Stuart Gair – Artist Profile

I’m attracted to the stark, almost Spartan, forms of Stuart Gair’s pottery. He simplifies forms, driving that simplification further and further towards abstraction. He leaves surface decoration to the vagaries of soda firing (although he tells me he carefully places each pot in the kiln to achieve certain surface effects). The results are meditative, almost Zen-like objects of tremendous visual interest.

JW: You have simplified forms – but quite a few different forms (e.g., vase, teapot, globes, spaghetti jar, etc). Where do you come up with ideas for these different forms – especially the more unique ones like spaghetti jars, envelope vases, folded vases?

SG: Ideas for forms come from many different places. Always thinking about sculptural qualities such as balance, edge, light, shadow, minimalism, and how the object occupies space. All the while, trying to balance everything with function and how its used.

It’s important for me that the piece functions but I often try to challenge conventional forms and ask the user to think differently.

Particular examples are the vases I’ve been working on such as the envelope vases and the box vases with the small opening. The idea is to pack the vase with flowers so they stand upright and don’t droop over the vessel. This way, both are elevated. The opening is a particular size to constrict/highlight the green stems and kind of frame them with the grey pot. So that’s something I’m always thinking about.

I tend to look at older Japanese and Korean pots, Mid Century (American and British and Scandinavian) ceramics, glass, and metal objects for inspiration. Also, any sculpture and geologic inspiration from the world around me here in Colorado.

JW: You say your forms are influenced by a study of Scandanavian and Shaker design. Have you always worked with these sources of influence or did that evolve over time?

SG: I started off looking at a lot of American pots from the early 19th century and that informed a lot of my forms. I worked at a historical reenactment village in Ohio called Hale Farm. I dug my own clay there, fired my first gas kilns and learned a lot about making through repetition of producing historically accurate wares.

JW: You list a long list of exhibitions on your website – and appear to do many shows each year (I count 19 in 2015 alone). How do you approach exhibitions and shows? Are they primarily vehicles to sell your work or market yourself?

SG: Earlier on, I applied to shows to get my work out there. I wanted people to see what I was making on more than a local scale. Now I pretty much only do exhibitions that Im invited to . Other than the solo shows, theyve never been about selling work…more about getting it out there in the world. Most income comes from online sales, commissions, and workshops.

JW: You’ve also participated in a number of residencies. How are the different residency programs different (or are they different)?

SG: They’re all different and I have highly valued my time at those residencies. Early on, I was the Salad Days artist at Watershed where it was my task to complete 500 plates for an annual fundraiser (salad days) the following summer. This experience taught me the value of routine and repetition while working with clay. Without that experience, I would not have nearly as much discipline in the studio. Was also my first residency and I met so many people while there that I’m still friends with and we’ve been able to help each other out in many ways, both personally and professionally.

I went to Harvard which was more of a teaching residency and very demanding of my time in that regard. I loved it. I was able to teach a lot of different classes and there were a lot of professors from other fields that were taking my classes which was really interesting because of what they brought to the table. Whether History, anthropology, geologists, et cetera. Each one had a different take on clay in general and their approach and insights were always fascinating.

Archie Bray was also a very different experience in that it was a totally immersive experience and it was the first time I could focus solely on my own studio practice and the evolution of my work. Also became much more business oriented during my time there. Learned a lot from my cohorts and visiting artists who came through once a month. Taught me how to be self sufficient and has been a driving force for my decision to leave academia and pursue a career as a studio potter next year.

JW: Can you tell me about your process?

SG: Most forms are thrown and altered either by paddling, pushing, or cutting. However, I often use molds for forms like my plates, pitchers, and folded dishes. I’ve also begun slip casting recently. The soda firing process is a huge part of my work, While many artists spend ample time carving, drawing, or glazing their work, my surface decoration comes from meticulous placement of each pot in the kiln. It is important that each firing is only my work because particular pieces are created to be paired with other pieces in the kiln and in particular locations. I typically draw rough sketches of how the pieces will be placed in the kiln prior to loading.

More examples of Stuart’s pottery can be found on his website.

Ben Carter’s Tribute to Michael Simon

This morning I listened to Ben Carter’s podcast “Tribute to Michael Simon” (episode 389). The original recording was in 2014, and Ben recast it this week because Michel recently passed away.

I was very, very impressed with the podcast interview. I highly recommend it. Seriously, take an hour walk and listen to this as you stroll along. The reflections captured, the self-doubt and yet strong confidence will bolster your soul.

Ben Carter is outstanding at eliciting interesting ideas in a casual conversational manner, something I tried to point out in my own interview with Ben Carter in February 2021. What are equally impressive here are the comments and observations of Michael Simon. I found Michael intelligent, curious, hard-working and vulnerable throughout the interview.

Here are a few images of Michael’s pots I found online. They just scratch the surface of this artist’s body of work, since he worked for decades. Many more can be found with a search online.

George Rodriguez – Artist Profile

George Rodriguez is a Seattle-based ceramic sculptor who creates large-scale pieces and environments that reflect his personal journey and also reference his Mexican-American heritage. George grew up in El Paso, TX, and spent time in his youth in both El Paso and Ciudad Juarez across the border in Mexico, visiting family.

I love the sense of scale that permeates George’s work. I sense monumentality both in the physical size of his pieces, but also in the character of much of his work. I’m reminded of ancient cultures that used large sculptures as architectural elements to reflect the grandeur and power of their civic or religious function.

George sent me some photos of his workspace that highlight the physical size of some pieces.

You can get a sense of how George combines these large-scale pieces to create ceramic “environments” in an article describing George’s 2019 show entitled “Reflect and Gather” in Seattle. (Two images from the show are displayed below).

Photo by James Hamois
Photo by James Hamois

JW: Have you always worked at large scale? What attracted you to large pieces?

GR: I’ve always enjoyed working large. In undergrad at the University of Texas El Paso, I worked to the limitations of the largest kiln. I would make these 3ft tall figures. This is before I really knew about making things in sections.  I enjoyed the engineering of the sculpture and the challenge of making the clay balance. In grad school at the University of Washington, they had a kiln I could stand in. I took that as a challenge and my first sculpture was a large matador boy figure. Since then, I learned a lot about large scale ceramics. I love how physical it is and that it involves my entire body. I love the planning it takes to map a large-scale piece and figure out the steps to make it happen. I love that I need to exercise patience and listen to what the clay needs. I have definitely been rushed and lost my fair share of work.

JW: You have a series called “Urban Guardians” consisting of multiple heads and multiple bodies. Viewers are able to move the heads around, exchanging 1 head for another on a body. Where did you come up with that idea of “interactive” or participatory sculpture?

GR: The series for Urban Guardians came together in 2019 and 2020. The title stemmed from two large sculptures (a rat and a pigeon) that I wanted to display prominent and regal. I was thinking about the way we interact with monuments and how the viewers perceptions are changed by the artists. Rats and Pigeons are often seen as pests, but I wanted to change the narrative to them being resilient and worthy of display.  

I was also thinking about the complexity of people and how our taste, emotions, convictions are always changing. This led me to want to give the viewers more power in creating their own small monument. One day I might want to see a skull head on the sphynx, while the next day I want to see a luchador head instead. I also think that when the viewer has the ability to create and make decisions, they will look closer at the many options available and maybe discover something new. Plus who doesn’t want to touch the art in a gallery.

JW: You have another project involving participation of different artists. Will you tell me about that project, El Zodiaco Familiar?

GR: El Zodiaco Familiar has been in the works for about 3 years. This is the fifth series in the reinterpretation of the Chinese Zodiac into a Mexican zodiac. In an homage to its origins in Chinese folklore, I wanted to reimagine the classic zodiac animals as analogous creatures of Mexican origin, and thus bridging cultures and creating new narratives. I always planned for the last series to be a collaboration with other artists that identify as Mexican or Chicanx/e. I wanted to include artists that work outside of the ceramic discipline.

Included in the collaboration are painters, photographers, poets, tattoo artist, animators, potters, political cartoonist, printmakers, jewelers, mixed media and installation artists.  Each artist has imbued their collaboratively-imagined sculpture, corresponding to the zodiac animal of their birth year, with personal perspective, folk tradition, and an intimate feeling of celebration. 

I was curious how the 13 artists in the collaboration would react to their given animal. While each sculpture is as distinct as its maker, taken together, the twelve pieces vibrate with deep resonances of the familiar. Each collaboration was unique as the artists lived across the US with one artist living in Mexico. There were a lot of conversations, and no two collaborations worked the same. Some artist came to my Seattle studio and worked in person, while others received the work in the post and shipped it back when done. It’s been one of my favorite series to work on because it is about community building and I feel like I gained some good friendships.

JW: You grew up in El Paso, studied at UTEP and frequently visited relatives in Mexico. Are you familiar with the ceramics from Paquime (also called Casas Grandes)? There are some things in your work that remind me of some of the spirit vessels from Paquime.

GR: I am very familiar with Paquime. As an undergrad student, my professor Vince Burke took a handful of students to Paquime for a 4-day trip to work with one of the Quezada brothers. This is when I found out where this beautiful pottery came from. We worked with some low fire clay and learned a few techniques. It was a fun trip of discovery.

I grew up in the southwest in a very Mexican household in El Paso TX and there is some imagery on that pottery that was part of my daily life. I think that some of those symbols and spirits are passed on through family and ancestry. I feel like the art from this region is in my blood.

JW: You’ve said that you work is about you trying to portray yourself, and your self-image is always evolving. Can you point me to some pieces that represent some of those different sides of your heritage and personality?

GR: I like to create self-portraits because they act as time markers. My first sculpture in beginning ceramics was a portrait of me with puzzle pieces. In grad school, I made my portrait into a large ceramic piñata.  After the 2016 Presidential election, I created a self-portrait that presented my emotions in “State of the Union”.  

Most recently, “Seven Indulgences” is a large urn with my portrait and my sins.

When I’m not being completely literal and adding my face, I lean on my Mexican heritage to represent me and the ideas I want to present. The Quinceañera dress has made an appearance multiple times and represents my family because my mother is a seamstress and would make my sisters dresses. The luchador shows up as a guardian and the cactus as my home.

One of the biggest impacts in my work happened because I had the opportunity to travel the world in 2010 in thanks to a fellowship I received in grad school. This Bonderman Travel Fellowship expanded my world view and allowed me to realize how interconnected we are as humans on a global scale. I was able to make connections of imagery from cultures that were separated by vast distance across oceans. I am not only Mexican and from the US, I am a global member that can share traditions and cultures that are not only the ones I grew up in.

JW: Can you tell me something about your process? You work in such large scale I’ve got to imagine you sketch out ideas about a piece before you start building. How much of your work is planned in advance, and how much spontaneous?

GR: I plan a lot before I start on a sculpture or a series. I usually start with research and conversations with people. My work references historical sculpture, different cultures, and social political issues. I want to make sure that I’m not appropriating and misrepresenting any imagery I might use. After research comes drawings and sketches. I sketch different angles of more complicated sculptures but mostly I use the sketches for scale. I mark out the height and width to reference while building. The slab work is the easy part. I build hollow with interior support structures depending on the sculpture. My spontaneity come with my use of sprig ornamentation. I go in with an idea but that could change to contour the form better or to add different meaning. After bisque firing, glazing is like paint by numbers. I want the colors to add yet another layer of information.

Museo de las Americas

There is a small museum just getting started in Denver, CO called “Museo de las Americas.” The Museo was founded in 1991. It celebrates Latino art and culture.

Part of the Museo’s collection are a few pre-Hispanic ceramic pieces from what is now Mexico. Although not a large collection, and perhaps because it’s not a large collection, I found myself pausing to look closely at some of the forms: hunchbacks, warriors, zoomorphic vessels. The detailing is exquisite, as with the beads and surface decoration on this figurine of a dancer from the Colima culture.

Note to the left the dancer’s mask, which is detachable from the figurine. Notes from the Museo explain that dance was an important part of ritual in this ancient culture (which thrived around 500 CE). Clay figures like this document dance performance and are thought to serve some educational function. The Museo tells us that “themes of duality are inextricable from everyday life in ancient America. When the dancer dons the mask, they are transported to a liminal space, where they are both, yet neither, the dancer and the spiritual figure they are impersonating. This spirit-human hybrid is what the artwork strives to embody.”

Another example I enjoyed was this hunchback figurine, also from Colima (100-250 CE). Vessels representing hunchback figures are believed to represent dwarfs or shamans.

Again, this is a modest collection of ceramics, but I enjoyed the items. Here are a few additional items for your viewing pleasure.

Ceramic Decals – Enduring Images

Enduring Images is a Colorado-based company that produces ceramic decal printing systems as well as well as offering their own printing equipment to print custom decals for customers. I spoke with this company about their products and services. They walked me through their product line and how potters can use this technology for artistic purposes.

Mitchell Spain – ceramic “cans” using decals printed on an Enduring Images’ printer

Enduring Images modifies certain types of digital printing equipment to apply inorganic pigments to ceramic surfaces. These inorganic pigments will not fade over time, even when exposed to UV rays and prolonged sunlight. Most commercial printers use organic pigments, which will fade over time. While there are a few commercially available printers that contain iron oxide in the black toner, Enduring Images’ equipment allows users to use the full spectrum of colors.

Customers can purchase the printers themselves (for example ceramic artists Mitchell Spain and Mariko Paterson, discussed below). Alternatively, clients can send Enduring Images their digital photographs or graphics files and Enduring Images will print and apply decals onto ceramic surfaces.

The largest customer group using these printing services are tombstone makers. They send digital photographs to Enduring Images and the company prints those images onto round, oval or square ceramic tiles for mounting on tombstones. Photographic images of the deceased that don’t fade over time are a significant product improvement for tombstone monument-makers.

Other commercial clients use these printing services for tiles and other architectural ceramics. Many customers also hire Enduring Images to manufacture their custom-printed dinnerware. A few examples follow.

Of more interest to me, personally, are the artists who are tapping into Enduring Images’ commercial printing products to create interesting ceramics. I will highlight two artists here.

Mitchell Spain

Mitchell Spain is an amazingly creative ceramic artist in rural Iowa. He grew up on a farm, and passed time rummaging through the detritus left behind successive generations of farmers. His trompe l’oeil techniques incorporate that imagery from rural America, particularly imagery of discarded and decaying automotive products, into his work. In the video below (from the Enduring Images website), he describes how he uses an Enduring Images printer to create decals for his work.

Mitchell looks to be rolling out a line of customizable decals for placement on various ceramic forms he makes. You can see more information on his website. Here are a few images of his earlier pieces:

Mitchell Spain – small flask
Mitchell Spain – large flask
Mitchell Spain – mugs

Mariko Paterson

I absolutely love Mariko’s energy and enthusiasm, evident right as you view her Forage Studios website (“Expect the unexpected and whenever possible be the unexpected”):

Mariko explains in this video (again from Enduring Images’ website) how she adds decals to her ceramic work:

I encourage you to explore Mariko’s world – which includes some super-creative elements like her “Eat, Clay, Love” project. Here are a couple of images of her work, one showing printed decals, nicked from her website:

Mariko Paterson
Mariko Paterson

More information on Enduring Images’ products and services is available on their website. I visited their offices in Golden, CO, a few months ago and was impressed with their openness. Mary Beth Manwiller, CEO, invited me over and I ended up speaking with Ron Manwiller, COO, for over an hour about the chemistry and engineering of these printers. I was genuinely impressed with how Enduring Images wants to help ceramic artists to incorporate digital imagery into ceramics – and use available technology to sustain their livelihoods.

Lindsay Montgomery – Artist Profile

Lindsay Montgomery’s work punches pretty hard, there’s no doubt about it. She decorates her surfaces with narratives that harken back to historical periods and themes. She draws liberally from the past, and reformulates it into a contemporary vision. Her work is fun, vibrant, intriguing, irreverent, and memorable.

JW: In an earlier interview you describe your work as “neoisotriato” – drawing off 16th century Italian ceramics. Do you replicate techniques of that period in your process? Or do you refer mainly to the type of decoration and forms you employ?

