Narrowing the Variables, Expanding the Parameters

How often are artists mindful of the parameters with which they’re working? Many are not conscious choices and are purely based on habitual motions or subconscious aesthetic ideals that the artists possess. Some are simply based on what is available in different studio settings. I find these parameters fascinating because they are equally positive and negative: positive, in that they inform and provoke the refinement of one’s body of work; and negative, as they can eventually become a roadblock hindering creativity and future growth.

Often, when people are first introduced to clay, they’re instantly captivated. Some for the challenge of grasping competency with the material, some for the adaptable, fluid nature of the medium, some for the pursuit of artistic expression, and some for the pure love of the process. Driven by personal fascination and curiosity, the maker begins to shape his or her aesthetic and conceptual ideals based on experience and exposure; in time, cultivating a technical, visual, and conceptual vocabulary derived directly from that experience and exposure.

As this vocabulary broadens, the artist consciously determines what to pursue. Decisions must be made: What type of clay will be used? Will the clay be wheel thrown, handbuilt, or slip cast? Will the work have a smooth or rough surface? What tools will be utilized to create that surface? In what temperature and atmosphere will the work be fired? As each question is answered, a myriad of options and investigations are left behind. These decisions are part of a narrowing of variables, a funneling of ideas, until what remains is a tight set of self-devised parameters. These parameters become the language used for creative expression and communication with the world at large.

Ben Krupka’s bowl, 7 in. (18 cm) in diameter, dark stoneware, slip, glaze, 2017.

Ben Krupka’s Collaboration, process of an ongoing project documenting weathering on ceramic wall pieces, 2016–17.

Ben Krupka’s Collaboration (close up), process of an ongoing project documenting weathering on ceramic wall pieces, 2016–17.

Posing Questions

I would like to pose some questions that not only I, but others may struggle with: How do we know when to loosen our parameters and allow ourselves more flexibility? How much deviation can exist before we begin to lose continuity within a body of work, or from an external perspective, our brand as an artist? How much do external forces, in the form of peer feedback, gallery representation, sales, and followers and friends acquired via social-media platforms impede our growth? Is there a point of diminishing returns to a body of work? Is there a point at which we exhaust the ability for artistic expression within our self-devised set of rules simply by becoming mechanized through repetition? If we find ourselves in a rut, why do we continue in the same direction if we, and by extension, our work are no longer growing? I’ve wondered if this phenomenon occurs simply because we are encouraged (by professors, mentors, and gallerists) to work in a series, reproducing similar objects tied to the same theme repetitively.

If we consider iconic painters such as Monet, we instantly associate his name with his French Impressionist style. Picasso, however, an artist who constantly reinvented himself, might conjure different images for different people. I might instantly envision his blue period while others imagine Cubism. The parameters defining Monet’s work seem instantly clear to us while those of Picasso are more fluid and evolving. In search of multiple perspectives on these questions, I reached out to three artists—Chris Staley, Meredith Brickell, and Tyler Lotz—whose changing parameters are evident in the work they produce. I asked them to comment on their approaches.

Exhilarating Reciprocity  by Chris Staley

I feel incredibly alive when making something new for the first time. For me the creative process can be exhilarating because of its reciprocity. When artists create something for the first time they have an opportunity to learn something about themselves. This desire to better understand the world around me is often what draws me into the studio. Questions can be grappled within the studio. Yet, I often just let my hands make while the questions hover in the background.

I value art’s potential to make me a better person. Creating art provides an opportunity to reflect on the world around me and then turn inward. It’s like reading a book a second time years later; the book is the same but we are no longer the same person when we read the book a second time. If the passage of time changes who I am, it makes sense that the passage of time would change what I make as well.

I try to notice what I notice. This could be anything from a Sung Dynasty cup to the entropy that comes with aging. With the unpredictability of daily life I never know what may inspire me.

I believe in the Butterfly Theory, that everything in life is interconnected, and by extension, everything in art and life too.

Once, during the end of the year studio cleanup at school a huge chunk of reclaimed clay fell out of a large trashcan. The clay mass was beautiful in its visceral rawness. This experience inspired me to make the piece called Entropy. For me, the round sphere at the top represents wholeness juxtaposed with the decay that comes with aging.

Chris Staley’s Entropy, 38 in. (96 cm) in height, black stoneware clay, 2015.

Chris Staley’s Vulnerability, 36 in. (91 cm), graphite, 2015.

Jumping In  by Meredith Brickell

Change stresses me out, so it would make a lot of sense for me to be more consistent in my creative practice. But I get restless once I run through the questions that inspired a body of work. So, a few times over the last couple of decades, I have chosen to follow new directions, even when that meant walking away from stable jobs, dedicated colleagues, and supportive galleries and collectors. I am not someone who is naturally good at a lot of different things, so when I am pursuing new work, I give myself permission to be a beginner—curious, naive, and unskilled. I set aside my admiration for expertise and make room for mediocrity as I delve into unfamiliar ideas, materials, and processes. After doing this a number of times, I understand that I won’t be good at anything right away but I trust that I have enough experience to get started or that I can find someone to help. So I jump in.

