Karen Orsillo is a dedicated, long-time ceramic artist who specializes in nerikomi using brightly colored clay. While she has experimented with a wide variety of ceramic techniques through the years, she keeps coming back to nerikomi.
It’s a labor-intensive process – especially as Karen practices the craft. She builds very subtle changes in clay to build smooth, almost seamless gradations from one hue to another. She then “subdivides” these panels of clay into distinct shapes, and combines the shapes to create vibrant, energetic patterns, and out of that end result she assembles her final forms. The results are striking.
JW: On your website you show your process in some detail. What interests me is the subtle gradations you’re able to achieve when you combine different colored clays. What’s the secret?
KO: The gradation effect in my work is achieved by wedging small increments of one colored clay into another and then stacking them one on top of the other in order. It is time consuming but worth the effort. Another technique for achieving gradations is called the skinner blend, borrowed from polymer clay techniques. Though I do greatly admire the work of the colored clay artists I know who use the skinner blend method, I have experimented with it but still prefer the wedging and stacking process.
JW: Your process of first building the clay blocks followed by then creating vessels out of those assembled blocks looks time-consuming. What energizes and motivates you through what must be long hours of building a piece?
KO: Yes my colored clay work entails a long, time-consuming process. Some parts are more enjoyable than others. I’ll start with the least enjoyable parts. Wedging the initial colors is a chore that must be done to begin the rest of the process. Often good music (with a bit of dancing added) will get me through.
Then when the pots are at the bone dry stage I need to clean up the surface of every piece before it goes into the bisque kiln. The work is very fragile at this point so I need to stay very focused so as not to break the work.
I’m most excited about building the patterns and the forms though these are the most time consuming parts of the process.
I can see the patterns coming together as I build them and am always excited to slice off the first slab to see the finished pattern. Combining the pattern into a form is the most challenging but compelling part of my work. Finding the form that allows the pattern to be enhanced and not fight with it.
Since most of my patterns are quite visually active I usually keep the lines of the form clean and simple. So the tedious parts of the process happen at the beginning and the end but the stuff in between keeps me energized… along with some good music.
JW: You mention you keep a low profile and don’t promote your work a lot. How did you settle into your balance of creative work vs. promotion and marketing work? Are you comfortable with the balance you’ve reached?
KO: This is the hardest question for me to answer. It’s complicated! I think most artists have to find a combination of ways to make a living. I love the making part most and teaching classes and workshops has always been enjoyable for me. I also love learning new processes and sharing them and this keeps me energized. Making money alone was never a motivation for me so I view selling as a necessity to be able to continue doing what I love.
Fairly early on I realized that colored clay lent itself very well to jewelry and so I developed a line of jewelry that sold well. So when allowed, I had both pots and jewelry in my display at shows. The jewelry became my “bread and butter” income but pots have always been my first love.
I have been fortunate to be doing this during the time when high quality craft shows were available and well attended. This meant that the promoters of the show did the advertising etc. I also am fortunate to have been a juried member of the League of NH Craftsmen which offers a number of selling opportunities to its members. So through a combination of doing craft shows, having work in gallery shops, teaching and occasional shows in galleries I have been able to get by. In the early days I had another non-art related job to supplement my income.
Promoting my work has always been a balancing act. I have avoided the newer venues of online selling and social media in general. I am 69 and so no longer have as much pressure to make money as I did or I think I would have to be online and social media. As I’ve gotten older I find that craft shows are/were a physically challenging endeavor requiring a lot of lugging and setup and often long driving times. The good ones get expensive between entry fees and accommodations and travel etc. Galleries take some percentage of the money but they are doing the promoting and selling and displaying for you in a fixed location where customers can find your work. Teaching can be very rewarding if you enjoy it, which I do.
All of these ways of making a living have worked for me in varying combinations over the years. Today, I think it would have been smart to get into the online venue sooner. The technology still seems daunting! But this has been what is sustaining the people I know during the pandemic.
JW: Your work also has unique patterns – how do you get that effect?
KO: Like so many artists, the patterns I create are most often inspired by nature where amazing patterns and colors abound. It begins with studying a flower, plant or bird plumage, etc. in detail. I then begin to break it down into parts, choosing shapes and color combinations that I can build with colored clays to mimic the original inspiration. As I’m working with one pattern I often get new ideas for another pattern to try next.
JW: Where did you learn this nerikomi process?
After college, I was struggling to continue the nerikomi process with porcelain on my own and encountering many technical problems with cracking and warping. A potter friend told me about a Japanese ceramic artist Makoto Yabe who was teaching in the Boston area at Radcliffe – now the Harvard Ceramics Program – and also at the Decordova Museum School in Lincoln, MA. I took classes with him at both places. He was an amazing teacher of all ceramic processes and I learn so much from him but in particular he was able to help me with the technical problems inherent in the nerikomi process. I’m not sure I would have continued with colored clay if I had not met Makoto.
JW: Did you explore other ceramic processes? What attracted you to nerikomi?
KO: I have explored many, many clay processes over the years: throwing, all forms of handbuilding, high fire reduction, low fire, soda firing, woodfiring, burnishing and pit firing and more. I love them all! That is the compelling thing about clay – there are so many directions and possibilities. But I always continued with colored clay. I enjoy not only the complexities of the of the process but the challenge of combining color, pattern and form well together. There are endless possibilities!
JW: What attracted you to ceramics in the first place?
KO: I was most interested in art throughout my youth and especially in high school. My high school didn’t offer ceramics but I took a class at Newton Pottery in Newton, MA, and loved it right away. I loved the feel and the smell of the clay. I started out throwing and was able to center and pull a cylinder fairly quickly which encouraged me to keep going. Shortly after that I decided I wanted to go to college to major in art and for ceramics to be my concentration. Still loving it!
JW: After a lifetime of making ceramics and working with clay, what advise would you offer to ceramic artists?
KO: I guess my advice would be to keep your passion for clay alive by allowing yourself time to explore and not to let sales and money be what dictates your making. Of course you need to think about making money but don’t let it rule what you make. Also I’m truly grateful to have found clay and feel fortunate to be able to do something creative and fulfilling for my whole life. I’ve always appreciated that fact but it just gets stronger as I get older. As artists we are very fortunate and rich in spirit even if not in money….be grateful!
You can view Karen’s work at her website.