Margaret Bohls is an innovative ceramics educator and artist. Her work reflects her deep interest in form as it has been interpreted through history. Margaret teaches in the Ceramics Department at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, NB. I spoke with her about her academic activities as well as her personal work. I was particularly intrigued with the structure of her course on the history of ceramics, and that’s what we discussed first.
JW: Can you give me some background about the history of ceramics course you teach?
MB: It’s interesting how little information there is about historical ceramics and how little we know about the what time frame objects were made in and the circumstances of ceramic production. Art historians don’t typically teach the history of ceramics, and that’s one reason why I am teaching it. I teach it as a studio art class, not an art history class. I lecture, and in addition to lectures students choose particular ceramics objects from history to reproduce during the course. The students do independent study of those objects, both in terms of materials and process, but also in terms of culture and historical context. The course is structured as half lecture and research, and other half is making.
JW: That’s really interesting. I studied Art History and we never had a class like that. Do students try to replicate their chosen object in both material as well as process?
MB: Yes, students try to replicate both the materials and the process of making their object, within the limitations of our studio setting. They can be as extensive in their research as they choose to be. And I encourage that. Some people focus on getting the form just right. Others really focus on replicating the materials and surfaces just right. And some students are more focused on doing the written research about the culture and the people who made the original object. So there are lots of different access points to those selected pieces for the students. I encourage the students to pursue what most interests them, although they all make a piece and write about each piece that they make.
JW: Is that a typical way to study ceramics in a university setting?
MB: No, it isn’t. Especially since the 1950s the idea of copying or replicating a piece of art work has been frowned upon, especially in university art programs. So I took a risk in creating this class. Historically, painters learned by copying and potters also learned by copying. In Japan, for instance, you learn by copying your master’s work until you master it yourself, and then you move on to do your own work. So I think it is a craftsperson’s way of thinking about things, and not necessarily a contemporary art person’s way of thinking about things.
I think this way of educating is very effective. It’s as if my students are apprenticing themselves to an ancient artist in some way. It’s a great way to learn process and technique because there’s such a steep learning curve in learning skills to manipulate ceramic materials. Having to also conceptualize the work at the same time is very difficult, especially for undergraduate students. When we give undergraduate students assignments we see a steady progression of skill and technique. As soon as we stop giving students assignments and they have to develop the idea for the work on their own, there’s always a big drop-off in their work, both in terms of the amount they produce but also in terms of skill. When something is fully conceptualized, it’s actually much easier to make. The hard part is figuring out what the piece is all about, in detail. So this method teaches them the complexity of objects in terms of the thought that’s gone into the form and surface of an object – without having to come up with that concept on their own.
JW: That’s a great segue to your own creative process. Your approach seems to be to study objects – particularly objects of a culture or period – very intently and boil them down into some essence – I think you call it “distilling down to critical visual and formal characteristics.” Can you tell me about that process?
MB: It’s hard to say what I do, exactly. I look in a particular way. It’s the way that I look that’s important. I see very particular things in what I’m studying.
I’m not interested in all aspects of each set of historical things that I’m working from. I’m really looking for a particular aspect of it that I then develop and elaborate on in my studio practice.
“My work is grounded in an abiding interest in historical vessel forms, and in the social context of these objects.” Margaret Bohls
JW: And do those aspects change?
MB: Yes, it does. But it mostly has to do with form and form language. How objects, the form of objects, communicate, and what they communicate – as opposed to surface. Art historians almost always study the surface of ceramic objects – the decoration. I am mostly interested in how forms evolved and the language of form.
JW: You seem to have a very deliberative approach to making, as opposed to an intuitive, spontaneous style.
MB: Well, yes, I do. I’m an academic. I’ve been teaching for over 25 years and before that I was in school. My approach in part has to do with how I teach – the idea is important. I try to develop the idea along with the objects themselves. It’s also a function of how I pay for my research. I have to write long narratives about what I’m going to do before I do it in order to get funding and support from the University. So that forces me to think through in advance.
JW: It seems that you’ve used this research as a way to explore various cultures and places around the world.
MB: Yes, that’s true. It’s very typical thing for academics to do. We get money for travel because it forwards our research. The University supports it because it helps us make international connections which is helpful for our programs and for the University.
JW: I noticed that you work in series. What prompts you to start a series, and do your series ever end?
MB: It’s true. That’s sort of my M.O. My work changes rather drastically on a fairly regular basis. The fun for me is figuring out how to make something in the first place – figuring out the form, figuring out the surface, getting it to communicate what I want it to communicate, and development. Once I’ve “perfected it” (in my mind) and answered the questions I originally had, then it doesn’t hold much interest for me anymore.
So some of my former series have lasted longer than others. Sometimes that is because it’s what I became known for and that’s what the galleries that were selling my work wanted or people who hired me to teach workshops expected me to do.
My last couple of series of work, the porcelain pieces, I was well over those pieces before I stopped making them. It took the support of the University (I changed jobs and came to the University of Nebraska) to wrap that up. Number one, I didn’t have enough time in my schedule to make functional pottery in the way that a studio practice requires. So I switched to more sculptural work which I could do more episodically. And importantly, I didn’t need to be selling that work. I’ve allowed myself to switch and I’m slowly finding venues for my new work.
JW: What’s next for you?
MB: I just did a series on Etruscan forms and had that exhibition at the Museum of Nebraska Art. That’s more sculptural work. I have been invited to participate in the Saint Croix pottery tour in Minnesota next spring, so I’m now in the process of adapting those sculptural forms and some of my previous forms from the Modernist Series into functional pots. Summer was a very productive time for me in the studio because I could go there and work every day. Now I’ll start working on surface designs for those forms.
More of Margaret’s work can be viewed on her website.