Clay Culture: Bursting Cupboards

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1, 2 Culbertson’s collection of mugs, bowls, and cups from 2014 to present.

Selecting a mug to use each morning and evening is one of the perks of having an expansive and ever-growing collection—it also serves to heighten a maker’s awareness of handmade ceramic objects. 

Before really starting to make my own ceramic work, I began collecting pottery while in school at Western Illinois University. It didn’t seem like collecting at first; I just wanted to use handmade ceramics in my everyday life. My mentor and ceramics professor, Ian Shelly, talked about the importance of collecting artwork as a way to learn about and connect with handmade objects. Ian brought pottery from his own collection to class to show students the craftsmanship first hand, and told stories and shared memories about each piece. Viewing and handling others’ ceramic work can help inform your own. I was able to look at all the different ways artists create proportion, surface, utility, personality, and function within their pottery. I believe it is especially important for beginning ceramic artists to have this opportunity and to see all of the wonderful ceramic artists making art into a career is inspiring.

3 Culbertson’s collection of mugs, bowls, and cups from 2014 to present.

Beginning a Collection

Ian was the one who helped me make my first ceramic purchase in the fall of 2014. He took a group of students on a road trip to the annual Sculpture Objects Functional Art and Design (SOFA) exhibition in Chicago, Illinois. There, we saw amazing sculpture, jewelry, ceramics, and so much more. Afterward, we visited Lillstreet Art Center to see the various ceramic work, the gallery exhibition, and the studio spaces. It was there that I bought my first mug by Tara Wilson (see 8). That mug is what started my entire collection.

In the spring of 2015, I went to my first National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts (NCECA) conference in Providence, Rhode Island, and purchased a variety of new ceramics to add to my collection including a Birdie Boone berry bowl, a magical throw-up Theo Uliano bowl, and a Missy Steele salt-and-pepper shaker set. Conferences are one of the best ways to collect work and I haven’t missed an NCECA since! Prior to the conference, I make a list of ceramic artists to buy a piece from, but I often see and purchase more work that is not on the list. With so many artists out there, my list  often includes those I do not have work from. I enjoy a diverse array of ceramic work and try to populate my collection with as many different artists as I can. I typically set aside a specific amount of money for ceramics when traveling and work within my budget.

This past summer I went to the St. Croix Pottery Tour in Minnesota for the first time. The feeling of community surrounding events like regional pottery tours and sales is another reason why I like to collect work. There is always a great sense of hospitality and warmth. Whether it is meeting new artists, sharing a drink with old clay friends, or bonding with strangers over an awesome pot, there is a welcoming community in ceramics. This camaraderie also extends to trading artwork to build collections. Trades are a great way to create connections and friendships with other ceramic artists, as well as artists in other media.

4 Left to right: Matthew Metz, Melissa Weiss, Sunshine Cobb, Candice Methe, Kurt Anderson, Mike Helke, Matthew Metz.

5 Left to right: Jenn Cole, Missy Steele, Giselle Hicks, Jennifer Allen, Clary Illian, Paul Maloney, Brett Kern.

Expanding and Experiencing a Collection

Mugs and cups are the vessels I’ve acquired the most of over my short time collecting, but I have recently started purchasing bigger work like serving bowls, vases, jars, sculptures, and wall pieces. I try to find pieces that are unique to that specific artist and like having a diverse collection of ceramics that vary in size, form, and aesthetic. I plan to keep expanding my ceramic collection and one day hope to have a house full of ceramics. It can be a little daunting to consider moving my collection, as I have every year for the past three years (hopefully with another move to graduate school in the next year); but I embrace it anyway! I would rather be able to enjoy a new piece than pass it up! You just have to use all your clothes as padding.

I would love for more people to interact with the pieces in my collection. My plan is to open a hands-on gallery or a bed-and-breakfast type of place where people can come enjoy a meal with my collection. Pots are meant to be used and I want others to experience the ceramic work as well. I love having friends over for dinner and having them pick out plates, bowls, mugs, and cups to use. Starting a collection should become a communal experience! Sharing the work with others is just as valuable as being able to examine the craftsmanship of a piece individually, as each meaningful interaction with a dish can create a new memory or a new idea.

6 Left to right: Iren Tete, Claire Tilly Troelstrup, Callie Murray, Samantha Oliver, Donna Polseno, Paul Briggs, Lars Voltz, Charles Snowden, Natalie Shelly, Katie VerKuilen.

7 Culbertson’s collection of plates from 2014 to present.

For makers, it is extremely useful to handle ceramics. It helps inform your practice. When you use ceramics every day, you develop your palate and a sensitivity to all the little details of a handcrafted object. A ceramic piece is time and craft coalesced into a physical object. You hold the time a maker spent to create. The work is an extension of the artist, using their work is like having a visit with them. A few of my current favorite mugs were made by Aaron Becker, Mike Cinelli, Lynne Hobaica, Tim Kowalczyk, Candice Methe, Ted Neal, Doug Peltzman, Joanna Powell, Matt Repsher, Emily Schroeder Willis, and I could keep going! My favorites to use change all the time and I often find something new about each mug with every use.

My day usually starts with choosing a mug for my morning coffee and ends with pouring a cocktail in an appropriate cup after spending all day making in the studio. The pots that surround me daily have an unconscious and conscious effect on my own work. It is a privilege to live with my own learning library that allows me to observe other makers’ approaches to visual and aesthetic language. Much of my ceramics career has focused on sculptural vessels, but I have recently been exploring functional pottery. Collecting a variety of functional cups has helped to inform and inspire me to make my own. I feel very fortunate to have all of these wonderful pots to enrich my life and hope to keep expanding until my collection  fills my entire home!

8 Kyla Culbertson holding her first ceramic mug, made by Tara Wilson.

the author Kyla Culbertson is a ceramic artist from Canton, Illinois, and is currently a resident/intern for James May Gallery in Algoma, Wisconsin. She graduated with a BFA in ceramics from Western Illinois University in 2017 and was selected as a 2019 Ceramics Monthly Emerging Artist. To learn more, visit www.kylaculbertson.com or search @culbertsonkyla on Instagram.

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