OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Marnia Johnston

TENDr Pod, 2016. Ceramic, Electronics, Plants.

MARNIA JOHNSTON combines a very old technology—ceramics—with new technology—electronics and robotics—in interactive works that tend to exist outside the white cube. Her TE+ND Rovers and TENDr Pods roam through the landscape, engaging bystanders to help them find light and water in exchange for education about native and non-native plants in the area. Marnia earned her BFA from San Jose State University (2007) and her MFA from the California College of the Arts (2007). She has been an Artist-in-Residence at John Michael Kohler Center for the Arts (2016), Kala Arts Institute (2015), Anderson Ranch (2014). Her numerous exhibitions include shows at Paragon Gallery (2017) in Portland, OR, Portand Museum of Contemporary Craft (2016), Richmond Center for the Arts (2015) in Richmond, CA and The American Museum of Ceramic Art (2015) in Pomona, CA. Most recently, Marnia participated in a Disaster and Climate Risk Artathon over the summer with Stanford doctoral students to create artworks that illustrate ecological resiliency. The results from that event will be shown at the Stanford Blume Earthquake Engineering Center from October 4 - December 1, 2017. Marnia lives and works in Concord, California.

OtherPeoplesPixels: Can you talk generally about how you use technology in your work as an artist?

Marnia Johnston: I think that people forget what technology is. It’s the zipper on your jacket, your shoelaces (or Velcro/elastic for those of us who like slip-on shoes), a fishing net, very basic stuff that we no longer consider technology because it’s so ubiquitous. When we talk about technology today, we neglect our history, our long culture, our techne. That’s why I like to use ceramic techniques, some of the oldest surviving technologies we have, and mix them with rapid prototyping techniques, motors, Raspberry Pi, and various sensors.

I’m not an engineer, but for the TE+ND rovers I had to learn the iterative engineering design process. This meant learning how to design robot parts using a variety of CAD programs, learning CAM programs that transform my models into gcode and then learn how to use 3D printers, CNC mills and water jet cutters. It’s been a long process.

TE+ND Rover Ceramic Version, 2014. Ceramic, PLA, MDF, Electronics.

OPP: You mentioned the TE+ND rovers. “The rovers are robotic fostering environments that care for their own garden of native plants by interacting with participants and actively seeking out light and water.” How do they tend their own gardens? Where do they rove?

MJ: TE+ND Rovers, designed after space exploration vehicles, are intended to investigate a range of environments, from cityscapes to less urban locales. Locations for deployments have included Mt. Diablo, Joshua Tree, and Briones Park (all in California) and the Kohler factory in Wisconsin.

I refer to the audience as participants for this project. The participants are encouraged to assist the rovers by watering their plants and herding them (using their obstacle avoidance systems) toward the resources they need—light and water— to keep their garden healthy. In the future, rovers will use an optical sensor to locate water. In an urban setting, rovers will find water in sprinkler systems, drip irrigation, rain, fog, and from participants. In helping the rovers, participants learn about cultivating native California habitat and stretch the limits of human-robotic empathy and engagement.


Rover field test

OPP: Do you monitor them or just release them? How do other humans encounter the rovers?

MJ: The rovers are currently monitored during deployments. I would like to just let them roam but there are obvious complications to that. For example, how to inform participants of the project efficiently when a monitor is not present or how to keep people from just taking them home. The rovers are usually deployed along popular hiking routes and participants encounter them without previous knowledge of the project. TE+ND monitors are on hand to answer questions and to initiate dialog about what participants consider “native.”

Succulent Surrogate: Legs2010. cast porcelain, steel, plants.

OPP: What kinds of assumptions do participants make about the plants surrounding them? What do you hope participants will understand about “native” plants?

MJ: From my experiences, most participants don’t really have an opinion until they remember that the Eucalyptus trees they see are from Australia or that most of the grasses underfoot are brown during the summer because the majority of them come from Europe. The non-native grasses grow so quickly that they’ve crowded out the native grasses, making it hard for native grasses to compete. I’d hope that the experience leads participants to understand that when they try to go for a hike to get back to ‘nature,’ what they are experiencing is managed landscape; that their opinions and actions help shape that landscape. I hope their experience with the project enables participants to make conscious decisions about local habitat that will benefit future human and nonhuman populations.

Swarm. Robotics.

OPP: SWARM is another robotic project that you’ve been involved with since 2007. What is your role in this collaboration?

MJ: SWARM was the brain child of Michael Prados and is funded by the Black Rock Foundation. Many people have contributed to its design, construction and presentation. In the beginning, we needed lots of volunteers with specific skill sets to help with R&D. We needed every type of labor, from building electronics to designing control interfaces. I helped to weld the aluminum shells, helped design a performance laser perimeter, presented the project to the public, among other things. In 2010 we were lucky enough to be invited to India to perform and give a presentation to students at the Indian Institute of Technology. I’ve also helped perform at Coachella, the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, at NASA Ames, and in New Orleans as part of the Multispecies Salon. I’ve been involved with the project for 10 years now.

TENDr Pod, 2016. Ceramic, Electronics, Plants. Detail.

OPP: Tell us about DIYbio and how it impacted your current practice.

MJ: DIYbio was established to create a vibrant, productive and safe community for people who wanted to work on their own biology projects. Projects range from creating cheaper equipment that could be used more efficiently and effectively in the field, to synthetic biologists working in community labs to develop medicines (the Open Insulin project), food (Real Vegan Cheese), and renewable energy (biofuels).

I’m currently looking at cultivating oyster mushrooms and how they can be used for soil remediation as part of an art project. The Bay Area, where I live, had an important ship-building industry in World War II. There were over 30 shipyards, and their supporting industries covered the bay shore and estuaries. This industry, along with the use of lead paint, contaminated the local soil with lead. I’ve been going to Counter Culture Labs, a wonderful community lab in Oakland, where Bay Area Applied Mycology (BAAM) meets and has begun the soil remediation project. It’s a valuable resource and the Bay Area is lucky to have such an amazing and giving group of DIY biologists.

Orchid: Cast Clone, 2014. Translucent porcelain, steel.

OPP: Most of your work seems to make more sense outside the white cube. Can you talk about the role the site plays in your projects?

MJ: Unfortunately, because the projects are so conceptually tied to the site, they can be difficult to present in a gallery. For example, many of the native plants on the TE+ND rover growing platform can’t tolerate being inside where they dry out or don’t have the correct light level to flourish. It also just doesn’t have the same impact. Rolling along the California hills, you have a little rover laboring over vast, sometimes difficult landscapes. The rover’s size is diminished in this environment, compared to being situated in a white room.

It’s also encouraging to interact with people who are not prepared for art, as they usually are in a gallery. I get a wholly genuine response when people interact with my projects outside. Besides, who doesn’t like going for a hike?

See more of Marnia's work at marniajohnston.com.

Featured Artist Interviews are conducted by Chicago-based artist Stacia Yeapanis. When she’s not writing for OPP, Stacia explores the relationship between repetition, desire and impermanence in cross-stitch embroideries, remix video, collage and impermanent installations. She is an Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Department of Fiber and Material Studies at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where received her MFA in 2006 Stacia was a 2011-2012 Artist-in-Residence at BOLT in Chicago. Her solo exhibitions include shows at Siena Heights University (Michigan 2013), Heaven Gallery (Chicago 2014), the Annex Gallery at Lillstreet Art Center (Chicago 2014), The Stolbun Collection (Chicago 2017) and Indianapolis Art Center (Indiana 2017). In March 2018, her solo installation Where Do We Go From Here? will open at Robert F. DeCaprio Art Gallery (Palos Hills, Illinois). In conjunction, the atrium will exhibit two-dimensional artwork by Chicago-based artists who were invited by Stacia to make new work also titled Where Do We Go From Here?

OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Jeremy R. Brooks

Rim Ware, 2015. (commercial / hobby) ceramic decals, (commercial / blank) porcelain plate. 10.25”L x 1”W x 10.25"H

JEREMY R. BROOKS appropriates, alters and remixes found ceramic and plastic objects, hobbycraft decals and paint-your-own figurines. Whether exploring desire through lushious finishes on benign bunnies and birds or twisting heteronormative ceramic decals into queer narratives filled with wholesome longing, he emphasizes the flexibility of meaning available in preexisting objects. Jeremy received his BFA in art & design from Grand Valley State University & his MFA in ceramic art from Alfred University. He received the emerging artist award by the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts (NCECA) and was a guest of honor at the XXIst International Biennial of Vallauris, France. He has has solo exhibitions at The Clay Studio in Philadelphia, Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts in Grand Rapids, Michigan and Kalamazoo College. Jeremy’s work is currently included in Within the Margins | Contemporary Ceramics at Penland Gallery (Penland, North Carolina) and GENDERED: An Inclusive Art Show at the Mint Museum Uptown (Charlotte, North Carolina). Jeremy is currently a Visiting Assistant Professor of ceramics at Southern Illinois University and resides in Carbondale, Illinois.

OtherPeoplesPixels: Appropriation and juxtaposition are repeated strategies in your work, especially in the Arrangements and the Cockamamies. Tell us about your instinct to create new objects and images out of existing ones. Have you always worked this way?

Jeremy Brooks: This method of creation grew out of my research as a mold maker, learning to make molds by studying the parting lines of cast objects—artifacts of where pieces of a mold meet. I appropriated objects to create new molds from and assembled castings from different molds together. This is how my Arrangements series initially started. Slowly this series became less about the virtuosity of mold making and more about the juxtaposition of found parts through an eclectic sensibility. Today I only make molds if the work specifically calls for it. Otherwise, I’m content incorporating found objects directly into my work.

For the Cockamamies series, I collage different cockamamie decals with one another to create work. A cockamamie is a specific type of ceramic hobby decal that was marketed toward children by decal manufacturers. Although the meaning has changed today, the etymology of this term originates from the ceramic field, which is something that I find fascinating and enjoy sharing with others. Cartoon characters, for instance, are common motifs in cockamamie decals. By itself, cockamamie imagery is quite kitschy, which can present a challenge in how to use it in an artful way. Collaging different parts together is a solution that is playful and thoughtful, while embracing the unique history of cockamamie decals.

French Fry Field, 2012. Found objects.

OPP: Do you think about your work in relation to Camp?

JB: Maybe not the final work per se, but I can see certain aspects of my studio practice in relation to camp. The homepage to my website presents a portrait of me appropriating a set of praying hands from a thrift store and exaggerating the distance between them. I would characterize this gesture, changing the act of prayer into the pedestrian act of exaggerating, as camp. My intervention with the found object was performative and that gesture is essentially what drove my research forward to realize the artwork A Fish Story in 2011. I tend to think about aspects of satire, parody and pastiche more frequently in my work than camp.

The (Close) Marriage License, 2016. Found objects, epoxy. 9.0”L x 3.5”W x 9.0

OPP: In recent years, you’ve been mashing-up commercially-available ceramic decals on plates, creating queer narratives out of distinctly heteronormative imagery—Norman Rockwell’s The Marriage License, for example—from another era. These works draw attention to a time when gay men needed the hanky code to find each other. Some of my gay male students in their early 20s don’t even know what it is, which I suppose is a great thing because they have never lived in a world where they have to be in the closet. How do the decal works speak to different generations?

JB: Gay culture has a covert past, and I try to illuminate aspects of this history through my work. I’m currently making work to celebrate gay male culture and sexuality through pastiches assembled from Rockwellian sources. My aim is to subvert Rockwell’s heteronormative narratives and depict a queer experience. By altering the figures and scenarios portrayed through Rockwellian memorabilia, I invite the viewer to consider the narratives of gay americana during eras that were at odds with such identified otherness. I feel fortunate to live during a time where I can live an open life out of the closet, but in order to do so I find it important to recognize the past struggles LGBTQ people have endured to get us where we are today.

A Passing Interest, 2016. Found objects, epoxy.

OPP: Tell us about the origin of I Can Feel The Distance (2015), a series of 10 plates, which I imagine installed all together as one horizon line. Unlike the other decal works, the tone of this series is poetically emotional, less humorous.

JB: I was presented with an opportunity to exhibit work upon a long blank wall at the Creative Arts Workshop in New Haven, Connecticut, so I created these plates to punctuate that space.  The work I put together for this exhibition was inspired by a plate I made the previous year titled I’m Not Touching You (Distance Makes the Heart Grow Fonder). This plate was about love and self control; wanting to touch someone close to you, but showing restraint. After making this piece, I was curious about exploring a variation of this narrative where the distance between the figures was further exaggerated. The exhibition space at the Creative Arts Workshop presented an opportunity to explore this new scenario. I Can Feel the Distance ended up being about the landscape of a long distance relationship, which I know from personal experience.

I'm Not Touching You (Distance Makes the Heart Grow Fonder), 2014. (commercial / hobby) ceramic decals, (commercial / blank) porcelain plate. 10.25”L x 1”W x 10.25”H

OPP: Can the plates be separated or must they be sold and exhibited as a set?

JB: I see the plates with landscape-specific imagery as components of an unfixed set, and I see the two plates with figures on them as punctuation necessary to establish the structure of the narrative. The narrative content is about being physically separated, and the individuality of the plates echo that for me. They do not need to be exhibited as a complete set, however the figures are necessary for me to establish the narrative.  I made more than the ten plates that were exhibited at the Creative Arts Workshop, and I have exhibited this series with different quantities and arrangements of landscape specific plates since they were first shown in 2015. In each variation however, the two plates with figures were a necessary part of an ever-changing composition.

I Can Feel The Distance (2/10), 2015. (commercial / hobby) ceramic decals, (commercial / blank) porcelain plates. 16.5”L x 1.25”W x 11.5”H. Installation dimensions variable.

OPP: You’ve made numerous cute, rounded bunnies hiding in? munching on? grass over the years. Ground (2006), Silverweed (2010) and The March Hare (2015) are just a few. These works stand out from the other works which address queer experience in a variety of ways. Is there a connection?

They are quite different from one another, however my exploration of ceramic decal collage grew out of this research through a sense of parallel play. I often attend ceramic trade shows to source hobby figurines, which is where I first became exposed to ceramic decals. I became curious about using them, so I slowly began to amass a collection of decals. It took me a number of years to figure out a way of working that made sense to me. In 2013, I began subverting the heteronormative narratives portrayed through ceramic decals upon commercial plates, and the work departed from there. So, the relationship between the bunnies and my decal work is that both series came from hobby-craft practices.

Silverweed, 2012. Porcelain, paint. 8”L x 8”W x 4”H

OPP: Can you talk about the variety of surfaces on these bunnies? 

JB: I use figurines from the hobby ceramics genre to explore color and surface. I view this work as a juxtaposition of high and low forms of craft practice through applying finish fetish surfaces to paint-your-own ceramic figurines. When I first started making the bunnies, I was exploring underglaze and fragrant waxes; the grass forms paired with the bunnies were infused with the aroma of freshly cut grass. After working with those materials for a few years, I began exploring a new line of commercially available textured spray paints. Several years later, these paints were discontinued, so I turned my research toward ceramic surfaces that I could formulate on my own. The glazes I am currently using are robust and archival; they look fuzzy, but are rough like sand paper to the touch. I enjoy experimenting to discover different surface solutions, and although I am uncertain what surface l will turn toward next, I remain open to new possibilities and change.

To see more of Jeremy's work, please visit klai-body.com.

Featured Artist Interviews are conducted by Chicago-based artist Stacia Yeapanis. When she’s not writing for OPP, Stacia explores the relationship between repetition, desire and impermanence in cross-stitch embroideries, remix video, collage and impermanent installations. She is an Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Department of Fiber and Material Studies at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where received her MFA in 2006, and was a 2011-2012 Artist-in-Residence at BOLT in Chicago. Her solo exhibitions include shows at Siena Heights University (2013), Heaven Gallery (2014), the Annex Gallery at Lillstreet Art Center (2014) and Witness, an evolving, durational installation at The Stolbun Collection (Chicago 2017), that could only be viewed via a live broadcast through a Nestcam. Now that the installation is complete, you can watch it via time lapse. Her upcoming solo show Sacred Secular will open in August 2017 at Indianapolis Art Center.

OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Kyle Triplett

Test Dream
Backlit Digital Print
24" x 48"
2016

Combining digital projection, wood and ceramics, KYLE TRIPLETT evokes vast, outdoor places within the confines of the gallery. The romantic, the picturesque and the artificial are foregrounded in his simulated landscapes, but each is very much a real place. His backlit digital prints, which began as documentation of his installations, capture the wistful, longing figure in relation to his created spaces. Kyle received his BFA from Southeast Missouri State University (2008), a Post-Baccalaureate certificate from Louisiana State University (2009) and his MFA from Ohio University (2013). He's been an Artist-in-Residence at Red Star Studios (2015) in Kansas City, Watershed Center for the Ceramic Arts (2014) in Newcastle, Maine and Kansas State University (2013-2014). His most recent solo exhibition False River just closed in March 2016 at Yeiser Art Center in Paducah, Kentucky.  Kyle's backlit photographs are currently on view until May 21, 2016 in the group show Garden Party, alongside a collaborative sculpture with Rain Harris (also of OPP blog fame), at the Belger Art Center in Kansas City, Missouri. Kyle lives and works in Ruston, Louisiana.

OtherPeoplesPixels: In your statement, you say "I am interested in producing work that is specifically of place, as opposed to work about place. That is, asking questions and responding to the ‘virtual here and there’ rather than traditional ideas of site specificity." Could you parse this out further?

Kyle Triplett: My installation work is rooted in the desire to create place. I’m interested in using the space of the gallery as a platform to create an imagined, constructed landscape as opposed to recreating a known or remembered experience. The work is site-reactive in that the gallery only dictates the size of the piece. Other than that, the work is not about a specific site. It’s about constructing a structure that attempts to hit most of the notes that a real landscape does. I approach the work with the understanding that it’s fundamentally impossible to recreate nature, but I think there is something compelling in the attempt and failure. The number of individual elements that make up a scene is a little maddening, but again, there is something interesting in the attempt to create a landscape one single grass blade at a time as in Untitled, OH #8.

Untitled, OH. #8
Ceramic, Wood, Cloth, Projection
32ft L x 16ft W x 12ft H
2013

OPP: You employ ceramics, wood and digital projection to create immersive environments. What was your first medium and how did you come to this balanced combination of the digital and the tactile?

KT: My first experience with ceramics, like most, came through pottery. I took a ceramics class in high school and really enjoyed it. I took another ceramics class in college after three years pursuing a degree in American History and haven’t left it since. At the beginning of the last semester of undergrad, I shifted away from pots and started making ceramic-based mixed media sculpture. I started playing with digital tools shortly after starting graduate school at Ohio University in 2010. For the first batch of work, I created ceramic objects onto which I projected a digital surface. That work morphed into larger installation pieces. I can honestly say I had no interest in working this way prior to graduate school, but I deliberately chose a graduate program that was concept driven rather than anchored in a specific material in order to have more flexibility with my work. I started playing with space as a material due in large part to the spacious critique rooms available for installation-based projects and a desire to work on a larger scale..

The balance of digital and tactile is still a struggle. Because I’m interested in working on a landscape-sized scale, I’m always searching for something that feels substantial or big in the work. Sometimes that manifests as nine thousand wooden dowels with pinched clay on the end as in Once a Day or as a large projected live video feed as in Untitled, OH. #7.

In Other Fields, SD. #1
Ceramic, Video, Digital Projection, Wood
Dimensions Variable
2013

OPP: The images titled In Other Fields appear to be documentation of installations (based on how the media is designated), but they are quite evocative as photographs? Can you explain this work for those of us who have only encountered it online?

KT: While I was working on large installation pieces in graduate school, I became interested in the documentation images I was making to record the work. Those documentation images morphed into creating staged images. The first few from 2013 were both documentation images as well as specific installations designed to be photographed. They were a way to work through ideas. These projects allowed me to interact with a site as an installation and to create images of that interaction that could stand alone as independent works themselves. Since 2014, I have been creating images that are solely shown as backlit digital prints. I am attempting to do the same things with these prints as with my larger installations. The digital images portray a built environment with handmade ceramic components. Conceptually, I am interested in presenting a moment of contemplation and longing while also presenting a window in the image leading to a different place, such as an in Tulpomanie.

Once a Day (detail)
Clay, Wood, Light
48ft L x 24ft W x 6ft H
2015

OPP: Fields are visual staples in your work. They show up as video projections and as ceramics. Once a Day (2015) and Untitled, OH. #8 (2013) are examples. I'd like to hear your thoughts on fields, both how you use them in your work and how you experience them in your life.

KT: I grew up in western South Dakota: fields and open spaces are very much ingrained in me. I don't know that fields really specifically registered with me when I was younger, but I remember feeling literally and figuratively a long way away from a lot of things. 

Beyond that, a field is a single space, demarcated by use or purpose. A field is a place. I think about place as defined by three elements. First, a specific location is needed: a here and there. The second is a locale, the material setting in which social relationships take place: a wall, a road, a field. The final element is “a sense of place,” the subjective and emotional attachment a person or groups of people have to a place. This final requirement begins to function conceptually rather than as a social or graphic reality. As an artist I am interested in ways that I could construct and provoke this subjective and emotional attachment in a viewer. . . or at the least a sense of familiarity or distinctiveness.  A field is a tract of land, which makes me think about distance and time. A field as an image tends to look like everywhere and nowhere simultaneously. 

The work that is titled In Other Fields is in large part about longing or yearning to be some other place, be it in time or space. Each piece in the series presents a figure in a given place interacting with an image of someplace else. The constructed objects that make up the piece are, much like the installations, again this attempt to recreate nature or another place.

In Other Fields, KS. #1
Backlit Digital Print
24" x 48"
2013

OPP: What are you working on right now? What's on the horizon?

KT: I’ve just finished up a busy run of exhibitions. I had a solo show at the Yeiser Art Center in Paducah, Kentucky where I was able to put up a new installation. The piece was a companion to the installations Once a Day that I did last year. The new piece, titled False River, employed a similar structure as the one used in Once a Day to divide the gallery rather than fill the space completely. False River is a very long and narrow lake in South Louisiana that was once part of the Mississippi River and that has since been cut off. The name caught my attention because it describes something by what it is not, but there’s also irony behind it. It’s interesting to live in a state that has a very unique relationship between land and water. Nothing is solid, and it feels like there is water everywhere.

I teach full time at Louisiana Tech University, so summer break brings welcomed studio time. This summer I will be heading to Bechyne, Czech Republic for an international ceramic symposium in July. I am currently researching different milling methods using a CNC router setup on ceramic surfaces as a way of potential manufacture. This could open up some avenues for creating more complex pieces. Teaching at a university with a strong architecture program has also got me thinking about different ways that my work can become more public by incorporating it into interior design.

To see more of Kyle's work, please visit kyletriplett.com.

Featured Artist Interviews are conducted by Chicago-based, interdisciplinary artist Stacia Yeapanis. When she’s not writing for OPP, Stacia explores the relationship between repetition, desire and impermanence in cross-stitch embroideries, remix video, collage and impermanent installations. She is an instructor in the Department of Fiber and Material Studies at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where received her MFA in 2006, and was a 2012-2013 Mentor-in-Residence at BOLT in Chicago. Her solo exhibitions include I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For (2013) at Klemm Gallery, Siena Heights University (Adrian, Michigan), Everything You Need is Already Here (2014) at Heaven Gallery (Chicago) and When Things Fall Apart, a durational, collage installation in the Annex Gallery at Lillstreet Art Center (Chicago). Form Unbound, a two-person show, also featuring the work of Aimée Beaubien, closed in December 2015 at Dominican University's O’Connor Art Gallery (River Forest, IL). Most recently, Stacia created a brand new site-responsive installation for SENTIENCE, a group show at The Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art in March 2016.

OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Mary Black

Makeup (detail)
2015
Midrange porcelain, glaze, decals

MARY BLACK creates compelling, beautiful, complicated ceramic forms that evoke fleshy human bodies, despite their hard surfaces. Floral decals and carved drawings on the surface of her sculptures employ two classic, but often over-looked functions of decoration: to hide and to highlight. Mary earned her BFA in 2011 from the University of North Carolina, Charlotte and went on to earn her MFA in 2015 from University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth. Her work was recently exhibited in De La Naturaleza at Franklin Park Conservatory in Columbus, Ohio and Materials: Hard & Soft National Contemporary Craft Competition and Exhibition in Denton, Texas. Mary currently makes work at Mudflat Studios in Boston. She lives in Boston, Massachusetts.

OtherPeoplesPixels: Your abstract ceramic sculptures evoke bodies in folds and bumps that are both familiar and resist recognition. What looks like a hip crease meeting a fleshy belly from one angle, looks like a bicep pressed up against a head from another. Are your sculptures as abstracted representations or total abstractions?

Mary Black: I consider my sculptures to be abstracted representations of the human form combined with human emotion. I choose to showcase the female body in a way that creates a connection with the viewer, while also leaving moments of unfamiliarity or curiosity. Intrigue plays a large role in drawing me more closely to other works of art, and I think others have this same experience. Giving the viewer a hint of torso or a trace of an arm crease helps to start a dialogue as to what this form may represent.

Lace
2015
Midrange porcelain, slip, glaze, pearl powdered pigment

OPP: You talk about insecurity, vulnerability and acceptance in your statement. Could you expand on your use of surface decoration as a way to mask “imperfections?”
   
MB: I focus on volume and abstraction to evoke the physical truths of the body, which also speaks largely to the emotional distress that comes with those truths. I seek to balance the physical and emotional weight of my sculptures; I couldn’t have one without the other. Showing volume through folds, curves, gravity and scale conveys the literal nature of physical heaviness, yet this is also how I express emotion and self doubt. The sculptures are reflections of my body and my physical, emotional and mental insecurities, but I abstract the body in the hope of connecting with other females who have their own set of insecurities. There is a constant push and pull between cultural ideals of beauty and beliefs about how one should feel about them.

My soft surfaces and layers of detail make the folds and crevices attractive at first glance. I create 'beautiful' layers of floral elements, detail and delicate line-work on the surface in order to entice the viewer to come in for a closer look. When I choose to carve directly into the form, the decorative, floral shapes reference tattoos and scars, which represent physical and mental permanence. These surface details are a buffer created in the hopes that the unappealing and, at times, hidden aspects will be appreciated. Through the process of making, hiding and/or showcasing, I accept moments in my work that I find unflattering and embrace them in another manner, whether that is from mark-making, glazing or final additions of decals and luster.

Late Bloomer
2015
Stoneware, underglaze decals, glaze
16" x 8 1/2" x 19 1/2"

OPP: For those of us who are not well-versed in ceramics, can you explain briefly the different processes you use in your work in creating the forms?

MB: Volume is a way for me to bring a sense of life and weight to ceramic forms. The way that flesh curves and folds around the bone, leaving points unnoticed within the larger, supple areas is stunning and also under-appreciated. I hand build my sculptures to be voluptuous, using thin slabs of clay that I have cut into different shapes. I then piece slabs together in what might seem like a nonsensical manner, but this process is very natural to how I think and how I see shapes. Having a variety of pieces gives me the freedom to alter the form according to what I am feeling in the moment and to what makes sense from a compositional basis. I attach, detach, push, pull and carve the surface, mostly working from the inside to create a shapely, robust form. I tend to work with a light-colored clay body with a very smooth texture, which aids in the process of forming supple folds and later in the process of carving line work.

Balancing with myself
2015
Midrange porcelain, glaze

OPP: And what about decorating the surfaces?

MB: The sensuality I render through each form happens in multiple steps. At this point, it may have become more of an obsessive habit for me as the maker, but I rigorously smooth and sand the sculpture's surface. After allowing the form to become bone dry, I then use at least two to three different grades of sandpaper to best eliminate any additional blemishes or angles.  A sanded, smooth surface is important for my work because it is one of my main attempts at creating an alluring sculpture and hiding any early stages of 'imperfections' that I am uncomfortable with. 

After the final stages of firing, small seams in the clay wall that pull through at mid range firing temperatures (2124-2264° F) have still compromised the surface quality. Textures such as these are not always considered beautiful, which is why I choose to embrace each curving line and each indention. These unconventional standards are ones that I choose to celebrate and appreciate just as much as the appearance of floral decorations. I use underglaze pencils, underglaze, waterslide decals—think: temporary tattoo application, but for clay—and in the very final stages I often apply a gold or white gold luster.

Makeup (detail)
2015
Midrange porcelain, glaze, decals

OPP: Most—if not all—of your sculptures have cavernous holes. The holes simultaneously nod toward the vessel, a staple of ceramics, and reference body orifices, making several of your sculptures strangely sexual. How do you think about the holes? Are they different in different pieces?

MB: I appreciate when moments in my work (and any artist’s work for that matter) allude to more than one specific reference. There is the slight nod to vessel work and traditional ceramic pottery, but I am more concerned with the holes and crevices as metaphors. As I stated earlier, I love a good intrigue. The deep pockets pull the viewer in for a more intimate look at the form and surface details. The first step in experiencing my sculptures is formal. The second step is more conceptual; the viewer yearns for a connection between the abstract and the representational elements. The heavy folds and deep crevices are dark and empty, akin to the sensation of insecurity when one is unhappy with one's own attributes. They also cannot be fully seen, even when peering inside, which works well to tell the story of how we choose to cloak aspects of our lives. There is always more beneath the surface, the unseen and the unnoticed. It is about taking that second glance to get a better understanding.

A Part of Me
2015
Stoneware, slip, underglaze pencil, glaze
14 3/4" x 15 1/2" x 15 1/2"

OPP: As someone who makes both functional ceramics and sculptures, does the distinction between Art and Craft matter to you?

MB: As an artist,  this is a constant discussion. In my early years of making, I was a painter, which automatically falls into a fine art category. No one questioned whether what I was doing was art. After shifting to ceramics, everyone questions this very same thing. It was an on-going debate in grad school because my program fell under the Artistansry category. Never heard of it? Yeah, me neither. Ceramics, wood, metals and fibers were grouped separately from the Fine Arts category (painting, sculpture and printmaking). We all ended up with the same Master of Fine Arts degree, so why was there a need to separate us during our studies?

I think the main distinction between art and craft, even though I hate making a distinction at all, is that craft is more about community. Not to say that the fine arts category doesn't have community, it's just different. Painters tend to brood in a studio by themselves, it's a singular experience. In ceramics, we rely on each other for support with loading and unloading work, sharing glazes and glaze recipes, firing kilns. Firing work together is one of the oldest traditions- and holds true even now. A high fire gas kiln load requires a full days work (if not two days), so firing by yourself is brutal. Sharing space in the kiln with others helps lighten the load of babysitting a kiln from 8am-9pm. There are also plenty of times where you just have one or two small things to fire, and more often than not, another artist will have room where you can get your work in with theirs.

A few times a year, ceramic artist Chris Gustin (a UMD alum) conducts wood firings at his studio near by and allows the university ceramics club to be a part of it.  Artists from all over the country come to join in on the fun.  It takes days of preparation, a week’s worth of constant firing and dedication from each artist to sign up for shifts throughout.  It is one of the best experiences an artist can have, in my opinion.  It gives you the chance to meet new people in and outside of your field of study and learn and share with each other.    

My friends and family often asked how my “pottery is going.” I'm making art. This shouldn't have offended me—and doesn't now—but at the time I couldn't grasp why the understanding of ceramics to outsiders is so skewed. It wasn't pottery to me. It still isn't. There is functional and nonfunctional; that is the only distinction I feel needs to be made. It is all art under one large umbrella.

Cup & Cloud
2014
Porcelain, glaze, salt fired

OPP: Do you think of the functional objects on your website as different than the sculptures?

MB: My thesis body of work revolved around sculptures, but I was teaching wheel throwing and taking a tableware class on the side because I wanted to expand. I wanted to push the boundaries of what I could make and how I could make it. This is true for any artist in any medium.

It is so exciting to see sculptures or paintings by an artist, and then also realize you may be able to own something from them, only on a smaller scale. I think of my functional pieces (mugs, cups, vases, plates) in the same way that painters or photographers think of their prints. An admirer can share their love for someone’s work within the walls of their home. I have yet to be able to afford a massive sculpture; I can't even afford a large tea pot from some of my favorite makers.  What I can afford is the small tea bowl or yunomi that they also have up for grabs.

Art is about sharing. Sharing viewpoints and opinions, color palettes and line work. . . everything. There is no better feeling than sharing the love we have for art. The art vs craft debate matters only because they are treated different in our society. You cannot have one without the other. Regardless of categories, we are all artists.

To see more of Mary's work, please visit maryisthenewblack.com.


Featured Artist Interviews are conducted by Chicago-based, interdisciplinary artist Stacia Yeapanis. When she’s not writing for OPP, Stacia explores the relationship between repetition, desire and impermanence in cross-stitch embroideries, remix video, collage and impermanent installations. She is an instructor in the Department of Fiber and Material Studies at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where received her MFA in 2006, and was a 2012-2013 Mentor-in-Residence at BOLT in Chicago. Her solo exhibitions include
I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For (2013) at Klemm Gallery, Siena Heights University (Adrian, Michigan), Everything You Need is Already Here (2014) at Heaven Gallery (Chicago) and When Things Fall Apart, a durational, collage installation in the Annex Gallery at Lillstreet Art Center (Chicago).  Most recently, Stacia created site-responsive installations for Form Unbound (2015), a two-person show, also featuring the work of Aimée Beaubien, at Dominican University's O’Connor Art Gallery (River Forest, IL) and SENTIENCE (2016), a group show at The Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art (Chicago, IL).

OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Aisha Tandiwe Bell

#decrown (in Bone)
2015

Interdisciplinary artist AISHA TANDIWE BELL explores the shifting fragmentation of our multiple identities. In performance, ceramics, video, painting and spoken word, she embodies the role of the Trickster, laying metaphoric traps in order to reveal the ones we don't know we are stuck in. Aisha earned her BFA in Painting (1998) and her MS in Art and Design Education (1999) from Pratt. She was a 2006 Skowhegan Fellow and earned her MFA in Ceramics from Hunter College in 2008. Aisha has exhibited extensively throughout New York, as well as internationally in Guadaloupe, Jamaica and the Dominican Republic.  Her work is currently on view until January 17, 2016 in Dis place at the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts in Brooklyn. She was chosen by curator and art historian Sarah E. Lewis to be included in Rush20: 1995-2015, a limited edition print portfolio marking the 20th Anniversary of Rush Philanthropic Arts Foundation. The portfolio is on view at Corridor Gallery (Brooklyn) through Dec 20, 2015 and also traveled to Scope Miami in early December. In 2016, her work will be included in one for Mama one for eye at Gallery One (Jackson State University) in Jackson, Mississippi and in one two three fifths at Space One Eleven in Birmingham, Alabama. Aisha lives and works in Brooklyn.

OtherPeoplesPixels: You write and perform spoken word poetry and combine this text-based work with images of your sculptures and drawings. Which came first in your history as an artist: text or image? Does one or the other dominate the way you think?

Aisha Tandiwe Bell: There has always been a codependent relationship between text, narrative and the visual manifestation of my subconscious. Often, the visuals come first and l have to find the language to ground the form. Sometimes the language comes first or alone. During undergrad at Pratt, I was invited to join the spoken word group "Second 2 Last.” Throughout the group's 10 year run, I experimented with attaching narrative to my art. I'm not sure if either form dominates the way I think. I am more familiar and experienced with words, but I am better at telling multiple stories simultaneously with my visual language. For that reason, my most recent work uses narratives that do not explain the image. Instead, they run parallel and tangential, asking the viewer to fill in the spaces with their own interpretations.

Tangents and Segues
2015
Documentations of performance at Mocada October 2015
Photo credit: Dyani Douze

OPP: Could you talk about the recurring metaphor of the trap? It shows up in sculptural works like Trap Couplet (2012) and Trap Unadorned (2012), as well as drawings like Dream Catcher 2 (2012) and in performances like Tangents and Segues (2015).

ATB: I made my first traps in 2006. I found that the figure distracted many viewers from the conceptual focus of my work. I went through a distilling process, isolating the core concept that underlined all of my work—everything I'd made since 1998. . . I came up with the word trap. My figures are trapped in the walls. They are trapped  in the boxes/bodies of race, sex, class. . . In these series of non-figurative traps, I explored the formal possibilities: golden holes and ditches, nets in trees, heavy clay boxes that fell from the ceiling. I've settled, for now, on these tricked out traps. These people-sized cardboard boxes take on personas. They are seductive bait. They simultaneously reference stereotype, consumerism, hyphenated identities, shelter, class, displacement, homelessness and childhood. I also refer to them as dream catchers, the title brings to mind indigenous American spiritual objects, I want the viewer to think about what that is in the context of these cardboard cloth works that represent traps that catch and hold your dreams, hopes, and potential.

headshells
2009
clay and tempura

OPP: Identity is such a complex concept and experience. It includes both how we see ourselves and others see us. It can offer a sense of belonging and be the source of othering, depending on point of view. It can be a heavy burden and other times a source of pride. How do your headshells, in all their various iterations, speak to this issue?

ATB: It would require several dissertations to effectively answer this question, which is why I feel like visual language allows us to metaphorically fold time and space and cover huge and heavy subjects simultaneously. That being said, these heads/shells/masks/hats/faces deal specifically with my ideas as related to code switching, hyphenated identities, multiple consciousness and shapeshifting. They are armor, burdens, crowns, building blocks, balancing acts. They are tools some of us use to navigate varied spaces, negotiate uneven relationships and possibly get ahead (bootstrapping). I juggle many identities. I am African American Caribbean woman, middle/working class, interdisciplinary artist, mother, wife, educator and more. In our overstimulated present, shifting identities are also fragmented/incomplete, no one specialized in a single channel identity. Often, once buried under multiple identities, assumptions and stereotypes, the individual becomes invisible or at most, a two dimensional outline.

chameleon (detail)
2009

OPP: Your recent work from 2015 is a series of figurative wall works that combine ceramics and drawing. Could you talk about how the two-dimensional and the three-dimensional meet in this series and what it means for the figure to be breaking out of the wall?

ATB: I started as a painter. Painting the figure too large for and trapped within the two-dimensional space of the canvas, boxed in. I focused on the gaze, imagining the subject as aware of the viewer and looking back, conscious of the relationship between the entertainer and the entertained. These paintings were for me a metaphor for the state of Black people in America and questioned the degree to which we shape American culture, verses the degree of material power we hold in said culture. The first step is to be conscious of these realities. So the heads push through the two-dimensional space and invade the space of the view. I liken the two-dimensional to stagnation. The relief is the moment of realization, a pushing through liminal or peripheral space. Realization becomes the catalyst for change, and then the faces come off of the wall and move into the fourth dimension as performance. In 2004 I started to paint the two-dimensional figure directly to the wall. Referencing graffiti, Ndebele house painting  and indigenous forms of two-dimensional art-making. I liked the idea of defacing the white wall, the history of European painting as well as well as leaving my mark in a manner that makes it less of a direct commodity.

Chimera
2015
Photo credit: Selina Roman

OPP: Your 2013 project Susu is definitely not an art commodity. Tell us about the site, process and resulting sculptural form in this project.

ATB: Susu was a commissioned by The Laundromat Project, which invites artists to make art at local laundromats as a way to engage the surrounding community and an audience that may not make it to traditional art spaces. In ancient Akan, SUSU means little little (bit by bit). It is a form of micro economics. I proposed a project that involved collecting clothes in front of my local laundromat. As people left clothing I asked them to also leave words— one word, a paragraph or poem, I gave no limitations. The collected clothing was bleached and dyed one of the primary colors. The work was line dried outside the laundromat and the dripping dyes were caught on heavy watercolor paper. The clothing and the clothing line became a giant skirt that I wore in a performance in which I recited the words that had be contributed by the community. Prints made on the watered color paper covered in the drips from the drying clothes were given away to the audience. These same clothes then became two large cocoon-like sculptures. One that lived in a local community garden for eight months and another that permanently resides in the laundromat. The leftover clothing was donated to a shelter. I would like to do more community-based projects as well as explore the possibilities of transforming  soft, old clothes into hard, fragile sculpture.

Susu
Video documentation of interdisciplinary installation
2013

OPP: SuSu metaphorically compliments your ideas about multiple identities. The project is a process performance and a spoken-word performance. It’s social practice. It’s the dyed drip drawings. It’s public sculpture. It’s the generous and sustainable gesture of donating the leftovers. If any one person only witnessed one aspect of the project, they would not have an accurate understanding of the whole, and yet their experience of the part is valuable. It reminds me of the parable of the blind men and the elephant. They fought because they had each touched a different part of the elephant, and so they couldn’t agree on the nature of the elephant. That brings me back to all the identities we have. It seems to me that problems only emerge when we get attached to a single identity, both in viewing ourselves and in viewing others. Could Susu be a model for how to have a holistic relationship with our identities and the identities of others?

ATB: This is a good question; I have to really think on it. The simple answer is just yes. Because there is no waste in Susu, it is sort of like the golden rule, like the most idealized utopian construct. In many ways it is an ideal that charts the layering of identity metaphorically with simple yet connected actions. But on the other hand, identity is not fixed in the same way an elephant or an ideal is. Just when we think we see the entire elephant, it's shape shifts. I think that we have to accept and understand the moments as individual statements. Each element stands on its own, in its own space, with its own allegory and with its own potential to shift and become, altering the mechanisms and overall shape of the whole. Identity is as mutable as language and, as Lacan says, language is shaped like the subconscious. Susu becomes a stepping stone, a way to begin to see how complex and multidimensional identity is, but it does not take into consideration or perform the fluidity of each element.

To see more of Aisha's work, please visit superhueman.com.

Featured Artist Interviews are conducted by Chicago-based, interdisciplinary artist Stacia Yeapanis. When she’s not writing for OPP, Stacia explores the relationship between repetition, desire and impermanence in cross-stitch embroideries, remix video, collage and impermanent installations. She is an instructor in the Department of Fiber and Material Studies at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where received her MFA in 2006, and was a 2012-2013 Mentor-in-Residence at BOLT in Chicago. Her solo exhibitions include I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For (2013) at Klemm Gallery, Siena Heights University (Adrian, Michigan), Everything You Need is Already Here (2014) at Heaven Gallery (Chicago) and When Things Fall Apart, a durational, collage installation in the Annex Gallery at Lillstreet Art Center (Chicago). Form Unbound, a two-person show, also featuring the work of Aimée Beaubien,just opened at Dominican University's O’Connor Art Gallery (River Forest, IL) and runs through December 19, 2015.



OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Pei-Hsuan Wang

Over and Over Again
2014
Ceramic, glaze, paint
Photo credit: I-Hsuen Chen

PEI-HSUAN WANG combines ceramics with found materials, both domestic and industrial,  in poetic arrangements that evoke the home. Abstract references to picture frames, house plants, curtains and ottomans hint at intimate, stable spaces, which seem to be the antidote to the disruption of international migration—from Taiwan to America and back again—that informs her practice. Pei-Hsuan received her BA from Macalester College in Minnesota and her MFA from Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan. In 2014, she had two solo exhibitions in Taipei, Taiwan: Mobile Scapehood at FreeS Art Space and Formation No.1: On Levitation at Bamboo Curtain Studio. In 2015, she has been an artist-in-residence at 1a Space in Hong Kong and European Ceramic Workcentre in the Netherlands. She lives and works in Taipei, Taiwan.

OtherPeoplesPixels: You were born and raised in Taiwan, earned your BFA and MFA in the U.S. and then returned to Taiwan in 2013. How has your personal experience of international migration affected the work you make?

Pei-Hsuan Wang: Taiwan is a country in constant struggle with its own identity. This has affected the mentality of many Taiwanese people: we are forever locating/relocating ourselves in this ever changing world with fluctuating powers. I left Taiwan unaware that a big part of what motivated my departure was the unfulfilled hole of not knowing who I was and where I came from in a "worldly" context. I had attempted to pass as someone "legitimate" by migrating West-ward. I did not see this until years later, of course. Being in the U.S. allowed me to reflect on my experiences occupying multiple spaces. I began to see Taiwan in a different light, and at the same time, view America from a critical perspective. All of these become things I think about in my work.

All They See is the Horizon Line
2011
Ceramic
13 x 8 x 6" each
Photo credit: James Carrillo

OPP: Earlier projects, Chinked-Out Factory and Asian Persuasion (both 2011), make overtly political statements about identity, the commodification of stereotypes and globalization? These projects are such a contrast to your recent installations, which I would describe as poetic and meandering as opposed to pointed and critical. What led to this shift?

PW: I often have ideas that I don't have time to follow through with yet. This is kind of what happened to Chinked-Out Factory and Asian Persuasion. They were meant to be long term endeavors. I was struggling to execute these projects in final forms, however, despite the fact that there existed already a variety of pieces in thought or sketch forms that could be made whenever I felt like it. I believe this has a lot to do with fear of perpetuating stereotypes and disseminating easily misinterpreted messages. I wonder if the satirical content is clear in the racially charged comments and caricatures I create, and if the work only appeals to those already aware of the things I want to talk about and therefore, remains a witty one-liner. I am still thinking about this.

The more poetic works are ways for me to ask questions rather than give answers or demand attention in approval. More thoughts are able to generate that way, for me and for the viewers. I am able to play more freely with ideas, materials and forms and to think as I make. Sometimes I come to no solid conclusion and I’m totally okay with that. Every piece becomes an experiment.

Closer to Home
2013
Bamboo, ceramic, cushion
Dimension variable
Photo credit: Thomas Cheong

OPP: Throughout your sculptural oeuvre, I notice a lot of visual references to home decor. In some cases, you've used actual found furniture, as in In Transit (2011), but there are also more abstracted, poetic indications of picture frames, house plants, ottomans, carpets and curtains in Portal (2012) and Closer to Home (2013). Could you talk about the significance of these references?

PW: I like taking things that are dear and familiar to my experiences and turning them into something vaguely associative. These things become starting points to wonder. They can act as anchors to relate, in visual form or other forms. The fact that they are often home decor did not occur to me until you mentioned it in this question. I suppose I am interested in observing spaces and things in those spaces, however fitting or out of place.

Closer to Home
2013
Ceramic, tarp
each object approx. 13 x 10 x 55"
Photo credit: Thomas Cheong

OPP: I love the images of Formation No.1: On Levitation (2014), your most recent exhibition, which show viewers/participants interacting with your sculptures. The Throne, for example, seemed so precarious until I saw the images with children climbing the wooden stairs. Does this audience participation relate to the sense of detachment you write about in your statement?

PW: Thank you. As a whole, the piece is a version of the more or less structured manifestation of my messy and multilayered thoughts at the time. I wanted the audience to experience the space and become a part of my thought form in visual realization. They were encouraged to participate and activate the installation, but were not imagined or anticipated in any way to "mean" something or relate to something to my work when I made the piece. I wanted to allow whatever happened to happen, and allow the piece to create its own extended stories, through whichever ways possible.

The Throne
2014
Wood, found school chair, found fragments of brick houses, cement
Photo credit: I-Hsuen Chen

OPP: In asking that question, I was thinking that inviting participation with the work is a way to create a connection between you and your viewers that is beyond the visual. With the growth in Social Practice work over the last decade and a wider acceptance of materiality as on par with composition and form, the functions of fine art are in the process of being reconsidered and the boundaries are shifting—as they always do. It’s actually quite difficult to simply talk about “visual” art anymore, because so many artists are working in ways that engage other senses and the body and mind as a whole. Sometimes the word “viewer” is no longer accurate. I’m curious what you think about fine art’s history of privileging the eyes over other modes of perception. Is it changing?

PW: I do believe it is important that the participation of the "viewers" not be limited to the visual, but also other modes of perception—spacial, audio and corporeal—that are present in my work. We all have certain senses that we rely on over the others; this opens up more opportunities to explore ways of production and also ways of understanding. And I do think the experience and the awareness of the experience have become a big part of art practices in all disciplines. I believe it is going to be even more so in the future, with newer attempts to bridge peoples with ideas, which are never quite visual in the first place, in whatever ways we can.

Altar
2014
Salvaged wood, old pallets for concrete pours, resin, concrete, bulb, seat cushion
Dimension variable
Photo credit: I-Hsuen Chen

OPP: What's being worshiped in Altar, a piece in your most recent exhibition, Mobile Scapehood?

PW: The title Altar mainly referred to the feeling that the piece gave me personally. It was tucked in a quiet corner in an existing space and created a small space of its own, even though the structure seems semi-open to the eye. The niche space allowed one to kneel in cozily and study the textured details of the resin, which was in fact a messed-up cast with the wrong ratio of A-B parts, as well as the hole within the concrete shape, which was originally a custom-made piece for an industrial ventilation system in some factory in the city. The whole thing can be like a hollow mind space waiting to be filled with people's private thoughts. In that sense, the thing to be worshiped was absent.

To see more of Pei-Hsuan's work, please visit pei-hsuanwang.com.

Featured Artist Interviews are conducted by Chicago-based, interdisciplinary artist Stacia Yeapanis. When she’s not writing for OPP, Stacia explores the relationship between repetition, desire and impermanence in cross-stitch embroideries, remix video, collage and impermanent installations. She is an instructor in the Department of Fiber and Material Studies at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where received her MFA in 2006, and was a 2012-2013 Mentor-in-Residence at BOLT in Chicago. Her solo exhibitions include I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For (2013) at Klemm Gallery, Siena Heights University (Adrian, Michigan), Everything You Need is Already Here (2014) at Heaven Gallery (Chicago) and When Things Fall Apart, a durational, collage installation in the Annex Gallery at Lillstreet Art Center (Chicago). Form Unbound, a two-person show, also featuring the work of Aimée Beaubien, just opened at Dominican University's O’Connor Art Gallery (River Forest, IL) and runs through December 19, 2015.


OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Amy Santoferraro

B.B. Baskets
2013

Trained in Ceramics, AMY SANTOFERRARO applies the spirit of that medium, which she says is "best at masquerading as other things," to whatever materials attract her attention: plastic, pool noodles, wood aluminum, foam. Her own inclination to collect informs her work in a variety of media as she tackles the themes of nostalgia, attachment, desire, value and imitation. Amy has a Bachelors of Arts Education and a Bachelors of Fine Art from The Ohio State University (1998-2004). She earned her Masters of Fine Art in Ceramics from Alfred University in 2012. She has had solo exhibitions at The Clay Studio (2009) in Philadelphia, c.r.e.t.a. rome (2013) in Italy and Add to Basket will open at MudFire in Decatur, Georgia in May 2015. She is a 2015 Spring McKnight Resident Artist at Northern Clay Center in Minneapolis and will give a lecture on her work on Tuesday, April 21, 2015 at 6:30 pm in NCC’s Library. Amy teaches Ceramics at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas, where she lives.

OtherPeoplesPixels: Ceramics as a medium is intimately connected to the history of the vessel, which is really the history of human progress. I'd like to hear you muse on vessels in general, in ceramics, in your life or in your practice.

Amy Santoferraro: At the risk of sounding like Miley Cyrus. . . vessels hold stuff, and stuff makes up our world. The vessel strongly influences my work because my practice revolves around ideas of collection and the questioning of value and sentiments associated with stuff we choose to surround ourselves with.
 
The vessel was my first entry into ceramics. I fell in love with creating a useful object that had a built-in guideline: if it holds water and you can drink out of it, you have succeeded! The cup remains present in my practice as a way to get the work out of the studio and into hands. I always make a “take away” or a smaller more practical, more attainable object that represents the larger work but can fit in your hand or not break your wallet.

One of my grad students recently reminded me of possibly the first use of clay to form a vessel, in which woven baskets were lined with clay to transport water from stream to home. In the BaskeTREE series I like to believe that I am quite literally flipping that idea on its head. Vintage and modern day baskets have been translated into plastic and flipped upside down to hold the now all-important junk we need for survival. . . more plastic relics of our existence.

Although I am reluctant to admit it, I am very thankful for Peter Voulkus, who was the first ceramist to buck the system and have his way with the vessel. He fought this battle 60 years ago and his work represents a sustained victory for all ceramists. Now we can both embrace and reject the idea of the vessel. That said, there is nothing sadder than an ironic teapot, but nothing quite as ballsy as a not-pot in contemporary ceramics (of course there are fantastic exceptions to this idea).


Blue/White Ware
2013

OPP: The B.B. Baskets are so seductive. I like the malleability of those simple orbs. They can be so many things: marbles, berries, bubbles. What are they for you? Are the baskets themselves found ceramics?

AS: You nailed it! Sometimes the balls are just balls. But they are also bubbles, fruit, wishes, vomit, bubbling crud, excuses. . . pretty much anything that can build up to be overwhelming, disgusting and/or beautiful. The found baskets in this series fulfill my need to collect evidence of ceramics doing what it does best: masquerading as other objects and materials. One thing mimicking another due to nostalgia or sentiment rather than function or design, or skeuomorphism, is a huge part of my work and practice. I like to think of it as "materials behaving badly." The materials or objects at home depot, the thrift store, or in my studio are kinda like Girls Gone Wild: they reveal too much, are too fake and are too cheap. The B.B Baskets are an ongoing quest; I am always on the look out for small ceramic baskets and new B.B. colors.

2013

OPP: What inspired this series?

AS: They started innocently enough as just airsoft BBs in a basket. My home is across a valley from Fort Riley, Kansas. The Kansas landscape mimics that of Afghanistan and Iraq in color and flatness, making it an ideal training ground for soldiers at the Army base before they head off to war. Everyday I hear and feel the rounds of firing and bombing practice while watching the neighborhood kids shoot each other with BB guns in the convenient overgrown bush hides of my yard. It is quite possibly the most surreal thing I have ever repeatedly experienced.  

I started collecting the BBs the kids left in the yard without any clear direction other than picking up and collecting the beautiful balls of color. The collection grew as the days passed, and I gradually began seeing them as material. I love that they can be so many things and don’t readily volunteer their origin story. It’s not essential to appreciate the resulting object and in no way is a statement about war or only a personal narrative.

2012 MFA Thesis Exhibition at Alfred University feels like a well-designed, but nonfunctional playground. Tell us about how you conceived of and developed this project?

AS: Again nailed it! I was thinking a lot about yards (which is now kinda wild considering the above story was two years after my thesis exhibition). Yards act as an outward expression to the world about the people who maintain them. Many of the objects featured it the exhibition are my recreation of objects you might find in yards: mailboxes, bunny hutches, decorative wagon wheels, that old camper that won’t travel and festive displays of unnecessary motion and lights.  

OPP: What about your inclusion of non-ceramic materials?

AS: Ceramics is never the only solution. My relationship with the material is best described as complicated or open. At times I am in love with it and am exclusive, but far too often I am lured by other materials because they are so very different and will never offer what clay or the ceramic surface can. In many cases I reconcile my devotion to the material because it’s what I know best and can cheaply and effectively manipulate it to work for me. There was a great fear before grad school of wasting or ruining rare, vintage, limited or oddly sourced materials because they are the complete opposite of clay, which is cheap and plentiful. This exhibition was the first time that I let those old hang-ups go. Nothing is precious in ceramics; breakages and surprises are plenty. I have found the same to be true with other materials. Bendy straws can be unbent. My sensitivity and ability to fearlessly adopt any material is a result of embracing the heavily process-oriented nuances that ceramics demand and my unwavering curiosity and desire to make everything work for me. I’m a boss.



plop block
2012

OPP: BaskeTREE (2012) is a series of bonsai-like sculptures in bright, luscious colors. Each one seems to be a mini monument to visual pleasure. Have you ever cultivated an actual bonsai tree? How is your practice like this ancient Japanese practice?

