Kopal Seth just finished her MFA from the Rhode Island School of Design (“RISD”) in 2020, and has recently started a residency at The Clay Studio in Philadelphia, PA.
She spent a few minutes with me explaining her background and her work, and how the former has influenced the latter.
JW: You grew up in India, which has a long, deep ceramic tradition. Do you reference that tradition in your work, and if so, how?
KS: Yes, I do. I was born and spent the early part of my life in a small town in the rural part of central India. Throughout my early years I saw many, many pots made out of local clay in a style known as “Matka pottery”.
These are large pots used to store water and grain. They have round bottoms with no feet. The porous quality of the clay “breathes” to keep any water held within the pot cool during hot weather. The water also absorbs minerals from the clay body for some health benefits.
Matka pots are very traditional in Indian culture, but this is a fading tradition. I reference Matka pottery in my work in the clay I use and in the underlying structural forms I employ.
My ceramics also reference what I refer to as the life cycle of pottery – from the making of pots, through its use to its ultimate breakage.
I also use pottery as a symbol of growth and continuation. Many rounded, Matka-like forms are at the center of my pieces. I place other ceramic elements on these rounded forms, oftentimes radiating outwards.
I think of these additional shapes as symbols of growth and replication on a traditional core. At times the growth is overwhelming and subsumes the original source form. In a way it’s emblematic of what’s happening in India today.
These ceramic elements also reference some of my last memories of India, as I sat looking at my homeland from an airplane. I remember these aerial views of human expansion across the landscape, seeming to overtake everything. It was very powerful and alarming. There’s a certain element of those visual memories in some of my work.
JW: Can you tell me about the evolution of your work and what attracted you to ceramics?
KS: After high school in India, I wasn’t really aware of ceramics as an art form. I was attracted to art, and enrolled at university to study painting. I took several elective classes during my undergraduate program, including a ceramics class. I wanted to try it once, just to experience the material. But I didn’t think I would turn in this direction.
I think an experience I had with raku firing was a turning point for me. I was fascinated with the entire process, from making the pot, glazing, firing, and even the destruction of pots in that process. Things were breaking all the time, and that had a certain quality that I liked. I realized that at first you have a lot of control over the creative process, but ultimately you become aware of how little control you really exercise. There are intense physical and chemical forces acting on and transforming your pots. It’s really interesting.
As an result of these experiences I had working with ceramics, I decided to focus on ceramics in my MFA program at RISD.
JW: How does artistic training differ between India and the US?
KS: Well, there definitely are differences. Part of that difference may be between undergraduate and graduate programs. I would say, though, that art training in India follows a traditional academic formula. There is not much room for experimentation. You train in techniques and stick to what you’ve studied. In the US, however, there’s infrastructure to support trying different things out and going in different directions to see what you can find. You can try different things, see what you like, and discard things you don’t like. Different opinions and experiences are welcomed, and critical thinking is valued. I’ve found that welcoming approach at both RISD and here at The Clay Studio.
JW: I don’t have a sense of the scale of your work from images on your website. Are these pieces large?
KS: Most of the rounded work is fairly small – small enough to hold in your hands. The rectangular pieces are a bit larger. Let’s say they would fit on a desktop. They also can be assembled in different configurations, but again, pretty much fitting on a desktop.
I am interested in building up the scale of these pieces. I will probably take that scale up gradually. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a while. I didn’t have that opportunity at RISD due to the pandemic.
JW: Where do you see yourself going from here?
KS: When COVID hit this spring, all the RISD studios were shut and I couldn’t work on most of my projects. The school will give graduating MFA students a show, as is traditional for graduates. I’m working on finishing some pieces for that show here at The Clay Studio.
While things were suspended during the initial phases of COVID, I started thinking about some changes I’d like to make – or things I’d like to add or explore. My thinking has evolved. I would like to incorporate light and shadow into my work, and possibly also find some middle ground where I can combine my original interest and training in drawing and painting with my ceramics. I’ve started working with porcelain instead of terracotta type clay. Porcelain clay can be thin and translucent, allowing some light to show through it. One thing I’m exploring is working with 3 panels of clay, incorporating some of those geometric shapes but also playing with light and shadow. I may have some type of light shining through or from behind the forms rather than just light falling onto the forms.
JW: You’ll be able to explore these directions at The Clay Studio?
KS: Oh, yes. I selected The Clay Studio residency program for two important reasons. First, there’s an incredible legacy here. Amazing people have come through the program and are in the residency program right now. It will be a wonderful place to exchange ideas and grow artistically. Second, I was really attracted to The Clay Studio’s community outreach programs. They have a Claymobile, for example, and go around Philadelphia to hold community events promoting the arts. It reminds me of community in India. I wanted to be a part of that, to gain from the community as well as to give back to the community.
I met Kevin Snipes in a demonstration workshop in 2019. Kevin is a very thoughtful, intentional artist. Last month I spoke with Kevin from his new home in Philadelphia where he is now artist-on-residence at The Clay Center. What follows are observations from our workshop and later conversation.
Kevin hand builds his pieces using a white porcelain clay. He presses the porcelain into slabs, cut shapes out of those slabs, and assembles the cut pieces together into panels forming a small-scale, multi-faceted vessel. These “panels” provide a surface for decorative treatment. Kevin typically populates these panels with characters who interact with each other through snippets of dialog.
“I started as a wheel-thrower, but I stopped using a potters wheel because I wanted the conversation I build on my pots to have stopping places,” Kevin says. “Multiple, distinct sides naturally seem to provide those stopping places. Thrown pots are typically round, but because I’m interested in concept of multiple sides, I stopped using the wheel and now create multi-sided pieces.”
