Just Beyond Grasp: Chasing a Life in Clay

1 Garden of Delight Squirrel Platter, 16 in. (41 cm) in diameter, handbuilt white stoneware, hand illustrated, underglaze sgraffito, inlay, glaze, 2014.

 

The decision to become a full-time studio potter happened in small bites taken over the course of twelve years. I owe the transition to a timely convergence of forces—an obsessive desire to learn and make, a strong network of support and encouragement, two exceptional university ceramics departments, and two artist residencies that allowed me to become part of their communities.

In 1998 I enrolled in a beginners wheel-throwing class at Down Under Pottery, a community clay studio in Lincoln, Nebraska. For several years, that community was exactly what I needed to escape the isolation and stress from a job I held at a shelter for abused women and children. Although my stress level changed after I transitioned from working directly with people in crisis to an administrative role at the shelter, I continued my pursuit of clay. Ceramics was no longer simply a relief from stress: it had become my obsession.

In 2005 I was granted an eight-week leave of absence from my job to attend the Spring Concentration at Penland School of Crafts in Penland, North Carolina. Being surrounded by so many talented and determined people in this immersive educational environment was thrilling. The experience also illuminated shortcomings in my work. Although I had been making pottery during almost every hour of free time for seven years, I could see that my pots still weren’t as developed as those made by other students who had come from academia. Those consistently making strong work had commonalities—many hours working toward skill development, knowledge of ceramic history and a personal idea or message behind their work. Upon a suggestion that I would progress faster if I took a college ceramics course, I enrolled in intermediate ceramics back home at the University of Nebraska—Lincoln (UNL).

2 Honey jar with tray and spoon, 8 in. (20 cm) in height, wheel-thrown, altered, and handbuilt white stoneware, hand illustrated, underglaze inlay, glaze, 2012.

3 Floral Bottle, 9 in. (23 cm) in height, wheel-thrown and handbuilt white stoneware, hand illustrated, underglaze inlay, glaze, 2014.

4 Preparedness Mug: Stockpile III, hand illustrated, underglaze inlay, brushwork, glaze, mid-range oxidation fired, 2013.

 

Penland had motivated me to reach higher and academia was the next logical step. After two semesters at UNL, I applied and was accepted into the post-baccalaureate program there. Ultimately, I wanted to go to graduate school and the intense dedication I wanted to give to that pursuit would mean quitting my job. As a mid-level administrator at a non-profit, I earned enough money to support my modest lifestyle and even managed to save a little along the way. I took stock of my life—I was single, had no dependents, my parents and friends were encouraging and supportive, and the cost of in-state tuition at UNL was reasonable. Continuing to pursue this dream did not seem like a huge risk, which made my choice clear. The following semester I resigned from my job to spend 100% of my energy and a significant portion of my savings account toward developing a portfolio for graduate school applications.

Being around motivated and critically thinking individuals at UNL helped me to clarify my own visions for the future and navigate my own academic experience. My year as a special student was marked by a semester of hard work, much learning, wonderful friendships and then deep sadness. A few weeks after all of my graduate school applications were submitted, my dad, who had been a huge cheerleader for my ceramic efforts, passed away. Later that spring a phone call from Linda Arbuckle with my acceptance into the graduate program at the University of Florida in Gainesville, helped to lift my spirits. Although bittersweet, news of a full tuition waiver, health insurance, and a graduate stipend reinforced my decision to uproot my life.

Transitioning from developing skills to approaching clay conceptually was challenging during graduate school. The recent loss of my father, my training in psychology, and experience working in the shelter helped me to form ideas of what I wanted my pottery to be. I knew I wanted to steer clear of tragic and sobering topics in my artwork. The daily act of nourishment should be an uplifting moment and I wanted my ceramics to reflect that and contribute to a person’s positive outlook. In both practice and product, I wanted my pottery to speak about resilience, delight, humor, and celebration.

As I was struggling to find my voice, I researched the idea of play, including the psychological and social benefits in both animals and humans. The topic gave me many potential solutions to questions about function, form, and surface. Play held my attention because it was something I believed in—I had witnessed shelter residents using the act of play to overcome adversity and I had sought out my own playful escape in the form of a community pottery class.

The play research reminded me of studying Behavioral Psychology in undergraduate school. In a class called Learning and Motivation, I had trained a lab rat named Birt to overcome a series of physical obstacles by reinforcing her behavior with food rewards. Birt’s successful completion of the obstacle course was a result of conditioning—not because Birt was an adrenaline junkie and the tightrope was a thrill. We were encouraged to avoid anthropomorphism, which can lead to research bias. Understanding an innate response to a stimulus can sure take the fun out of a situation. When Birt bit me one day, I imagined it was because she resented her training. Anthropomorphism might skew my research data, but it helped me to cope with the pain.

