Studio Visit: Melissa Mencini, Austin, Texas

Just the Facts

Clay
Aardvark Clay’s Coleman porcelain

Primary forming method
wheel throwing

Primary firing temperature
cone 8 in oxidation

Favorite surface treatment
mishima, paper and vinyl resist, screen printing on clay, and decals

Favorite tools
Dolan fettling knife, flexible metal rib, Thermofax machine

Playlist
30 Rock, Arrested Development, stand-up comedy, Pandora’s Run the Jewels station

Wishlist
more space

Studio

My studio is just under 200 square feet and is nestled in my backyard along with my garden, fruit trees, a chicken coop, and a separate kiln shed that is directly across from my space. Since I work in such a small building, I had to do extensive planning to maximize the space. The design I came up with keeps the wet clay and my primary workspace on one side with a clean, gallery-like area for finished work on the other. I built a loft to store packing materials and other items that I do not use regularly. I placed all of the windows and doors very precisely, so that I could maximize the natural light in my studio without sacrificing space for shelving. My dogs spend most of their time in the studio with me, so my favorite aspect of the building would have to be the French doors from which they watch the squirrels.

Before building my studio, I worked in a 100-square-foot spare bedroom in my house, which was the first time I had a studio at home. The two years I spent making work in that space was incredibly helpful in planning the layout of my current studio to best accommodate my work habits. My kilns were previously housed in my garage and I would have to travel through an obstacle course every time I loaded the kilns. The newer arrangement of my studio and kiln shed outside and across from each other has decreased the amount of work that gets broken while loading.

I am constantly making little upgrades such as building new adjustable shelving and purchasing a tiny shed to house a large amount of my raw materials. Since I live on a city-sized lot, expanding my space is not feasible, although I do dream of a larger space that I could teach workshops in someday.

Paying Dues (and Bills)

I earned my BFA in ceramics and glass from Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio, and my MFA in ceramics from Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. After graduating, I spent 13 years shuffling around the US teaching at different universities and taking part in various residencies in ceramics. Packing up every two or three years was incredibly difficult and it made a regular studio practice feel strained. In general, it took me about 6 months to feel adjusted to my new surroundings and to get into a productive work groove. In 2013, I decided to leave my full-time teaching job at the University of Alaska in Anchorage to work as a full-time studio potter. My partner and I packed up and decided to move to Austin, Texas. It was terrifying to walk away from a full-time teaching job, but I knew that it was not going to get any easier as time went on and even though I miss my time working with university students, I adore my time in the studio.

My current studio practice consists of about 60-plus hours of studio time a week and I teach community classes one day a week at the Art School at Laguna Gloria here in Austin. Since I have established this work routine, I have had the freedom to build in a month or two every year specifically for experimentation and failure. This time allows me the freedom to explore new forms and ways of working while pushing myself outside of my comfort zone without the worry of needing to produce finished work. This sometimes unconventional practice allows for new growth, so I never feel stuck or bored with the work that I am making.

Marketing

Since I prefer to spend my days elbow deep in clay, writing quick, casual Instagram posts often feels strained and far outside of my comfort zone, much like an oddly choreographed tight-rope walk. That being said, I do stay active on both Instagram and Facebook to promote new work, exhibitions, or sales that I am involved in. I have my work in a handful of galleries across the US and take part in a couple of local craft sales annually. Often times there seems to be no rhyme or reason to consumers’ buying habits, which helps to keep me pushing my work in the hopes of catching a new customer’s eye.

I am one of the hosts and facilitators of the Art of the Pot studio tour here in Austin, and that involvement has introduced me to an amazing swath of ceramic collectors and enthusiasts in central Texas. Being a part of the tour has allowed me to be supported by the local community as well as be an important part of the artistic growth and ceramic education of the Austin area. Without the continued support of such an encouraging community, I wouldn’t have my studio and I wouldn’t have the opportunity to push my ideas of what contemporary ceramics means to me.

Mind

When I am not in the studio, I am usually hanging out with my partner and our dogs, checking out the always changing urban landscape of Austin, or hitting up one of the local swimming holes. The graffiti, new architecture, as well as the ghostly abandoned buildings, the ever-changing foliage, and general weirdness of Austin keep me recharged and mentally on my toes. This city provides an abundance of colors, flavors, and textures for me to bring into my studio practice. Aside from my immediate surroundings, I am constantly looking at both contemporary and historic pottery from around the world as a source of inspiration and continued education. Influences in my studio practice also include: Persian architecture and tile, William Morris designs, as well as fabric and patterns from around the globe.

Cooking and baking also provide a wealth of personal inspiration as a maker of domestic objects. I love continuously learning about the relationship between food that has been lovingly prepared and handmade tableware. I grow and preserve as much food as my surroundings will allow. Everything from the harvesting, cooking, preserving, and eating play an important role in informing my studio practice. I am constantly searching out containers to take into the garden with me for picking and collecting or a new vase that will boastfully display the flowers that are intermingled within the growing food.

Most Important Lesson

My best advice to anyone considering taking the leap to become a full-time artist is to save as much money as possible while working for someone else to help cushion your landing. Finding the space to make work is the easy part, buying all of the equipment and materials can feel draining and, at times, borderline impossible. Embracing failure has been the most impactful lesson in my career as an artist.

www.melissamencini.com
Facebook: @MelissaMenciniCeramics
Instagram: @melissamencini

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