The sinuous forms and delicate colors of Ryan LaBar’s industrial-like sculptural work immdiately attracted my eye. Through a conversation, Ryan told me how he came to his process through coursework assignments while earning an MFA at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. He also told me about his studio set in the thriving art community of Jingdezhen, China, where he has been a working sculptor since 2015.
JW: You evolved from a maker of functional vessels into an abstract sculptor. Will you tell me more about that evolution?
RL: Evolution is the correct word, and I remember the day that was the spark to the fire of the new direction. I entered graduate school at UNL (University of Nebraska at Lincoln) with a portfolio of functional pottery and was excited to study under one of my favorite academic potters, Pete Pinnell. UNL has a 3-year program and I was nearly half way through my first year. There was a heavy John Dewey philosophy there and in short; I use an analogy of an artist on his horse. In the first year of the program the artist is knocked off the horse he came in on. The second year he walks alone, searches for another horse, or attempts to get back on his first horse. The third year is a manifestation of the second year’s path.
In that first semester, I was being knocked off the horse I road in on when my professors asked me to throw away all the pots in my studio. Defiantly, I didn’t throw them away, and instead, packed them up in a box set for storage. When I was packing the boxes, I was simply placing the dejected teapots on top of each other in a disorderly manner, I saw something in that pile and decided to not store them and instead, wire and fire them together in a pile. That was the spark to the fire that I continue to stoke daily, 12 years later.
JW: What drove you toward abstraction?
RL: In my opinion, abstraction allows more room for interpretation. Art elicits experience and in order to do so, it should transform the viewer into artist, transitioning the viewer into a creative space allowing for interpretation through experience. I am not saying only abstraction can do this, but it equals the playing field a bit more and rather than interpreting a story through recognizable narratives, it has more opportunity to carve out new interpretive and creative territories of experience.
For me, abstraction allows materiality, phenomenology, and process to speak louder. Content becomes interpretive for both audience and artist, equaling the playing field, as viewer becomes artist.
JW: From what I can tell, your process involves throwing circular bands, bending them into unique shapes and sometimes carving out geometric shapes from the clay bands. Then you assemble the finished clay “parts” into an assembled sculpture. How did you come up with this overall process?
RL: Actually, most of my thrown parts are not bent after throwing them; however I do make a series of wall compositions of thrown and altered bands. I fire the almost honed parts to bisque temperature and build with those parts, supporting the base at certain points with various soft brick constructions. The parts interlock and when subjected to heat, bend, warp and connect through pyroplasticty and the melting of glaze. This process came about as an evolution of trial and error, and I liken it to learning a language.
In pottery, the firing process is somewhat hidden and its action is muted. Any movement in clay or glaze was often considered a fault, where material’s voice was silenced as the object was sent to a seconds pile. I was interested in glaze flow, material softening and bending in the kiln, and decided to let the kiln finish the works and become sculpture.
JW: Have you always worked on a large scale, or has that changed over time?
RL: Actually, I don’t predominantly work on a large scale. I wish I could, but logistics of moving the work prevents such undertakings. I prefer to be in control of all my process from beginning to end, which means, I make work that I can handle by myself. When I have access to larger kilns and assistants, I really like to build large, as scale can create more moments of intimacy.
JW: How carefully do you work out your sculptural designs? Are all these interlinked shapes planned in advance, or is your process fairly spontaneous and intuitive as you work?
RL: Again, I will defer to my process like the development of a language. I create a library of parts. The library contains parts that provide separate duties. Some parts are connectors, some are foundational supports, and others can be used only compositionally. I like to amass a large library of parts before I begin to build my sculptures.
I build somewhat spontaneously, or I prefer to say, intuitively. I liken my process to that of a painter who subconsciously reacts, laying down color and then stepping back to consciously interpret the layer. I will build a sculpture of stacked and interlaced bisque parts and then tweak it at the end to ensure that the imagined movement and connections will orchestrate in a desirable manner. I will then color code each part and deconstruct the sculpture one piece at a time, taking pictures throughout the deconstruction. Then I will glaze according to code and reassemble follow the map of pictures.
I also sit down at the wheel and make parts in a somewhat random and intuitive manner. My library of parts can dictate what I make. If I am out of small cylinders, I make a batch of small cylinders…I never weigh out clay or preplan parts. I let process guide me. It’s a dialogue, a back and forth, between the clay and I. I work best when I am somewhat distracted, listening to a tv show for example, flowing with the direction the clay and my hands want to go. Too much intention is dangerous.
JW: I’m guessing there is some interplay between building your particular vision of a piece and, in firing, the destruction (or at least modification) of that vision as the clay softens and changes shape. Do you find yourself tugged toward one side of that equation or another?
RL: More control / less control? This is a good question and I have to say that there is a balance of courting expectation while leaving room for happenstance. Leaning towards one way or the other will create a sculpture that looks too tight and controlled on one side or too loose and discordant on the other side.
I believe every true creative process carries a space where the creator must let go of conscious control to let the system unfold naturally to become what it is to become. Magic happens in this space. It’s the space where the composer lets the orchestra play the music or the director lets the actors become the story. The artist must leave room for moments of a natural unfolding, and to me, this is the dance and unification of parts under under high heat within the kiln.
JW: I’ve seen color make appearances in some, but certainly not all, of your series. What drives those decisions?
RL: Color, like form, shadow and space, can guide composition. Sculpture has 360 degrees of compositional viewpoints, as opposed to one with a painting. I must consider all angles and their transitions. This is a constant consideration that requires some compromise. Again, it’s a balance. I may be drawn to a color or certain glaze effect on its own and desire to explore it as a contributor to my sculpture’s composition. I guess it depends on the day and mood too.
JW: I understand that you relocated to Jingdezhen, China, in 2014 and set up Lab Artz, your studio and innovation center. Will you tell me more about what you’ve set up there? Are you able to do things in Jingdezhen that you may not be able to do elsewhere?
RL: I was invited to Jingdezhen to make work in the fall of 2015. I was at a new art center and was one of the first artists there. The center wasn’t fully operational at the time, so I couldn’t fire during my first visit. I had to return early 2016 to compose and fire all my parts, and at that time, I had created a large library of parts. I ended up making many sculptures through a longer than expected duration of time. Because I stayed longer, I was introduced, via Instagram of all places, to some hopeful young entrepreneurs who wanted to build a workshop space for tourists. I partnered with them and designed and built Lab Artz.
For the first three years we worked together, and I ended up buying them out in year four, at which time, Lab Artz became my personal studio. My studio is at the heart of Taoxichuan, which has been described as a ceramic Disneyland. I believe it’s the largest art park in the world, as it is still growing (there is phase two construction outside my back door as I type). The campus is filled with studios, galleries, restaurants, hotels, and education centers. A new state of the art glass studio has recently been finished, along with a new materials workshop. You have to come here to see it, as it still blows my mind to this day.
Jingdezhen is the porcelain city. It’s where it all began. The second language is porcelain. I have access to all things clay and for anyone working in porcelain, it’s a mecca. China also has energy and can do attitude. There is a deep connection and appreciation for ceramics. The market for my work has been supportive, as I have placed my work in many collections and site-specific projects. The cost of living is next to nothing and the international community (pre covid) has been stimulating. I recommend anyone who has a love of clay to visit Jingdezhen…Let’s hope the world opens up soon.
You can see more of Ryan’s work on his website. Spend some time here – it’s a wonderful place to get lost.
I’m also linking you to a video of Ryan, showing some of his work process: