OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Mary Black

Makeup (detail)
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.

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
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
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)
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
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
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)

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
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.

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)

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.

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.

Video documentation of interdisciplinary installation

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
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
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
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
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
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.

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

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

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.


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

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.


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)


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


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.


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)

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
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
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

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)
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?

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
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.
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

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"
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.

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

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.

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"
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).

OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Jennifer Koch


In her life-size terracotta sculptures, artist JENNIFER KOCH reveals the reproductive exploitation of female factory farm animals. Her calves, piglets and chicks appear emaciated and vulnerable. Their facial expressions reveal an experience of intense suffering and terror. Research into common agribusiness practices and a lifetime of working with animals fuels her art practice. Jennifer received her BFA from the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth in May 2012. Her first solo show opens on November 27th, 2013 at Colo Colo Gallery in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Jennifer is currently based in Worcester, Massachusetts, where she is a full-time artist-in-residence at the Worcester Center for Crafts.

OtherPeoplesPixels: Tell us a little about your history as an artist. Have you always worked primarily in clay?

Jennifer Koch: I have been drawing and making things since I was a little kid. From middle school through high school I was primarily interested in photography. I didn’t use clay until my senior year of high school. It was love at first touch! I initially applied to college as a ceramics major, but for a long time my love of ceramics was in competition with my interest in photography. I changed my major several times. Eventually, ceramics won because I found I could be more creative with clay. It's more hands on. I love physically building things: sculptures, pottery, weaving and jewelry. Though I appreciate painting, drawing and photography, I’m not much of a two-dimensional art maker.


OPP: I absolutely relate to the animals you portray. I feel pangs of sympathy; they feel so human to me. Their expressions and postures are so pitiful that I found myself grimacing as I looked through your website. The one that affected me the most was Sophie. For a brief second it was a little funny, because I thought of how my cat presents herself to me and has no problem sticking her business in my face at unexpected moments. But then, of course, I noticed how thin that calf is and how she looks like she is being forced down, and then the whole sculpture became about rape and violation for me. In fact, the other calves, Anna and Laura, are also shown in what feel like extremely vulnerable sexual positions. Can you talk about this choice?

JK: I read a very interesting book a few years ago called The Sexual Politics of Meat by Carol Adams, which contributed to my interest in the connection between animals and feminism. My work is specifically focused on the reproductive exploitation of animals. As a woman, I find it the most abhorrent part of the entire animal agricultural system, which depends on the continuous pregnancies of young animals who will die before they reach adulthood. The animals are artificially inseminated while they are essentially babies themselves. There is no consent in this process—the animals have no voice. I want to provoke the question, “Is this rape?” If it’s not, why not? If it is, or if thinking about it makes us uncomfortable, perhaps we need to readjust our actions as consumers of the products these animals produce. If we recognize that animals are sentient beings and have their own desires, should the right to consent be exclusive to humans? I recognize that this is a very challenging and sensitive thought process, but I don’t believe in shying away from something because it’s controversial. 

Many animal byproducts are contingent on the reproductive exploitation of female animals. Cows are kept continuously pregnant in order for factory farms to get the maximum amount of milk and all other dairy products. The male calves are unwanted and become veal. Eggs are byproducts of female chickens' reproductive systems. If males chicks hatch, they are disposed of and usually in horrific, but industry-standard ways—like grinding them up while they are still alive or throwing them into the garbage where they die of suffocation, exposure or starvation. In my work, I present the problem of using animals as objects. There is a natural connection between the methods of oppression and exploitation of women and of animals.

OPP: Well, I was going to ask you if it is significant that all the animals have female names, but now I think the answer is clear. But do the responses to the sculptures change when viewers read the titles?

JK: The titles were of much debate during my final thesis critique in May (2012). Initially, it was important to me that viewers understood that all of my sculptures are female, and I hoped to increase empathic response by giving them human names. But I got the feedback that the titles change the message of my work, that the human names turn the work into a metaphor for the human experience. That is something I want to avoid. It’s all about the animals. Based on that feedback, I've decided to change the titles to something more informative. I had started considering new titles this summer and then got distracted with my new work and forgot about it until I was sent this question! Thank you for the reminder!

OPP: You’re welcome. I have to say that I love the female names as titles, but they did lead me down that path to thinking about my own suffering as a human being and the experience of suffering in general. It’s my natural tendency to see metaphor, even where there is also literal truth.