LM: Yes, my neoistoriato works are made just as they were in the renaissance. I love Maiolica because it was invented to be a cheap knockoff of Chinese porcelain. It’s made with humble terra-cotta low-fire clay coated in tin-glaze so it can be painted and look like porcelain. It was sort of the knock off Louis Vitton handbag of its time, and I love that lower-class quality of it because I’m working class.

The historical forms are sumptuous and right for this kind of painting style so I riff on the historical works of not just Istoriato ware from Italy, but also French faience, Dutch delftware and English Staffordshire and other factory pieces. I like when the form and function of a piece adds to the story happening on the surface painting. Right now, I’m making censors with hell and hellmouth imagery, and I love how the smoke billowing out when they are in use adds authenticity and magic to the imagery.

JW: I’m also reminded of Bernard Palissy in some of the handles on your platters. Has he been an influence on your work?

LM: Oh absolutely yes! I love Palissy’s work because it kind of bridges the whole Maiolica to Majolica evolution of European tin-glazed earthenware. It’s beautifully painted and focused on the plate like the Italian Maiolica of the renaissance, but also has all the sculptural elements and juicy glazes that exemplify English Majolica from the 19th century. I also love the story of Palissy as an artist. His work was really punk-rock and genuinely freaked people out to the point where he became a pariah in society. He was an artist way ahead of his time. Snakes and the symbol of the serpent play a huge role in the forms and meaning behind my work as well, so Palissy’s work offers endless inspiration for the patterns and forms of snakes.

JW: How has the social turmoil caused by Covid influenced your work? I would think there are lots of stories that arose from the pandemic.

LM: My exhibition Year of the Flood that took place in 2021 in Quebec, was all about my experiences and feelings throughout the pandemic. My work feels extra urgent these days, and renaissance imagery is full of floods and fires and plague, so it’s eerie at times, the warnings of this moment we are living through have been there all along.

It’s really exciting to make the connections and find an image to work with that feels so perfect, and might have the power to help turn the direction we’re heading as a species.

JW: How has your work evolved since you started this type of neoisotraito painting in 2015? I’m seeing a lot of decorative elements like handles on your 2021 urns – and perhaps some large scale work.

LM: Yes for sure the pieces are getting larger and more ambitious in the painting and form as the series evolves. I think also in terms of the imagery that has gone through quite an evolution as well. When I started this series it was really about taking these historical images and re-arranging them to say what I wanted to say, or sometimes just showing it as it was so make a point about humanities lack of spiritual or moral evolution since the renaissance, where now I feel like I have been drawing these figures and this world for so long that I can create any scene I want.

The imagery has become its own world in my imagination that I can mine, and my hand is much quicker at translating my ideas.

JW: What about plans for the future? Do you have new directions you may take (process, forms, topics) in mind to explore?

LM: I’m excited to have a couple of residencies coming up where I can explore larger-scale works that would be too challenging to complete at my studio in Toronto. I’ve been working on a lot of individual pieces or series of pieces recently and I’m starting to think about something more specific. I have fantasies about being given a really specific historical space to respond to.

JW: You started off as a painter and that foundation is very evident in your ceramic work. Do you ever see yourself working as a “traditional” painter again? Or are there elements of ceramics that you can’t walk away from?

LM: I think at the end of the day I am a painter first, and all the reasons I got into ceramics were from a painter’s perspective. These days I don’t think too much about medium or catagories, in some ways what I am doing is working way more in a sphere of “traditional” painters then most of the painters I know.

I feel like I’m a painter and a sculptor, and when I make plates I’m tapping deeper into the painter, and when I make figurative work it’s more about the 3D. Who knows what the future holds, but I’m feeling good and satisfied with my process at this present moment and just wake up each day excited to continue on with my work.

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

LM: I guess that there is a story behind each piece. I’m experimenting more with this recently, as social media gives me the opportunity to share the myriad of sources and images that make up a piece. It’s nice to be able to tell those stories with the work in a way that doesn’t feel stuffy or didactic, but more the casual way I would speak to someone about it at an opening or gathering.

More of Lindsay’s work may be seen at Cargocollecive.com/lindsaymontgomery.

Leah Sandals did an interview with Lindsay for CanadianArts, which you can find here. Maakemagazine, an online magazine, included another interview with Lindsay here.

NCECA profiled Lindsay as an emerging artist in 2019. An article (including a short video of a speech by Lindsay) is available here.

Susan O’Byrne – Artist Profile

Susan O’Byrne employs richly patterned, mosaic-like designs on the surfaces of her ceramic sculptures of animals. It’s an interesting interplay of sculptural mass and ephemeral decoration. Susan studied tapestry as well as ceramics and that body of knowledge is evident in her work. Her work sets a quiet, contemplative tone.

Susan shared some information about her process, craftsmanship in general, and some of the stories behind the animals she portrays in her work.

JW: Can you share a little about your process?

SO: I begin with wire armature is made from iron-chrome, nichrome or Chantal wire (the stuff of kiln elements)

Once I’ve made a wire armature, I cover each wire with paper rods before hanging the armature from a frame. I make clay legs and attach these to the armature, and cover the whole form in sheets of a stoneware paper-clay body, much like working in paper-mâché. The paper rods allow for some shrinkage of the clay (onto the wire) during drying and when they burn away in the firing, create more space for further shrinkage during vitrification.

The stoneware paper-clay has been formulated to roughly the same shrinkage as the paper-porcelain I use as a second and modelling layer on each work before covering the forms in the patterned paper-porcelain layer.

In later years I have dispensed with the wire armature for smaller works. Instead, I make models from paper mâché or clay, make moulds, cast these in paper-porcelain slip, alter them, then add the patterns on the surface before firing.

JW: That is a unique way to work. How did you come to it?

SO: I studied art at Edinbugh College of Art, Scotland. At that time Edinburgh (ECA) was considered a more traditional art school than others, in the sense that it placed a very high emphases (and grade) on drawing in its many forms. I believe it was felt that drawing could lead students towards investigating ideas and aesthetics in quick diverse and accessible ways while also introducing students to the traditionally distinct concerns of the various principles of design, painting, sculpture and illustration. I have to admit I never cared much for painting (it was too soft) but loved line, its hardness, its expressive potential I loved paper. This led me to an interest in early and mid-20th century European and American expressionist artists like Egon Schiele and Larry Rivers, collage and mark-making. The idea of Oskar Kokoschka’s costume designs for his play “Murder Hope of Women” where nerves were painted on the surface of actor’s bodies, was a particularly influential image for me in the way it conveyed a type of painful sensitivity.

From here, I began to find ways to build, so that inner workings of the subject or animal could be traced on its surface. In much the same way as I began drawing with pencil and collage on paper, I found that I could build with wire and collage with paper-clay in 3 dimensions. At that time, I also enjoyed the unpredictability of the process. The wire armatures presented me (once covered with clay) with forms that were less contrived than I felt I could make using more traditional hand building methods.

These concerns are however less relevant to my making of late as I find myself more interested in surface and hopefully quieter /stiller forms in general.

JW: Are you using printed underglaze transfers (like those made by Isla Transfers) on your porcelain paper-clay? Or do you hand-make the patterned pieces you then transfer onto paper-clay?

SO: I refer to the patterns I use on my surfaces as a veneer because they are made from patterned sheets of paper porcelain, usually less than 1 mm thick, which cover all or most of the surface of forms. I don’t use decals but make pattered laser/plotter or hand cut stencils, and create the patterned sheets of clay by working back to front on plaster batts.

I use the stencils to first print slip onto plaster batts. The printed slip has a thickness and allows me to sometimes flood areas between the raised pattern on the plaster with other colours. At that point I build up the thickness of the clay slip on the batt (to about 1mm) It dries very quickly, and when at leather hard I can pull the patterns sheet from the batt. Because the initial printed slip has a thickness it is not just on the surface of the sheet but operates a bit like an encaustic tile offering a kind of visual depth to the pattern and allowing sanding at a finished stage without losing the decoration.

The paper in the slip grants enough strength to make these sheets very thin and also permits them to be applied to a dry paper-clay form. I make several sheets of pattern before cutting them up to collage the surface of an animal or birds. Dryer paper-clay sheets can we rehydrated with care and used months or even years after making them.

JW: What attracted you to ceramics as an art form in the first place? (vs more ‘traditional’ sculptural media or even papier mache?)

SO: I can’t say I was particularly attracted to clay from an early age, but I’ve always loved to make things I would become very excited as a child by the idea that I could make any toy I wished for from the contents of a cupboard (occasionally, I’m sure, to the annoyance of who ever owned the cupboard).

I grew up in a family of makers, by grandmother was always sewing and mending, my great aunt was an artist and made puppets, my dad built our house himself and thought me to use power tools very early on.

When I left secondary (high) school I studied for a year at Grennan Mill Craft School in Co. Killkenny, Ireland. It was a very practical course including subjects like ceramics, tapestry, weaving, jewellery, silversmithing, batik, printmaking drawing and patchwork. I loved the discipline of craft, of developing an understanding of material, what materials could and sometimes didn’t want to do and learning to appreciate the skill, patience and sensitivity involved of any craft.

I went on to study sculpture, but now realise I quickly became overwhelmed and confused by the broadness of that discipline. I knew I wanted to learn a practical skill in depth, but didn’t know where to start. I found it difficult to begin with a concept (which was the principle of the course) and then choose a material to work with.

I elected to switch schools (to ECA in Scotland) and to ceramics as a medium, initially to learn about a specific material and the skills involved in working with that material. In a sense, choosing to study in a material-based course, framed my direction for me and allowed me to investigate what I could make within a specific tradition.

I think that I was also aware of the community that ceramics attracted and enjoyed being part of that club.

Once I had some understanding of clay, I realised that I could draw on, as well as reference my interest in craft in my own practice. I believe that an interest in tapestry, textiles, mosaic, bricolage, historic and domestic crafts continues to inform what I make today.

JW: Some of your pieces carry underlying links to ancestry and family lineage (e.g., Five Sisters and a Family Tree). Can you tell me more about the background stories of your work?

SO: “Five Sisters and a Family Tree” reference my maternal ancestry, a clock making family who migrated to Ireland from the Black Forrest in 1860 (a very unusual time to move to Ireland as it was a period of mass immigration away from Ireland largely because of the great famine).

Growing up in the company of my grandmother and my grandmothers’ sisters, stories and names of this ancestry were often the topic of conversation at home. Their names were spoken often then but are less so now. The stories were however written down in my great aunt Ursula’s in written memoirs of her life.

Acknowledging the important part the ancestors and stories had in my imagination, and my identity, I chose to represent them as animals who were “exotic to me” in ” A Family Tree” (An installation of 50 ceramic animal portraits with name plates. The activity of examining and of making “new” faces, provided me with a process to discover / reimagine characters in an intimate way, while celebrating the individual lives by speaking these names again.

