Topic: Articles

Spotlight: Coffee Collab


Ceramics Monthly: How did the collaboration with the Italian espresso machine manufacturer La Marzocco get started?

Sarah Kaye: James Lobb, Director of Pottery Northwest (PNW) in Seattle, Washington, sent me an email introducing me to Scott Callender, the director of La Marzocco Home (which distributes the machines here in the US and is located in Seattle). It was a lucky coincidence that a college friend of Lobb’s works at La Marzocco Home, so when they wanted custom cups they started at PNW’s gallery. I am a former PNW resident artist, and had work in the gallery at the time.

Callender was drawn to my work because we had a shared aesthetic, and while he knew that many people were capable of making the cups, coming from a creative background himself, he wanted someone who would share his passion for the cups they would be making together.

CM: What was the collaborative design process like and how does this differ from your individual process (if at all)?

SK: Callendar, Ben Blaze, Megan Neu, myself, and my assistant (Shelby the dog) met and started by looking at and holding all the different cups in my studio, talking about what elements we wanted to take forward into the new design. My development has always been rooted in product design, considering the user at each moment of the cup’s life—and the La Marzocco team came at it with a similar approach, so together we put functionality under the microscope.

There was lots of laughter, talking in hand gestures, and sound effects that morning as we honed in on what was important. When they left, I felt like I had been hanging out with friends rather than having been in a meeting. We swapped a few schematic drawings back and forth, and then I set about developing the gray color for the cups. I made a rough draft set of cups from our drawings, and then we met again a few weeks later and agreed we’d found the perfect color gray, tweaked the forms we’d designed, reviewed glaze swatches, and then it was go time.

Our collaborative design process was very similar to how I would have done so alone, but with the added benefit of having the La Marzocco staff members’ expertise there to help me make it better. Without them, for example, I wouldn’t have known to make the espresso cup a little wider than you are used to seeing, in order to capture both espresso streams.

Photo: Kelly Ballantyne.

Permission To Be Inspired
The artists returned home with the plan of making five of what they called gifts and sending one to each of the others. The gifts were not the objects themselves but rather the permission to be inspired by one another. The requirements were that the sculptures had to fit safely in a 12-inch square box to ensure a reasonable shipping budget. The objects became idea generators for the next pieces. Each artist had about four months to create his or her own sculpture in response to the piece received and then send the new sculpture to a third artist. The third artist never saw the initial gift, creating something in response only to the second person’s piece. A chart was created to organize the sculptures that were soon flying around the country. In essence, the project became a visual dialog, with one person initiating a statement and another responding to that statement through his or her own piece within the parameters of his or her own style. The whole could be likened to a chain letter or the childhood game of telephone. The artist who created the initial gift made the final response in each line. In the end, each collaborator created 35 sculptures, for a total of 210 objects that comprised 30 lines of visual conversation.

The pieces were then shown in a traveling exhibition. The show came full circle when it opened in September 2014 at the Red Lodge Clay Center. It was shown a final time at the Pawtucket Armory during the 2015 NCECA conference in Providence, Rhode Island, where the artists were able to see it together for the first time and reflect on their collaborative experience.

2 Multiple lines of work by the Romantic Robots on display at the Pawtucket Armory in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, during the annual NCECA conference, 2015. 3 Section of line 2, showing progression of works from Kimberly Greene’s Composite II, to Frederick Bartolovic’s Composite, 2015.

Action and Reaction
The first and most obvious impact was the conceptual stretch that the collaboration demanded. Since a response to each piece was required, the artists were challenged to take inspiration from each piece, whether they liked it or not. Robin Strangfeld described how responding to something she would not have otherwise considered forced her to “think about things differently and not stay in a routine. Frustration drives you to work harder and learn new things about yourself.” Some responses were easy; some sat on the shelf for months when one of the artists was stumped. Other pieces were spontaneous, while others were laboriously sketched and thought out. Rarely, pieces seemed like periods at the end of a sentence, so the artist felt that he or she simply had to start the line over. Through this process the artists learned to trust themselves and sometimes rely on reactions. “Time kept you honest,” one member said. Each was responsible to the whole group for making the next response in a timely manner and sending it on in order to keep the two-year project going. When under pressure to make four or five pieces, the artists didn’t have time to think about who had made the piece they received as inspiration or where the new response would be going. Sometimes they had an aesthetic response; sometimes the response was conceptual. Having to respond on the fly prompted automatic responses—with the artists holding true to themselves as individuals, and going with their gut interpretations of other work.

