Sue Tirrell: Potter of the Month

With the annual NCECA Conference rounding the corner, and the first days of spring upon us, I figured it was the perfect time to feature Sue Tirrell’s spirited work!  I have been a fan of Sue’s work since I can remember…being particularly attracted to the narrative aspect in combination with her unassuming forms and vibrant palette.  I’m also intrigued by how her pots inform her sculptural work and vice versa.

White Horse Dinner Plate

White Horse Dinner Plate

In the interview, Sue gives succinct advice about how to market your work as well as explaining the realities of building and maintaining a studio art practice.  Sue also expands on how both Art School and life experience have helped her to shape a successful career.  Find out why Sue connects her creative process to that of a sourdough starter, why the word “whimsy” just isn’t descriptive enough and why horses are an integral part of her narrative.

Enjoy!

How did you first get involved in ceramics? Can you briefly describe your background and education?

4th of July Parade, Red Lodge, MT (1985)

4th of July Parade, Red Lodge, MT (1985)

I took my first ceramics class during my freshman year at Cottey College, a 2-year liberal arts college in Nevada, Missouri. My strengths and interests were in drawing and painting, so I thought I would end up in illustration or graphic design. I signed up for ceramics because I had never worked in a 3-D medium and it sounded like fun. My first teacher was Cameron Crawford, who currently teaches at California State University, Chico. He was really tough and I found clay to be extremely frustrating. I’m pretty stubborn though, so I kept after it.

Studio-2I ended up taking ceramics the full two years I was at Cottey before completing my BFA at Alfred University in Alfred, NY. I chose Alfred because they had 6 dynamic faculty members in ceramics and an extensive facility; also, I liked that it was in a rural setting. Having a network of peers and faculty that were both rigorous and supportive was a tremendous experience. Everybody worked incredibly hard, but we had a blast doing it. I came home to Montana during my summer breaks to work for a couple that made production pottery and jewelry.

It is hard to describe how beneficial it was to have this experience sandwiched between semesters at Art School. I learned to be a better thrower, what an efficient studio and home business look like and, most importantly, I saw how being an independent artist is really a lifestyle. I really think I got the best kind of education during these years—creative investigation and development punctuated with practical experiences in a production environment.

How do you feel that your formal education prepared you for your career in ceramics?

I was fortunate to have been surrounded by teachers and peers that were encouraging and supportive, but at the same time had extremely high standards and expectations of me.. It was really exciting to work with colleagues that were always pushing their work to the next level and trying

Red Unicorns Platter

Red Unicorns Platter

new things. I think this is a really helpful way to begin a career—observing that even if you are working alone, there are others in the clay community working just as hard–or harder–than you, to be better every day. Art School also taught me about asking questions and considering what motivates me as a maker and why. Working for the studio potter in Montana taught me about making things that people want to use and, therefore, purchase; about taking care of my equipment and taking care of my back; and about managing my time (something I continue to struggle with! ).

I was first introduced to your sculptural work and then years later fell in love with your pots.  Did one (sculpture/pottery) come before the other or have you always worked on them simultaneously? How do they inform each other?

Circus Rider With Dog and Hoop

Circus Rider With Dog and Hoop

I’m really not sure which came first! I fell in love with functional pots for the simple way they connect the maker to the user. I’ve always made pots, but I never felt like I had a unique hand with functional forms. My strengths were in the surface, not the forms, so making pots wasn’t something I did regularly. As a result, my undergraduate work dealt mainly with abstract, landscape-inspired sculpture. At the same time, my drawings on paper became more dense and sculptural. I began making figure and animal sculpture when I graduated and came home to Montana in 1998. I loved the landscape-based work I made in school, but once I returned to the landscape that I had been away from for so long, I felt I didn’t need to make it anymore.

My horse Charles

My horse Charles

That year, I found myself in Miles City, the largest town in Eastern Montana, running educational outreach programs in rural schools and communities for the Custer County Art & Heritage Center. I loved driving the lonely highways and dirt roads, stopping to admire herds of cattle, horses and sheep. I boarded my horse at a farm nearby that was also home to goats, dogs, chickens, geese, burros and a giant pig. There were even a couple of bison at one point! This was the closest I had ever been to being a farm-girl, and I wanted to tell stories about the animals in my sculpture. When I moved to my current home and studio in 2005, I became a full-time studio artist and began making pots again to supplement my income.

Trick-Roper Platter

Trick-Roper Platter

Currently, pots are my main focus, but making sculpture allows me a mental break and the chance to take a drawing from a pot and turn it into a more complex, three- dimensional narrative. Each body of work informs the other—I started drawing people on my pots because there were things I didn’t think I could achieve with sculpture, like trick-riders and horses flying through the air or a skier encountering a polar bear. Now I am taking some of those drawings and translating them back to sculpture.

sue side by side

I love how you describe your work on your website as “Folkloric pottery and sculpture with a modern sensibility”. Can you expand what you mean by this?

Grey Rabbits and Poppies Dessert Plates

Grey Rabbits and Poppies Dessert Plates

Well,the short version is I was tired of the word “whimsical” being used to describe my work so often!  Whimsy implies that everything is all sunshine and flowers—and some of my work IS just that, which is perfectly fine. However, a lot of it tells a more complicated tale. I want my work to evoke memories and spark conversation in the audience. The best feed-back I get from people are the reasons why they relate to a piece. I have heard stories about beheading chickens, midnight lambing duty, encounters with bears, favorite dogs, and swimming in the ocean with horses. I love how people identify with certain animals, and that a mug or platter or sculpture can enhance that relationship through a shared

Winter Rider Detail

Winter Rider Detail

narrative. I often use bits and pieces of folktales or fables as a starting point for a piece, making the reference vague enough that the viewer can imagine their own version of events. To further this ambiguity, I use a combination of traditional-looking details and modern touches so the piece can’t be placed in any specific place or time. Often the imagery itself can look “vintage,” but the vibrant colors and animated carving on the crisp porcelain canvas give it a more contemporary feel.

How do you come up with new ideas? Can you walk us through your creative process when coming up with new forms/ideas?

Vintage Photograph

Vintage Photograph

I draw a lot on the rich history and physical beauty of Montana and the West and my experiences in it. I used to visit a lot of antique stores when I lived in Eastern Montana, making a bee-line for the boxes of old photos. I looked for images of people with animals, specifically women and horses. These photos have served as a starting point for many of my sculptures. I also loved looking at old horse tack and vintage textiles—quilts, embroidered pillowcases, crocheted doilies and tablecloths. All these objects beg to tell their stories, and they find their way into my work through color combinations, textures, and direct drawing references.

White Rabbit Teapot and CupWhen I am finishing a body of work, I always take something from that group and add it to the next—like a sourdough starter. Similarly, I might think of something new along the way and save it for the next piece. I like the unity this creates in my work over time. The changes may appear slight, but to me they are significant.

Do you have a favorite “creature” to draw? If so, why?

My first pony Cocoa

My first pony Cocoa

Horses! I have been obsessed with horses as long as I can remember, and I have been drawing them since I could hold a pencil. Drawing was how I got to know them before I had the pleasure of meeting one in person. I got my first pony when I was 8 and I have been riding ever since. I also love drawing rabbits. I had several pet rabbits when I was growing up, and I showed them, along with my horses, at the 4-H fair each summer. Having the privilege of this intimacy with animals gives me endless inspiration. I love to see them come to life each time I finish a drawing.

You are lucky to live in Montana where despite its remote location and sparse population, there is a rich ceramic history and incredible community support for clay. Recently, a group called Montana Clay was developed to help promote ceramic artists/craftsmen/schools/art centers/galleries/etc in the state. Can you talk about how Montana Clay formed and what your involvement is in the group?

Screen Shot 2015-03-23 at 11.27.48 AMYes, we are very lucky! Generally speaking, Montana has a notably vibrant arts scene, and the ceramics community is especially large and tight-knit. Montana Clay is two things: A website clearing-house of information related to ceramics in the state of Montana and a loosely organized group of artists, teachers, and advocates. The site includes links to schools, universities and residency programs, art centers, museums, galleries, and artists who are currently living and working in the state. The group itself welcomes anyone in Montana who is involved in the ceramic arts to gather once a year to share ideas, plan exhibits, celebrate each other’s achievements, and have a kick-ass potluck! Montana Clay provides a very inclusive, supportive means for artists across the state to stay connected in what can otherwise be a very insular vocation.

How did you decide to settle and build a studio in your current location and how has your studio practice evolved?

I moved to my current location in Southwestern Montana when I married my husband in 2005. He had a teaching job here and I was ready to move back to the mountains after spending 7 years on the beautiful plains of Eastern Roadtrip knittingMontana. I set up a studio in the unfinished basement of our house and divided my time between art-making and a number of part- time jobs. During the first few years it was hard finding my groove—up until that point I had always worked in a communal studio setting so the solitude bothered me at first. I also had a hard time giving myself permission to call what I did in the studio my full-time job. Gradually, my artwork kept me busy enough that I could quit the other jobs. In 2009, we put an addition on our house that included a large basement space which became my current studio. Today, my biggest challenge is finding a balance between my studio practice and other areas of my life. I find it very easy to work long days and not take breaks between deadlines. I know my body and mind suffer when I get into that routine, so I am trying to be vigilant on that front!

Being in such a remote area, how do you best reach your audience? What kind of advice could you give someone wanting to market their work?

I have found that my audience is best reached through a combination of gallery representation and my own efforts to present my work through home sales and craft fairs. Having a diversity of marketing strategies enables my work to be seen in many places at once. I rely heavily on galleries that have a strong client base and web presence to sell work on my behalf. Everything involved in marketing and selling online—photography, uploading each item, communicating with buyers and shipping—takes an enormous amount of time that could be spent working in the studio. I love all the galleries I work with, and they do a MUCH better job with outreach than I ever could.