Needle point patterns on the surface of the animal heads represent the consistent practice of sewing and textiles among the elderly women of my family who told these stories, and how their interest in patient careful making and mending became influential to me.

The “Five sisters” from the same exhibition represented my grandmother and her sisters, as deer from the Black Forrest. Each deer incorporates a “blanket” on their surface which hopes to celebrate the individual I knew. The decoration of these deer evolved from my grandmother and her sisters needlework patterns as well as 19th century white work samplers in the collection of the V&A [Victoria and Albert Museum in London].

JW: Is it possible to take one of your pieces and discuss it in more depth and detail? The story behind the piece, ways you’ve incorporated references to that story, decisions you make along the way, etc?

SO: I often make my work in series, and while the work “Five Sisters and a Family Tree” have a very specific and personal story, some of my works were initially made and have meaning as collections or part of a collection.

I am interested in the ways animals in their capacity for diversity have been used as metaphors to order and make sense of our world. These ideas also have roots in my own childhood. When I was about 3 years old, I would hunt the house every Sunday, for a small plastic animal that had arrived (my magic) for me the find.

I soon had a large collection of plastic animals, that I loved to sort out between the tiles of the kitchen floor.

Sorting was the best part of that game and was an introduction to me to the role animals have for children in the cognition and understanding of the world. I recognise that animals, particularity pets can be a comfort to children (being similarly outside the complicated concerns of adulthood) who are learning about the world. I noticed also how the naming of animals in zoos or museums can be an aid to cognition in children and animals can personify and simply complex themes or emotions in stories. By extension I am curious about catalogues made of animals in medieval times to explain philosophical or religious teachings and how/ why they were collected in the Victorian era.

With these ideas in mind and in reference to medieval bestiaries I made a collection of 20 animals for a touring solo show. I developed my patterning technique in the creation of these animals which were decorated with designs taken from the encaustic tiles of medieval church floors. At that time, I also made a collection 100 birds of the British Isles which referenced Victorian menageries and were decorated with Victorian wallpaper patterns. The birds were displayed in labelled cabinets as a collection.

In short, I make animals but they are not intended to be direct interpretations of real animals. Instead, I aim to create animals that reference us, our relationship with and our curiosity about them. I would like my works to look as if they have been made by someone at some time in the past for some particular reason or function. My hope is that, like a museum object, they may instil some curiosity from the viewer while attempting to capture, distil and reflect a little of our own humanity.

Photographs of Susan O’Byrne’s studio are available on a blog post from the Pink Pagoda Studio.

From Pink Pagoda Studio (http://pinkpagodastudio.blogspot.com/2015/10/susan-obyrne.html)

Ben Carter interviewed Susan on his Tales of a Red Clay Rambler. The interview is here.

Susan’s website contains more examples of her work.

ASU’s Ceramics Research Center

Arizona State University has a “Ceramics Research Center” on it’s Tempe, AZ campus. I reached out to Amanda Urrea, Communications Program Coordinator at the ASU Art Museum to ask her some questions. (A special call-out to Amanda – she finished these responses just as she was heading out on maternity leave.)

JW: What types of ceramic research is conducted at the ASU Ceramic Research Center? 

AU: We have an extensive archive collection at the Ceramics Research Center. We have collections from Susan H Peterson, Don Reitz, Herbert Sanders and the Studio Potter Publication and original materials. We have curators, researchers, writers and students that come from all over the US to use these primary sources to aid in their publications, curatorial research and student dissertations. For those who can’t come to the physical space, we have people reach out globally to have materials scanned and digitized for their research.

An example of research using the archives:

Koki Tanka and Kumie Tsuda are the first visual artists to work with the ASU Art Museum’s Ceramic Research Center archives, specifically focusing on the archive of artist and historian Susan Peterson. Both artists were influenced by the correspondence between Peterson and Japanese ceramic artist Shōji Hamada. Sifting through ephemera, photography and film, Tanaka has created a new experimental video titled “Mashiko, Arizona,” based on the relationship between Peterson and Hamada.

JW: What is your source of funding?

AU: Like most museums in the US, our sources of funding come from a diverse set of revenue streams that include government, foundation, individual contributions and some earned income. We heavily rely on individuals and foundations to support the important work of stewardship of the collections and presentation of new art.

JW:  I read that the majority of the CRC’s permanent collection is accessible to people in open storage. What’s involved in accessing that part of the collection as a member of the public? 

AU: One of the unique spaces at the Ceramics Research Center is the open storage. It is available all year round and open for view to the public. We have over 800 objects in the space to view. This is about 20% of the ceramic collection. We have handouts to use as you walk through the space identifying the artists and object information. The open storage objects are placed chronologically starting with the 1950’s to current.

JW: Is any portion of the CRC collection accessible online?  Are there plans to expand that offering? 

AU: You can view works from a past traveling exhibition, “Innovation and Change,” the most comprehensive selection of works from the ASU Art Museum Ceramics Research Center collection: https://asuartmuseum.asu.edu/collections/ceramics 

[Note: the images you have to click to see the works are located in a thin horizontal line when I view this site. Click somewhere on the line and a pop-up viewer will appear with larger images that you can scroll through.]

With a major grant from the Virginia G. Piper Foundation, we are currently in phase one of digitizing highlights of the museum’s permanent collection. Our goal for the next phase is to make these digital images available through our website, the ASU Library and in teaching tools.

