Tara Wilson: Potter of the Month

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Tara’s Studio Pottery Sale

This month features studio potter, Tara Wilson.  Tara makes beautiful, feminine, wood fired pottery.  Her work is a perfect partnership of form and surface…the drama of the melted wood ash and blushing patterns from the flame roll effortlessly over the curvy volumes of her forms.  Her pots, with their atmospheric patina, smooth surface and undulating forms, often remind me of tumbled river rocks.

Tara and I crossed paths a few times at the Archie Bray Foundation (first as summer residents in 2003 and then later as year round residents in 2006).  The first moment I set eyes on Tara’s work I was in love.  Her work is warm, inviting, graceful and generous.  Not only is her work visually comforting…but it is a true pleasure to use.

Tara-Wilson

Plate

A handful of years ago, Tara built an amazing studio on her property in Helena, Montana.  Adjacent to her studio, she constructed two wood kilns (a large train kiln and, most recently, a smaller catenary kiln).  Tara is currently at Watershed Center for the Ceramic Arts for a two-week residency entitled Atmospheric Perspectives.  You can find out more about Tara and her work by visiting her website: tarawilsonpottery.com.  Enjoy the interview!


How did you first get involved in ceramics?

I first got involved with ceramics in High School. I attended a small public school in Clyde, Ohio and my high school art teacher included a lot of ceramic projects in our classes. By the time I was a senior I was spending as much time as possible in the art room.

Can you briefly describe your background and education?

I received a BFA from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville and a MFA from the University of Florida, Gainesville. I went straight from undergrad to graduate school then did a little adjunct teaching and community class teaching; so most of the jobs I’ve held have been art related. The most interesting job I’ve had was working as a potter at Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee.

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

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Flower Brick

My work is mostly wheel thrown and altered. I started altering my work when I was an undergrad, but although I was using similar methods the finished pieces looked totally different than the work I’m making today. In graduate school I developed this style of work and it has slowly evolved since finishing school in 2003. Most of the work has an animated quality about it and relates to the figure, either the human form or different animals.

Would you explain your attraction to functional ceramics?

I’ve always been attracted to functional work. I enjoy how accessible it is. We live with and interact with it in very intimate situations in our homes.

How do you feel that your formal education (undergraduate-graduate school) prepared you for your career in ceramics?

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Pitchers

I think my formal education prepared me for a career in ceramics in more ways than I realized. As an undergraduate student I received a strong technical education, I learned how to mix clay, glazes and fire kilns very early. I got involved in wood firing in my beginning throwing class and was hooked. Not only did I learn about firing wood kilns, but also many local artists would participate in the firings and that was a valuable resource as well. Knoxville’s close proximity to Arrowmont and Penland provided another educational resource. Many studio artists live in that area of east Tennessee and Western North Carolina. I remember making an annual pilgrimage to Rock Creek Pottery’s studio sale. Graduate school taught me to think critically about my work and prepared me for teaching. Linda Arbuckle is an a

mazing teacher and artist. She shares so much information with her students and alumni through her list serve which we all greatly benefit from.

You’ve attended numerous residency programs and presented at countless conferences/ workshops throughout your career. Could you describe some of the most influential or career changing experiences you’ve had?

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One of the most amazing experiences I’ve had was the opportunity to be a long term resident at the Archie Bray Foundation. I think I learned as much or more about what it means to be a professional artist during my time there as I did in school. A time that I will never forget was the Bray’s 55th anniversary, which happened while I was a resident. For the month of June a group of international artists worked in the summer studios. Getting to know them and work along side them was an amazing opportunity. I feel extremely fortunate to have worked with Janet Mansfield during this time. We fired the train kin together at the Bray and she invited me to come to Australia and be an assistant at a Gulgong conference. While in Gulgong she introduced me to many Australian artists which led to presenting at a conference a few years later in Tasmania and I’ll be going back next April to participate in a woodfire symposium on the south east coast of Australia.

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?

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Tara and Willow

I draw a lot of inspiration from nature, the environment that I’m surrounded by and the figure. Sometimes the work itself leads to new ideas and new pieces through experimenting with different parts of each piece while in the studio. Spending time outdoors is very important to me. It not only provides a source of inspiration but is also a time to unwind from the studio and reflect on ideas. I try to spend time outdoors everyday even if it’s just a short walk. My house and studio is located near the end of a dirt road with easy access to great hiking and mountain bike trails. In the winter I make time for backcountry skiing with my dog Willow. Animals are another source of inspiration. I enjoy being around animals, I grew up showing horses, and sometimes I feel like where I live in Montana is a wildlife sanctuary. Just in my yard alone over the past few years I’ve seen deer, elk, pronghorn, fox, wolves, bear, and lots of small animals and rodents (which aren’t always cool, such as the pack rats). A few months ago I got chickens, which are a great source of entertainment.

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

Work super hard! This is a difficult, or rather competitive field that requires many hours of practice especially in the beginning. I think it’s important to realize what you’re passionate about and figure out how that can be incorporated into your work. I often encourage young artists to look not only at contemporary work, but more importantly at historical work.

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Basket

Generally speaking, female potters who wood-fire are not the norm. Can you describe what its like working in a seemingly male-dominated tradition?  I agree that woodfiring is a male dominated field. I’ve never really had any issues with this or negative experiences. I think I’ve been very stubborn in sticking to my beliefs and opinions and have just always jumped in and been part of this scene. Now that I have my own kilns I’m the one in charge and even when it’s mostly guys helping there’s never been any issues. I think my work is fairly feminine compared to the typical woodfire aesthetic and in recent years I’ve really tried to embrace this and create work that’s embraces this feminine quality.

How do you market your work to your audience (galleries/studio sales/crak fairs/etc.)? What venues have you found to be the most lucrative for your work?

So far the most lucrative venue has been selling through galleries. I think maybe because that’s where I’m most established. I built my studio five years ago and I’ve just recently started having studio sales. They are a lot of fun and I enjoy meeting new folks in my community but these sales are not as lucrative as I would like. I think over time they will get better. Also, I’ve had an etsy site for about a year now and I think there is a lot of potential there. I’ve only posted work a few times, but I’ve sold most of what I’ve posted.

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?

IMG_0156This was probably the most difficult decision I’ve ever made. All through school I thought I would probably pursue a teaching career, so deciding to be a full time studio artist was a major decision in itself and then deciding where to do this was another huge thing. I fell in love with Montana while I was at the Bray. I like many things that Helena has to offer such as the amazing trail system with great mountain bike trails right on the edge of town and although it’s the capitol it’s still a fairly small town. The Bray has a clay business so I can easily get clay and supplies. When I built my studio I knew I wanted a space that was large enough for a few people to work in so that I could eventually have assistants and be able to offer them workspace. I knew during firings there would be more people around so I wanted a kitchen and bathroom in the studio as well. And there is a separate room with a garage door for the electric kiln and all my wood shop tools and other random stuff. Another factor in choosing this location was the fact that I wanted to have wood kilns, so I needed to live somewhere that I could make this happen.

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

IMG_1266My typical work day changes depending on where I’m at in the cycle of making work.  It takes me about six weeks to make work for my train kiln. An ideal day during the making is, get to the studio fairly early, work until 3 ish, go for a hike or bike ride, eat dinner, then work a little in the evening. But like I said that’s an ideal day. In the winter I will usually ski in the morning or first half of the day and get in the studio for the second half. Then after the making cycle it takes me a few days to glaze, a day to load the kiln and two days to fire. These are usually very long focused days in the studio, or at the kiln with not much other activities going on. Once the work is fired it takes me a few days to sand and clean up all the work. Packing work for shipping is another big time commitment in the studio. As far as the marketing goes, I know I need to put more time into this. I spend time everyday, maybe an average of two hours keeping up with e-mails and paperwork stuff. I guess that is considered marketing. I know I need to put more time into taking advantage of social media. I realize this can be a great way to market my work, but I’m not really good or consistent with it.

You have built many wood kilns over the course of your career. Can you 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?

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Tara’s Kiln Pad

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Cups

Well the things I considered when building my kilns were, the size, length of firing, and surface effects. After spending three years primarily firing train kilns at the Bray and then as a resident at Red Lodge Clay Center, I decided that I wanted to build a train. The interior of my kiln is 45 inches wide, and the stacking space is about 10 feet long. The kilns at the Bray and Red Lodge are very similar and I liked this firing cycle as far as how much time it took to make work to fill the kiln. It’s also big enough that I can offer space to folks in exchange for help. I like the surface effects that can be achieved in trains in a fairly short firing as well. This last winter I built a small catenary arch wood soda. I’m really enjoying this kiln and looking forward to experimenting more with glazes in it. I think I will probably fire this kiln at least once or more between every train firing. It’s much smaller so the turnaround time is much quicker, and it can be loaded in a few hours and fired off in a day. It’s also nice to be able to offer another type of kiln to those people who are working with me in the studio. Some helpful books are the The Kiln Book, and Woodfired Stoneware and Porcelain, but I think the best resource is looking at a lot of kilns and talking to other potters.

Over the years, you’ve had a handful of assistants/apprentices that come live and work with you. 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.)?

When I built my studio I knew I wanted to have assistants at some point so I built it large enough to accommodate this. I think of it as a work exchange. I enjoy teaching and the sense of community that happens in group studios, so this is a way for me to teach/mentor younger artists and have other artists working in close proximity.

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Right now, assistants stay for a year with an option to stay for a second year. I have two assistants and ideally one will leave each year and a new one will start, so they can help train each other. They do all types of chores, basically everything except making my work. Typical cores are lots of wood prep, and everything involved with the firings, prep and clean up, packing and shipping, cleaning the studio. They also help with bigger projects such as building the kiln and shed, finishing the bathroom and kitchen in the studio, even building a chicken coop. I think all these things are good experiences for young artists. They get to work closely with me and learn what really goes into being a studio artist.

Would you be willing to share some advice for potters who are thinking about hiring an assistant/apprentice?

Well, it’s made me be very organized and clear about my expectations. Clear communication is also extremely important. I think having assistants is a great way to teach an offer opportunities to younger artists.

Finally, what advice would you give to aspiring potters who are looking to setup a studio and make pots for a living?

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Vase

I think there are so many opportunities for young artists now, such as residency programs. I would recommend doing as many of these as possible, and traveling before sefng up a studio. If you know you want to set up your own studio, start collecting stuff, equipment, wheels, brick, anything you’ll be using in the studio so you don’t get hit with having to purchase or find everything all at once. And think about how the space will function.

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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!

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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.