Painting Dapples on Horse Plate

Painting Dapples on Horse Plate

When personally marketing work, I would suggest use of user-friendly internet mediums, studio sales, local arts and crafts fairs, and workshops. Facebook and Instagram are easy DIY marketing tools. You don’t have write exhaustive, image heavy blog posts, but giving your followers a peek at what you are up to on a regular basis keeps your work in people’s minds. The same goes for attending openings, workshops, and lectures in person. If you stay visible in your creative community, your work will receive attention, too. I also promote my work closer to home by having an annual studio sale and attending a regional craft fair every year. To prepare for the studio sale, I send out a postcard to

Building up Surface

Building up Surface

everyone I know and give them a discount if they bring a friend, or if they wear a fancy outfit (my sale is always on Kentucky Derby Day!). I clean the house and studio, make some pies, and put a sign on the road to encourage passers- by. I also make sure I leave out a notebook for newcomers to leave their contact information for future sales. This is a great way to engage your community in the work you do. The people who attend my Spring Sale are mostly friends and neighbors, but the event has become an annual tradition and I really appreciate the support of my little neighborhood. The first few years you may not sell much, but it goes a long way toward building a loyal, year-round client base. Plus, you get a clean studio and leftover pie at the end! I have also been doing one craft fair per summer for the last 4 years as a way to test the waters in a new market. I choose an event in a town where I have no gallery representation, is within driving distance, and provides a fun atmosphere when I’m not working.

Carving a chickenI have learned a great deal over the years about what works well at a fair and what doesn’t. Fairs are physically and emotionally exhausting, especially for ceramic artists. Schlepping your work to and from a fair is BACKBREAKING work. You can have a rogue wind that wrecks your tent and breaks your pots, or a weather event that keeps your patrons away. Spending 8 hours a day on your feet talking about your work gets tiresome even for the extroverts among us. Overall, most of my sales come through galleries and that is ideal for me. I like the personal interactions with customers at a fair or my studio sale but that is not a sustainable business model for me year-round.

What other hobbies/interests do you have to balance your studio life? Do any of your hobbies inform your work?

My husband and I love to cook and garden, which is a great way to spend time together. I keep a few chickens in our back yard (for egg production, pest control, and drawing purposes!) and I like trail running with our dogs. My most consuming personal interests are horses and knitting.

My new horse Mabel

Like I said before, I have been a horse-crazy girl all my life and I know I am an artist because of horses. Early on, I made up for any horse deficits in my life by drawing them. Herds of horses filling notebooks, unicorns in the margins of my math homework, blueprints for my dream farm on brown paper bags. As I have grown up with horses, my knowledge of them has expanded and my ideas about them are more complex. Building a relationship of mutual trust with a half-ton prey animal is no small thing. I am currently working with a young horse, so this concept is on my mind every day. She is learning to follow my direction and I am learning to give her confidence in my leadership. It is a new way of thinking about human/animal relationships that fascinates me and will continue to for years to come.. She is learning to follow my direction and I am learning to give her confidence in my leadership. It is a new way of thinking about human/animal relationships that fascinates me and will continue to for years to come.

I learned to knit as a child and picked it back up when I graduated from college. It is a warm, dry, tactile, and portable craft that I can do when I travel or to unwind at night. The repetitive structure of the patterns appeals to me and feels similar to the carving I do on my pots.

Icelandic Sweater in Progress

Icelandic Sweater in Progress

Like ceramics, there is no end to what you can learn in knitting. Sweaters are my favorite thing to make—they are like making teapots. Each piece of the garment has to be well crafted and and integrated with the other parts in order for the finished piece to function properly.

An unexpected bonus of these two pastimes is meeting people, learning lessons, and stumbling upon ideas that I would never encounter in my studio life.

Finally, what advice can you give aspiring potters trying to make a living?

Chinook Rider

Chinook Rider

Learn all you can about what it takes to work in this field. Find a job or volunteer in a local gallery, museum, or art center. I spent seven years working in a small community art center where I not only taught ceramics, but learned about framing, hanging, lighting and shipping artwork; writing and tracking grants; fundraising, and outreach. I even learned about building pedestals and industrial carpet cleaning! I left that job with skills that I use every day in my own studio practice, and developed contacts with museums and galleries that gave a huge boost to my career as an independent artist. I also recommend reaching out to artists whose work or career path you admire. Most people are happy to share their story with you, and many would welcome you working alongside them in exchange for their knowledge and expertise. You never know if you don’t ask. The time I spent working in a local potter’s studio was a very different experience than my college education but was equally important.

To find out more about Sue and her work, please visit her website:

suetirrellceramics.com

And…Sue currently has a solo exhibition of new work on display at Red Lodge Clay Center.  Click here to view the show.

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Justin Lambert: Potter of the Month

jen allen - 06 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.

jen allen - 03How did you first get involved in ceramics?

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?

dsc_7356I 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?

jen allen - 02I 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.

dsc_7343What advice can you give aspiring artists struggling to find their own voice/style?

jen allen - 08Intent, 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 jen allen - 11opportunities, 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?

dsc_7464Gosh, 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?

dsc_7389Build 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 jen allen - 12private 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?

jen allen - 07Grad 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?

jen allen - 16I 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?

jen allen - 15Up 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 jen allen - 10tool.  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?

jen allen - 04Make sure you clearly convey your expectations to your potential assistant, and they do the same for you.  Figure out what you have to offer to your assistant, and what your assistant can offer you. 

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.

jen allen - 01
For more info about Justin, please visit his website:     http://liveoakpottery.com
To see Justin’s work and for available inventory, click on the gallery links below:
Crimson Laurel Gallery     http://www.crimsonlaurelgallery.com
Taos Clay Downtown Gallery     http://www.loganwannamaker.com
Upcoming Shows and Events:
“Woodfire Invitational”  St Pete Clay
“Narrative of Fire Invitational”  Artworks, New Bedford, MA
“30×5 Invitational”  AKAR Gallery
“Winterfest Invitational”  Baltimore Clayworks
“Cyber Monday Online Solo Show”  Crimson Laurel Gallery
March 2014   “NCECA EXPO”  I will be showing new work with “Spinning Earth Gallery”
May 2014 “Ashfest”  2 week anagama firing workshop at Dan Finch’s in Bailey, NC  more info at     http://ashfest.com
October 2014  “Artist of the Month”  Red Lodge Clay Center
October-December   Jingdezhen, China with WVU

Birdie Boone: Potter of the Month

Just in time for Valentine’s Day…an interview with the lovely and fabulous Birdie Boone!  I first met Birdie in 2007 at the Archie Bray Foundation in Helena, MT, where her and I were fellow resident artists.  I’ve always admired Birdie’s work for its subtlety, depth and design.  She is a master of glaze calculation…constantly experimenting with color palette and surface quality.  Birdie’s work fits seamlessly into the rhythms of everyday life…the thoughtfulness of her processes evident in each finished piece.

66120_10151424122684872_1585300441_n

Looking to find more of Birdie’s work or perhaps wanting to add a piece of hers to your kitchen?  Here’s where:

Birdie has a solo exhibition at the Schaller Gallery (Feb 1 to Feb 19).  Dozens of beauties ready and available for a new home.

Birdie’s work will be on display at Studio KotoKoto’s (www.studiokotokoto.com) Valentine’s Day event starting Tuesday, Feb 5th at 9am PST.   Kotokoto is also featuring a giveaway contest for a pair of Birdie’s cups: 5-7-5: A Valentine’s Day Haiku Contest.  Here’s the link: http://www.studiokotokoto.com/5-7-5-a-valentines-day-haiku-contest/
 Entries must be made by Feb. 12th.

I hope you enjoy the interview as much as I did!

How did you first get involved in ceramics?

Napali Coast Blue and Chartreuse Cuppas, various sizes, cone 5 oxidation, 2012

Napali Coast Blue and Chartreuse Cuppas, various sizes, cone 5 oxidation, 2012

My earliest experience with ceramics involved an appreciation of pots hand made by my best friend’s mom; I noticed them in a way that stood out from everything else around me. While I was still very young, I took clay classes in San Francisco, but I was in college by the time I realized how much it meant to me. Freshman year, I took the prerequisites I needed to get into a ceramics course and by my sophomore year, I had chosen to major in art.

Can you briefly describe your background and education?

I was raised in both San Francisco, California and in Abingdon, in southwestern Virginia.  I attended the College of William and Mary in Virginia and graduated in 1993 with a BA in Art/Art History. From 1999 to 2002, I taught ceramics and sculpture as adjunct faculty at Emory and Henry College, a small Virginia college. Then, in the fall of 2002 I entered the graduate program in ceramics at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth. I received an MFA in Artisanry/Ceramics in 2005. Following that, I worked at the Worcester Center for Crafts in Worcester, MA for two years, then headed out to Montana for a long term residency at the Archie Bray Foundation. In 2010, I returned to teach at Emory and Henry College in Virginia for a year. In 2011, I moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico, where I currently live and make pots.

How do you feel that your formal education (undergraduate-graduate school) prepared you for your career in ceramics?  Is there anything you wish you had known before leaving school?

To be honest, when I left college, I didn’t expect to have a career in ceramics specifically. I went to a liberal arts school and word on the street was, “do art now because you may never have another opportunity!” I did love it though, so I worked hard to find ways to keep making. Early on, I thought I’d just hop on into grad school; I was not admitted and, true to character, swore grad programs to the depths of hell. Several years later, I realized I still wanted to have a career in ceramics, so I started looking at doing graduate work…again. My program (Umass Dartmouth) was really well-rounded, I have to say. I came away with a strong background in all aspects of ceramics, a very strong sense of personal accomplishment and also a sense of momentousness about the role of artists in our society. Although at the time I expected to find myself teaching rather than being a studio potter, I do wish I had heard more ‘real stories’ about working artists, especially in terms of whether the numbers can add up when pots are the only means of income (I later learned that this is rarely the case).

How would you describe your work?  How did you arrive at working this way?

Divided Dish, 9” x 5” x 2”, cone 5 oxidation, 2012

Divided Dish, 9” x 5” x 2”, cone 5 oxidation, 2012

My forms are soft, minimal, hand built pots made from slabs of clay. I always let seams and points of attachment remain visible as much as possible. Each pot has a layer of bisque/crackle slip under it’s glaze to help create visual depth. The glaze may be transparent or semi-transparent and often has a small amount of colorant, lending the glaze a pale/pastel softness of color. My pots tend to be intimate in size, encouraging a familiar engagement of the senses. The evolution of my work is a case of form following concept: ‘domestic intimacy’ is a term I coined to identify the importance of nourishment, both physical and emotional; the presence in our lives of soft, inviting objects that command a sensual recognition is what compels my formal/aesthetic decisions.

Would you explain your attraction to functional ceramics?

Ceramic objects that can be useful in our everyday lives have a way of affecting our natures. If my agenda as an artist is to call attention to important things, then what better way to deliver on this than by means of practical necessity? Our brains don’t have to work to figure out ‘what it means’. Meaning is absorbed through a pot’s characteristics as it is being used; even when it is not being used, it can affect its environment in a nurturing way.

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?

My work debuted with inspiration from my family and the experiences I had as a child, specifically regarding eating habits. As my work evolves, I continue to look to eating habits, but they are the experiences and insights of an adult in the present (and sometimes the future). In this, there are always new ideas. In addition, I look to the past, to domestic objects made from clay, metal, wood and fiber, both industrial and handcrafted. If I see something I like, I figure out what fundamental qualities draw my attention and then adapt them to my own certain representation. Over the years, I have developed a couple of structural formats: ‘Curvy’ and ‘Belly Bottomed’. In general, when I want to incorporate a new form, I will try to work it into one of these styles. If it’s successful, great, if it’s not, then the public never sees it! I have a paper pattern for each form I make and often a new form can be created by modifying one of my existing patterns. I cut a paper pattern that I think will get me close to the form I’m after, then cut out the clay pieces and alter them as needed as I assemble. Then I go back to the paper pattern and snip and shape. I do this until I get what I want. Recently, I have expanded the variety of forms I make by taking one form and then reproducing it in assorted sizes and shapes. For example, if I make a round bowl, I will make it in 3 to 6 different sizes and then I will make it ovoid and rectangular, also in assorted sizes. This really speaks to my inclination to work in multiples without making the same thing over and over again.

Having shared a studio wall with you at the Archie Bray Foundation, I know that you are fascinated with glaze chemistry.  I always admired the countless test tiles I’d see piling up in your studio space.  Can you talk a little about the importance of glaze/surface when it comes to your work?

The surface of a pot is just as important as the pot itself. Either can undermine the other if

Glaze test pottles, 2012

Glaze test pottles, 2012

consideration isn’t given to both. My love for glazes comes from the idea that a glaze surface has a few variables that can be manipulated toward a concept: light transmission, color, and tactile quality can all be chosen with intent. I appreciate the infinite possibilities that present themselves through glaze development.

 

Like Jeff Campana (last month’s featured potter), I know you moved around a lot post graduate-school.  How have these experiences after school prepared you for where you are now?  Could you describe some of the most influential or career changing experiences you’ve had since you’ve left school?

I think that working hard, holding a job alongside a studio commitment has reinforced my passion for making. Through all the frustrations of too little time, little or no money, and creative hinderance, I have learned what is really important to me. I don’t discount any experience, whether positive or negative, but I think the most powerful experience I had was my residency at the Archie Bray Foundation. It was a time when I not only fortified my commitment to making, but also a time for intuitive introspection (unlike graduate school, where introspection was paramount, but also forced). It was important to attain an awareness of my character because my work comes from such a personal place. The Bray afforded me the time and space to achieve that and I departed with a strong sense of direction.

Was there a point in your career that you made a decision to sell your pots for a living? Could you describe how you came to that decision?

That decision came just last summer, so it’s still green…it was a decision of circumstances because I was unemployed and not able to find work in the field. I wish I could say I was a goal, but the truth is that I’ve always been apprehensive about making a living from my pots. Nevertheless, I suddenly had the time and space to make work, so I did. I am still in the process of organizing a business model and think it’ll take the year, at least, to do it right. I hold great esteem for working potters like Ayumi Horie, Diana Fayt and Kristen Kieffer, but I have no misconceptions that I’m years away from that level of success.

How have your experiences so far been different or similar to your expectations when you set out?

from Domestic Landscape Series: Lemon French Toast with Blueberries (plates and espresso cups), various sizes, cone 5 oxidation, 2012

from Domestic Landscape Series: Lemon French Toast with Blueberries (plates and espresso cups), various sizes, cone 5 oxidation, 2012

I don’t know that I had expectations so much as aspirations: I always wanted to follow in my college professor’s footsteps, to pay forward the satisfaction from creativity that she had enabled in me. Events, however, have conspired to take me in a different direction. Of course, I expected to be famous by now, but I guess since people are living longer these days, stardom may be a little further down the road… ;P

What does a typical workday look like for you?  How much do you spend on marketing vs. making?

Okay, cat outta the bag kind of thing: I don’t have a typical workday, unless it can be that I piddle around doing nothing much until a deadline looms. Seriously, someone should give me a bagful of time management skills! When I am on a roll in the studio, though, it’s hard to stop and when I do something like work on my website, it’s also hard to stop. As I mentioned, the business of making pots for a living is still green. In theory, though, I currently set aside one day a week to do paperwork, etc…

How does an artist go about acquiring business and marketing skills? What piece of advice would you give to others just starting out?

cup detail, Heart in Hand(le), cups for Studio Kotokoto’s Hearty Cuppa Event, cone 5 oxidation, 2013

cup detail, Heart in Hand(le), cups for Studio Kotokoto’s Hearty Cuppa Event, cone 5 oxidation, 2013

Trick question (since I’m just starting out)! Trial and error is often the most informative way to figure out what works for you and what doesn’t. I have also found it helpful to talk to artists who are successfully selling their work, look at how they market and note what might be a good fit for me. This does not mean that I let them do all the hard work and then just appropriate from their models. I am grateful for their support in terms of finding a path to success since there aren’t too many courses out there on how to market pottery in today’s economy. To those just starting out, I would definitely mention that you shouldn’t expect immediate success. Like any business, you have to increase exposure and, to some extent, establish a customer base and that simply takes time. Also, unless you are debt free and securely sheltered, don’t expect to do this without some additional source of income.

What is your relationship with galleries (on and offline)? How has that relationship changed over time?

There are a handful of galleries that carry my work. I maintain a relationship with these galleries based on the premise that they work hard to promote my work and attract a clientele that can appreciate my subtle aesthetics. I have to say that it has been frustrating when I don’t even sell enough to cover the costs of packing materials and shipping. I continue to send work, though, because galleries have the resources to provide a level of exposure that I can’t reach on my own. There is definitely something to be said about putting your work in the hands of someone (gallerist) who believes in what you do.

One thing I find intriguing about your work is the way that you conceive and install your pots in a gallery setting (particularly with your solo exhibitions).  As a fellow potter, my motivation to make work is based on the work eventually participating in a domestic environment.  I particularly love the fact that pots in the home are never stagnant, but rather are constantly resonating with potential energy.  The gallery space almost acts as an intermediary venue (between studio and home) that allows the viewer to focus on the “still” object free of domestic “noise” (which I find rather refreshing).  Can you describe how do you approach the gallery space as a venue for display?

Installation view, Dis(h)function (ABF Fellowship Exhibition), cone 6 oxidation, 2009

Installation view, Dis(h)function (ABF Fellowship Exhibition), cone 6 oxidation, 2009

I also regard domestic environments as natural habitats for useful objects. My motivation to ‘install’ pots comes from an impulse to give viewers in a gallery setting a sense of the emotional substance that may present itself (in past, present and future possibilities) once the pots are in a real domestic environment by assembling them allegorically within a fabricated domestic representation or arrangement.

Finally, what advice can you give aspiring artists struggling to find their own voice/style?

It is my belief that solid work comes from within. You have to search internally for whatever meaning (voice) you want to ascribe to your work. You may be influenced by your environment, as we all are, but don’t let someone else’s agenda get in the way. Keep it about you. As a maker of pots, understand that bowls, cups, plates, etc…were invented long ago; you are not the engineer of these objects, but a steward of their legacy. A good pot is an honest pot, one that is true to it’s purpose (which may be both utilitarian and aesthetic), no more, no less.

To find out more about Birdie and her work, please visit her website: birdie boone ceramics.  If you’d like to view available work, visit the Schaller Gallery and Studio KotoKoto.

Potter of the Month: Jeff Campana

Happy 2013!

This year opens with an exciting new project I’ve planned for my website:  Each month, I will be posting a new interview with a studio potter.

First up is Jeff Campana.  DSCN0303Jeff and I were fellow graduate students at Indiana University.  He is an amazingly talented potter living and working in Helena, MT.  To the left is a photo of Jeff re-constructing one of his pieces.

Before I begin the interview, I wanted to share a “small world” story about Jeff’s work: A few years ago, I toured the Homer Laughlin China Company (famously known as the Fiesta-ware Factory) in the northern panhandle of West Virginia with students from West Virginia University.  When we entered the design studio, I noticed that there was only one poster hanging on the wall in the main design room: a poster of Jeff Campana’s works.  I recently returned to HLCC with a group of students from BGSU, and Jeff’s poster was still the only one there.  When I asked the art director why he only had Jeff’s poster on the wall, he said that not only did he admire Jeff’s work, but the poster was the most well designed poster he’d seen of an artist’s collective works.  So, if you find yourself in Newell, WV, stop by the Homer Laughlin China Company and ask to visit the design studio.

For more information about Jeff and his work, please visit his fresh new website: jeffcampana.com.  If you’d like to view available work, stop by his etsy shop: CampanaCeramics.

Hope you enjoy the interview!

01

How did you first get involved in ceramics?

I took a class my Sophomore year of High School.  I pretty much knew right away that ceramics would always be a major interest of mine for the rest of my life.  It just felt immediately like I was supposed to be a potter.

Can you briefly describe your background and education?

