaches part-time, I am keenly aware how teaching can cut into studio time. What I am interested in knowing is how does teaching inform your work, studio practice, etc? Teaching does not inform my work or studio practice, and it never has. What teaching allows me to do in my studio is to not care about selling work, which gives me the freedom to push, to experiment, to be unapologetically self-indulgent. What affected my studio practice deeply was having a son (Lucas is now 11). Being the “primary caregiver” meant a complete change in my schedule to keep up with studio demands of orders and exhibitions. I have a good work ethic, but my studio practice became much more efficient and time was much more focused. I do find teaching 3-D design allows me to explore (through my students) ideas not suitable to clay. Like inflated biomorphic forms, or book art. Teaching is fun for me, and I encourage my students to be playful in their problem solving, which is how I approach my studio practice. So for me, teaching does not inform studio: studio informs teaching.
You’ve worked in porcelain for the past 20+ years. What is it about porcelain that keeps you engaged? I am a perfectionist, so porcelain and I are made for each other. White, translucent, smooth, and no grit. I hate gritty clay. Porcelain is not passive in the outcome of a piece- porcelain is a partner I am working with, trying to negotiate simple issues like verticality. It has a mind of its’ own and I feel I do not simply “use” porcelain, but I feel we are in a long-term relationship.
You used to wheel- throw your cups and now you slip cast them. Can you talk about what prompted the change? The change had to happen because I wanted texture fully around the cup, and there is no other way to do that (with porcelain fired to cone 11 in reduction) and keep the cup round. And all the cool kids were casting, so I thought I should try it. I would like to say I hate making molds, but they are necessary, and I can not afford to pay someone to make them for me.
How do you come up with new ideas? Can you walk us through your creative process when coming up with new forms/ideas? For about 3 years I did not look at any current ceramics or craft publications that had photographs, and I did not look at any web sites of clay artists. That was about 1999-2002, pre Facebook and Instagram, so it was not so difficult to ignore images. My work went through a major shift then, when I stopped using colored and atmospheric glazes and went to a single clear glaze, to focus on form. I was looking at lots of books of Asian pottery, pre-1900 European porcelain, fabric design from Russia, Hans Coper, modernist architecture, and lots of post World War 2 European ceramics. That detachment was important because I felt influenced by too much- seeing what was being validated in the magazines of craft and art was too much. I got Clary Illian’s book (A Potter’s Workbook) in 1999 and did all the “assignments”, and that was wonderful for me. I was asked to make a salt and pepper set in 2003 for a show, and since then I have found great pleasure in trying to revive defunct or little known forms, like egg cups and toast racks. I draw a lot- not well, but I go for quantity over quality. Mostly I draw overhead views of what I make, as I can visualize the side view. Those are re-drawn in my studio on a dry erase board, and then transferred to clay.
What does a typical workday look like for you? I work in the studio M-F, and never on weekends. I get up at 6:30am and make lunches and get my son on the bus. I am in the studio (2.5 miles from my house) by 7:45am. On M, W & F, I work until about 4pm (in addition to making work, that includes all studio business like banking, marketing, etc), then either get my son afterschool or go out on my bike for a couple of hours. T & Th are my teaching days, so I leave the studio by 1pm to teach a 2-5 class, then a 6-9 class. Home by 9:30pm, asleep by 10:30 every night.
What is your most valuable studio tool? I have this weird little wooden stick a painter gave me about 15 years ago I can’t do without. Or maybe my flex-shaft rotary tool I drill holes with.
You recently embarked on a research project that resulted in a couple of successful low-fire porcelain recipes. What prompted this research and how do you plan to add these clay bodies into your studio practice (that had previously been exclusively cone 10/11 reduction)? I had been using a cone 10 porcelain, made in Australia, for almost 9 years, and it was no longer going to be imported to the USA, so I decided to try making it myself. In that quest there are lots of variables, one of which is temperature. I had heard of soft paste porcelain but knew nothing about it, and a simple internet search came up with stuff called frit-clay. About a month after reading about that I contacted a guy I heard of who was making stuff out of what he calls soft past porcelain. He got back to me a couple of months later with a basic recipe which, coincidentally, I was already using- the clay component is what my cone 10 recipe is based on, so I had lots of very white clay around. After 60 different clay tests I settled on 2 recipes and plan on using them exclusively for light fixtures and cups, adding encapsulated stains for color. They will be at NCECA this year, in the Objective Clay gallery in the Expo Center, and as part of a show I am curating at Bridgewater State University called Dialecticians.
