Jami Porter Lara’s work is inspired by plastic water bottles used by immigrants who walk across the Southwestern US border into the United States from Mexico.
Her work is stark, simple, focused and elegant.
To me it speaks of the land from whence it springs, and of the people who inhabit that land (even temporarily).
Jami first touched art by taking a drawing class in her mid-20s. At age 40, Jami returned to school to earn a BFA at the University of New Mexico, first concentrating in painting and drawing. She took a course that ultimately changed her artistic trajectory. She explained this transformative experience as follows:
In 2011, I traveled with a small group of artists to a remote stretch of the U.S.-Mexico border with a program called Land Arts of the American West. Our group spent a week camped in the high desert grasslands of Coronado National Forest, and I spent days roaming the rolling hills of its southern extent, where the international border is marked by a low vehicle barrier.
On my walks I found many indications of human passage through the region, but the most common things I found were two-liter plastic bottles that had been used to carry water. In the same places I found bottles it is also possible to find potsherds left by the Mogollon culture thousands of years before.
Soon after, our group crossed the international border and traveled to Mata Ortiz, the northern Mexican village renowned for its ceramics. We spent a week with Hector and Graciela Gallegos who taught us how to make low-fire ceramic vessels in the same ways they have been in that region for tens and hundreds and thousands of years. We learned to forage and prepare clay, build with coils, burnish with a stone and reduction fire in a pit.
Upon my return to New Mexico, I kept thinking about how the plastic bottle and the ancient potsherd are essentially the same thing. Both were precious objects — vessels, capable of sustaining human life. I also began to think about them as evidence of a continuous flow — of people, culture, plants, animals, and objects — that continues in spite of attempts to sever it.
I wanted to connect the plastic bottle to a long lineage of vessels that have been used to carry water through deserts, and in so doing, to reveal my connection to the long lineage of humans who have—driven by necessity or desire—traveled these lands before or despite national boundaries.
And so the project began with two simple rules: I would 1) use the oldest local ways of working with clay to make vessels that 2) reference the plastic bottle, the most iconic and ubiquitous vessel of my time.
My methods are the same as I learned in Mata Ortiz. I harvest and prepare clay from a site near my home, build with coils, burnish with a stone, and reduction-fire in a pit.
The materials and technique and central to the concept of the work — the point is to make these contemporary sculptures in more or less the same way that ceramics have been made in the region for millennia. Therefore pit firing has been integral to the project from the beginning. There was quite a bit of trial and error involved in figuring out the timing, and then again lots more failure as the vessels got larger. It is a risky process, but for conceptual reasons I’ve never seen kiln firing as an alternative.
JW: You mentioned your current work as a “project” – which suggests a body of work through a set period of time.
JPL: This project constitutes my whole history with ceramics, with the exception of a semester of Ceramics 101 at UNM, which, you may be interested to know, left me vaguely positive but mostly agnostic on the medium. It wasn’t until the experiences described above that I dedicated myself to it, and despite an ongoing ceramics project of many years, I still don’t identify as a ceramist.
“I grapple with what it means to be an artist who makes things in a culture of too many things … I’m making things that imitate the things we have too many of…”
JW: How do you reconcile being an artist who makes more things in a culture of too many things?
JPL: The blackware plastic bottle project was a way of placing myself dead center within the predicament of what it means to be a thing-maker in a world of too many things.
One of the ways of reckoning with it was the process itself. I foraged the clay. I foraged scrap lumber otherwise destined for landfills from construction sites. And a firing time of only about 1.5 hours meant that compared to the energy intensity of most ceramic production, my process used relatively few resources.
And finally, the low fired clay sculptures can practically melt back into the earth.
JW: What’s next?
JPL: In August I have a solo exhibition of brand new work titled “Terms and Conditions” opening at Gerald Peters Gallery in Santa Fe. It is a multidisciplinary project including textiles, sculptures, lithographs, neon, and porcelain.
More of Jami’s works can be seen on her website.