There are also images online from our Susan H. Peterson Archive Collection. Susan Harnly Peterson (1925-2009) was a world-renowned ceramic artist, writer and professor. Her book publications include: Shoji Hamada: A Potter’s Way and Work, the Craft and Art of Clay, and The Living Tradition of Maria Martinez. A selection of these archives from these artists are here: https://asuartmuseum.asu.edu/research-and-initiatives/ceramics-research-archive/images-from-our-susan-harnly-peterson-ceramic-research-archives 

We are actively exploring grant opportunities as the next phase of the archives is the digitization of the materials so they can be accessible online, providing global access to technical, critical and historical information.

Our library collection houses over 3,000 titles of rare exhibition catalogues, books, periodicals and media. The collection includes personal library collections of Susan Peterson, Ralph Bacerra, Harry Dennis and James & Nan McKinnell. You can access our library database online: https://www.librarything.com/catalog/ASUCRC 

JW: Is the CRC collection integrated in any way with academic programming at ASU? 

AU: The Ceramics Research Center has a close relationship with the students at the School of Art. Faculty bring their classes in to sketch, utilize the classroom for lectures, collaborate projects with their students and the curator and take advantage of our programming. The Ceramics Research Center also mentors academic interns coming from a diverse range of majors (not just fine arts).

JW: I read in the ASU Art Museum’s strategic plan that one strategy to enhance experience is to “launch a workshop as an interactive makerspace in the museum and Ceramics Research Center.” What does that mean? 

AU: A laboratory for discovery, the Artists’ Workshop facilitates a deeper understanding of the exhibitions on view. Workshop is an on-site art activity space that allows visitors to “learn by doing,” creating art projects inspired by a diverse array of themes and issues. It includes digital tools and resources with information about the exhibitions, including artist images, art games, art blogs, documentaries and other relevant information. 

JW: What are the highlights of the CRC that you would like people to be aware of?

AU: The Ceramics Research Center has been a national and international destination point for the hands-on study and enjoyment of ceramics since it’s opening in March 2002. The center, which houses and displays the ASU Art Museum’s extensive ceramic collection, serves as a key educational component of the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts through its teaching and research facilities. The combination of gallery space and open storage at the Ceramics Research Center enables visitors to enjoy part of our extensive collection at one time.

Every year, the Ceramics Research Center features three to five exhibitions on important movements and artists who have made significant contributions in the ceramics field. The holdings demonstrate the full range of technique, aesthetic approaches and possibilities within the medium.

Our archive collection is one of the most important archives in the ceramic field. Susan Peterson was a ceramist and educator whose research, writing and advocacy brought wider appreciation to clay. She traveled and lectured worldwide, and authored numerous books on ceramic techniques, glazes and ceramic artists. 

The Ceramics Research Center also holds the significant ceramic archives from The Studio Potter magazine, which document 30 years of creative activity in the field. Founded in 1972, the Studio Potter magazine, under Gerry Williams’ editorial vision, was at the forefront of offering insightful writings on technology, criticism, aesthetics and history within the ceramics community. An intrepid traveler, Williams, along with his wife Julie, amassed a trove of oral histories, transcribed interviews, photographs and journals. Many artists in the archive are represented in ASU Art Museum’s collection. The archives allow access to technical, critical and historical information for students, collectors, museum curators and scholars worldwide.

Pru Morrison – Artist Profile

Pru Morrison is an Australian artist building porcelain sculptures, cups and teapots from her home base in Brisbane. Laced across her pieces are bits of text and commentary on everyday life in Australia. Her comments are wide-ranging: art, politics, current events, and observations of life and people around her. More of her work can be found on her website.

JTW: You mention you reference a variety of sources for inspiration. Can you name a few? Are there some that you keep coming back to over and over again?

PM: I have regularly referenced social politics of state and society. I generally read newspapers as I’ve found that truth is stranger than fiction. I also explore gender politics particularly as it’s portrayed in the media with captivating subheading. I draw and wrap forms with text straight from the newspaper. The words become another visual layer to the surface.

I repeatedly draw a heterosexual couple dressed in white cotton underwear. They’re a little overweight with pink, yellow, orange, brown or blue skin. They’re ordinary and unremarkable as they hold hands and twist their feet shyly. They have appeared on the back end of different works with words and rhymes floating around them. I also draw mermaids with moustaches and men with breasts. I’m loosely addressing my upbringing in a small town where the social and cultural system believed there were only two genders. – Feminine and masculine.

JW: Your process sounds eclectic: creating & combining forms, then slip, then Sgrafitto. How did this process come about?

PM: When I first started working with clay I made functional forms and covered them with drawings and text. I later started making molds and slip casting work. I made molds of plastic farm animals, baby-dummies, wing nuts and action figures to name a few. I slip cast them and constructed spouts and legs which I attached to leather hard teapots and cups. This is when the form gained importance and worked alongside the drawings and text. They seemed to come together spontaneously with little forethought.

JW: How has your work evolved over the years? What has stayed constant and what has transformed?

PM: At the moment I’m working with porcelain slabs. I first sketch the form and write about the subject matter and the gist of the story. I roll out the slabs and start building the sketch with clay. The surfaces are layered with drawings, texture, and minimal words. The pieces are memorializing and celebrating people I have known in the past tense.  The introduction of slabs is new and it’s supported a different way of working- if I think it, then it can be built quickly. The one restriction to the form is the size of my kiln.

The constant to my work is the practice of telling a story. I regularly gather clues and small bites of life to put into a sketchbook for future work.

JW: You employ a lot of text. What is the story behind that? (I can’t read text around the work. Are they quotes or “conversations” or descriptions, or all of the above?)