JK: I think that’s not just your reaction but human nature. We can really only experience the world as humans and are barely even able to relate to other humans who are not very similar to us. I was hoping to reach people via empathy, but it’s very difficult for people to think outside their own species, and I overlooked that in my optimism.

OPP: Can you share any alternatives you’ve considered? 

JK: I only have a few alternative names worked out for the pieces that are on my website. Laura, the calf with the large udder, will potentially be renamed Mastitis, which refers to an inflammation of the breast tissue due to infection. Nicole, the piglet that hangs from a steel nipple on the wall, will be renamed Weaned. There are also new pieces with similar titles that aren't yet on my website. Some of these only appear in studio shots on my Flickr stream right now, because they haven’t yet been professionally photographed. 


OPP: You mention in your statement that you "create work that is conceptually driven by research of common agribusiness practices and from the animals’ physical experiences and emotional responses." And it's obvious that your portrayal of the suffering of animals has both personal and political significance, because you have a link to Vegan Outreach on your artist website. Are you disappointed if viewers contemplate the suffering alone and don't go that extra step of considering their own choices about whether to eat meat?

JK: It's not just about meat consumption; it's about the use of animals who have their own desires and lives. I am using emotion as the entry point to get people to think about the consequences of using animals for personal benefit in their daily lives. Animals are treated as objects in our society and have been for a very long time. I hope to add to the discussion about whether their exploitation is ethically acceptable.

Animals are sentient and emotional beings who form relationships with each other as friends and family. If left alone, they lead their own lives independent of humans. Is it ethically acceptable to deprive these animals of their freedom to lead self-guided lives just so that we can have the products we want? I might not have been challenged to think about this, but my family frequently rescued abused or neglected animals when I was young. I got to see their personalities evolve as they adjusted to more comfortable lives. My horse, Jester, was probably the most influential. I saw him change from aggressive and anti-social to calm. Now he plays with other horses. Professionally, I was a dog groomer for seven years; for a few years, I was also a caretaker of dogs, cats, goats and birds. I’ve also worked at a veterinarian office and at a small pet supply store. I just can't view animals as objects.

My life had to change when I realized that I used them in my own life, not just as a food source but also for entertainment, clothing, beauty products and health products. I want to share that thought process through my art. I don't expect many people to change their actions as a result of considering my sculptures, but I want to keep the discussion moving forward. I would be disappointed if I wasn’t successful in creating a debate. Social change is a long process, but I believe in it. My work won't likely be the turning point, but it’s a reminder and a push. My work aims for an idealistic outcome, but my expectations are realistic.

OPP: You've recently graduated with your BFA and are currently an artist-in-residence at Worcester Center for Craft. How has the residency changed your work?

JK: The Worcester Center for Crafts has been great so far. I have a wonderful work space and supportive colleagues who aren’t afraid to give me the feedback I need. It’s very different from being in school because there are no deadlines except the ones you make for yourself. It has been a challenge to learn to work in a self-directed way. There’s a learning curve, but eventually I’ll get the hang of it. 

I knew before I started the residency that I’d be working smaller, since I don’t have access to an enormous kiln any more. I plan on getting back to larger pieces this winter and tackling a new construction method. It’s taking some time to work up the nerve, because there WILL be failures. Let’s face it: no one likes failures, even if they’re expected.

In the meantime, I’m experimenting with new surfaces. I’ve been trying out underglazes and oxides at different firing temperatures, as well as adding acrylic paint and gouache after firing the clay. I’m also trying to bring more context and narrative to each piece. I’m using interactions between other animals and objects to bring more meaning to the animals’ expressions. I’ve made two sets of mother sheep with baby lambs that are reaching for each other. The interaction is between the mother and the baby as well as with the obstacles separating thema wooden palate in one piece and a fibrous thread in the other.

To see more of Jennifer's work, please visit jenniferkochart.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).

OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Giselle Hicks

And Then It Was Still
Vitreous China, Glaze, Wood

GISELLE HICKS makes sculptural objects and installations, which reference emotionally charged sites within the home, such as the bed and the table. Her intricate inlaid surfaces echo her belief that "their surfaces [are] absorbent, retaining traces of our presence and our histories." Hicks is a long-term resident artist at The Clay Studio and will soon begin at short-term residency at Red Lodge Clay Center in Montana. Her work is on display through the summer at the Ferrin Gallery in a show called COVET. Giselle Hicks lives in Philadelphia, PA.

