Sanam Emami is Associate Professor of Art in the Ceramics Department at Colorado State University. She is currently on sabbatical in this pandemic year, focusing on studio work and reexamining her creative process.
Originally, I was going to ask Sanam questions about her career evolution (what attracted her to ceramics, where did she study, how has her pottery evolved through time, etc.) I discovered much of this information is already accessible online on Sanam’s website and a Make/Time podcast interview. When we spoke over the phone, I got very interested in Sanam’s current situation: how she’s approaching her sabbatical and what she hopes to gain from the experience. I decided to drill into that area rather than repeat previous conversations.
JW: Sanam, tell me more about your sabbatical.
SE: It has taken me a bit to adjust to this opportunity, especially given the pandemic and my parenting responsibilities. But fundamentally I’m finding I have much more time in the studio and I’m creating more pots. Teaching, grading, advising and mentoring students, along with other academic responsibilities takes a lot of time, and uses emotional and creative energy. It’s wonderful to spend more time back in the studio. I’m finding it gives me an opportunity to re-think my processes. I’m also rediscovering some lost muscle memory I took for granted. It’s interesting to realize how very small things, small actions, are involved in being a studio potter. It’s not simple to get just the right, subtle curve you want. You lose some of your dexterity – the knowledge we hold in our hands and in our bodies are incredible – when you spend too much time out of the studio.
JW: When you say you’re re-thinking your process, what exactly do you mean?
SE: Well, for example, I’m getting a lot more interested in sourcing my materials. Recently I’ve been looking for and testing out locally sourced materials as I understand more about the environmental impact of transporting materials long distances. I haven’t thought about these ideas since my twenties and my first introduction to pottery, and to Bernard Leach/Soetsu Yanagi/Shoji Hamada, who often spoke of truth to material and truth to process. These ideas echoed the history of pottery – one which centered around potters moving to the clay source rather than the clay coming to them. It also tied the aesthetics of objects and pots to a specific time and place, and gave regional variation and recognition to different clay bodies and glazes.
Honestly, I was also getting burnt out before my sabbatical started. I wasn’t fully aware of that. Getting back to my studio is invigorating and refreshing. I can explore now: new forms, new colors, additions to some themes I’ve developed over 20 or so years of making pottery. This sabbatical is the first time I have been able to be in my studio full-time since I was a resident at the Archie Bray Foundation from 1998-2000 without a teaching position. I wanted to embrace the rhythms and work flow of a studio potter.
JW: A year to focus on your art without distractions sounds wonderful.
SE: It is. It’s the gift of a sabbatical, not having to think about student assignments, grading, and other responsibilities. I’m taking time for myself. I know I’ll come back a better teacher, mentor and practitioner. Teaching is a collaboration between me and the students. When I am deeply connected to my own work and practice, I am better equipped to share ideas, facilitate discussions and demonstrate processes. Pottery/ceramics involves accumulated knowledge, complexity, nuance, problem solving, working well with others…these are aspects that everyone in a shared studio needs to be attentive to. Over time, there isn’t as much ‘left over’ for my studio days when I am teaching full-time. The sabbatical is a time for building up the creative and collaborative reserves.
JW: Can you give me an idea of some of the things you’re producing right now?
SE: Sure, right now I am focusing on some new forms and also many familiar forms. The newer forms are centerpieces that I created for an exhibition at the Huntington Museum of Art.
There will be a symposium (artist talk, workshop, gallery tour) free and open to the public Nov 5-7. Familiar forms include plates, bowls, cups, trivets, serving bowls, jars. The time to make more of each is yielding endless variations and possibilities.
Another change in my work right now is happening in my surface decoration – colors, shapes and the composition of patterns are shifting and allowing me to see more possible choices within my existing color palette.
One example is using wax resist to mask some of the bright underglazes in the work so they are more pronounced in the fired work, also adding matte glaze in small detailed areas to create variation within each form.
JW: How else has this experience changed you?
SE: Honestly, I’m also going back and thinking about some basic questions. Why did I choose to make pots in the first place? Why that particular avenue? Why focus on tableware? I believe making art is important. It’s important for me to make things that people have in their house – objects that they live with. Now that I’m back in the studio, I know this is the right place to be.
I will know more after sabbatical is over, it is hard to say too much when I am right in the middle of it. Some changes in the studio are quick and apparent, while others happen much more slowly and are more nuanced and take time to articulate.
JW: You studied history and have a continued interest in history. Given that interest, do things you observe today influence your pottery?
SE: My artwork references the exchange of ideas and materials between the Middle East, Europe and Asia that emerged along the trading routes of the Silk Road and continued into 17th and 18th centuries. As an Iranian American, this ability to choose imagery, pattern, and raw materials that referenced and reflected this mixture of influences over place and time reflected my own experience of being born in Iran, then moving to England and then to the United States.
We live in a time of political upheaval and crisis. Finding meaning in the work and research of our creative and artistic practices is of utmost importance. Connecting objects to place and time becomes a political act, one in which the artist participates in authorship and collaboration with an idea, a place and a moment in history. In the aftermath of WWII and the rebuilding of Japan under the scrutiny of the US armed forces and in the rush to modernize and westernize, the Japanese philosopher Soetsu Yanagi in his book The Unknown Craftsman, sought to preserve and value Japanese crafts such as pottery, textiles, painting – by advocating for valuing the hand made and local materials used by crafts people. Truth to materials, truth to process were philosophical ideas that reflected Japanese culture and identity.
By including local raw materials into my practice, I can create objects that are connected to the time and place I am currently living in and link my work to the millennia of indigenous potters who came before me and whose work reflected the character and limitations of the clay that they dug from the ground.
More of Sanam’s work may be found on her website.