PM: I first used text to convey a clear and absolute point of view to the observer. It later became another layer, difficult to read and more convincing as a bit of texture.  I then went through a poetry stage both with my own poems and old English poets and I did a couple of series of Australian song lyrics. At the moment I’m being sparse with text as I don’t want to weigh the pieces down. Text can be like seafood extender, low in calories and fat but highly processed.

JW: How planned out are your pieces?

PM: Firstly I begin planning a piece while cooking, going for a walk, watching netflix, having a shower etc. I feel around and find a way of making a thought or idea three-dimensional. I sketch and write down a few measurements as a guide to the size, and then I build the pieces. Most of the surfaces evolve, I don’t really plan it too much, just little sketches on the dry form. I follow my nose.

JW: What would you like viewers to know about you and your work?

PM: I’d like viewers to know that working with clay is like winning something really good. I started out studying art for five years, which was nice and interesting,  but it wasn’t until I touched clay that I found my voice.

JW: Do you have any big projects on the horizon? 

PM: On the horizon I’m continuing to work on my new gang of sculptural pieces. I’d like to do the Open Studios with The Australian Ceramics Association, if I can get organised. I’m in a show called Bric-a-Brac, which I’m still making work for, at Murky Waters Studio in Townsville. I’ll continue to make bread and butter pieces for the shops. There is the Christmas peak to start working towards.

JW: Where can someone buy your work?

PM: My work can be bought at the Institute of Modern Art Shop in Fortitude Valley Brisbane and at Artisan Shop in Bowen Hills Brisbane.

Paul Gauguin Ceramics

Paul Gauguin is known primarily as a painter. But he also explored ceramics, first during the period 1886-1888 (following his travels to Brittany, Panama and Martinique), and then again from 1893-1895 (after returning to Paris from his first trip to Tahiti). Gauguin did not work in ceramics while in Tahiti because clay was not available. Roughly 60 of his pieces survive to this day.

Paul Gauguin, Double-Necked Vase Joined by Stirrup-Shaped Handle, 1886/87. Stoneware with slip; 14 × 20 × 9.5 cm (5 1/2 × 7 7/8 × 3 3/4 in.). Musée du Petit Palais, Paris, PPO 3439.

While many painters were asked to decorate ceramics at this time, Paul Gauguin developed a deeper, more thorough approach to ceramics than most. He became a ceramic maker in a fundamental sense, employing slab and coil construction for most of his pieces.

Early Period Ceramics (1886-88)

Gauguin’s first encounter with ceramics came about through a friendship with ceramicist Ernest Chaplet. Chaplet helped Gauguin learn essential ceramics skills, and they worked collaboratively for awhile on the outskirts of Paris. Together, the two men created over 50 stoneware pots and sculptures. (Chaplet later also worked with August Rodin, the sculptor.)

Gauguin’s initial foray into ceramics did not lead to the commercial success he had hoped for. Indeed, for many years Gauguin’s ceramic work was essentially lost behind the success of his paintings.

Ernest Chaplet (France, 1835-1909), Haviland and Co. (ca 1882-1887) – Image: LACMA  http://collections.lacma.org/sites/default/files/remote_images/piction/ma-31239513-O3.jpg

Gauguin initial ceramic work is characterized by asymmetrical, hand-built shapes in dark brown stoneware, decorated with rough imagery reminiscent of themes found in his paintings of the time. Below are a few pieces from this early phase.

There is a really detailed examination (including a 3D model) of this first piece on the Art Institute of Chicago’s website. You have to dig for it, so I’ll include a few tidbits. Here is the full link (but you have to advance through the reader to get to this piece).

Paul Gauguin, Vase in the Form of a Tropical Plant with Bird and Deity, 1887/88, Art Institute of Chicago

Experts differ on when they think Gauguin made this vase (some say during the winter of 1886-87, others say during the winter of 1887-88). There are some sketches in Gauguin’s sketchbooks that he took to Martinique in the Caribbean. Regardless, Gauguin apparently liked the coarse, matt nature of the clay body, much as he enjoyed unvarnished surfaces of his canvases. He had little concern for the functional nature of his ceramic creations. And his additions of decorative elements (plant and animal forms) is typical of his work. One author notes, “The degree of abstraction that [Gauguin] favored introduces an ambiguity of scale and makes it difficult – and perhaps futile – to try to identify the plant, but it is probably a tree rather than a flower, with leaves standing for whole branches, as in medieval art or the reliefs of the Buddhist temple of Borobudur in central Java that Gauguin was beginning to use as models.”

Some other early ceramics:

Paul Gauguin, Vessel with Women and Goats, 1887-89, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Paul Gauguin, Vessel with Women and Goats (detail)

Gauguin created the following self-portrait in the form of a mug in early 1889 after experiencing two traumatic events. First, Gauguin had lived for several months with fellow artist Vincent Van Gogh in the south of France, and during this period Van Gogh cut off a portion of his ear. A few days later, Gauguin witnessed the beheading of a convict in Paris. It is hard to not recognize some of these elements in Gauguin’s mug: the deep red glaze gathering at the base of the mug, etc.

Later Period Ceramics (1893-95)

I found information on Gauguin’s later ceramics harder to come by. Here are a few images.

Paul Gauguin, Three Ceramic Heads, 1893-95, New Carlsberg Glyptotek

Finally, here is a link to an exhibit of Gauguin’s ceramics (and other, non-painting artwork) at the Museum of Modern Art in 2014.