My MFA research started to come together when I began drawing the image of a squirrel as a metaphor for playful pursuits. My psychology studies and experience working in human services caused me to question how and why individuals identify objects of desire and how our society reinforces those desires through rewards. Anthropomorphizing the squirrel helped me to construct a narrative about my own obsessive quests without being overtly autobiographical. My thesis project was a narrative installation that told the playful story of achievement through the eyes of a squirrel.

After graduate school, I was fortunate to have more time to develop my ideas during two consecutive year-long residencies. The first was at the Armory Art Center in West Palm Beach, Florida and the second was at Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Being in tourist-heavy south Florida and Gatlinburg helped to relate the forms of my pottery to landscapes of leisure, giving my characters a place to roam. My work gained a lot of exposure, especially through Arrowmont, which in turn gave my career momentum. I started getting invited to shows and finding an audience for my work.

5 Troublemaker Tumblers, 8 in. (20 cm), wheel-thrown white stoneware, hand illustrated, underglaze inlay, glaze, 2012.

 

Working with loose narratives continues to allow me to express personal commentary on the human experience. The metaphor of the squirrel conjures up strong reactions in people. Many cannot get past their personal negative encounters with squirrel invasions in their attic, chewing up electrical wiring. Others see themselves as the squirrel, grasping for that just-out-of-reach prize or resting upon their large winnings with one eye open. I love how powerfully relatable a metaphor can be. The characters that star in my work are often engaged in determined pursuits. Although I still use the image of the squirrel to talk about desire and reward, I have broadened the narratives to include stylized aging humans, other animals with their own agendas, and anthropomorphized floral compositions, which I occasionally use to taunt the main character by reflecting their desires and fears, much like the role of the Greek chorus.

In addition to developing my artwork, sharing my knowledge, and guiding others through teaching is especially rewarding. My early experience as a hobbyist allows me to understand and empathize with many community pottery students who are often in life transitions and are juggling their interests in clay with many other obligations. The perspective I gained while working with women and children in crisis keeps me grounded in reality but also reminds me to take time to laugh and play.

6 Butter dish, 7 in. (18 cm) in length, wheel-thrown and handbuilt white stoneware, hand illustrated, underglaze inlay, glaze, 2013. 5–6 Mid-range oxidation fired.

 

There are times that I miss having a stable income, paid vacation, and contributions to my retirement account, as well as simply having someone count on me to show up to work on time. As I move forward as a studio potter in Kansas City, Missouri, I am grateful for the luxury of being able to work in my studio nearly every day. The practical experience I gained while working in the non-profit sector developed my problem-solving, managerial, and business skills. Admittedly, I am way better at managing most of these tasks when I am working as part of a team. Knowing that accountability to others is a huge motivator, I try to arrange partnerships with galleries, institutions, and other artists to keep me on track.

A perk of this chosen career path is that I get to design my job description around my strengths and figure out how to minimize the things I don’t do so well. It’s like a puzzle that is a continual work in progress. Balancing making a living with making my best work always seems attainable, but just beyond my grasp. Even if I never catch it, I’m convinced it’s worth reaching for.

the author Chandra DeBuse is a studio potter and workshop instructor in Kansas City, Missouri, where she is a founding member of Kansas City Urban Potters (www.kcurbanpotters.com). To learn more about DeBuse, visit http://chandradebuse.com, follow her on Instagram @chandradebuse or on Facebook at Chandra DeBuse Ceramics.


Subscriber Extras: Video and Extra Images

 

 

Tray, wheel-thrown and altered white stoneware, handbuilt spoon, hand-illustrated, underglaze inlay, glaze decoration, mid-range oxidation fired, 2012.

Farmscape salt and pepper, 8 in. (20 cm), white stoneware, wheel-thrown and altered, handbuilt cow pepper shaker and salt-spoon hand- illustrated, underglaze inlay, glaze decoration wire adorned with plastic tubing, mid-range oxidation fired, 2012.

Character cups, 3½ in. (9 cm) in diameter, wheel-thrown white stoneware, underglaze inlay, glaze decoration, midrange oxidation fired, 2014.

Floral tumblers, 8 in. (20 cm), white stoneware, wheel-thrown, hand-illustrated, underglaze inlay, glaze, midrange oxidation fired, 2014.

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