Jennifer McCurdy needs no introduction. You take one look at her work and gasp, “Wow! Who did that – and how?” Well, Jennifer McCurdy did that. We discuss how.
JW: Your works are so light and ephemeral – how do you maintain the form and at the same time create these large spaces between the clay? Is this “Porcelain in Motion” article describing your process fairly accurate?
JM: That article is a pretty good description. What I like about it is that the author had no ceramic knowledge, so her article held none of the clay language we potters use, wrongly assuming other folks will know what we are talking about! There’s a bit in there that’s not right about the altering – it is done when the clay is still quite soft, and I only use my hands, no tools. Here is a little video that has a pretty good view of the altering:
Also, the goal of being an 85 year old potter was one I actually formed when I was in my early 20s, not recently. It was a goal, not about longevity, but about a lifelong commitment to the clay.
Creating more and more space between the clay is a technical difficulty, involving stuff like in building a bridge (suspending a pot upside down in the firing), or looking at honeycomb (creating a cutting pattern that sustains strength). I am aware that my porcelain will attain a malleability similar to a plastic form (wet, right off the wheel, on the stiff side), during vitrification, so I can (hopefully) pre-conceive how that piece will slump in the firing. I find it fascinating work!
JW: You mention ocean forms and shells as a source of inspiration. Can you tell me more about that?
JM: Well, they ARE inspirational, and I have quite a collection of them, but it is somewhat misleading for me to say that they drive my work. It is kind of the other way around. The work is more technical, more process driven. It is more that I gain inspiration to see the world more fully, by studying form and structure in my studio – it is hard to explain. It is a question frequently asked of me.
Here is one reply I recently sent to a student, who inquired – “I could be wrong but I was able to find Georgia O’ Keeffe, and Alexander Calder as possible influences. Based on the titles of some of your works, I presume that René Magritte is one as well. May I ask for why you found them to be influences, and if there were any more historical artists that you look to as well?”
My answer was:
“Alexander Calder was an early influence, and continues to be so, because I love his study of movement and mass. He understood that things want to be balanced, both physically and visually, to be able to create movement in an object. Also, that you can create movement within asymetricality, as long as you have balance. When I was a kid, I made my own mobiles, out of all types of disparate materials, and they would move as long as they were balanced. I still make them when I have the time, truth be told!
“I love Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings, what’s not to love? They are an honest and passionate exploration of the curves and colors seen all around us, and an understanding of forms’ relationships to each other. But it is her own life that really inspires me. She understood feminism, was a feminist, and yet her work was not bound by it. Also, she lived passionately through her work all of her long life. I want to be like that.
“Rene Magritte, well, he was famous for his exploration of the relationship between positive and negative space, among other things. Also the relationship between the convex and concave. My exploration of these themes hasn’t been easy, technically, and since his work wasn’t easy, either, I thought to name a design after him. I think his work still exudes the excitement and edginess of discovery, even after all these years.
“Your teacher’s question of other artistic influences is a reasonable one, at least, I am asked it a lot, but most of the influence that artists have is not from other artists, I suspect. My working process is more iterative, that is, the designs evolve slowly, one from another. I work more like an inventor or a scientist, quite methodically, as working in thin porcelain is technically difficult.
“I generally think of the inspiration question in reverse, that is, how does the work I do in with the porcelain help me think more fully about the people, and the nature, and the objects, around me?
“A couple of books that have influenced me over the years have been “Art Forms in Nature”, by Ernst Haeckel, and “Fractals, The Patterns of Chaos”, by John Briggs.”
JW: How has your pottery evolved over time?
JM: I started out my career making and selling more traditional and functional work.
I have attached a picture of my first display for the outdoor art shows I was doing in Florida, back in the 80s. It evolved to the sculptural slowly, through many years of looking at the forms I was making, and the technical progress achieved. It is a feedback loop.
You have new ideas, but not the skill to make the work, but you try anyway. As you get better skills, the ideas naturally follow as to how to create new forms using those skills. Every so often, I try to step back and ask myself, what I would do with the techniques that I am teaching in my workshop, say, if I was hearing them for the first time. It is a challenging question for me!
JW: In 2009 you entered into an agreement with collectors (Mr. & Mrs. Mitchell). They provided you with a stipend to give you the financial resources to develop your work. How common is this type of arrangement? Was it beneficial?
JM: You must have read the article in the Vineyard Style magazine! That is one of my favorite articles – it talks about my daily bike ride, which is still important to me. But, yes, it was satisfactory and beneficial. I don’t think it is common, though. I have heard Bill Mitchell talk to other collectors (he mostly collected wood at the time), and the idea to have that little influence over a commission seemed to make most of the other collectors uncomfortable. I have never had another commission like it, but it did push me to look for new directions. It was actually an uncomfortable commission for me, to be honest. I wanted him to be happy with it, but he wouldn’t give me any clues at all about what he was looking for. Bill and Paula were collectors of my work even before that commission, and we are all still good friends. And, yes, they continue to be delighted with the piece they ended up with.
JW: You mentioned 3 other sources of inspiration in a 2005 interview (a potter from Iraq, John McCoy, a book by John Briggs called “Fractals – The Patterns of Chaos. Discovering a New Aesthetic of Art, Science, and Nature”). Do these sources continue to influence your work today?
JM: I still think about Shen, from Iraq. He was in the States for his graduate work, but he had a wife and kids back in Iraq, and he went back there. I like to think he is still making fabulous work. He was so generous with his knowledge. We potters are all one clan, and I love it that clay has not a country, a religion, or a race. John McCoy, he is still a good friend. We go visit him every year when we go to Florida for shows (not this year, of course, but we still communicate on Facebook). And, yes, the concept of fractals is still important to me, both physically and metaphysically.
JW: Where did the idea of gold leaf come from? And why do you employ it on only some vessels?
JM: Here is an excerpt from the book, Vessels: A Conversation in Porcelain and Poetry, that I wrote with my sister, Wendy Mulhern, who is a poet. It is from the process section in the back.
“I was set up next to wood artist Tony Beverly at the American Craft Exposition in Evanston, IL, in, it would have be, August 2009. He had a beautiful cabinet, that glowed inside with an eerie light. I said, Tony, what is your light source here? And he said, “Ah!”, and opened up the glass doors to reveal a gilded dome, hidden above the doors and only a couple of tiny lights shooting up from below to create a whole diffusion of light.
It made me start thinking of light in that highly reflective way, in contrast to the natural quality of porcelain to conduct light. Gold is a “light gatherer.” I think that may be one reason it was so valued, originally. Think of a magnificent gilded cathedral dome in the dark ages. There was no electricity, very few windows. Everything was darker then than it is now, literally as well as figuratively.
Imagine stepping out of the darkness into the largest, lightest room you had ever seen, the gold leaf bouncing back the light of the candles. Of course, it is hard to get enough darkness these days for that contrast, but it is something I still think about.”
I only employ it on some vessels because it is a tradeoff between having the deeply reflective and luxurious gold, which by its density renders the piece opaque, vs. the more austere and translucent bare porcelain. Also, some pieces are impossible for Tom (my gilder, and husband) to get his hand into.
More of Jennifer’s work can be found on her website. In addition, Jennifer provided this video of a recent piece:
And finally, Jennifer sent me images of these two recent pieces: