Deighton Abrams – Artist Profile

Deighton is a ceramic artist and educator, currently teaching courses as the Artist-in-Residence at The Ceramics Program at Harvard University. He has also taught ceramics at Lesley University, Clemson University, Winthrop University, and Greenville Technical College.

Deighton grew up in Alaska, and has fused that experience with sculpture. Deighton’s work explores connections between humans, the creative process, and the physical landscape — with a particular focus on environmental stress and climate change.

JW: You do both sculptural work and functional work. Any preference? What does one offer that the other does not?

DA: For me, it’s hard to choose between which of the two are my preference since they offer different creative outlets and processes for me. I tend to call myself a sculptor and never a potter since I’ve never worked exclusively making functional work. Sculpting allows me pretty wide berths in terms of creative freedom as I’m not tied into any sort of explicit craft dogma (typically no one is consuming food from my sculptures) so I can make the call most times on what is acceptable in terms of things like glaze “flaws” and fissures in the clay.

Functional work, however, keeps my craft edge sharp as I try to make work that fits into more traditionally acceptable ceramic standards. A cup that doesn’t hold water is more clearly a failure than a sculpture with a similar crack. Much of my maintaining balance between wheel throwing  and handbuilding (whether it’s functional or sculptural) comes from my teaching practice and ensuring my students can learn any number of skills from my lessons and not feel underserved.

JW: You started as a printmaker.  What prompted your transition to ceramics?

DA: I started my full time undergraduate studies after almost a decade of working in retail and foodservice and I’d persistently called myself an artist in spite of not making much work. I’d always illustrated and drawn things from life but my undergrad program introduced me to the process heavy medium of printmaking. I really enjoyed carving blocks and working in a fairly old, traditional medium that had a heavy reliance on craft. My program required that I take ceramics as a foundations course and I saved it for the very end of my program as I really didn’t want to do anything with 3D work. I’d never touched clay in my life (other than playdough as a child) and had no interest. The first project was a simple pinch pot and I struggled with it so much that my wife actually finished it for me. The next project was a coil pot and something clicked with me and that process. My instructors John Jensen and Mac McCusker were very supportive and I ended up becoming a studio tech the following semester. Something about the vibrant, open community of clay really attracted me and I felt able to translate my drawing skills directly into sculpting from life. Haven’t been without clay ever since.

JW: It looks like your recent (2020) sculptural work is of fairly small scale, while some earlier pieces you did were larger. Is there a reason for that change of scale?

DA: My wife and I moved to the Boston area in late 2019 for her work and I started working at the Ceramics Program for the Office of the Arts at Harvard University as a work study intern and academic assistant to the director Kathy King. I didn’t have a dedicated space for my own work other than small shelves and my apartment was incredibly small with little storage.

This forced me in some ways to work on a very small scale but I’d also been a bit exhausted physically and mentally from making and moving large works. Aside from these practical concerns, I was beginning to think about how to make impactful work that didn’t rely on massive scale to operate and I’d also become hyper aware of my material consumption and this was a minor way to mitigate that. My space during the pandemic was also very limited and I didn’t have access to kilns or firing for the first time. It was incredibly difficult to find motivation to continue working on my own work and I’d transitioned to teaching ceramics fully remotely and the challenges of online learning consumed much of my time. For a few months, I’d actually begun making tiny daily sculptures inspired by Japanese netsuke at the suggestion of my wife. 

JW: You’re very focused on environmental changes – but certainly the pandemic has had large-scale impact on societies around the world. Has COVID wiggled its way into your work in any way? 

DA: I’m still dedicated to my research on climate change and material ethics through my art but the relative isolation of the pandemic in our new urban home gave me time to think about some of the root causes of disaster and human nature. I’ve started to think more intensely about living in different regions, whether urban or rural, coastal or inland, and so on change our levels of consumption.

I haven’t gone on to making things like caricatures of viruses, toilet paper, and kn95 masks, but the pandemic has certainly changed my view of the planet and the people in it. If anything, my concerns are even more outward facing with my work and I now have an even greater interest in how social and mental health affect our views on climate change and its perception within political theater.

JW: What specific steps have you taken as a ceramic sculptor and maker to mitigate your environmental impact?