Within these reactions new ideas emerged. For example, Williams described how she started with no boundaries. Through the process of responding and making, however, she found two new series that she titled Sunset Lane and Farming Community. These themes have been important in her life and in the back of her mind, but they finally surfaced in a physical manifestation through the collaboration. One of her lines finished with a piece in this new vein, propelling the collaboration to inspire her future work.

By granting permission to the others to be inspired by their work and imposing different parameters on themselves, the artists found that their use of materials and techniques grew. They each made their own sculptures, but responding to someone else’s work gave them permission to employ different styles of working. This included reaching for techniques they hadn’t used in their individual practice or emulating the work of their peers to use their style for a slightly different meaning. Greene was compelled to use new materials in her responses, combining found objects with handmade objects. Bartolovic noted that “this was a freeing experience, which I feel has helped diversify my own practice.”

Scale was the parameter that challenged the artists the most. Since all were accustomed to making large-scale, repetitive sculptures or installations, these small sculptures forced them to look at detail in a different way. McDonough developed a real love for working small, and his final pieces are tiny, refined, and fantastically complex and complete. Looking at the finished pieces Herzak-Bauman realized that they could serve as inspiration for future large-scale installations.
Whether looking at the works as sketches or finished pieces, all participants found that the process encouraged experimentation and play. Essential to this was the foundation of trust and confidence they began with. McDonough described how he felt that strange and wacky contributions were acceptable, and that a sense of experimentation would be appreciated. It became clear, and essential to the success of the project, that each artist felt freedom and energy from the unspoken dialog.

Experimenting with the sculptures they received and not knowing what other members were going to create, the artists had to willingly relinquish control. When a box arrived in the mail, they did not know how they were going to respond. Facing the unknown forced them to trust themselves and set aside their individual ego.

5 Progression of works from Robin Strangfeld’s Cluster, to Frederick Bartolovic’s Cliché Dreams, to Casey McDonough’s Dreaming of Clichés, 2015. Photo: Frederick Bartolovic. 6 Multiple lines of work by the Romantic Robots on display at the Pawtucket Armory in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, during the annual NCECA conference, 2015.

Setting Ego Aside
Rather than the usual way of working, which promotes the signature style of an individual artist, each piece is the result of multiple artists’ visions coming together. The process elevates the value of the expressed idea instead of the object and artist’s signature. This challenges the traditional art market by de-commodifying the object and its artist as the idea-owner. While each piece was for sale, the price was the same no matter the status of the individual hands that made it. The value of each piece was in the experience and expression, not individual reputation. Each artist willingly gave up their identity for that of the whole.

McDonough argued, “The ultimate results of this collaboration can’t be measured in terms of successes or failures; rather the value lies in massive experimentation, negotiation with the self and others both conceptually and physically, as well as a constant re-evaluation of aesthetic parameters.” Invoking those criteria, the collaboration was a major success. While the artists admitted that not every sculpture was a masterpiece, the project was about continuity. Regarding a piece that McDonough made in response to one of her sculptures Herzak-Bauman remarked, “It was like you breathed life into it.” For viewers, the most rewarding part of the exhibition perhaps came from taking the time to follow each conversation down the line, watching how messages evolved as each person contributed his or her own sense of meaning and purpose. Looking from one sculpture to the next made me wonder what each artist had responded to and how he or she had interpreted the previous piece. The opportunity to imagine is a gift an artist offers the world, and the Romantic Robots’ first collaboration provided that opportunity to the utmost.

the author Lauren Karle graduated with an MFA in ceramics from Kansas State University. She currently lives and works in her studio in rural New Mexico. To see more, check out


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