Despite my expectations and best efforts, some ideas just don’t go very far. A series might get off to a good start, but I count on new insights emerging during the process to help sustain momentum. If that doesn’t happen, I set it aside with the possibility of returning to it later. Most of my ideas emerge from some kind of personal interest or experience. Those that keep my interest for sustained periods usually last because they intersect with and raise questions about related issues and disciplines. For example, what started out as an exploration of the history of my family’s farm has led to The House Life Project in Indianapolis. When working collaboratively on initiatives like the HLP, my creative partners bring different perspectives and expertise, which allows greater complexity and longevity. Trained as a potter, I used to think in six-week cycles of making, glazing, and firing. Now I am more likely to approach a project in terms of months or years. This longer cycle is freeing in that I don’t have to get it all done at once, but also a bit unnerving in that there is no guarantee that this greater time investment will yield satisfying results.

Analyzing Parameters

Initially, I was drawn to the challenges that wheel-thrown, wood-fired ceramics presented. This combination of interests was the beginning of a body of work that I produced for about 15 years. Through the process of narrowing the variables and refining the relationship between my skills and theme, I was able to focus intently and creatively. This degree of concentration granted me a secure understanding of the language I had developed to make an effective body of work. I was able to work through a variety of forms, clays, and technical challenges, all the while using my own visual language.

Eventually, I began to feel uninspired by the restrictive framework I had created. The process became tedious and I felt a sense of stultification and stagnation. Though I had lost my initial enthusiasm, I maintained this body of work for a few more years due to fear of failure at new pursuits, fear of losing the external traction the work had gained, and fear of changing my identity as a wood-fire potter. My internal struggle eventually tipped the scale when I realized how much my identity was limited by this one body of work. A body of work is a snapshot in time, but identity is an ever-evolving, multifaceted experience. Sitting in my studio, I felt like a fraud, as my mind was elsewhere while I made the same work. The earlier process of narrowing the variables allowed that body of work to reach its peak. However, there was no longer room for growth as I felt I had exhausted every possible variation on my theme.

Taking the Leap

My only option was to leap outside my parameters, holding onto only the clay. I gave up my habitual forms, marks, and decisions cold turkey. This gave me a new sense of freedom and I began to explore ideas and processes I had never considered prior to my narrow investigation. I let go of the familiarity and comfort I had found in the vessel and explored how ideas could manifest without any of my usual guidelines.

Meredith Brickell’s HLP Cup Factory, The House Life Project, community-glazed porcelain, 2015.

Meredith Brickell’s Shed, Penland School of Crafts, cut saplings, milk paint, shed, 2014.

In fact, I attempted to identify as many of my conscious and unconscious parameters as possible with the new goal of attempting not to follow any of them. I also remained mindful of the natural temptation to fall prey to a new set of parameters prematurely. This exercise led to a body of sculptural work lasting only a few years that failed to hold my interest or gain the external traction of my previous work. However, it fulfilled my desire to feel unshackled. What I gained from this experience was an expansion of my visual vocabulary and renewed self-confidence as a maker.

I recognize that as an artist with a full-time teaching appointment and the sabbaticals that affords me, the exercise of investigating these questions might be easier for me to pursue than a full-time studio artist. If you are a full-time studio artist and sharing any of the feelings I mention, how can you leverage yourself to allow for a sabbatical from your work? Can you build a stock of work, save money, or apply for grants to support a short-term residency? How can we as makers and supporters of the ceramic community collectively foster exploration and growth? Can residencies do a better job of allotting more spaces and funding for artists to pursue new paths? Can we help our friends and peers recognize their parameters and delicately encourage them to take leaps if we sense they are struggling?

Many of the questions I present in this article are as personal as is the pursuit of happiness. What I would like to leave you with is a challenge to think about what it means to accomplish all that we can within a single body of work. Once we do, where do we go from there? When is it time to be honest about the inertia we may be feeling while we walk in and out of our studio? When do we need to build parameters, expand them, and perhaps let them go altogether and begin again?

Remaining Open to Discovery  by Tyler Lotz

Parameters are a necessary component of any making strategy and knowing when to loosen them is a question of motivation. Whether it’s a body of sculpture or tableware, I don’t often let the parameters become too limiting and I always remain open to discovery that wasn’t part of the original plan. I think that we are only limited by what we are interested in. Letting something out into the wild that may not be fully formed or connected with your identity depends on whether you have the will or guts to do so. What motivates me is less fear of stagnation and public expectation and more of a nagging excitement to figure out some new problems in the work. I think there is a perception that my studio practice is filled with more radical shifts than are actually present. Information that I gather from making a line of tableware or a new vase feeds back into the sculpture. Then a discovery in those new sculptures entices me to try something with the tableware that I didn’t consider before. I don’t feel like I find myself in a rut too often. The typical thing impeding my progress is finding the time between teaching full time, family life, living in a 1920’s house, and taking some time for self-improvement (soccer, fishing). When I get to the studio it’s not a matter of what can I try, it’s whether I have the time to try it and get good results before the deadline. My motivations to get back in the studio are driven by a need to answer some new questions, not to produce more of the same.

Tyler Lotz’ Ute Park, 14 in. (36 cm) in height, ceramic, 2017.

Tyler Lotz’ Tenet bowls, variable dimensions, red stoneware, 2014.

the author Ben Krupka is a studio artist and Associate Professor of Ceramics at Bard College at Simon’s Rock in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. To learn more, check out www.benkrupka.com.

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