DA: Most steps I take to mitigate my impact as an artist are through offsetting my consumption in other areas of my life. I drive as little as possible and walk or take public transit, something easy to do in my new urban home. I also try to limit the amount of meat I consume as there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that factory farm processes have a severe impact on the environment. Within my work itself, I constantly try to reconfigure older work or pieces that didn’t feel ready to exhibit when I made them and combine them in new ways that feel fresh. I tend not to cull too much of my sculptural work and hold onto them until I find a use for them. Most of the time my demo pieces from workshops or teaching serve as experiments for combining forms, such is the case with my piece Nilohuki/Molohuki which combined a demo coil pot and two sculptures that didn’t make it into my final thesis show.

JW: Are you satisfied with what you can do as a ceramic artist to alleviate your concerns about ecological catastrophes?

DA: Overall, it’s hard not to be a bit cynical about my impact as a ceramic artist. Much of what I discuss surrounding my work feels hypocritical as I convert raw earth that has taken millions of years to develop and then convert it into permanent ceramic which will then take perhaps the same amount of time to decompose. Compound that with the knowledge of the sometimes vast distances these materials travel and the often irresponsible mining practices that procure them as well as using fossil fuels to finish them off, the negative aspects of consumption seem very dire. I understand, however, that you can trace much of these same processes to any part of our daily life and the scale of my ceramic consumption often pales in comparison. I think much of my thoughts surrounding consumption stem from the closeness and abstract kinship I feel to clay and all of its stages. These thoughts often freeze me up in the studio but I also think about how much more mindful I’ve become with my work and that drives me forward to continue making, even if the pace is sometimes painfully slow. I’ve never wanted my work to be about making people feel awful about consuming anything, least of all clay, but an awareness of the materials we use and the means we take to acquire them I believe can make us more mindful and perhaps more imaginative when it comes to the future and how we move forward.

JW: On your functional work, I’m picking up several surface decoration themes (skulls/skeletons, eye symbols, & landscape elements). Can you tell me more about the origin and repeated use of those elements? 

DA: In many ways, the illustrations of my functional work are continuations and extensions of my printmaking work. There’s something special about drawing on clay, especially porcelain, that drives me to think about how I divide and fill the space. Skeletons are usually my way of striking a sense of memento mori, a reminder of death, but I try not to make them overly morbid and try to make them slightly humorous when I can. Eyes and clouds have been my default patterns and void fillers, there’s something about both motifs that enable me to work quickly and imbue a sense of the ethereal with them, something I haven’t really pinned down conceptually.

My landscapes are almost always fully imagined and drawn directly on my surfaces with little to no planning. My father grew up in Jackson Hole, WY, and my mother grew up right outside the west gate of Yellowstone in Gardiner, MT; in combination with my experiences growing up in Alaska, I’ve always had a deep connection to vast, open landscapes. I also love the atmospheric paintings of Chinese artists like Fan Kuan, the Romantic Era paintings of European and American artists like Caspar David Friedrich and Thomas Cole, as well as Japanese manga artists like Katsuhiro Otomo. These influences among many others drive me to make functional work that is labour intensive, atmospheric, and accessible.

JW: What would you like people to know about your sculptural work? 

DA: My sculptural work is driven by my need to express myself and viewpoints in deeply conceptual ways. Every part of them has some degree of meaning, especially the materials I choose to support them like salvaged, untreated wood and polystyrene insulation foam, the latter began as a pun with my thesis work titled Winter Kept Us Warm, a nod to a line in T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Wasteland”, and the view I was trying to express that we often “insulate” ourselves from knowledge that conflicts with our conceptions of reality.

Even though I attempt to imbue every single component of my sculpture with meaning and/or symbolism, I think they are mostly meant as emotional conduits for the viewers. Generally I hope there’s enough ambiguity within them for people to interact with them on their own terms without needing all of the baggage of meaning I construct for them.  

JW: Where to from here? Any major projects or plans on the horizon?

DA: My focus since graduate school has largely been on teaching both on the community and academic level. Teaching is one of my greatest joys in life and I love developing students’ desire to create thoughtfully, both for themselves and the world around them. I’m currently teaching courses as the Artist in Residence for Harvard Ceramics as well as ceramics courses at Lesley University. I’m looking forward to developing new sculpture classes for both as well as completing a new body of sculptural and functional work. I’m working towards a new shop update for my functional work on my website and making sculpture for my solo show here at Harvard sometime in 2022.

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