Kevin continues, “My characters are simple and [doodle-like]. I like a certain sense of childlike wonderment in my work. It’s something I want to retain in my pieces. Also, my characters aren’t colored in. That is intentional. I work in porcelain which is pure white. So when I sketch the outline of a character, the color of the character is white. My characters can be any race or ethnicity. I don’t define that. As an African-American artist, I enjoy playing with that ambiguity.”
“A lot of my work involves the idea of “otherness” and the connections and relationships that different elements have to each other. There are the characters on the pot. They are separate but have a relationship. There’s also the viewer and the pot. The pot is apart from, or other than, the viewer, but they also have a relationship. I enjoy this interplay between separate elements and actors.”
“I introduce these environmental references – the snippets of conversation I overhear and incorporate into conversations typically going on between characters that I’ve put on different sides of the pot. I like to explore what happens when things that are different come together or interact. It’s a very fluid process, part very intentional and part where I allow my intuition and imagination to take over.”
Kevin is very conscious of his surroundings, and that awareness wiggles its way into his porcelain pieces. “I incorporate what’s going on around me into my work. I allow my environment to influence my work.
Being open to my environment is one of my tools, like using my sketchbook. I incorporate elements of language – snippets of conversation and parts of songs – and sometimes also markings from mathematics into the narratives on my pottery.”
Important movements in art have always taken place where groups of artists can get together. Something happens. It’s some type of electricity. – Elaine de Kooning
During these pandemic times, I assumed all artist-in-residency programs had shut down. But I was wrong. Aida Lizalde, a multi-media artist based in California, is currently finishing up an artist-in-residency program at Casa Lü in Mexico City. She’s working on a paper-pulp based project called “Overwhelming Ground.” (Some, but not all, of Aida’s pieces incorporate ceramics. Her work can be seen on her website.)
Most importantly, in the middle of this pandemic, Aida is finding opportunities to connect with other artists, advance her career, and live an art-centered life.
Casa Lü’s website contains artist testimonials about their experiences during Covid-19. It also provides information on the 4-week and 6-week residency programs offered at the facility. Casa Lü posts virtual exhibitions on their site from participating artists.
Aida answered some questions I had about her experience at Casa Lü. She also went around the space and took some photographs to give me a better idea of the facility.
JW: What were your objectives in looking for a residency program?
AL: There are a few main things that I wanted to gain from attending a residency this year. The first one is to have some time away from my regular life so the shift in the environment can help me focus on producing work and gain inspiration from being immersed in a new place. I have been preparing to apply for an MFA program, so I wanted to come to Mexico to focus on a new series of work that I will be applying with.
My studio in California is outdoors so it worked out perfectly that I came when the heat of the summer and the fire season were at its peak. I wouldn’t have been able to make all this work if I had stayed home.
The second thing I wanted to do is to network and meet new artists so I can learn about art conversations that are greater than just California’s or even the United States,’ and to make connections with artists elsewhere so I can also expand my practice and professional opportunities.
When looking for residencies in Mexico City I also wanted to connect with my homeland and its arts environment. I’ve lived most of my adult life in California so I felt the need to be here as an artist, make and exhibit work here and start to have a presence here.
JW: Did you achieve those objectives?
AL: Yes, I am very happy with the progress I have made in my practice and with the connections with the people I’ve met. I thought being at Casa Lü during the pandemic was going to be challenging because of the closures, but it has been a good balance between the solitude and comfort of the beautiful studio space and also attending galleries and Museums by appointment following health guidelines. The fact that the art spaces that are open require a previous appointments, make the experience better because we got guided tours and have meet gallery owners and artists who would perhaps not be present if it was just a regular day.
There is currently only one other artist at Casa Lü, so we have really taken advantage of the studio space. During my residency, there have been two exhibitions in the main gallery, and there were private viewings where I got to talk to a few local artists and curators. Since there weren’t many of us here, the conversations were more intimate and in-depth.
Usually, this residency accommodates up to five artists, even though I didn’t get the experience of having a cohort, I definitely feel like Lupe and some local artists who were previously in residency here and still come around have been extremely welcoming including Lester Aguirre and Elmi Mata.
JW: How did you find your particular program?
AL: I usually look at residencies through Alliance of Artists Communities or sites like the California Arts Council in their opportunities section. But I actually found out about Casa Lü through Instagram surprisingly. There is an artist I know from UC Davis (my alma mater) who attended, and another one that knows a close friend of mine who also attended recently.
JW: What are the most important criteria to consider in selecting an artist-in-residence program?
AL: There are tons of criteria but I guess for me the two most important ones are the place and the price. Compared to many residencies, Casa Lü is quite affordable, and it is located in a huge, beautiful, and complex city. I attended Vermont Studio Center in 2017 and it was very different, there were tons of residents and it was in the middle of rural Vermont. Location-wise I prefer Mexico City because I have more freedom to move around and see tons of arts and culture without needing a car. When I went to VSC I was on a fellowship so I appreciated the fact that they had funding opportunities for up-and-coming artists and for BIPOC artists, I also liked that they included both writers and visual artists at VSC.
JW: In retrospect, are there any questions you would have asked prior to selecting the program you did?
AL: I actually emailed back and forth with Lupe before attending so all my questions about the space, the pandemic, the programming, etc. were answered by her. I felt ready and comfortable when I arrived.
JW: Was (is) Casa Lü a good program? What makes it so? Can you describe your experience there?
AL: Casa Lü is a great program, I would highly recommend it. Lupe is very professional and has all the house rules and programming on point, yet she is also personable, friendly, fun, and supportive. The house is a beautiful mid-century modern style five-bedroom, there are huge windows, lots of plants, the climate is great, and the neighborhood is safe, quiet, and close enough to Condesa, Roma (the hip neighborhoods), and Chapultepec Park.
My experience here has been relaxing and fun. According to Lupe most people who’ve been residents had been to Mexico City prior. I can see why someone would be hesitant to apply if they’ve never visited. I was in Mexico City two years ago for six weeks working on a project so I felt very comfortable visiting this time around. It is a huge city so it could be overwhelming for someone who isn’t used to that or someone who hasn’t traveled much.
JW: Did you gain or learn anything you did not expect?
AL: Aside from a whole new series of works, I’ve gained new friends. I also got a break from all the awful stuff going on in the US. I feel privileged to be able to step away from the fires, the protests, the threat of fascism etc. that seems to daunt us all at the moment. Having the chance to focus on my work for a few weeks and be in such a beautiful place has been healing for me and for my practice.
in June, 2020, Dr. Steve Lekson gave an online lecture entitled “Mimbres: Dimples, Slip-Slop, and Clapboard – What They Are and Why They Matter” through the Crow Canyon Archaeological Center. He mentioned the outstanding collection of Mimbres pottery held by the Western New Mexico University Museum (“WNMU Museum”).
Unable to travel in person during these times, I reached out to the Museum to ask them about their collection. They connected me with the director of the WNMU Museum, Dr. Cynthia Ann Bettison, who answered a few questions and provided photographs of some Museum pieces.
JW: Will you please describe the WNMU Museum collection of Mimbres pottery and tell us how this pottery came to the Museum?
Western New Mexico University Museum has a number of collections of prehistoric Southwest pottery that include prehistoric Mimbres Mogollon pottery. The museum’s two major collections containing Mimbres pottery are the Eisele Collection of Prehistoric Pottery and Artifacts, and the NAN Ranch Collection.
The Richard C. Eisele Collection of Prehistoric Pottery and Artifacts was gifted to Western New Mexico University in January 1973 by the Grant County Museum, Inc. The Grant County Museum, Inc., purchased the Eisele Collection in the early 1940s from the collector, Richard C. Eisele, who actively collected and traded with other Southwest New Mexico collectors in the mid 1920s to early 1930s. The Richard C. Eisele Collection at WNMU Museum includes more than 600 whole and partial vessels — Mimbres, Salado, Jornada, and Upland Mogollon pottery — along with a large number of perishable artifacts (basketry, sandals, mats), chipped and ground stone tools, and other artifacts. The gift of the Eisele Collection is an interesting story in itself; the terms of the donation created the WNMU Museum, which opened to the public in historic Fleming Hall in November 1974.
The NAN Ranch Collection — the largest and most complete collection of Mimbres materials in existence from a single prehistoric Mimbres site — was donated in November 2011 by Margaret Ross Hinton, the private landowner. The collection is the product of more than 36 years of excavation and research
at sites located on the NAN Ranch by Texas A&M University directed by Dr. Harry J. Shafer, and of surveys, excavation, and research conducted by various scholars, and undergraduate and graduate students. The NAN Ranch Collection consists of more than 1,000 boxes containing bulk artifacts, samples, basketry and textile fragments; more than 400 whole and partial vessels; and all documentation, including plan maps, various forms, all field notes, master’s theses and dissertations (including raw data if provided), class papers, published reports, and other extensive documentation.
JW: I was told this collection is one of the finest in the world. What about the collection makes it so important?
The NAN Ranch Collection is of particular importance because it is the largest and most complete scientifically excavated and documented collection of Mimbres materials in existence from a single prehistoric Mimbres site. The research completed at the NAN Ranch Ruin expanded our understanding of the Mimbres people, their culture, and their way of life, and it also enabled archaeologists to reexamine and reevaluate assemblages collected (i.e., the Eisele Collection) or excavated (i.e., Paul H. Nesbitt’s research at the Mattocks Ruin) in the early 20th century to further our knowledge of prehistoric lifeways and technologies.
More than four decades after the first field season in 1978, new and exciting research continues to be conducted. For example, analyses of the artifact assemblage from NAN Ranch Ruin Room 74 indicate that this room may have been used specifically to prepare and brew maize beer. The large group of artifacts left in situ on the floor included 25 hand-grinding stones, fragmented baskets and mats, and 13 to 15 ceramic vessels that included locally made Style III Mimbres Classic Black-on-white water jars (ollas) and very large corrugated ollas, and several very large ollas that are of non-local origin.
All of the very large ollas have interior pitting indicating fermentation, and are among the largest vessels ever reported for a Classic Mimbres site. The estimated volume of the largest olla, a non-locally produced vessel, is 147 liters! What is also interesting is that the two very large ollas of non-local origin were made in Northern Chihuahua, Mexico, and brought to NAN Ranch Ruin.
Their presence at the site and in Room 74 suggests that maize beer brewing and consumption played a pivotal role in the NAN Ranch Ruin inhabitants’ social life and that the population of the site was part of an extensive social network that included neighboring and distant groups into northwestern Mexico.
JW: What happens with the collection at the WNMU Museum (e.g., research activities, curation of exhibits, lending programs, etc.)?
Western New Mexico University Museum celebrated its 45th Anniversary and Grand Reopening in July 2019 after completing a stunning transformation funded by a 2016 Higher Education General Obligation Bond approved by New Mexico voters. The result is an open, light secure and climate-controlled environment that highlights our National Register of Historic places building and enhances the visitor experience.
All of the contents of Fleming Hall were carefully packed, removed, and securely stored for the duration of the project causing standard museum operations such as research, curation of exhibitions, and loans to be curtailed. The museum’s collections remain closed to research as we continue to focus on unpacking and organizing collections and creating, developing, and installing exhibitions, interpretative panels, and signage in our newly transformed space.
Our forward movement temporarily ceased as a result of the pandemic. Now open in a limited capacity, WNMU Museum is following COVID-Safe Practices issued by the State of New Mexico Department of Health, CDC, and our parent institution, Western New Mexico University. The safety of WNMU Museum staff, student workers and visitors is paramount.
JW: How much of the collection is on exhibit at any one time? Does the Museum rotate which pieces it puts on display?
We display as much of the WNMU Museum various prehistoric and historic pottery collections and also collections on loan to the museum. While the focus is on displaying partial and whole vessels, our renovation enabled us to expand our visible collection rooms to put more of the museum’s collections on view.
The Main Floor Permanent Exhibitions include a number of displays and interpretative panels and signs about Mimbres pottery types, the Mimbres Pottery Sequence, and Room 74 as well as non-ceramic Mimbres materials, and several cases of non-Mimbres prehistoric and historic pottery, and campus memorabilia, including Colonel John Fleming’s 1920-1930 Doctor’s Buggy (Colonel Fleming was one of WNMU’s founders.). All artifacts and materials on exhibition in the Grand Exhibition Hall are individually labeled.
The West and East Visible Collection Rooms are located on our second floor. While the majority of the cases, both historic and modern, display prehistoric and historic collections of pottery, all of the items are grouped first by collection name and second by archaeological site or collection site, if known. Individual vessels are not labeled in the Visible Collection Rooms. We are currently expanding our Visible Collection Rooms into a third room on the second floor. The collections in this room will be a combination of collections on loan to the WNMU Museum and newly acquired collections.
JW: Does the WNMU Museum lend Mimbres pots to other museums?
The WNMU Museum has loaned prehistoric ceramics and other artifacts, including Mimbres artifacts, to a number of institutions over the years, including the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Services (SITES), the Museum of Indian Art & Culture in Santa Fe, and the Silver City Museum here in southwest New Mexico.
JW: Does the WNMU Museum have photographs of the collection available online (perhaps on the Mimbres Pottery Images Digital Database (MimPIDD)?
The long-term goal of the WNMU Museum is to have photographs of our collections and artifacts available on our website. Some of the Eisele Collection is available to view on the MimPIDD as is potentially some of the NAN Ranch Collection. The use and publication (in any format/media) of WNMU Museum collection images housed in the MimPIDD and WNMU Museum copyrighted professional images must be requested through WNMU Museum.
JW: Are there theories as to why the Mimbres culture developed such striking, distinctive pottery designs?
No one really knows what was in the minds of prehistoric Mimbres potters when they painted the geometric and naturalistic designs on their vessels although there is a considerable amount of literature on the subject. WNMU students explored a few of their own theories through a recent interdisciplinary project that you can check out at museum.wnmu.edu/applied-is-the-keyword-exhibit.
JW: I’ve seen many images of Mimbres painted pots. But I think the Mimbres potters also created corrugated pots with distinctive surface patterns. Was this a common type of Mimbres pottery that is perhaps overshadowed by painted pots?
Mimbres potters made a wide variety of textured vessels and plainwares as did other prehistoric Southwestern groups. I personally find textured and plainware vessels very beautiful and a testament to the skill of the potter who made them.
For example, each one of the large maize beer brewing vessels I mention in answer to Question #2 was hand built by coiling and scraping. Obtaining the correct degree of “wetness” and perfectly sizing each clay coil—whether the potter was obliterating or retaining the coils as the vessel is built—was key so the vessel wouldn’t collapse inward while being made (clay is too wet) or crack during firing (clay was too dry).
Building these pots was an exercise in experience and knowledge. Clearly the Mimbres potters knew their clay.
In answer to your question about the painted vessels over shadowing the textured and plainwares, I would have to agree that for many people they do. I think that this stems from turn of 19th century and earlier collectors’ focusing on the painted vessels. Many of the textured and plainware vessels are found in domestic contexts and were unknown to these collectors or seemed to be “unassuming.” I have found that once an individual learns about and understands the extraordinary craftsmanship and skills involved in making a large or small textured or plainware vessel, the more they appreciate the potter and these vessels.
JW: Was Mimbres pottery traded extensively in earlier times? Are examples of Mimbres pots found in other archeological sites in a wide area?
It depends on what you mean by “trading” in prehistory. Mimbres pottery was exchanged within the Mimbres Mogollon region as shown by INAA (Instrumental Neutron Activation Analysis). INAA analysis of the vessel’s clay body will pinpoint the source of the clay. Based on the premise that a vessel is made near it’s clay source, comparing the clay source location with the location in which the vessel was found suggests exchange if the clay source is up near the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument near the headwaters of the Gila River and the vessel was found at NAN Ranch Ruin in the lower Mimbres River Valley.
In general, Mimbres painted pottery is not found extensively exchanged or traded beyond the larger Mimbres cultural area. However, there are some exceptions. Single, whole, Late Style III Classic Mimbres Black-on-white vessels have been found in situ in Jornada Mogollon archaeological sites (around the Las Cruces, New Mexico, and El Paso, Texas, areas). The vessels appear to have been “curated” or placed on display by the prehistoric inhabitants, possibly as items of prestige, since the vessels are not found in contexts or being used as they would have been in a Mimbres Mogollon room.
It has been suggested that Mimbres painted pottery vessels were obtained during prestigious public events like ceremonies and feasting where Mimbres vessels and perishable foods were exchanged. Dr. Harry J. Shafer and others continue to use the extensive NAN Ranch dataset and other archaeological site information to research prehistoric Mimbres prehistoric feasting, including maize beer brewing, and exchange practices within the Mimbres area and their greater social network that included neighboring and distant groups into southern New Mexico and northwestern Mexico.
JW: How is the Coronavirus affecting the WNMU Museum and other museums around the country? Are these dire times for museums? If a museum were to go under, what would happen to its collection?
The pandemic literally stopped our progress resettling into the newly transformed Fleming Hall, also halting standard, day-to-day museum operations due to closures, furloughs, and reduced spending. Like other institutions, the WNMU is focused right now on ensuring the safety of our staff, student workers and our visitors.
Even outside the context of the pandemic, WNMU Museum is continually rethinking how to connect and engage with visitors. We’re using social media more heavily right now, and we also turned what was supposed to be physical exhibition into a virtual exhibition, which is still “hanging” at museum.wnmu.edu/applied-is-the-keyword-exhibit. As our staff returns from the summer furlough and student workers return to campus, the #AppliedistheKeyWord: Anthropology Museum as Art Studio exhibition will be installed, social media programming will continue, and staff will develop creative strategies to reach those who are unable to visit the WNMU Museum in person.
Most museums have policies and procedures in place to protect the public trust if they or their parent institutions close permanently.
JW: Does your Museum have other collections of ceramics that are noteworthy?
Yes. For an institution of our size, WNMU Museum has an outstanding collection of Maria and Julian Martinez and other historic Pueblo pottery in the Geneva Smithson Bishop Back and Seymour Back Collection of Historic Pueblo Pottery.
Other collections of ceramics include the Bentley Collection of Prehistoric Pueblo Pottery, the Ballmer Collection of Mimbres and Upland Mogollon Pottery, the recently acquired McNay/Waddel Collection featuring prehistoric Rio Grande whitewares and stone tools, and the Himes Collection of Historic Pueblo Pottery. On loan to WNMU are several important collections, include the Metcalfe-Foster Collection focusing on prehistoric Salado and Casas Grandes series pottery made in the Gila River Valley, the Ike Smalley Collection of Prehistoric Casas Grandes Pottery, and the GEHLM Collection of Prehistoric Pottery from Southern New Mexico.
The WNMU Museum is currently open. The Museum only allows a limited number of visitors at one time, and access to collections for research isn’t yet available. Information can be found on their website.
JW: Audrey, what initially attracted you to ceramics? And can you tell me more about the repeating of simple elements in your pieces?
AA: I may consider these two questions in the same context. I initially thought of pursuing graphic design in high school, which stayed the same until I was off to college at Alfred University. I would not have studied ceramics unless I had the opportunity to naturally immerse myself in the ceramics community at Alfred University.
When I began to figure out classes for my junior year, I was drawn to the description of the Ceramic Tile class taught by Jason Green. And that class ultimately attracted me to the ceramic world.
The course explored different methods of generating ceramic tiles, modules, and units to create wall sculptures. I enjoyed designing patterns that travel between 2D and 3D.
I learned how to use a 3D modeling program called Rhinoceros 3D to create initial designs of forms and patterns. Later, prototypes were modeled with plasticine, plaster, or wood in accordance with the best advantages of individual materials. This way of working iterative shared a similar visual language that I learned from graphic design. My sketches existed in a flat piece of paper or screen, and then the ideas became physical in clay. I was also attracted to the process of creating modules and their assemblage. Repetitive processes of slip-casting and press-molding offer meditative properties and dimensionality to the final product. I enjoy the large-scale dimensionality that can be achieved from this process, which refers back to my interest in building blocks and in creating wall spaces full of 3D units.
Working back and forth between 2D and 3D offered a middle ground where I can enjoy taking the best and most advantage of both directions. This class shaped a lot of my style, i.e., how I navigate visual languages in my current works.
JW: I see you’ve studied ceramics at 3 places. How are the programs different? If you were looking to start all over again, what would you look for in a ceramics program?
AA: Yes, so I spent four years as a BFA student at Alfred University and two years as a post-baccalaureate student at Colorado State University, and I am currently at Penn State University as a second-year MFA student.
I did not have prior experience with clay until I was at Alfred University. Being at a school with a rich history in ceramics education, dedicated faculties, an extensive range of kilns, and scholarship resources, I built my foundation in ceramics fast. Even though Alfred is located in the middle of nowhere in upstate New York, the art school hosted many shows, visiting artist lectures and events that educated me outside of classrooms. Ceramics professors and graduate students have their studios on the same floor as undergraduate students, and so I learned a lot from just casually stopping by their offices to talk to them. I am grateful for all the mentorship I received there.
I applied to Colorado State University to specifically study with Del Harrow and Sanam Emami. CSU is special in that since there is no MFA program in Ceramics, post-baccalaureate students hold responsibilities of graduate students. So I got the opportunity to be Del and Sanam’s teaching assistant and help maintain the studio. This experience made me more attentive to how ceramic studios and classes are run. I understood a lot from learning through seeing. I learned a variety of digital fabrication methodologies from Del during my two years there. CSU has exceptional digital fabrication facilities that assisted my learning. Del and Woodshop Supervisor and Fabrications Coordinator, Scott Kreider, gratefully allowed me to use the facility to experiment freely and I think that greatly helped me understand what is what.
