Studio Visit: Adero Willard, Chicopee, Massachusetts

Just the Facts

Clay
red earthenware

Primary forming method
wheel throwing, coiling, pinching

Primary firing temperature
cone 03

Favorite surface treatment
tape resist and wax resist to create patterns

Favorite tools
hands, brushes, X-Acto knife, paddle, tape

Studio Playlist
podcasts—comedy, art

Wishlist
a pugmill

Studio

In some ways, getting the studio I have now was a decades-long process. I grew up in New York City and lived only in apartments for most of my life. To have a studio where I live is very satisfying, particularly since we own our home in Chicopee, in Western Massachusetts. It’s a working-class town with very affordable electricity rates (I fire my work in electric kilns) and easy access to Boston, New York, and nearby college towns. I love being able to work at different times of the day depending on what else I am doing. All I have to do is walk into what was built as an attached two-car garage, which has been converted into my studio. I am frequently joined there by one or two of my cats. Having them nap on a shelf or be curious about what I am working on (because they want my attention) is just enough company to keep me energized without really interrupting my work.

We chose this house in large part because the garage was partially heated and already had plumbing, making conversion to a studio fairly simple. We had the garage door replaced with a wall and sliding glass door, which adds more light and fresh air during pleasant months and is far less drafty during winter. It also provides me with a gallery-type wall should I want to stage an installation. When I am producing a lot of work, I have the flexibility to use the additional shelving in the garage to hold work or keep supplies I’m not using out of my way. 

The property also has a nice yard for gardening, which is another aspect of a home studio that I really enjoy. Being able to walk outside and look at or tend to my plants (and their pollinators) during spring and summer is very satisfying and often a source of inspiration. I derive a visual language of shape and pattern from plants, insects, textiles, abstract paintings, and historic motifs. I am also very much inspired by the paintings of the Harlem Renaissance, jazz, and imagery from my favorite author, Toni Morrison. 

The convenience of a studio at home involves some trade-offs for space. My workaround for this is using shelves and work tables with casters: I can re-configure my workspace depending on what stage of making I am involved with (throwing versus decorating, for example). This flexibility is also valuable to me when I am switching between periods of making functional work or sculptural pieces. I might need more shelf storage for plates and mugs one month, and need more work surface the next month to set out larger pieces. 

Paying Dues (and Bills)

I have been working as a ceramic artist for 25 years, and for a majority of that time, I was a studio potter producing functional work. During the last 10 years, I have been splitting my time between creating work and teaching ceramics at the college level. Most of my time teaching has been at Holyoke Community College in Holyoke, Massachusetts. I really love working with students from diverse backgrounds, many of whom have little to no previous experience with the arts. I have always loved how virtually all cultures from anywhere in the world have their own historical connections to ceramics. 

More recently, I have been teaching as a visiting professor at Alfred University in Alfred, New York, where I got my BFA before completing my MFA at Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. Teaching these students presents a distinct challenge, and it has been rewarding in a different way to have such an abundance of resources and such art-focused students. Working within the academic schedule has meant that my summers are currently my most productive period of the year as an artist, which makes having my garden just outside the studio an even more prominent and welcome source of inspiration.

Material Affinity

A big part of my working process involves hands-on exploration of different forms, techniques, and combinations of pattern and color. My patterns are painted freehand with wax resist. Some of the more ornate shapes in my patterns are drawn ahead and traced onto the vessel or pot. Recently I have been using paper stencils cut from poster board, tracing them onto the clay, and filling the resulting shapes on the surface with wax. My sgraffito process is to draw freehand on leather-hard clay through layers of engobe and underglaze, revealing the clay body beneath. I enjoy the way that sgraffito becomes a tool for movement around the form and brings a distinct contrast to different colors, layers, and patterns. I produce a lot of test tiles: playing with colors and patterns remains a primary inspiration for me and the process helps me refine my intuition. 

Terra cotta is an important aspect of my work. Red clay brings a richness to my colors and patterns. I see red clay as the skin of the pot, the initial layer that grounds me in many ways both personally and historically. 

Terra cotta connects me with a rich global tradition that I hope to continue learning from and exploring as a source to inform my work. I find a spiritual connection to makers from across the globe who use red earthenware. Recently I have been exploring some of the West African coil-building techniques that also use red clay. Other historical traditions I regularly draw from are the Onggi fermentation pots of Korea (from which I learned to produce work at a larger scale than I had previously), and Jomon pottery from early Japanese history, whose decorative shapes convey a ceremonial importance that I find rich with potential. 

Staying Inspired

Even when I am trying to learn the proper historical technique from these traditions, I maintain a “what-if” curiosity—I value the history, but I make for the moment. I like to bring a playful push to these historical approaches so that my work speaks for me: a black, woman artist in 21st-century America. Like any artist, there are times when I find myself at a loss for direction or feeling uncertain about what I should be making. In these times, I turn back to the familiar to get myself back in the zone. Sometimes this brings me back to my test tiles, where I can explore the interconnection of pattern and color at a high volume without worrying about kiln space or a final form. Other times, I am drawn to making tumblers, plates, or other pots. These elemental forms help ground me creatively and are reassuring by their nature. Pots are my home base as a maker. 

As I have grown into making forms other than functional work over the past several years, I have had some really great opportunities for solo shows. One that I found particularly satisfying was at the Carnegie Gallery in Dundas, Ontario, Canada, in 2018, titled “Centri Petal Speak.” What made this work particularly satisfying was that it included a range of forms from wall-hung pieces and sculptural forms to decorative vessels and mugs. It was rewarding to demonstrate how my approaches to pattern and color translate across a range of forms that differed significantly in scale and purpose.

Making and Maintaining Connections

Like every other artist this past year, I had to endure cancellations of shows and workshops during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, during this time, I was fortunate to be able to participate in several online invitationals, which brought a welcome chance to network (virtually) with other makers and feel the continued connection with supporters of the arts. These virtual shows included “Art of the Pot,” “Clay to Table,” and the “Worcester Pottery Invitational.”

I am very grateful to have been included in numerous invitationals over the past several years. While for years I made my living selling pots at craft shows, pottery invitationals offer a different kind of reward. Often, they are hosted by art centers that play a distinct role in their community; as a participating artist I get to connect with that community, which previously was unknown to me (and me to them). The patrons themselves are more engaged with ceramics than the typical attendee of a craft show. Also, invitationals enable the participating artists a chance to socialize—to see and ask and learn about different materials and ideas.

At this point in my career, I am embracing the duality of being both an educator and a maker. When I have things in balance, each endeavor fuels the other. Continually seeking better ways to have them coexist is a central part of my artistic development. 

https://aderowillard.com
Facebook: @adero.willard
Instagram: @aderowillard

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