AS: BaskeTREEs are personal landscapes. I think of them as executive desk attire and hope that they may replace mini zen gardens, finger labyrinths or those clanky ball thingies. BaskeTREEs are maintenance free houseplants but can still die. They are the longing for something to care for but not really. I am an avid succulent keeper and realize it’s easy. Bonsai might be next, but it’s a big commitment, like owning a parrot that could possibly outlive you. I am currently the heir apparent to an African Grey parrot.
 
BaskeTREEs are marketed and sold separately as floral arrangements. They are temporal in nature because they employ a wide variety of delicate and non-archival materials (Will floam ever die? Maybe it’ll lose its clumping quality over time. Who knows?) By using plastic, ceramic, aluminum, foam, and a variety of other materials interchangeably, I represent our disregarded and discarded junk as carefully organized and reconsidered, encouraging the celebration and questioning of a possible shelf life attached to an item for sale in a gallery. Acceptance, recognition, imitation and appropriation of these gleaned objects and materials allow a new identity to develop, a new sentiment that is a nod to the past, a charge to the future and highlights our need and affection for objects and materials. It is no coincidence that I lean towards stuff of little to no value. I beg these materials to acknowledge and engage their own artificiality and actively retain a bit of apathy in their new debut.

PLEASE STAND BY
2011


OPP: I love what you say in your artist statement about collections: "Collections are spectacularly selfish satisfactions that are classless and limitless. Rich, snooty museum collectors in search of obscure works of art and unemployed QVC shoppers looking for one more crystal unicorn are essentially doing the same thing as me; strategically collecting objects to organize and make sense of our surroundings through interactions with the material world." I couldn't agree more. Why do you think our society primarily raises the first up as valuable and denigrates the second as wasteful?

AS: Oh man, this is a big one to tackle. I think it really comes down to the fact that money trumps feelings. Or maybe that money is measurable and feelings are not. I came a cross a beautiful passage The Sportsman’s Complete Book of Trophy and Meat Care as a young artist, and it has shaped how I think about the questionable value of objects and feelings.

"Men collect all sorts of things for all sorts of reasons. Some dote on fine art because they have developed a very special hunger for beauty that can be satisfied only by being around or by owning, great pictures. Others collect the very same pictures purely as a financial investment. Paintings, sculpture, artifacts and all manner of other items in limited supply (some of which make a reasonable man shake his head and retire to a corner to contemplate) have been used as currency hedges in recent years.

The point, rather, is that when you actually lay it out and analyze it, practically all of our most commonly accepted collecting hobbies have less reason than that of trophy collecting by the hunter or fisherman. That’s because the sportsman is commemorating a very special moment. . .”
(Tom Brakefield, The Sportsman’s Complete Book of Trophy and Meat Care)

PLEASE STAND BY (detail)
2011

OPP: Do you remember your first collection? Do you have a collection that has nothing to do with your art-practice?

AS: My first collection was "shoe poison," better known as gel silica packets. I kept records of each pair of shoes that helped contribute to my coveted collection of gel silica. Diagrams, dates of purchase, sizes, colors and materials were all meticulously cataloged. Only my best friends were invited into my top-secret laboratory/closet to view it and hear of my somewhat sinister plans to poison bad guys.  

I keep a couples collection, but only add to it when I'm in a relationship. I collect ceramic dogs, but only if they are black, white or a combination of both. I collect commemorative plates, but only if they are already outfitted with a hanging device. Every collection has a caveat otherwise it'd be completely out of control. Carefully chosen and organized collecting lets me believe that I am a collector and not a hoarder.


To see more of Amy's work, please visit amysantoferraro.com.

Featured Artist Interviews are conducted by Chicago-based, interdisciplinary artist Stacia Yeapanis. When she’s not writing for OPP, Stacia explores the relationship between repetition, desire and impermanence in cross-stitch embroideries, remix video, collage and impermanent installations. She is an instructor in the Department of Fiber and Material Studies at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where received her MFA in 2006, and was a 2012-2013 Mentor-in-Residence at BOLT in Chicago. Recent exhibitions include solo shows I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For (2013) at Klemm Gallery, Siena Heights University (Adrian, Michigan) and Everything You Need is Already Here (2014) at Heaven Gallery in Chicago, as well as Here|Now, a two-person exhibition curated by MK Meador and also featuring the work of Jason Uriah White, at Design Cloud in Chicago (2014). Most recently, Stacia created  When Things Fall Apart, a durational, collage installation in the Annex Gallery at Lillstreet Art Center. Closing reception guests were invited to help break down the piece by pulling pins out of the wall.


OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Wesley Harvey

teapot
2010

Drawing on Queer Theory, ceramic artist WESLEY HARVEY explores what the terms"normative and deviant" mean for the contemporary, gay male. His visual influences range from the pottery of Ancient Greece to kitschy figurines, and his work sits on the line between functional object and sculpture. Wesley received his BFA from Indiana University (2002) and his MFA from Texas Tech University (2007). His work is included in the permanent collections at the de Young Museum in San Francisco, the Ceramic Research Center at  Arizona State University and the Art & Artifact Collection of the The Kinsey Institute for Research on Sex, Gender, and Reproduction. In 2014, The Cupcake Eaters won First Place in the 20th San Angelo National Ceramic Competition at the San Angelo Museum of Fine Arts. Wesley's forthcoming solo exhibition one night stand opens on October 6, 2014 at Clamp Light Artist Studios & Gallery in San Antonio, Texas, where he lives and works.

OtherPeoplesPixels: Is it important to make a distinction between functional pottery, decorative pottery and ceramic sculpture, either in your work or in general?

Wesley Harvey: As a ceramic artist, I love that I can jump back and forth between the craft and the fine art. For the longest time, ceramics as a medium was just stuck in the craft movement. But most of my career, I have made ceramic sculptures. About four years ago, I became interested in the pottery aspect of ceramics. Some days in the studio, I absolutely love to sit down and spend the day just making cups. I treat each cup of mine just as I would a sculpture, making sure that every inch of the cup is exactly how it should be. My newest body of work is pottery-based, but I consider the larger vessel forms to be sculpture.



bearsome
2011

OPP: Could you talk about the intersection of the cutsey-kitschy with the overtly sexual, especially in your 2011 solo show Afternoon Delight at Joan Grona Gallery?

WH: I grew up loving all things kitsch because of the fascination that my grandmother had with tawdry objects. She taught me to appreciate them rather than see them as trash items, as most people do. She had so many objects and figurines in her home; it was like a kitsch museum. My mom is a huge Elvis fan, and she had so much Elvis memorabilia in our home while I was growing up. He was in every room and on every radio, even in the car. I guess I just got the kitsch gene passed onto me by the family. I knew that Afternoon Delights was going to be my last solo exhibition using the kitsch-inspired influence of figurines and collectibles, and I wanted it to be special. Sexuality has been an influence in my artwork since my undergraduate studies at Indiana University. While there, I visited the Kinsey Institute for Research on Sex, Gender and Reproduction. It had everything and anything in all regards to sex. I loved it!

So for the exhibit, I really wanted to use both of these influences and create something special for the audience that would make them either love the artwork or be somewhat bothered that I put my kitschy figurines in these awkward situations. My favorite piece in the exhibition was come on baby, which consisted of a line of 25 bunnies who where actually having sex with each other. Formally, the piece was beautiful and up close, the viewer could see that each bunny had a phallic part that was going into a hole on the backside of the next bunny. I was blown away by the support; everyone loved it!

Dinnerware Installation (detail)
2010

OPP: Dinnerware Installation (2010) features decals of images created by Tom of Finland, called the "most influential creator of gay pornographic images" by cultural historian Joseph W. Slade. This china set is particularly interesting in relation to the blurred boundary between functional and conceptual uses of ceramics because it brings to mind the marriage tradition of registering for a china pattern. 2010 was the year Prop 8 was finally ruled unconstitutional. Is Dinnerware Installation a response to the ongoing struggle for marriage equality?

WH: Yes and no. It’s more personal than overtly political. This second body of pottery-based work was heavily influenced by my studies in Queer Theory, which defines and examines both normative and deviant behavior. Previously, I was really only looking at normative behavior. I started to create this work because of the feeling that I would not ever get to the point in my life when I would be able to register for a china pattern. This body of artwork was a way for me to become sexual and fantasize about a different life than what I had as a single, gay man. I am really the biggest prude in the world and the worst at relationships. The artwork for me counter-balances those insecurities.

Pussy Stare
2014
Porcelain, glaze, decals, glitter, resin

OPP: It’s important to say that the terms normative and deviant are social constructions that shift and change over time and from place to place. It seems like those terms may have even shifted within the queer community over the last decade, as same-sex marriage is slowly, but surely becoming legal in more states and more same-sex couples are parenting. For readers who are unfamiliar with Queer Theory, can you say more about “normative and deviant behavior?”

WH: Yes, the terms normative and deviant are social constructions that do shift and are always evolving. As with any duality, you cannot have one without the other. Whereas Gay/Lesbian Studies focused its inquiries into natural and unnatural behavior with respect to homosexual behavior, Queer Theory expands its focus to encompass any kind of sexual activity or identity that falls into normative and deviant categories. So, the fact that gay marriage is becoming more accepted in our society puts it in the normative category. But the deviant category, which I do not see society accepting for quite a while, interests me most. While doing my research for my collage process, I sometimes even get red in the face. For example, the cupcake eaters, was inspired by deviant subject matter. I found an ad on Craig's List: a gentlemen wanted men to come into his hotel room and defecate into his mouth by using a special chair, which would already be set up when the callers entered the room. I modified this deviant act, using cupcakes falling into the guys mouth. I felt that was a bit more appropriate.

the cupcake eaters
2013
Stoneware, glaze, decals, luster, silk flowers

OPP: The stoneware pots—the cupcake eaters (2013), daydreaming in gold (2013), B.A.B.S. (2013) and portraits of daydreaming (2014)—covered in decals recall the pottery of Ancient Greece, which tell the stories of what life was like then. Are they meant to be viewed as future artifacts telling stories that might otherwise be lost?

WH: These particular pieces are definitely influenced by the ancient Greek vessels. In pieces like the cupcake eaters, I am referencing acts of deviant sexuality; more than stories that might be lost, these are matters that are not discussed. I find it interesting that people want to talk about the deviant, but not really. It is like a bad car wreck. You want to look at it, but at the same time, you feel bad. What I am doing is not really shocking, considering the imagery of the ancient Greek vessels. When you take a second look at that pottery, you start to notice what is really going on with those men and adolescent boys.

OPP: You have a upcoming solo show at Clamp Light Artist Studios & Gallery in San Antonio, Texas (October 6-13, 2014). What are you planning for this exhibition? How will it be different from previous shows?