From that point on, I tried to search for MFA programs based on what I understood and wanted. I made a list of what I wanted and went with my gut at the end. My list included a large number of faculties, faculty members who similarly engage in my research interest, facilities that would assist my projects, a personal private studio, and a generous amount of funding.
Penn State offered all of those for me and I am satisfied with my decision. The School of Visual Arts has a great partnership with the School of Architecture, which is right next to one another, so I have been able to work with Architecture professors here as well. I would add to the wish list one more, how flexible it is to work in another area of interest.
As I benefited from the interactions with many faculty members at Alfred, I am enjoying the effective mentorship of the Penn State professors – Chris Staley, Shannon Goff, Tom Lauerman, Kris Grey, Brad Klem and Andrew Castaneda. I followed the works of Tom Lauerman, who specializes in clay 3D printing and other ways of applying digital fabrication technologies into his works, I am benefiting a lot from continuing to study with someone who can offer insights and knowledge here in Penn State.
JW: Following university, you received a fellowship to fund some research. You traveled to Korea and China. Can you tell me more about those experiences? How have those experiences informed your life and your art?
AA: I received the Windgate-Lamar Fellowship from Center for Craft to fund my two-year post-baccalaureate studies at Colorado State University and travel around Icheon, South Korea, and Jingdezhen, China.
The funding offered moments for me to connect back to my heritage. Though having a BFA degree in ceramics from Alfred University, much to my shame, I did not have deeper knowledge about Korean ceramics and the contemporary ceramic art scene in Korea. The Fellowship fund allowed me to experience both traditional and contemporary ceramics in Icheon and Yeoju, Korea and to have a good opportunity to deepen my link to Korean ceramics.
Tiles, modules, and three-dimensional units allow me to express my conceptual interests with exactness and mass. Slip casting, press molding, and hand-building of tiles or units, all require craftsmanship and advanced skills. A research trip to the Porcelain mecca, Jingdezhen, China undoubtedly enhanced my multi-cultural understanding of porcelain tradition while connecting with artists through direct interactions. Such first-hand experience allowed me to be more acutely aware of the 1700 years of history that continues in today’s Chinese porcelain tile productions. Knowing that porcelain created in Jingdezhen are especially grand in scale, I tried to investigate and learn the traditional processes of achieving large scale. I hope I can utilize this cultural and artistic research experience to innovate new ways to approach large-scale installations.
JW: Your work involves the application of technology (specifically, digital fabrication techniques) to ceramic creativity. Does that mean applying technology to ceramic production? Or incorporating more of a “tech look” to your pieces? Maybe you could clarify what you’re trying to do with technology and ceramics.
AA: It can be both. I work in a project by project mode where each work is approached differently. For ‘Homes in Sequence’, I digitally sampled topographies of places I noted as homes and created a ceramic version of such data. The accuracy of topographic data was essential for me in this work. For works like ‘Extruded & Multiplied’, some components are coil-built, extruded, and molded. Not much digital fabrication process was involved in this work. But they offer that ‘tech look’ from the way I was sculpting them. (I laser-cut the plexiglass part to slide between my ceramic forms though.)
During my recent conversation with Chris Staley, we discussed how we love clay as a material of mimicry. We talked about possibly creating works that mimic the hand-sculpted look through digital fabrication and vice versa. I hope I can work on that narrative soon.
JW: Where do you look for inspiration?
AA: I look at furniture and architecture designs books for installation ideas, Korean architecture for motifs, and patterns. I have a private Instagram account where I gather images all together like a mood board. I also print these inspirational images out to create a separate collage. Artist wise, I have been looking at works by Francesca DiMattio, Robert Lazzarini, and Ron Nagle. Most of my works are monochromatic, so I am looking for works with vibrant colors to try something new.
JW: Your website includes links to many other artists. How important is a sense of artistic community for you?
AA: Yes, I included links to my close friends’ websites. I did so for whoever visits my website could get to know them too. They are the ones who shaped me outside of academic mentorships. I thought this could be a small gesture to show my gratitude towards them. We share works for feedbacks and support each other for various professional opportunities. My parents currently live in South Korea, and I do not have relatives here in the United States. So I consider this artistic community of which I am a part to be my second family. My clay family here offers me a sense of belonging.
JW: Has the Coronavirus pandemic impacted you and how you create? & Do you have any direction you want to take your work in the future?
AA: When the COVID-19 hit around March, I lost the opportunity to work in my studio at Penn State University. Thankfully, I recently got back into the studio.
During those five months, my good friend, Brad Klem, who received his MFA at Penn State in 2018, invited post-bacc student, Max Henderson, and me to make works at his basement. Recognizing the need for social connection, especially during that time of physical distancing, I am grateful to Brad and his family for having Max and me over. I got to make life-long friends thanks to the COVID-19.
Throughout my first semester at Penn State, I took the best advantage of the digital fabrication lab of CNC-mill and 3D print for my prototypes. Being confined at Brad’s forced me to work back fully just with my bare hands. This experience made me note that integrating digital technology with the analog handling of clay can be a metaphor for my transcultural experience. My work makes transitions between these two creative methods, just like how I navigate between cultures of the United State and South Korea. This trans-processing style of making objects is reminiscent of the transcultural influence on my works. I want to think more about this notion while producing works during this year. I also hope to delve more deeply into how I could use the visual imagery of architecture, landscape, and topography to offer a mixture of organic and mechanized tension in my work.