You separate your work into two categories: “Function” and “Dysfunction”. You describe your Dysfunction series as follows: “My work is based on the premise that the clay vessel is capable of more than holding fruit, presenting flowers, or decorating a sideboard, and that there are additional functions of the vessel, such as containing the intangible (light, shadow, idea).” I really love that you address this idea and wonder if you can expand on it a bit more. For instance, how do you decide when the vessel no longer become “capable of holding fruit, flowers, etc…” ? I said that? Well, I guess technically all my work can contain, say, limes- but the Dysfunctional series is not strong enough to do that safely, or practically. Vases with holes in them are not easily utilized to hold a bouquet of flowers, but Ichibana arrangers use them all the time, regardless of assumed or actual fragility. I think what I was getting at with saying “additional functions of the vessel” is that a pot can be contemplated as can a painting. Ceramics is a sub-section of “art” (like painting, dance, lithography, etc) and is capable of conveying ideas and concepts as well as being decorative and useful. Not every object made from clay needs to serve a utilitarian purpose, so stripping any necessity of utility frees me up to push people’s ideas of pots, and porcelain specifically.
You talk about how you transfer low-brow, common textures (construction-grade lumber, diamond-plated steel, etc) onto a high-brow, “precious” material (porcelain)? Can you explain more about this contrast and how it adds content and acts as an access point into your work? Anyone who has been to Home Depot knows OSB (maybe as particle board), so it helps me to get people in to porcelain by association. I grew up working-class and I identify with that class still, not just income-wise, but culturally. But I love porcelain and want my friends to as well, so it is essential I add common textures to my work to get my friends to in to it. These simple textures are understood to be of building materials by most people, and then the question is why? Porcelain has always been precious and expensive. If you grew up with a China set in the house, it was not used daily, so again, precious. The textures are at odds with and opposite of precious, and question that assumption of objects made in porcelain.
You’ve sold work at numerous retail craft shows and wrote an eloquent article for Studio Potter entitled “What’s That For” where you talk about the importance of the marketplace as both a place to educate and to learn. Can you briefly describe how you select the craft shows you do and how they have been part of your studio practice? Over the past several years I have been applying to retail craft shows based on whether there is someone who lives close I can stay with. That makes it much more affordable, and a lot more fun.
Craft shows are exactly that- shows. I see them as very important to my career and livelihood. Craft shows are great marketing opportunities and I have lined up workshops and visiting artist gigs because of them. Professors from surrounding colleges bring students to those bigger shows and it is always fun to talk to people who are new to the filed, and will some day be sitting in the (uncomfortable) chair I am siting in my booth. I usually get a commission or two from each show, and I enjoy the opportunity to work with a customer on specific pieces that are a little different from what I typically make. Like a toast rack with 9 slots (absurd, right?!)
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? East coast, metropolitan, in-person sales. I find I do not like selling on-line or over the phone, although I do it. No etsy yet. The Clay Studio in Philadelphia sells a lot of my work, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art Craft Show is great for my work, when I can get in to the show. I just had a great time in Demarest, NJ, at the School at Old Church Pottery Sale. I have taken part in bigger studio tours and sales around the country, and find that it is best to meet the people you sell to- it helps them understand your work better, and build a stronger relationship to, say, a mug that person will use every day for years.
Finally, what advice can you give aspiring potters trying to make a living? Find a good place to live, and a good person to share your life with. Take care of your whole self, not just your studio self- your career is a Grand Tour, not a match sprint.
For more information about Bryan and his work, please visit his website: