Naomi Clement is a Canadian ceramic artist I met virtually during a Harvard Ceramics virtual studio tour. I was very interested in several things she mentioned during the tour, including a project she did to gather feedback from recipients of her pots on how those people used her work in their lives.
I reached out to Naomi to ask more about this topic and also her use of script in her work.
JW: Can you tell me a little bit about your background and what attracted you to ceramics?
NC: I attended an arts high school in London, Ontario. While I originally did printmaking, I never thought I was particularly good at drawing. When I tried clay, I felt this was the first medium I was really good at. I ended up attending the Nova Scotia College of Art & Design in Halifax, Nova Scotia. I then apprenticed with Joan Bruneau, a professional studio potter based in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia. I took a break from ceramics to work in the food and wine industry, but came back to ceramics, ultimately attending Louisiana State University for my M.F.A. in studio art (ceramics), where I graduated in 2017.
JW: During the workshop I attended, you discussed you “Stories I tell” cup project. For the benefit of others, would you describe that project?
NC: Sure. I was doing a residency in Medicine Hat, Alberta, before graduate school. I had written an artist’s statement about how I wanted my pottery to impact the lives of those who owned and lived with it. A friend of mine asked, “How are you going to show that happens?” It was an excellent question. I wrote up a research proposal for a project and that was the genesis of the “Stories I Tell” Cup Project.
I created a series of ceramic cups for my exhibit, and then gave the cups away to members of the public who attended the show. In return, I asked each recipient to send me information on what they did with the cup. I provided a self-addressed postcard for their use. I got quite a bit of feedback from recipients. All the post cards I received are posted on my website.
JW: And what did you learn?
NC: I suppose I learned about the varied ways my work became a part of people’s lives. One person told me that she used the cup to hold her chapstick collection. That was something I never would have envisioned or expected. This person transformed my cup into a whole new object that I never imagined. I know now that handmade pots can impact people’s lives, but not necessarily in the grand ways I originally contemplated. Living with and using pottery affects people’s lives in subtle ways.
A lot of art is created for galleries and maybe even museums. I make things for the home, where people spend time with my work. They embrace it in their everyday lives – enjoying their morning coffee, for example. They may use my mug for ages and then one day, pause and look at my work closely and say, “I never noticed this little detail before.” I want my work to be part of people’s daily lives. There’s an interaction between me, my work and the person that holds my work – even if that happens over time and I’m not consciously aware of all of it.
JW: Do you have any other projects in mind for gathering feedback?
NC: Not immediately. I am interested in how my work is used, but I wouldn’t do another project just like this. It could get gimmicky and I want to avoid that. Nowadays, I get some feedback on social media. I see photos on Instagram that tell me how some of my work is used or displayed in a person’s home. That didn’t exist when I did the “Stories I tell” Cup Project.
JW: You incorporate script into your pottery. Can you tell me how and why you do that?
NC: I’ve always been fascinated by handwriting. It’s a way of leaving your mark, of telling your story. And I just love the way script looks. Originally, I acquired some correspondence from my grandparents, back from when they were dating as young people. At the time I acquired the letters, my grandparents were going into long-term care. I always cherished these letters and the snapshots they provided about two people falling in love.
In grad school, I started experimenting with using bits and pieces from these letters in my ceramics. At that point my grandparents were both gone, so there was an element of connecting in some way with my family in some sense.
I originally started with text from my grandparents’ correspondence, but later worked with the handwriting on some recipe cards used by women in my family. There’s a celebration of domestic life that really appeals to me.
JW: What is the process you used to incorporate text into your work?
NC: I would scan and enlarge text elements, then use a laser to cut the shapes out of newsprint. I used those cut-outs as stencils. I still incorporate text elements into my work, but with the Coronavirus I don’t have access to a laser so I’m having to change my process somewhat.
I find that people are also quite interested in what the text says, literally, and I’m more interested in the gesture and graphic shape of the script than the literal meaning of the words. I do have a personal connection with the text, but that’s not necessarily what I’m bringing into my ceramics.
JW: My sense is that you are interested in more than just the ceramic pieces you create. You seem to also focus on the connections between your work and either your past or the people who acquire your work. How do you reconcile that with making a living as a ceramic artist?
NC: I will admit that it’s somewhat of a battle making a living as well as staying engaged with these aspects of my work. I’m lucky that people support me and buy my work. But sometimes that can make it feel difficult to change and evolve.
JW: Are you constrained from trying something quite different?
NC: No. At the moment, I make changes on a smaller, more incremental scale. Some artists completely change what they produce in one full swoop. My tendency is to make smaller changes. That said, I do have a different line of work called “naked pots” that are spare and less decorated. It’s another way for me to experiment.
JW: You are very intentional about each aspect of each piece you create (the shape of handles, where you place them on a mug, how you adhere them to the mug, etc.).
NC: When you make a functional object, it needs to have intention behind it if you want it to function well. How it fits in a person’s hand, how it works when, for example, the cup is tilted. It’s important to me.
JW: Where do you see yourself taking your ceramic work going forward?
NC: This pandemic has really changed things. As artist I spend a lot of time alone. Formerly, workshops gave me a break. Now, not as much. Workshops and teaching also represented a big part of my income. I’m now doing online workshops, which have both positive and negative sides. On the positive side, in an online workshop everyone has a front-row seat, more people can afford the class, an infinite number of people can attend, and attendees come from all over the world. I’ve had students participate from Israel and Dubai. On the other hand, I miss the community aspect of in-person workshops. A good workshop has back-and-forth dialog that’s sometimes is missing online. That dialog makes me think about my work in different ways. Everything has been thrown on its head with Covid.
Moving forward, I’ll continue to make incremental changes and progress. Something I’d like to try is bringing my designs to 2D surfaces (like drawings & paintings). To do that, I’d like to do a residency – change out of familiar space and routine. But that isn’t likely to happen soon. I’m also interested in making tiles – as more of a technical experiment.
Naomi also lists upcoming virtual workshops on her website.