OtherPeoplesPixels: Do you identify yourself a ceramicist or as a sculptor? Is this distinction even relevant?

Giselle Hicks: I identify as a ceramic artist. I used to think that was a limiting distinction to make, but clay is a complex material. It has taken a long time to understand enough about it to be able to say what I want to say with it. I think of it as learning a language: with practice, you start to think in that language. At this point I think with the clay. I don’t see that as limitation. Rather I am getting closer to being able to clearly articulate my ideas with this material. 

I am conscientious about the material being conceptually appropriate. I often wonder if I could express my ideas through another, more immediate or less complex technical process. But there is something about the weight and density of the material, as well as the labor and time-intensive process that appeal to my artistic sensibility and concepts. Making, particularly with clay, is a way for me to feel located in my body and in a space. I value manual labor, working with my hands and body.

I was drawn to ceramics on a basic, sensorial level. I liked the way it felt, smelled and looked. It seemed to offer endless possibilities for transformation. I could make it look like fabric, wood, metal, paper, or mud. As a student, I wanted to learn everything about the material or—to follow the language metaphor—I wanted to be fluent in this material. Eventually, I became enamored with the expansive history and its place within our material culture.

Pattern Language
Slip cast porcelain, terra sigillata, wood, graphite

OPP: You've been an ARTS/Industry resident artist at the John Michael Kohler Art Center in Wisconsin in 2005 and in 2012. Tell us about this program and how it has expanded or changed your work.

GH: The ARTS/Industry residency at the John Michael Kohler Art Center provides artists with time, space, materials and exposure to technical knowledge within the factory. The studio space is on the factory floor adjacent to the associates casting toilets and sinks. Artists use the same materials, glazes, kilns that are used in the factory to make their own work.

It is a fantastic and strange environment to work in. It is big, loud, and hot. I marveled at the scale and complexity of the systems engineered to produce and distribute toilets and sinks. I loved walking through the factory every day. The novelty never wore off.

The first time I applied, I wanted to learn more about slip casting in order to create multiples as a means of increasing the scale of my work. Since then, I almost exclusively use the slip casting process to make my work. The technicians and engineers at the factory were incredibly generous with their expansive knowledge of the material and helped me to troubleshoot throughout the process—whether it was building a mold, casting, glazing, firing. There is a big learning curve in that environment, and the material is engineered specifically to cast toilets and sinks. We were working with the same material, but in a totally different way and for different purposes.

The residency changed my understanding of what is possible with this material and what I am capable of doing with it. My imagination continues to expand when I daydream about work. I am so incredibly grateful for my time there.
The middle is where we begin
Slip cast porcelain, glaze, wood plinth
13 x 2’ (height variable)

OPP: Does access to facilities affect what you are making at any given time?

GH: Absolutely. The times I was able to work on a larger scale were at Kohler or in grad school where I also had access to large kilns, appropriate equipment, and a large studio to produce the work. The scale of the work is important to me. I want the work to be the size of a real bed, quilt, table, or curtain, because though I refer to them as ‘beds’ or ‘quilts’, for instance, they really are abstractions of those things. I want the viewer to recognize them through their scale and proportions, then understand or experience the work from there.

OPP: You have a body of work called Textiles. Many pieces refer directly to quilts in their titles, such as White Quilt (2005) and Floral Quilt (2011). Others, like Floral Panel with Horizontal Tiles (2011) remind me of folded linens stacked up after doing the laundry. What's most interesting about this work for me is the tension between the hard and the soft. You are referring to functional things that carry a lot of emotional weight in all our lives. Quilts and pillows and linens embody care, comfort, and warmth. They are very connected to our bodies. But porcelain is hard and often cold. Can you talk about the opposition of hard and soft in this series?

GH: When I first started making these pieces in 2005, I was thinking about seduction. I wanted the viewer to be drawn to the familiar objects because of the beautiful pattern and material sensuality—they invited touch, appearing soft and pliable. But when the viewer came within an intimate proximity of the work, s/he found the work to be hard, unyielding, and cold. I was skeptical of the power of beauty and the false expectations that it could create.

Now I think about wanting to translate that emotional weight that you mention into a physical form or presence—to make it take up space, permanently. I imagine that the surfaces of the bed and table absorb and retain the traces of our presence. Stories, secrets, voices and gestures become part of their structure. As I use these objects or inhabit these sites, routinely and ritually, they take on a symbolic charge. The weight and density of the symbol increases as experiences layer over and weave into one another. I want to give form to that symbolic weight. And I want it to be beautiful as well as strong and dense and permanent.

My recent and most general artist statement, which describes my compulsion to make things, speaks to this . I know we all hit the snooze button as soon as artists mention memory in their artist statements, but here goes… Memories have a weight that can be felt within the body. Though they change over time, fading or shifting, there is often a sense or a tone associated with them when they surface. This is something difficult to name, but I am compelled to give that weight a form, to move it out from within my body. My work is an attempt to manifest that sense visually and physically.
Slip cast porcelain, glaze

OPP: There is some intensely intricate drawing on the surfaces of most of your pieces, as seen in the Textiles and in Embedded (2010).  Please explain the process by which you add the designs to your porcelain sculptures.

GH: The patterns I use are inlayed into the surface of the clay using a technique called mishima. First I make a prototype of the form out of plaster or clay and make a mold of that. I then cast the forms using a porcelain slip. When the hollow form comes out of the mold, I draw the pattern into the surface with a sharp stylus. Once the carving is complete, I paint a colored slip over the whole design, then sand the entire form with steel wool once the form is bone dry. The colored slip remains in the carved line. I use a glaze over the design formulated to run in the firing, but cool to a matte, sugar-like surface. The form looks soft and the pattern is softened and blurred and often looks aged or weathered. I also want the pattern to be embedded in the surface of the clay so that it is part of the object, just as embroidered thread is woven into the fabric of a quilt.

With a piece as large as Embedded, I carved the line into the original prototype so I wouldn’t have to carve the intricate pattern into each of the ninety-one pieces. It saved quite a bit of time. But usually I enjoy the time it takes to draw on each piece. I gravitate towards processes in my studio that are labor-intensive, repetitive, and rhythmic. Repetition provides an element of predictability, which allows space for the unpredictable and the uncontrolled to enter my realm without being overwhelming or destructive. It opens up space where my imagination can roam around.

And Then It Was Still
Vitreous China, Glaze, Wood
50 x 80 x 24"

OPP: Your most recent sculpture And Then It Was Still (2012) is a 3D still life. In your statement about the piece, you talk about the "struggle to hold on to and make still the complex beauty […] in the small, fleeting, everyday moments." This piece made me think instantly of Memento Mori, although it doesn't have any of the traditional elements like skulls, hour glasses or dying flowers. There is something about the flowers frozen in their living state, but it this hard, monochrome material that seems almost funerary, like a gravestone or monument. Does this resonate with you?

GH: Yes. The idea for this piece came from wanting to hold on to something beautiful that had passed. That desire had elements of both mourning and celebration.

In Elaine Scarry’s book, On Beauty and Being Just, she says that when one encounters true beauty, it incites the desire to replicate as a way of possessing the original beautiful thing through a new language or form. The act of replication provides a new sensory experience by which to experience or re-experience the original beautiful thing. When we see a beautiful flower, we want to draw it, make it, or take a picture of it. When we meet a beautiful person we want to write a song or a poem about them. Beauty, by definition, is self-generating. Beauty begets more beauty.

But I think there is something kind of sad about this pursuit to replicate or hold onto the beautiful thing. It is a vain and futile pursuit, in that you can never truly have the original beautiful thing, moment, or feeling back. The futility is balanced out by the hope that propels us forward towards replication of the beauty. In the 17th century European Still Life paintings, the fragile beauty of flowers is made permanently still in the exquisitely painted object and, thus, shared across time as a concept of beauty.

The beauty I find myself chasing is in the small, fleeting moments of human interaction —the characteristic or sense of a person, an exchange with a loved one, or an exuberant meal shared with family and friends. I want to make those things still, to give them form and make them take up space. Even though they are invisible and ephemeral, they are so powerful upon impact. They are dense and layered, and I want to study them, marvel at them, and re-live them. My work gives me a way to do that.

To see more work by Giselle Hicks, please visit gisellehicks.com.

OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Ryan Wilson Kelly

Speak Softly and Carry a Big Stick
Video Still of performance

RYAN WILSON KELLY references iconic figures from history, pop culture and myth in his allegorical performances and videos. Hand-made props and sets feature prominently, often adding humor and humility to his exploration of the solitary figure engaged with his own existence through creative labor. Kelly teaches at both the community and collegiate level and is also involved with several puppet theaters and theatrical prop construction for low budget films. He lives in Philadelphia, PA.

OtherPeoplesPixels: You have both a BFA and an MFA in Ceramics. How did you end up working more in video and performance with an emphasis on costumes?

Ryan Wilson Kelly: This is kind of a curious path, I know. I think I fell in love with all of the process and the challenge of mastering such a demanding material. It demands a strong work ethic, which meant that I was surrounded by other dedicated people. I fell in love with the huge history of this material and how it really mirrors the history of human development and technological advancement. Its stigma as a “craft” media and association with the decorative arts also fed my interest in alternative histories or lesser-known historical narratives.
But making static objects has always left me dissatisfied. Even in undergrad, I was creating interactive and kinetic pieces. I just don’t like it when things are done. 
In grad school I think the box was a bit too confining, and I was encouraged to choose the material that was appropriate to the idea, not force the idea into the material. This was very liberating. By incorporating other materials I felt that I was only using clay where it was most needed and hence more valuable to the idea as a whole. I should say that I was (and still am) using large quantities of clay to sculpt heads and props that I then make a paper mâché shell of. So clay is still an essential part of my process. 
Making things that looked like props led very quickly to me using them as props and now to my developing interest in performance and video.
The Clay Studio, show of props
Installation shot

OPP: The props and sets for your performances are well-crafted and wonderful as objects by themselves, as you showed when you exhibited the props for Herculean: On Artistic Labor at The Clay Studio in 2008. Can you explain the balance of time between creating the props and sets, conceiving of the performances and actually performing? What’s the most pleasurable part of your practice?

RWK: Its hard to say how much time I spend researching. My diet of media, books, film and image research are as much a form of entertainment as they are formal inquiry. A film I may have casually seen five years ago or a short story I read on vacation may suddenly click as a visual or narrative reference that needs to be reinvestigated.  Certainly when I fixate on an idea for a project, I try to immerse myself in the subject through reading and watching films, but I’m not an academic. I have the freedom to be a bit loose with the details or to mix my metaphors to reach an artistic end.

I think the making of objects is the most time consuming but still the most pleasurable part of my practice. I am never as fully engaged as when I am in the throes of a project, working on five different things simultaneously, painting a backdrop, sewing a costume while the paper mâché dries, painting and re-painting, building props out of wood, carving foam etc. 

I used to have the feeling that after making an object, no matter how long it took, when I was finished, the object was dead to me. I think that, in some way, by creating objects that are meant to be performed with, I’m holding them in this creative suspended animation. The creative energy still lives with the objects for me when I’m performing with them.

Let me be your scapegoat
Documentation of performance

OPP: Many of your costumes are huge heads that make the performer look like a pez dispenser, creating a comic sense of inflated self-importance (or inflated cultural importance?) for the figures represented. It doesn't seem to be a jab at the actual people (or animals, in some cases), but rather at our collective relationship to them or to the ideas they represent. Response to my read?

RWK: I think you’ve got it with your parenthetical “inflated cultural importance”.  Wherever I use the oversized head in my work, it is more my intention to visually emphasize their significance, to increase scale so as to increase the sense of significance. I know the awkwardness of the scale can be seen as humorous, but I hope that it acts more as part of the visual welcome wagon, an entry point rather than a diminution of the subject through humor.

I should say that this is also coming out of a love of objects that I’ve seen: old masks, puppets, carnival costumes and paraphernalia from old pageants and political campaigns. By making things that are informed by these references, I hope that they carry some of the spirit of them, too.
A Congregation of Loose Associations
Detail of the three celebrated figures, Vaclav Havel, Madeleine Albright and Lou Reed Earthenware with encaustic wax on crushed velvet pedestals

OPP: What are the heads made of?

RWK: My process for making the heads is still linked to my training in ceramics. I start with a plaster “dummy head” and add onto that with clay, fleshing out the features. Once the sculpting is done, I cover the clay in plastic and then in several layers of paper mâché. Once this shell of paper mâché has dried, I cut it off the original form.  These sections then need to be reattached, repaired and painted. This leaves me with a relatively lightweight and durable version of the clay original. 

OPP: Talk about the aspect of your work where other people are wearing the heads, not just you. Is it important to have viewers interact with the heads?

RWK: It varies from piece to piece. I do value the activation of my work, though I don’t always engage my audience with direct physical interaction with the pieces. I think it is entirely dependent on the idea. But wherever possible I like there to be some souvenir element or physical interaction to reward and engage the viewers.
Souvenir polaroids in the image of Whitman
Souvenir polaroid photography courtesy Francis Schanberger

OPP: I've noticed that your performances often revolve around hyper-masculine icons from history, myth and pop culture. Superman, Teddy Roosevelt, Walt Whitman, and Hercules are a few.

RWK: It makes me laugh to think of Walt Whitman as a hyper-masculine icon. Perhaps through the virility of his poetry and the awesomeness of his beard he could be grouped this way. Let me say that the fact that my references are all male stems from my knowledge that I am usually the one acting out the character. Even though me dressing up as Teddy Roosevelt is as much a form of Drag as anything else, I feel like I can more convincingly pull these characters off. I am also gay, and I think that many of my choices represent a type of masculine identity that I am drawn to and aspire to. 
What I would add to your observation is that each of them is singular or solitary or were seen as acting without the help of others. They are each engaged in some sort of heroic or exalted labor or pursuit that is to varying degrees an allegory for my own artistic labor. And yes, my use of them is not meant to be a direct association of myself with them, but rather they are allegories for what I am striving toward.

OPP: That’s actually closer to what I meant. I should clarify. I see the traditional literary hero as a particularly masculine construction. When I say that, I’m not talking about biological gender; I’m talking about the collective cultural associations with gender. By hyper-masculine, I was referring to the qualities associated with the traditional hero, the qualities you mention. Solitary, engaged in exalted labor, acting without help: that’s definitely Whitman. I love that you say performing these characters is a form of Drag, because Drag is about performing gender and the collective cultural associations with gender. There is an inherent critique of those associations in Drag, as much as there is pleasure and humor and an engagement with those associations. It seems that the nuance of your performances revolves around this paradox: that you are both critiquing and aspiring to these qualities.

Fortress of Solitude
Performed in september of 2009 at Allegheny College's "8 hour projects"

OPP: Could you pick your favorite piece that functions as an allegory and break it down for us?

RWK: The piece that I made for the Eastern State Penitentiary, Crusoe’s Cave, is a favorite of mine. For this project I was invited to make a piece specific to the space, an early 19th century prison designed on the Quaker principle of penitence through solitary confinement. The environment itself was so loaded and fit so well with the idea that it had an amplifying effect on the piece as a whole. What’s even more is that I am distantly related to Alexander Selkirk, the marooned sailor whose real life story inspired Daniel Defoe’s work of fiction.

For this piece I made a costume and props to turn the already cave-like, crumbling prison cell into a tableaux of Robinson Crusoe’s domestic life. I recreated the many handicrafts described in the book. Through this process and through my research, it seemed that the mastering of these crafts served to keep at bay the gnawing existential doubt that he would ever be rescued. This satisfied my over-arching theme of the solitary figure engaged in labor, but also drew a correlation between Crusoe’s labor and the activities and those of the former inmates of this cell.         
The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters
Documentation of performance

OPP: What are you working on right now?

RWK: I am currently working day and night to finish props for a show opening May 4th at Napoleon Gallery in Philadelphia. The theme I’m working with here is the 19th century paleontologist Edward Drinker Cope who lived most of his life in Philadelphia (where I now live). Cope was famously one of the two chief participants in what is referred to as the “Bone Wars.” He and his rival competed to unearth, catalogue and name more extinct creatures than the other.

I am focusing here on the end of Cope’s life, where he died alone and broke in a crowded row-house in Philadelphia, piled high with papers and specimens, plagued by nightmares and fever dreams that he was being eaten alive by dinosaurs.

For the performance, I’m turning the gallery into a tableaux of his crowded study. I will cycle between examining and documenting specimens and throwing myself on a cot to cue a projection of his fever dream. In the image above, dressed as Cope, I am shackled to a mountain top where a Pterodactyl comes down and eats my liver, a direct reference to the Prometheus myth.

To view more of Ryan’s work, please visit www.ryanwilsonkelly.com.