Ceramics Monthly: Why did you decide to start collaborating with other artists and how does the collaborative process work?
Jen Allen: When I was in undergraduate school, I began collaborating almost as soon as soon as I declared my major. In 1998, my now life partner, Shoji Satake, and I collaborated on an installation entitled Metamorphosis that was on display in the Campus Center Gallery at the University of Alaska, Anchorage (UAA). Shortly after that experience, I applied for and participated in a collaborative class (at UAA), which culminated in a group exhibition at the International Gallery of Contemporary Art in Anchorage, Alaska. The class was complicated at times as there were a handful of personalities, backgrounds, and disciplines to contend with. In the end, we exhibited a cohesive body of work that was a true collaborative effort. Fast forward a little over a decade and, in 2012, I became a founding member of a collective called Objective Clay. While we rarely have opportunities to work side by side, when we do, we always make collaborative work. These experiences cemented in my mind the joy and excitement of partnering with other artists.
My collaborative process depends on the person I am working with and their individual studio practice. I enjoy collaborating with artists from various disciplines: illustrators, printmakers, metalsmiths, sculptors, etc. I find that mixing things up often results in a greater learning outcome for everyone involved. Once we agree to partner on a series of collaborative works, we set parameters and a timeline. I like the idea of showing the work at the end of the collaborative process (much like the two collaborations I participated in during undergraduate school). This also helps us work toward a goal.
For my collaborations with ceramic artist Kurt Anderson and printmaker and woodcut-artist Bryn Perrott, I made ceramic forms and they added their narrative illustrations onto the forms’ surfaces. In Kurt’s case, he responded to the form alone. In Bryn’s case, she reacted to both the form and the shape of the painted black underglaze compositional elements I had added. With metalsmith Maia Leppo, we worked back and forth over a period of months. We would meet at Maia’s studio in Pittsburgh and brainstorm ideas for finished pieces. Then we would both head back to our individual studios and work on making parts and pieces that could be joined together to create a series of earrings, necklaces, and brooches.
Kurt Anderson: I’m not sure why I started doing collaborations. I think the first ones I did were at Watershed Center for the Ceramic Arts, while I was the Salad Days artist. There were so many artists passing through and I was tired of decorating my own plates. I saw the pristine forms Jen was making and I wondered how my crude drawings would look on her more refined pots. I ended up drawing on a few mugs and small plates. We were both happy with the results so we ended up doing more.
My collaborative process is entirely intuitive. I look at a form and just start drawing, much like you would draw on the pages of a sketchbook. There is no planning, I simply react to the form.
The process definitely changes depending on whom I am collaborating with. With Jen, I mostly do an inlay technique. In other collaborations, I have painted figures with underglaze. It just depends on what clay body they are using and how they are firing the work.
Bryn Perrott: I started making collaborative work with other artists for fun, but also as an opportunity to work in other media that I’m less familiar with or unable to use in my studio. I think the process is by nature different when I’m working with different people. With Jen, she created the forms (mugs, plates, and tiles) and I applied images to them using underglaze and sgraffito techniques.
Maia Leppo: While I was a resident artist at Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, Jen taught a workshop and came by the residents’ open studios. She started moving things around on my work table and asked me to make a custom pair of earrings for her. I loved her ideas and chatting with her. We connected again when she came back to Arrowmont for the Utilitarian Clay conference in 2016.
I don’t remember when Jen brought up the idea of collaboration, but at one point she suggested making a collaborative body of work to show at the 2018 National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts (NCECA) conference in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, since I was moving there after my residency. We secured a space to show the work at Contemporary Craft, located in Pittsburgh. After I moved, our collaboration process evolved into more of a back-and-forth dialog since we lived closer to each other. We were able to meet in person periodically, look at the pieces she had made, look at the jewelry I had made, and then come up with new ideas for future pieces.
This process was very different from the two ceramic artists I have collaborated with since, Todd Hayes and Didem Mert, as they live farther away. With Jen, I was able to react more immediately to the pieces in person and discuss other iterations. We are also both very easily excitable, which makes it so incredibly fun to work with her.
CM: Has the collaborative work influenced the separate bodies of work made by each of you?
JA: I can only speak for myself, but, yes! The collaborative process is a great learning exercise. It helps me become more aware of my artistic processes and tendencies, while opening myself up to ideas and paths I never considered. It can be frustrating at the beginning as you learn to navigate each other’s boundaries, but every collaboration is fulfilling by the end. You always come out of a collaborative experience with a wealth of information that you didn’t have going in.
KA: Decorating other people’s forms has definitely influenced my own work. I think that’s the beauty of collaborating with other artists. You see the possibilities in your own work expanded by decorating forms you probably never would have tried in the first place.
BP: Without a doubt, my individual work has been influenced by these experiences. I think any time I work with another person on a collaboration, I learn something new that helps me in my future solo works.
ML: Having to problem solve with some of Jen’s ceramic pieces definitely made me think differently about how to work with my own materials. Jen also has an incredible design mind and comes up with such elegant solutions for arranging and attaching elements. I have learned so much from being able to watch her and work with her on the design process. I love her use of movement and play with line work. It definitely gave me a new perspective on jewelry and using ceramics in jewelry. I felt really inspired from working with Jen and brought some of the design elements we had used with the ceramic work into the steel work that I do on my own.
CM: What is the most exciting result of the collaborative process for you? The most unexpected result?
JA: I really enjoy seeing the work come together. The incubation time is as exciting as the end result. I think the most unexpected outcome has been the lasting friendships that evolve after collaborative efforts.
I love seeing Kurt and Bryn’s bold drawings on my porcelain forms. In both cases, the contrast between the imagery and the form helped me recognize that my work lacked grit, gristle, more evident process marks, and an unapologetic approach to form and surface development. I have since made a big shift with my work and now use stoneware clay and a lot of handmade texture tools.
With Maia, the entire process has been enlightening and inspiring. Shortly after we began our collaborations for our show at the Pittsburgh NCECA conference, I enrolled in Maia’s steel jewelry class at Touchstone Center for Crafts. I came out of the class incredibly inspired and have since set up a small jeweler’s bench in a corner of my studio and hope to get a torch soon.
KA: For me, the most exiting and unexpected results have been how nice my drawings have looked on Jen’s white porcelain pottery. The inlaid blue underglaze really adds a new dimension, particularly within the context of blue-and-white pottery in the historical traditions of ceramics.
BP: I would say the two most exciting aspects of collaborative work are the communication while the work is being made and seeing the final collaboration complete. The unexpected result is what that collaboration leads to, namely more collaborations with other artists.
ML: I want to incorporate ceramics into my own work now. Working mainly with steel, I am so limited in color and texture. Working with ceramics opens up a whole new world for me. Last summer Jen and I co-taught a class at Arrowmont and I was able to learn so much from her. I had time there to play and experiment with clay and really enjoyed the process. I would love to have more time and resources to work with clay and incorporate it more into my own work, while continuing to collaborate with other ceramic artists.
Jen Allen: www.jenniferallenceramics.com, Instagram @jenallenceramics
Kurt Anderson: Instagram @kurtandersonpottery
Maia Leppo: www.maialeppo.com, Instagram @maialeppo
Bryn Perrott: https://deerjerk.tumblr.com, Instagram @deerjerk