WH: For this exhibition, I have changed things up a bit in the studio. I have ditched porcelain and stoneware, and I’m working exclusively in terra cotta. The vessels are going to be much more closely related to the ancient Greek vessels in their forms. I have never really used terra cotta, and I wanted that historical reference to be there with these new forms. I am most excited about the kylix cup forms I’m making for the show. They are a much smaller scale than the vessels, and it has been nice working with the handheld scale again. The imagery is changing also and branches out from the Tom of Finland guys. The kitsch and cute is going to make an appearance again, but only in the two-dimensional imagery. Let’s just say that I’m throwing smurfs and Elvis into the mix!

To see more of Wesley's work, please visit wesleyharvey.com.

Featured Artist Interviews are conducted by Chicago-based, interdisciplinary artist Stacia Yeapanis. When she’s not writing for OPP, Stacia explores the relationship between repetition, desire and impermanence in cross-stitch embroideries, remix video,
collage and impermanent installations. She is an instructor in the Department of Fiber and Material Studies at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where received her MFA in 2006, and was a 2012-2013 Mentor-in-Residence at BOLT in Chicago. Recent solo exhibitions include I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For (2013) at Klemm Gallery, Siena Heights University (Adrian, Michigan) and Everything You Need is Already Here (2014) at Heaven Gallery in Chicago. Stacia recently created a site-responsive collage installation in her hometown. NEXT: Emerging Virginia Artists runs until October 12, 2014 at the Peninsula Fine Arts Center in Newport News, VA. Here|Now, a two-person exhibition curated by MK Meador and also featuring the work of Jason Uriah White, is on view at Design Cloud in Chicago from July 25 - October, 24, 2014.

OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Rain Harris

Bauble
2006
Porcelain, luster, rhinestones, pearls
12" x 12" x 7.5"

RAIN HARRIS examines our assumptions around "good" and "bad" taste in relation to class, geography and time period. Her ornate, decadent porcelain sculptures and her expansive installations, all of which teeter precariously on the imagined boundary between “high” and “low” art, reference Victorian, Americana and Baroque aesthetics. Rain received her BFA in Ceramics from Rhode Island School of Design and her MFA from Ohio State University. In 2012, she was an artist-in-residence at The Pottery Workshop in Jingdezhen, China, and will exhibit work made there in a two-person show with her husband, fellow ceramicist Paul Donnelly in October 2013. Rain lives in Kansas City, Missouri.

OtherPeoplesPixels: You have worked in a variety of media, including wood, fabric and Plexiglass, but your most common medium is porcelain. When did you first start working with this material?

Rain Harris: I made my first major body of work in ceramics at camp when I was seven. It was a series of bowls that could double as paperweights—or quite possibly lethal weapons. But in all seriousness, I started art school with the intention of becoming a jeweler, not a ceramicist. I needed to take an elective course. At the time, ceramics was one of the only things available. Truthfully, I did not see clay as a long-term option as it seemed too “crafty” and “messy.” My initial interest in jewelry and fine metals still seeps into my work, but clay immediately made sense to my practice. I often approach it with an eye toward diminutive grandeur and extreme preciousness, regardless of the scale I am working at.

Initially I worked in stoneware, but as my conceptual ideas evolved, my material choices needed to change. When I started to develop work that was influenced by court dinnerware and the decorative arts, porcelain was the obvious choice because of its smooth surface, white color and historical associations.
Americana (detail)
2007
cnc routed wood paneling, plexiglass, paint
50' x 11' x 7.5'

OPP: What do you love about working in clay? 

RH: I love the malleability of ceramics, and I frequently call clay "the chameleon of art materials." Because it can be manipulated by hand or cast into molds, its appearance can change everytime. It can mimic gold or silver. It can be shiny, matte or almost plastic-like. Visually, it can appear either hard and rigid or soft and fluid. The results can be amazingly varied.

OPP: Is there anything you hate about clay?

RH: I have a love-hate relationship with ceramics in general. I currently work with molds so I have the ability to easily make multiples. This allows me to make larger, more complex structures, and it also gives me the freedom to be less precious with my work. But the big problem with ceramics is its fragility during firings. Shipping and transporting are also an issue. My loss rate can be really frustrating at times.   

OPP: In your statement, you say: "I ask if an ugly object can be in ‘good taste?’ Also, can a beautiful object also be a tasteless object?" I see this in the gaudiness of your sculptures. That they are gaudy is undeniable, and gaudiness is culturally associated with bad taste. And yet, I find the sculptures, without a doubt, beautiful. But part of the beauty lies in how smart they are. Do you see the objects you make as beautiful or ugly?

Bliss
2006
Porcelain, luster, plexiglas, rhinestones
12" x 9" x 13.5"

RH: Arguably, beauty is not a quality inherent in objects. It only exists in the mind and eye of the beholder. Taste is also a learned behavior. That aside, I would categorize almost everything I have made as simultaneously beautiful and ugly. Each attribute is reinforced and amplified by its polar opposite. In my poison bottle series, the inherent gaudiness of the bottles is more pronounced than in other bodies of work. Normally my work has a restrained gaudiness. I use vintage floral decals to decorate the surface of the sculptures. Unlike most people in the contemporary art world, I do not consider decorative or pretty to be bad words. How those qualities are used determines their validity. 

OPP: I’m glad you brought up the idea that decorative is sometimes considered a bad word. It should NOT be a disparaging term, but is often used to dismiss work. I actually think decorativeness as a concept is much more complex than most people believe. It is often associated with superficiality, but I'd like to emphasize that superficiality is about the surface, and the surface is the first point of impact. I think it is often the viewer who doesn't penetrate the surface when work has a decorative quality. It's not the decorativeness of a piece that keeps viewers from going deeper; it's the viewer's assumptions about what decorativeness means that halts appreciation for the work. What's your take on the concept of decorativeness?

RH: I have always believed that decoration can be used as a narrative device. Repetitive symbols, archetypes and color choices can tell a visual story rather than being simply picturesque. Layout and composition, scale, color and process can be something visceral and emotional, something that has a greater meaning. Ultimately, pattern is larger than life; even when it is small, it has the ability to expand infinitely.

My work is heavily layered with visual information. I stack and arrange patterns and forms so it becomes difficult to determine where the pattern begins and ends. Is the design the form or the space behind it? This process is a balancing act. I push the decoration to the point where it is just about to collapse under the visual weight of its own embellishment. By doing this I am able to keep a sense of order, largely because I am responding to the patterns inherent in the structure of the work. I practice restraint in excess: In each piece, I challenge myself to stop just short of “too much.”

Synthetic Blossom
2009
slip-cast porcelain and decals

OPP: Artificial Phylum is an ongoing series of porcelain sculptures inspired by images of weeds and wild flowers. The sculptures themselves, however, are hard, shiny and decorated in kitschy decals and colors—specifically, Tangerine makes me think of two chairs I grew up with. Can you talk about this tension between the organic and the manufactured?

RH: The forms in Artificial Phylum are largely developed by the loss of information. I start by photographing plants and rendering them as computer-aided drawings. Instead of making these forms precise like the original plant forms, I simplify and let the visual information dissolve around the edges. Technology aids the abstraction. I cut my originals out of pink foam on a CNC router with a chunky drill bit, further reducing the visual information.

In earlier projects, I created designs that were visually dense. But in Artificial Phylum, flatness became incredibly important because it allowed the colors and patterns to become more aggressive. It allowed me to create work that was minimally excessive. Reduction allowed me to create stylistic cadences that suggested familiarity without resorting to mimicry. By distancing myself from the original object, I was able to create hybrids that were an amalgamation of organic qualities and manmade design.  

I have always had an odd relationship with color. I am fascinated with color combinations that are inherently ugly—not the kind of ugly found in a lavender Wal-Mart polyester teddy bear sweater. That is revolting. I am more drawn to the unpleasant hues of a dirty, 1970s harvest gold kitchen. I use colors that are almost nice but just aren’t pretty. These shades could masquerade as designer colors, but they are just too something—too dirty, too sallow, too jarring, too wrong, but almost right. I don’t necessarily gravitate to specific colors, but I am simultaneously attracted to and repulsed by certain combinations. I like red, but it is much better when paired with a shocking orange. I am fine with pale mossy dirty green, but it is so much “nicer” when paired with a sickly yellow-brown and maybe a splash of metallic gold.
Tangerine
2008
Slip-cast porcelain and decals
12.5 inches in height

OPP: In the summer of 2011, you did an artist residency at The Pottery Workshop in  Jingdezhen, China, known as the Porcelain Capital. Tell us about your time there.

RH: My husband Paul Donnelly and I worked there for a month. There was a huge learning curve because the porcelain in Jingdezhen handles itself much differently than what we were used to. It’s a beautiful, crazy-super-white porcelain that is fired at a very, very high temperature. I currently fire to cone 6 at around 2200℉, and most people in the United States only fire as high as cone 10. In Jingdezhen they fire to about cone 13, so it is substantially higher.

The forms I designed were variously sized flat wall pieces that ended up slumping in the kiln because the prototypes should have been designed differently to compensate for the heat and the way the clay moves in the kiln. Unfortunately, I did not realize this until almost the end of the residency when everything was fired. I was playing around with these flat wall forms that had inlays of a glow in the dark glaze. When viewed in normal light, they are very subtle as the white surface has darker white inlaid patterns. When the lights are off, the patterns in the surface of the pieces glow in the dark.

Paul and I are going back this summer if we get funding. Now that we understand how to compensate for the material differences, we can accomplish more. We have a two-person show scheduled for October 2013 with Red Star Studios, a ceramics collective in Kansas City. The exhibition will either be at the current space they share with Belger Arts Center or in their immanent new location. It will revolve around the work we made in Jingdezhen, and Paul and I will both be showing our individual work as well as some collaborative pieces. Right now I am working on a gridded piece that will be similar to a piece Paul made in 2008. He is making the cups, and I am decorating them with transfers I made in Jingdezhen. The piece will be large and will blur the line between art, furniture, design and display. 

To see more of Rain's work, please visit rainharris.com.

Featured Artist Interviews are conducted by Chicago-based interdisciplinary artist Stacia Yeapanis. When she’s not writing for OPP, Stacia explores the emotional and existential significance of participating in mediated culture in her embroidery, video, sculpture and collage works. She received her MFA from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago (2006), where she will begin teaching in Spring 2013, and is currently a 2012-2013 Mentor-in-Residence at BOLT Residency in Chicago. Notable exhibitions include Losing Yourself in the 21st Century (Maryland Art Place, Baltimore), MP3 (The Museum of Contemporary Photography, Chicago), Please Stand By: Stacia Yeapanis + Readymade (Baang & Burne Contemporary, New York), Over and Over Again (BOLT Project Space, Chicago).

