The handbuilt sculptures of New York ceramic artist Pamela Sunday are admired around the world, but there was a time when she had never considered ceramics art as a viable career. After a decade of success in the 1990s as a stylist and art director, Sunday took the leap and quit her job to become a dedicated sculptor, committed to exploring the elements of her newfound craft. Now, fifteen years later, her work is featured regularly in magazines such as Japanese Vogue, Moroccan Elle Décor, and Architectural Digest France, and Sunday has never looked back.
“It just seemed to happen, it wasn’t planned,” says Sunday, who discovered her affinity for clay almost by accident. At the end of demanding work days producing fashion ads and catalogs for Bergdorf Goodman, the math and economics major turned art director met with coworkers to explore knitting and glass blowing. While working creatively with her hands was an important outlet, handbuilding in clay classes at Greenwich House Pottery, and later Hunter College, both in New York city, and at Anderson Ranch Arts Center in Snowmass, Colorado, were what changed the course of her life. Once she started working with clay, even early on, friends encouraged her to sell her slab-formed vessels, but the meticulous Sunday recalls “At the time, I just wasn’t ready.”
One Artist’s Path
Sunday was working in a small studio in Manhattan when, in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, she decided to seek out a quiet place to recover from the lingering dust and trauma. She found a new work environment at New Clay Studios in the outlying borough of Brooklyn, which was then just emerging as the synergistic hotbed of creativity it is today. Sunday fondly recalls the twelve-year period she worked in the company of a dozen other ceramic artists, sharing kilns and spray booths. The group of artists hosted regular open studio events where Sunday formed a network including interior designers, architects, and other clients, who remain loyal to her work. But eventually, as firing fees and Brooklyn studio rents increased, Sunday and her husband Paul Sunday, a photographer, educator, and painter, considered their next move.
Sunday’s current studio in Jersey City is ten times larger with ample room to work on several large pieces simultaneously. “The moment Paul showed me the photo on Craigslist, I knew it was perfect,” she recalls. The 2000-square-foot studio features high, tin-plate ceilings, cobblestone walls, and brick floors, with plenty of natural light. “The [building’s] owner/architect was also a ceramic artist, so with plumbing and electricity in place, the buildout was easy,” she says. In only six weeks she set up her work tables, a spray booth, and extruders. A timely commission for a group of sculptures from the company Sub-Zero gave her the added confidence to sign a five-year lease.
Primed for Promotion
Beyond the studio, Sunday’s dedication to promoting her work is a key component to her artistic success. Her exposure at interior design shows such as WestEdge Design and International Contemporary Furniture Fairs is good marketing that has paid off for Sunday. She enjoys conversations about her forms and process, and delights in witnessing viewers’ amazement upon learning that her sculptures are ceramic rather than metal, and are handbuilt rather than slip cast. Calling upon presentation skills honed in front of fashion executives, Sunday is as confident and focused in pitching a high-end commercial installation for Dior as she is in working in her studio. Colleagues and contacts from her former career remain a part of her network: the creative director who once hired her is now a steady client, and stylist friends have been instrumental in introducing her work to magazine editors.
But landing features in print publications is not just a matter of chance or connections. “It’s key to have good photos of your work,” says Sunday, who acknowledges the convenient advantage of having a professional in-house photographer. The couple’s work lives often intersect, as when Vogue Germany agreed to feature images of her work, then assigned Paul to shoot the accompanying portrait.
Sunday’s time away from the studio also includes writing for annual direct mailings to clients and finding and developing relationships with galleries. “The challenging part of my early career was finding a good fit with galleries and showrooms that understood the work, could promote it, and pay in a timely fashion,” she says. Again Sunday calls upon her skill set from her previous career to negotiate terms for fair pricing, commissions, and shipping costs. She is currently represented by the modern luxury design gallery Studio Van den Akker in New York’s D&D Building, and Imago Galleries in Palm Desert, California, and she is developing other domestic and international prospects.
Mining Sources of Inspiration
Even with long studio sessions and attention to promotion, Sunday finds time to visit museums and exhibits to bring inspiration back to the studio. She also looks to nature for inspiration; including the architecture of a found leaf and the shapes in molecular structures. By peering into an intricate world of nature’s microforms, Sunday finds dynamic and architectural components to translate into clay. Her scale-fluid design elements are like souvenirs she brings back from an Alice-like adventure in a scientist’s wonderland. She likes playing on the edge between possible and impossible, both in her designs and in her technical execution.
Any handbuilder can appreciate the technical skills her pieces require. “I pride myself on craftsmanship . . . I’m a perfectionist by nature,” Sunday admits. One common challenge of working large is managing clay-body weight, which she has learned to minimize by building her pieces from hollow spheres. Wheel-thrown elements or extruded components are manipulated and attached. A recent piece called for over 120 individual attachments, just the kind of task Sunday seems to relish. She fires to cone 4 or 6 in a Skutt electric top-loading kiln, but anticipates purchasing a front-loading electric kiln to reduce the travel time spent firing in a friend’s 36-inch gas kiln.
Sunday’s vision for new pieces is to work even larger and to play more with forms, surfaces, and color, particularly in the super glossy, high-luster glazes that tend to sell well in the interior design/architectural niche she has found. Still, she sometimes faces the creative challenges inherent in being self employed. “Pleasing existing and new clients . . . is an ongoing challenge. The biggest challenge of all is meeting my own self-imposed standards,” she says. Keeping flexible while persevering seems key to evolving her work. “I work on the edge of my materials and sometimes that presents moments of surprise, but often a momentary setback can lead to another, even better idea. I have learned to be open to that.”
Since committing to a full-time career as a ceramic artist, Sunday has had no regrets. She clearly has the determination and innate curiosity to drive her own career, as well as an unrelenting willingness to weather the highs and the lows. “I own the responsibility for my career completely . . . No one else is to blame if something goes wrong.” The creative career is sometimes frustrating, often thrilling, but always compelling, and for Sunday, there could be no other path. “I am fortunate to be doing what I love, and making a living at it.”
the author the author Victoria Woodard Harvey is an artist, journalist, and essayist on trends in culture and the arts. A frequent contributor to Ceramics Monthly, she is an alumna of Anderson Ranch Arts Center in painting, printmaking, and ceramics since 1996. She lives on the central coast of California.