Penn State University MFA program is a two-year program. But due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the faculties at Penn State School of Visual Arts recently made a tremendously generous decision to let the 2nd year graduate students have an extra year of research and additional funding. I feel like I got another chance. I am super grateful for their decision and aim to make a new series of works by utilizing the extra opportunity.
I took inspiration from this 39-page booklet on Medieval Tiles by Hans Van Lemmen to make some test floor tiles. The booklet itself is a good introduction to 12th – 16th century tile production in Europe. It covers 3 styles of Medieval tile (relief tiles, mosaic tiles and two-color tiles) beginning in 13th century England. At $4.79 the book is an absolute steal.
Relief tiles first emerged in England around 1200 AD. The book explains how these tiles were produced (designs impressed into moist clay tiles) and attributes wide variations in quality, durability and style in tiles we still see from this era to primitive kilns and developing production processes. Examples of relief tiles from this period (not from the book) are shown to the right.
Production of mosaic tiles began in the mid- to late-1200s, giving way to 2-color tiles that form the predominant tile tradition of the era. An example of two-color tiles from the floor of Winchester Cathedral in England is shown below.
I tried my hand at making 2-color tiles. It was a lot of work to carve out the wood mold. I initially undercut the wood mold, so clay did not easily slide off the mold. After a few modifications I got it to work – helped along by some baby powder sprinkled on the wood surface prior to pressing clay into the mold. Once I constructed a mold, I was able to punch out several tiles each day. I pressed red clay into the mold for the ground, scrapped excess clay off the back of the tile (while still in the mold), and then popped the leather-hard tile out of the mold. I then slopped some white clay slip into the recessed areas of the red clay to produce the white inlay effect. Hopefully you can make out my process in the photo sequence below.
The finished product before glazing:
A few finished tiles after glazing, showing the shrinkage:
The final tiles are pretty durable and have nice “rustic” qualities in spots where I failed to press the clay completely into the mold (or recessed areas of the red clay). In retrospect, I wished I’d carved a mold design that radiated out from the corner rather than a symmetrical design. That would make a larger 4-tile pattern that radiates out from the point where each of the separate tiles meet.
It’s been a long, long 2020 – and we’re not done yet! Coronavirus continues to curse through our country with resulting economic damage. Black men continue to die. Protests roil in some cities. Now gangs of armed guys appear at the perimeter. A polarized electorate awaits the Nov 3rd elections.
It seems like time for something pleasant and beautiful. I bought some flowers for my wife yesterday. I’ll share them with you.
JW. Can you give me a brief background and tell me how you came to ceramics?
DH:My journey in working in clay started in 2015 when I enrolled in Professor Jeff Campana’s Ceramics, 1 class as an undergraduate BFA student studying printmaking and drawing at Kennesaw State University in Kennesaw, Georgia.
I only took the class because one, I needed a three-dimensional class to fulfill my BFA degree in printmaking and two, I had never worked in clay before and I wanted to work in a medium that was new to me. This class changed the trajectory of my life. Jeff’s passion for clay inspired me. The opportunity to work in a medium that records the memory of its maker speaks to me conceptually and formally. Along with my background in printmaking, ceramics pushed my ideas of mark-making and how a line can become a form, and a form can become a texture.
I graduated from undergrad in the spring of 2017 with a BFA in printmaking and ceramics with an Art History minor. I enrolled that following fall as an MFA in ceramics at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, Iowa. In May 2020, I graduated with my MFA from the University of Iowa. Currently, I am working as a practicing studio artist primarily working in clay.
JW: A lot of your work has a consistent dark look to it. Is that from the clay you use or some type of stain or glaze or firing technique?
DH: My current ceramic body of work is a mid-range brown clay stoneware that when fired in oxidation will fire to a charcoal black at cone 1. However, I fire my work to cone five. The clay body consists of a black mason stain and is not glazed. So the work has a matte finish in appearance. I work with this clay because I want the clay medium itself to be content to discuss what it means to be a black man and person of color in places, spaces, and times when being a black person may or may not be welcoming or hospitable. These ceramic objects are vessels, each making symbolic allusions to the black body.
JW: You also employ a lot of texture. Can you tell me more about your process of creating that texture?
DH: Due to the innate memory of clay, I chose the material to illuminate the resonance of touch and repetition. I use a regular ceramic needle tool to mark the surface of the clay, which reminds me of the etching process of marking the surface of a copper plate. I see this process as a three-dimensional print.
With this in mind, I also wanted to create a texture that felt welcoming. For some, it may be a cozy blanket, a shaggy carpet, a furry dog, and or a soft warm sweater. When I think of the essence of welcoming, my mother’s hair always comes to mind. My mom pulls her hair out, and discards it throughout the day, leaving traces of herself wherever she goes. Similar to how forensics finds missing people through hair follicles, I associate the remnants of DNA to my African ancestry, even though I’ve never been to Africa. Formally, the consistency in hair can simulate waves that also mimic the sound and the beats found in hip-hop. Lastly, this texture resembling hair can now imply the surface of coral. This pulls from the history of the middle passage when some enslaved Africans were thrown overboard, and their burial was amongst the coral. The sculpture’s coarseness appears soft and inviting which leads the viewers to desire to touch and question the materiality of the artwork.