OtherPeoplePixels Interviews Nathan Prouty

Hot Spots & Rocks bits and bobs
2011

NATHAN PROUTY's small-scale, abstract, ceramic sculptures ellicit a wide range of associations. They read as toys, trophies, fetish objects, consumer products and isolated body parts. Each whimsical and colorful piece maintains an uncanniness and sense of humor that makes it impossible to dismiss as eye candy, while simultaneously engaging the viewer in the pleasure of looking. Recurring formal motifs like piles, shafts and nubs offer the viewer the opportunity to contemplate the attractiveness of the sculptures, as well their ambiguous referents. Nathan's work has been exhibited at Watershed Center for the Ceramic Arts (Newcastle, ME), The Clay Studio (Philadelphia), The Fuller Craft Museum (Brockton, MA) and Lacoste Gallery (Concord, MA) and is featured in The Best of 500 Ceramics: Celebrating a Decade in Clay (2012), published by Lark Crafts. Nathan is currently an MFA candidate in Ceramics at Ohio University.

OtherPeoplesPixels: In your artist statement, you say, "I have a problem. I am an image junkie" and later "My sculptures are the consequences of my addiction." This, of course, has the same humor in it that I also see in the work itself. But do you really think your image collecting and hunting is more excessive than other artists?

Nathan Prouty: I wouldn’t say that my attraction to images is more or less obsessive than other artists. If there is one truth about art weirdos like us, it is that we spend a large chunk of our lives in our own headspace. But looking outward is a huge part of—if not the reason for—what we do. As artists, we have a stronger drive to look and to ask questions about what we are seeing. The seeing and the asking become so intertwined that they fuse together into one process. But understanding the world through looking is just one method of processing and filtering and understanding the crazy thing that is the human condition.

 When people write or talk about my work, they tend to glom onto the Internet imagery idea, maybe because of my blog or because of my statement. The work responds to Internet culture and Tumblr-style image de-contextualizing, but that is not the main subject or inspiration of the work. I’ve just noticed that this is a relatively recent read, and it’s interesting. But it’s too simple of an explanation. It is an easy way for people to feel they’ve figured the work out. They'll say, “Oh, he's mashed together a bunch of images he found online. Now I get it!”

I position myself with self-depreciation and humor in my work, statements and writing because I genuinely believe that we shouldn’t take everything so seriously. But the humor also disarms people who have convinced themselves that they hate "capital 'A' art." Suddenly they can’t stop looking at the giant pile of sparkling unicorn crap in the middle of a pedestal. I love seeing the work manipulate the entrenched prejudices of viewers.

The universal language of humor is one of the most powerful things we have in our toolkit as humans. It primes us to relate to each other and to make our way though the slog that is life on this blue dot. I have to live in that space of goofiness and chuckles to stay sane. If there is a negative in my way of seeing, it is that I have a tendency to go dark and cynical really quickly. But the work itself is so happy and goofy that it compensates for all the darker stuff and enables me to keep my head above those murky waters. I’m not really a quote guy, but Joseph Campbell said we should “participate joyfully in the sorrows of the world…” I try to live by that as much as I can.

"Bobo Getches Snatches the Matches"
2010
Earthenware, Wood, Plexiglass
9" x 3" x 7"

OPP: Most of your sculptures are painted earthenware. Can you tell us a bit about this material?

NP: Clay is the axis around which things revolve in my studio. But I ditch it in heartbeat if it gets in the way for any reason. It’s not really a point of pride or something to champion from the rooftops. It’s a matter of pragmatism and efficiency. I use whatever it takes to get the job done: paint, glaze, underglaze, china paint, embossing powder, flocking, glitter and resin. One of the quirks of clay—and here I'm generalizing a bit—is a pretty major trade off between strength and color. You can either have bright, awesome, saturated color on lower temperature clay that is more fragile or you can have so-so colors—browns and grays and all that crunchy, hippy, macramé stuff—on really high-temperature, robust ceramics. That’s the mug you want in your hand at the  Renaissance Fair, when the guy dressed in the crappy jester costume says something about your mother. High fire stuff is strong and dense and can really cause some Ren Fair damage! That’s why a lot of the functional stuff you see is brown; at those higher temperatures, the color just burns out. There are some absolutely stunning effects you can get at that higher temperature range, but I’m really in love with the versatility of the color and surface of the lower range material. A majority of my surfaces are glazed. The commercial glaze you can get off the shelf these days is pretty amazing in terms of its color range. I do use paint for texture on the plexiglass bases, but that’s about it these days. Within the old-school ceramics crowd, there is this unspoken rule that unless you mix the glazes yourself, you are not a "real" ceramicist, which is just a bunch of dogmatic jock-potter junk. I do and use whatever it takes to get the result I want.

OPP: What's it like to work with clay?

NP: Clay is a royal pain in the ass to work with. It’s fussy and fragile and dirty. It is probably one of the most inconvenient media to work in, but it is also awesomely versatile if you know how to tease what you want out of it. Clay has this insane ability to mimic. Ceramics can look like plastic, steel, grass or Formica.

The labor is crazy with clay, but the clay I use is the dumbest stuff that’s available. It's low-fire white stuff meant for summer camp ashtrays and kindergarten blobs. But it is plastic and flexible as hell and takes colors really well. Secretly, I love the fact that I am using clay that was meant for children’s projects to make my work.

2012
Ceramic, underglaze, acrylic, wood, glitter, resin, silken cord, mixed media
Detail

OPP: What do you hate about clay?

NP: One of the things that drives me crazy about clay is “the community.” I say that with a big eye-roll and sweeping air quotes. I think it’s awesome that the medium has this robust base of people that get together to "talk clay," and there is such a widely distributed academic community revolving around ceramics. But at the same time, I am skeptical. It can result in some pretty lazy thinking. There is very little criticality in our corner. While it’s nice that everyone gets a trophy for showing up, it creates some steep, uphill battles for ceramic artists, who are not interested in spending a week obsessing over kiln design or who went to which MFA program. And because there is such a culture of subpar criticality, it’s easy to overcompensate and try to shove tons of concept and meaning and academic language into work that should just exist on its own. This is where the academic MFA factory really becomes the default way of surviving and thinking, which is a bit troubling to me. I am too much of a skeptic to trust any "default" just because it is "the way things are done." I might be contradicting myself. I don’t really have a thesis there; I’m just making observations based on my own experiences. Ok, now I'm hopping off my soap box.

A lot of the clay work that is "making it" out there in the larger art world right now is this stuff that is clunky and poopy and super-summer-campy—I don’t know how else to describe it. Like, chunky ashtrays with drippy glazes. Sterling Ruby and Arlene Shechet, are two that come to mind. Let me be clear though that they all make really beautiful work—I would kill for a Sterling Ruby piece. But the fact that curators and museums, suddenly willing to consider ceramics and rushing to jump on the bandwagon, are gravitating towards that genre specifically and somewhat exclusively is a bit odd. For those people who really know the material, the clunky ham-fisted look is water way under the bridge, and I question why there is not more innovative, diverse work getting picked up. It’s out there, but we never see it "cross over." The net needs to be cast WAY wider, and the ceramic folks bear most of the responsibility in making that happen although no one wants to cop to it. I think this is somehow tied into the same reasons we still see Peter Volkous being included in "cutting edge" contemporary ceramics exhibitions. Again, he makes great, powerful work, and I'm not suggesting that it should be shoved aside. But it is time to bring some additional voices and ideas to a wider audience.

"Hercule"
2010
earthenware, glaze, acrylic, mixed media
5.5" x 3.5" x 3.5"

OPP: Your sculptures are abstract, but I see a lot of recurring forms in them, including shoes, both male and female sex organs. Sometimes they look like unusable, complicated wireless mice. I get the sense that it doesn't matter to you if what I see is where you started from, but would you pick your favorite piece and give us the insider info on what you were thinking about when you made it?

NP: Oh man. Yeah, I really love that viewers can bring their own associations to the work. But I feel guilty sometimes because it’s too easy for me to just shrug and play innocent with the content—“you see whatever you wanna see, man!” At the same time, it is hard to delve into and thoroughly unpack the meaning because the work is kind of about everything, and therefore it's kind of about nothing. It's about the everyday, in all the many ways that word has meaning.  

It's sex, death, love and angst all wrapped up in a poop joke. And I am ok with the poop joke being front and center. It's the punch line that is delivered first, and you as the viewer need to work backwards towards the actual set-up of the joke, which may or may not have some more serious undercurrents bubbling up. But if all you see is the poop, I can't get uppity about it. All that said, what I say in my statement is also true: the pieces are a consequence of crazy amounts of input from all corners, not all of it necessarily visual. It’s not just about the imagery but also the implications behind that imagery. Any given piece is actually some neurotic algorithm of history, advertising, emotion, design, desire, frustration and nerdiness.

Right now, my favorite piece is Hercule. It came out of my Masterpiece Theater phase, when I was watching a bunch of PBS murder mysteries and period pieces. Hercule Poirot, created by Agatha Christie, is the main character in this great, campy PBS show that has been running forever. That piece is the only one I still have in my possession, and I think I’m going to keep it for myself. It’s this dainty, small pink thing that lies low and flat. It has a certain formal command of its own space, similar to the character in the TV show—dainty, meek, but razor sharp and easily underestimated. It holds this blob covered by these little strips of bandages or toilet paper, almost like a hat. I was thinking about old-school Universal Studio monsters like the Mummy and about toilet paper and its uses and connotations—what an odd thing! The base of Hercule—in fact, the bases of most the pieces—references countertops and laminate surfaces of the post-war American material boom. Thanks to new chemical technology, anything could be made to look like anything else. The little slice of 1950s kitchen countertop that Hercule sits atop represents the insane abundance of products and material wealth that was part of the new, post-WWII American reality.

"Chimpy Hits the Deck"
2009
lowfire white earthenware, porcelain, glaze, luster, wood, plexiglass, paint
9" x 5" x 9"

OPP: You are in your second year of graduate school at Ohio University. How has your work changed since you've been there?

NP: Oh boy. When I decided to go back to school, I made the conscious decision to seriously reevaluate what had become habitual in my studio practice. One thing that has really cracked wide open for me is the idea of placement. I have started to think about the hierarchy and taxonomies of display within the home. If I hear one more grad student talk about the "realm of the domestic," I think I might barf. Yet I find myself right there too, somewhat begrudgingly.

I make these precious, fetishized objects, and they go out into the world. But what happens next? Lately, I’m thinking about the display of cherished, sentimental objects. Why does grandma’s clock go on the mantle, but that weird mason jar full of seashells that you brought back from Myrtle Beach goes on the back of the toilet tank? I’m thinking about the emotion and memory that objects absorb and about the beauty and wondrousness of us as a species, as viewed through our junk. The little, old lady down the street cherishes that crappy, dollar-store resin angel with all her heart. It’s enough to make you tear up. It’s crazy and beautiful at the same time.

To see more of Nathan's work, please visit nathanprouty.com.

Featured Artist Interviews are conducted by Chicago-based interdisciplinary artist Stacia Yeapanis. When she’s not writing for OPP, Stacia explores the emotional and existential significance of participating in mediated culture in her embroidery, video, sculpture and collage works. She received her MFA from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago (2006), where she will begin teaching in Spring 2013, and is currently a 2012-2013 Mentor-in-Residence at BOLT Residency in Chicago. Notable exhibitions include Losing Yourself in the 21st Century (Maryland Art Place, Baltimore), MP3 (The Museum of Contemporary Photography, Chicago), Please Stand By: Stacia Yeapanis + Readymade (Baang & Burne Contemporary, New York), Over and Over Again (BOLT Project Space, Chicago).