Ceramics Monthly: How did you first get started working in clay, and why did you decide to pursue it as a full time career after having a 40-year career in architecture?
Joel Brown: The transition was gradual. My wife, Deborah Heid (now also a potter after a human resources career), and I were occasional collectors. She thought we ought to learn about making work, so we took some ceramics courses at a community college.
After a few years, I dropped out of class, but continued taking workshops while still an active architect. My most influential teachers were Harriet Ross, who encouraged my handbuilding, Peter Callas and Joyce Michaud who taught me coiling, and Roger Baumann whose generous kiln access allowed me to learn wood firing.
When I decided to retire from architecture, coworkers told me that I needed something to do. I said that base was already covered.
CM: What techniques do you use, and what influences or informs your work?
JB: Most of my work is coiled and wood fired, with no applied glaze. I get a kick out of the way the kiln decorates my pieces, and the way my finger and rib marks catch the melted ash runs. Though I admit the Japanese influence, I can’t, nor do I try, to produce traditional Japanese work, either in form or surface. I just appreciate the acceptance of an obvious hand of the maker in the finished piece.
CM: Are there any connections for you between your architecture career and work as a studio potter?
JB: As an architect, the construction process was important to me. I still have an old Modern Movement belief that the final appearance of a building should have a connection to its construction method. Steel-framed buildings shouldn’t look like concrete buildings. I value the appearance of coil-built, unglazed, wood-fired pieces compared to glazed, wheel-thrown work fired in electric or gas kilns.
But the contrasts between ceramics and architecture are more important to me than any direct connection. In my former career, I managed the design of large civic buildings, which took years to complete. Including the firing, a coiled piece might take a few months. My hands-on input is tremendously satisfying compared to the arms-length design and construction process, in which the contractor builds the work. And when documenting buildings, we tried to control the finished appearance completely. In wood firing, I learned to let the kiln do its work, with only a general idea of the outcome.
CM: Did any of the skills developed in your architecture career help you to transition into a life as a studio artist?
JB: Marketing is a constant background issue. My pieces are derived from traditional vessel forms, and when approaching galleries, I often run up against a boundary between functional work and sculpture. Though I sometimes regret the late start, we’re fortunate that our previous careers allow us to pursue clay without relying on it for total financial support. My work appears in juried shows, at RiverWinds Gallery in Beacon, New York, and at M.T. Burton Gallery in Surf City, New Jersey.
CM: Where is your studio and what are you currently working on?
JB: I work in a community studio, the Peekskill Clay Studios (peekskillclaystudios.com) in Peekskill, New York, and my schedule is partly determined by the studio activities (classes, workshops, etc.). I appreciate the informal input from others at the studio, so schedule constraints are an acceptable cost. The biggest issue is kiln space. I don’t have my own kiln, and I fire in friends’ kilns.
New forms are my biggest challenge for the coming year. I still take workshops. Steven Hill’s year-long Journey Workshop should push me out of my comfort zone.
CM: From your perspective, what lesson or skill learned from your first career would be beneficial to all ceramic artists?
JB: Making work is a solitary process, but a long wood firing is a group effort. In both settings, we learn to take input from others, while making our own marks. The group dynamics of firing are probably the closest comparison to the team effort needed in large construction projects. The issues of common goals versus individual personalities, and leadership versus support positions, can be quite similar. A good firing crew develops a camaraderie that’s worth the effort.
the author Joel Brown is a wood-fire potter living north of New York City. He works out of Peekskill Clay Studios, and fires with his wife, Deborah Heid, at several friends’ kilns. See more of his work at www.joelbrownpots.com.