JW: How about the shapes you come up with – many are very organic and almost “glob-like”, while others remind me of ceremonial objects (like crowns or drums). Where do you find the inspiration for these shapes?
DH: I find inspiration for my forms through history, sci-fi, hip hop, pop culture, comic books, West African traditional rituals, and architecture. The glob-like or bulbous shapes found in many of my sculptures originate from the robots and drones in sci-fi movies like Star Wars and Star Trek. While also speaking to art history fertility goddesses.
During my research investigating the symbol of the pineapple as an icon for welcoming and hospitality, I discovered how colonial figurative painters created images of enslaved African women with their breasts hanging out while presenting a pineapple with a basket of fruit. These dehumanizing paintings used pineapples and fruits to represent power, wealth, and abundance. I want my work to humanize and elevate the beauty of Black people.
JW: You reference the pineapple “as a symbol that represents welcoming and hospitality” — but also as a tool that sea captains used to announce the arrival of new African slaves to port. Those 2 things seem very, very different. Can you help me understand more about the symbol of the pineapple?
DH: In order to answer this question, we must start from the beginning of how the pineapple became a symbol of welcoming and hospitality. When most people think of pineapples, they think of Hawaii. But why is that? Through branding, the Dole Pineapple Company made Hawaii’s culture synonymous with the pineapple’s symbolization of welcoming and hospitality. However, Hawaii had not heard of pineapples until the early 1900s, and it’s not their culture. Actually, the tradition of the pineapple as a symbol for hospitality is rooted in slavery and agricultural colonization of South America, the Caribbean, and the Southern The United States and particularly, South Carolina and my home state of Georgia. The Pineapple as a symbol of hospitality is now a doorway into vivid explorations in trade in early colonial history. When slave ships came to port, captains would impale pineapples on a fence post, a sign to everyone that they are docked and home for business. For colonial society having a pineapple in your home meant you were wealthy. The pineapple was not eaten by the rich but viewed as a welcoming, elaborate art form to decorate banquet tables and parties. When the pineapple began to spoil the pineapple was brought to the poor, for the poor to eat. A narcissistic gesture by the wealthy to share their abundance with the poor and destitute. However, the cultivation of the pineapple was through the hard work, blood, and tears of enslaved Africans and indigenous people. I want my work to suggest the past, discuss the present, and explore possible futures interconnected to the African Diaspora.
JW: I see you spent some time at the Taller Experimental de Grafica in Havana, Cuba. Can you tell me about that experience and how it has affected your art?
DH: My experience and opportunity to make prints at the Taller Experimental de Grafica in Havanna, Cuba is pivotal to my start in gathering research on the history of the Middle Passage, which was the sea voyage of slave ships from West Africa to the West Indies.
Many of the traditions, religions, and cultures of people from West Africa along with the melding of indigenous people are still present in Cuba. I felt I was home in Cuba and for the first time in my like I felt like I finally belonged to a place and its people. The techniques found in printmaking from scratching, carving and repetition are how I develop my concepts when working in clay.
DH: The process of completing a sculpture begins with me intuitively working with the clay. I usually, listen to hip hop music or I’m listening to a movie that I have previously seen multiple times playing in the background like Star Wars, Star Trek, and Harry Potter. All of my sculptures are never drawn before creating them. My work is based on research. I allow my own personal thoughts and interest to connect with the historical knowledge of the pineapple as a symbol for welcoming.
I use a combination of coil and pinch techniques when building the form of my sculptures. When I begin making any sculpture the form first resembles the robot R2D2, from the science fiction movie Star Wars. Formally the shape of R2D2 looks like the shape of the lower half of the pineapple. From this shape, I then use my hands to manipulate and deconstruct the form. The process of creating the form is when I’m working fast.
Once I am happy with the form, is when I begin to work slowly and deliberately. I use a regular ceramic needle tool to scratch or create marks on the surface of the clay. I let the music or sounds I’m listening to dictate the length and repetition of the markings on the surface of the clay. The ritual in the repetition of marks induces me to a transcendental state. My consciousness moves through time and space, past, present, and future become one when creating my work. These marks become a texture or cover for the work.
The recent work, Prepare is a sculpture that explores the ceremonial procedures in preparing a party. When preparing a party you want your guest to all to feel welcomed and their needs are taken care of. I relate the ritual of preparing a party to how society arranges the conditions for people to live. However, not everyone in society is treated the same. Black people and people of color and those on the margins of society must navigate in a society that may or may not be hospitable to them. This work speaks to providing a place of refuge to those who have not felt welcomed.
JW: The coronavirus pandemic has made life more difficult, especially for artists. How are you pushing through these difficulties to create art and maintain your artistic lifestyle?
DH: The coronavirus pandemic has made me and every artist very aware of not wasting time procrastinating on the business side of art. I am in a transitional time in my life. I just recently finishing my MFA and moved from Iowa. Due to the pandemic, many of the residency opportunities I had lined up were canceled or rescheduled. So I have not been able to make work in clay since March 13th, which was the start of the lockdown imposed at the University of Iowa. I am using this time to photograph and document work, update my website, research possible opportunities, and most importantly resting my body and mind. Fortunately, before the lockdown, I had made a lot of new work in hopes to show this work later in the year and in 2021. So thankfully, I am not seeing any change in the purchasing and interest in my work. I will be moving into a new studio space in late September. So I’m excited to see how the work will evolve in my new environment.
JW: What are your goals for the future?
DH: My goal for the future is to continue pushing my ideas and letting the content decide the direction and medium the work should be. I also look forward to curating exhibitions and mentoring other artists.