I chose my undergrad school based on the ceramics program.  At the time, the University of Wisconsin Whitewater was by far my favorite ceramics program, so I went there.  I took my time, spending 6 years there.  I was a good student, but didn’t feel ready to move on to the next phase, so I just stayed and dedicated a lot of time to ceramics.  After a year of trying to work independently, I got into grad school at Indiana University. 

As a fellow classmate in graduate school, I wonder how you feel that your formal education prepared you for your career in ceramics?  Is there anything you wish you had known before leaving school?

04Very little about the art education system, with only a couple of exceptions that I know of, is based on preparing students to be professional artists.  I was never taught anything about what is really involved in making a living from the making of art.  All academia concerns itself with as an institution is artist statements, defending one’s work, theses, resume lines, etc.   Things that could get you a job teaching ceramics.

Too bad none of that stuff really matters when you are out there making work and selling it to people.  People who buy art largely don’t care about artist statements and all that stuff.  They are more concerned with whether they feel the need to own a piece, and to a lesser degree, some collectors care about whether the artist seems like someone that will continue to grow and remain a known artist.  The way you do this is not by writing fancy statements, but by continuously making work and selling it to people.

When I left grad school, I thought, as many do, that I would teach for a living.  I wish I knew what an underpaid, under-appreciated, overworked, nomadic shitstorm that would be before I decided to go that route.  It’s so much better for me to just make work all day.  Thankfully I figured it out before it was too late.  The actual people I worked with and for were all wonderful, but institutionally, early stages of a teaching careers are a very bad deal for the instructors.  You need 3-5 years of adjunct/junior faculty experience before anyone will seriously consider you for a tenure track position in today’s market.  If you are not familiar with what adjuncting really is, take a look at http://www.adjunctproject.com

How would you describe your work?  How did you arrive at working this way?

06My work is functional pottery that has been deconstructed and reconstructed in such a way that the seams of rejoining create beautiful decoration to the interior and exterior.  When the glaze runs and pools, it emphasizes the tectonic structure and gives the seams incredible depth.  It appears merely decorative, but at the same time there’s hidden connotations.  The way it was made is an intriguing enigma to most.  Also, there’s the fact that it was made more beautiful by being destroyed and rebuilt.  Although they are cheerfully colored and shiny and bright, they sprouted up from a very dark place.  They are as much about destruction as they are about nourishment and beauty. When I work, I feel like I’m part chemist, part craftsman, part designer, part engineer, and part inventor.  I really like a good challenge, so I enjoy making things that are seemingly impossible.  There is no end to the problem solving.

Would you explain your attraction for functional ceramics?

Like all potters I enjoy that people out there use my work daily.  At this point there must be 2000+ pieces out there in about 10 different countries.  I like thinking about how these objects I made are impacting the lives of all sorts of people.  Occasionally, I get emails from people who dropped a mug and urgently need a replacement.  This is verification that what I do matters to other people.  The main reason I make pots, though, is that I simply like solving the problems that utility provides me.

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?

05Inspiration usually comes from process for me.  I like refinement and see that as a legitimate creative endeavor.  So a lot of my growth is just trying to make better versions of what I have already made.  I look at my work and figure out ways to make it better.  Every once in a while, I decide to make something truly new.  New forms take years to develop, as there are so many things to figure out.  I sketch a bit, and then I throw “sketch pots” that I don’t intend to keep.  They are rough, and rarely make it past greenware.  I make physical sketches because I need to work out the how of the cutting.  I need to know the lines in 3 dimensions.  I have such a busy production schedule these days that I only get to squeeze these in occasionally.  Once a form has been worked out, sometimes I need to make generations of them before they get good enough to release to the public.  That’s where dinner plates are right now.  Everything’s figured out, now I need practice.

I know you moved around a lot post graduate-school.  How have these experiences after school prepared you for where you are now?  Could you describe some of the most influential or career changing experiences you’ve had since you’ve left school?

I was well on my way to a career teaching at University.  I adjuncted at the University of Louisville, Indiana University Southeast, both in the Louisville area, for a couple years, then moved to Helena for a summer residency at the Bray.  I then got a full time technician gig at Bennington College in Vermont.  After exactly one school year, I moved back to Helena to be a long term resident at the Bray.  These experiences did teach me a lot.  Learning to speak about what you do in completely basic layman’s terms actually clarifies what you do to yourself.  I had the opportunity to meet a lot of wonderful colleagues, coworkers, and students.  People who are lifelong friends now.  It was very, very hard though, and most of that time was spent desperately poor and quite lonely.  Nomadism can be fun, but for an introvert like me, it meant I was alone most of the time. Basically, what I got out of the whole experience is the sense that if I got through all that, I can endure anything.  Toughness.

Was there a point in your career that you made a decision to sell your pots for a living? Could you describe how you came to that decision?

02I had finally gotten a tenure-track Assistant Professor job offer, something I had been working toward for years.  At the same time, I had been invited to be a long term resident at the Bray, something I had always dreamed of doing.  I knew if I took the job, I might never get a chance to go to the Bray.  That decision changed the direction of my career.  I used my first year here to figure out whether I could make a living purely from my pots or not, and it turned out that I can.  My plans now are to establish my own studio, in Helena, and try to make a go of it.  It’s not that teaching is unpleasant, it’s that making a living by making art is just so awesome.

How have your experiences so far been different or similar to your expectations when you set out?

Happily, I can say that things are working out better than I had imagined.  I remember in grad school, everything seemed so hopeless.  I got a couple lucky breaks right out of the gate and then was able to capitalize on them, and make things happen.  I never anticipated enjoying the business/marketing side of being an artist, but ended up loving it.

What does a typical workday look like for you?  How much do you spend on marketing vs. making?

I wake up whenever I’m done sleeping (which is awesome), and immediately start on the stuff I call homework.  My two bedroom apartment is basically a shipping center, warehouse, photo studio, and office – with a bed in the corner.  So while coffee is brewing, I’m already going on this sort of stuff – packing Etsy sales, packing shows, photographing work, emailing people, facebook promotion, ordering supplies, if it’s nice out, go for a hike, etc.  I usually cut myself off at noon, which is about 4 hours or so after I wake up, and go in to the studio.  I like to work 8 hours in the studio at most.  When in there, I am able to spend my time on whatever part of the process, but I try to stay very efficient and in my own world, with my giant cordless headphones and some Rdio.  After that, maybe go out for a drink with friends, maybe come home and kick back.   I work for 5-6 weeks in a row, no days off, and then when a cycle finishes, I try to get out of town for a week or so, but at least take 5 days off if I have no travel plans.  It’s important to take breaks and avoid burning out. I am always trying to figure out how to get the same amount done in less time.  I would love to trim it down to 50 hours a week.

How does an artist go about acquiring business and marketing skills? What piece of advice would you give to others just starting out?

03Well, since nobody is going to teach them that in school, working artists are left to acquire business savvy the same way they learn anything else.  Trial and error, persistence, critical thinking, careful deliberation, spontaneous curiosity fulfillment, falling on their ass and getting right back up, exploiting anything that works, abandoning anything that doesn’t. Fearlessness.

For marketing, my best piece of advice is to approach it with creativity, treat it the same way you treat making work.  I think of marketing, everything from how I shoot the work to webpage updates to writing copy on Etsy as part of the process.  A piece is finished for me when someone else owns it.  Until then, it is in progress. Come up with things that work for you, not necessarily by the book.  We live in exciting times, where you can invent your own brand identity and market it easily, and without even the help of galleries, amass a global following.  Because I am willing to ship internationally and have a strong internet presence, I sell work all over the world.

What is your relationship with galleries (on and offline)? How has that relationship changed over time?

Galleries end up being very important, but some are effective and some aren’t.  Some gallery affiliations just don’t work out, and when that happens, I’m not afraid to pull out of it and put my work somewhere else.  I have some wonderful galleries that I know are out there working on my behalf, and I have come to know the managers or owners.  They give the very best business advice if you pick their brain.  I always respect my gallery relationships by not undercutting them.  If I sell a piece directly to someone and get 100% of that money, it still costs the same to the customer as it would if they bought it at the gallery where I get 50%.  If someone commissions something as a result of a gallery experience, you have to let the gallery know and give them a cut.  I have had 5 galleries go out of business so far, so it’s not like they are getting rich off the exploitation of artists as many seem to think.  They have to pay people to work there, pay the gas bill, pay a mortgage and whatnot, all for the purpose of allowing people to experience new art in person before they buy.  That is a valuable service they provide to both the artist and the customer.  They earn that cut.

You have had an Etsy site for quite a few years now.  How has your experience on Etsy helped your career?  What percentage of your income comes from Etsy sales vs. retail galleries?

07I love Etsy.  It has a great community, and sales are pretty good on there for me.  Maybe ¼ of my income comes from Etsy sales.  My favorite thing about it is the access to the customers.  I might have regular customers at galleries, but never know it.  With galleries it is boxes of pots that get shipped out, and paychecks that arrive in the mail.  With Etsy, customers are in contact with me.  I know where the pots go, and I get feedback.  The whole transaction has much more meaning to me, and hopefully to the customer as well.

Finally, what advice can you give aspiring artists struggling to find their own voice/style?

One great quote our old professor Tim Mather always said on this subject was “The best way to ensure you never find your aesthetic is to go looking for it”.  I think it’s just a matter of forgetting what anyone else thinks for a while.  Indulge your own quirky stupid curiosities, and keep an open mind about what you see in the results.  Once you have something that thrills you, just make make make make make make make make make make make make make make make make make make make make make make make make make make make make make make make make make make make make make make make make.  It’s really that easy.  If you get bored, try something new.  It takes a lot of making to truly figure something out. Make so many things that your studio feels like it’s bursting at the seams.  As the craftsmanship improves over time, so will the clarity of meaning and intention.  Choices are made all the time.  The choices you make mean something, even if you don’t know what at the time.  Schools teach this backwards, I think.  Most importantly, have fun with it.

Again, for more information about Jeff and his work, please visit his fresh new website: jeffcampana.com.  If you’d like to view available work, stop by his etsy shop: CampanaCeramics.