1 José Sierra in his studio.
Art as a Career
I have been pursuing art as a career since I was teenager. A middle- school assignment propelled me to study ceramics, after I made a sculpture of a local artist and I discovered clay. The clay got in my blood. I pursued the profession by studying ceramics at the School of Art and Craft at the University of the Andes, in Venezuela.
In Venezuela, I was working principally in sculpture, because I couldn’t afford a full studio. I used to fire at a classmate’s house, and produce in a studio space in my house. It was a humble studio, but it had a beautiful view of the Andes and the weather was perfect.
When I first came to the US in 2000, initially I worked full time in Iowa City at the New Pioneer Co-op, in the kitchen, and I worked on the weekends in a studio I rented in an old school house in Cosgrove, Iowa. I started collecting Ceramics Monthly from a local newsstand. Eventually, I amassed enough work to do the Iowa City Art Fair, my first show, and I sold enough work to pay for my studio rental and materials for a year. It gave me the initiative to be able to start working part time as a potter, although I was still working at the market and working in my studio every weekend.
2 Untitled, 10 in. (25 cm) in height, stoneware, 2017. 3 Untitled, 8 in. (20 cm) in height, stoneware, 2016. 4 Untitled, 11½ in. (29 cm) in height, stoneware, 2014.
In 2003, I was able to transition to working full time as a potter. Since then, I moved to Arizona and then to the Pacific Northwest. My wife is a professor so we have gone where the jobs are.
A Slow Evolution
I have experienced a slow but constant evolution at a personal level as a craftsman when it comes to my perception of ceramics. I think the concept of having to dedicate 10,000 hours to something in order to become truly skilled definitely applies to learning to manipulate the material on the potter’s wheel. And since throwing is a repetitive action, in my earlier years, I was really dedicated to learning to transfer my conceptualized ideas to the form on the wheel. But now, the wheel is only a part of the process, as I am constantly distorting and manipulating the wheel-thrown pieces. In some ways, I’m trying to surpass all that I learned in school about traditional forms. So, now I spend more energy thinking about the concepts and the designs.
Years as a professional potter
14 years as a full-time studio potter, working with
ceramics for more than 20 years
Number of pots made in a year
The time it takes (percentages)
Each piece takes 2–4 weeks from start to finish. I make about 10 pieces at a time—throwing, drying, modifying, drying again, firing, glazing, etc.
Making work (including firing): 75%
Where it goes
Studio/Home Sales: 10%
Other: Some biennials as well. I like to participate in biennials and similar exhibits.
Where to see more
5 Untitled, 8½ in. (22 cm) in width, stoneware, 2016.
I was a little nervous when I decided to work full time as a potter, but I have been able to pay my own insurance and was able to make it work. My hardest challenge has been sticking with firing my work in an electric kiln all these years because I haven’t settled in one place long enough to set up a decent-sized gas kiln. I learned to fire in a gas kiln in Venezuela. But now, I am very comfortable firing with an electric kiln. When I was learning in school in Venezuela, the electric kiln had a bad reputation; it was only used for bisque. But we explored it and I learned to use it.
6 José Sierra’s studio. 7 Untitled, 7 in. (18 cm) in width, stoneware, 2017.
Exploration and Development
The exploration and development of my own ideas and designs are my principal motivators. One design or idea takes me to a new place, in this way one idea gives birth to another. I like to keep in the flow, and let the design evolution flow, rather than respond to the market. To be too repetitive feels stagnant to me, so I just keep moving forward, letting the ideas and concepts lead.
Since moving from Venezuela to the States, my work been in constant evolution, and my roots have given me a certain perspective of the value that each culture ascribes to these objects. Over time, my appreciation for Pre-Colombian ceramics and design has been one of my ever-present influences.
8 Untitled, 7 in. (18 cm) in width, stoneware, 2016. 9 Teapot, 10 in. (25 cm) in width, stoneware, 2015.
When I lived in Iowa, I was in a learning and experimental phase. I met a lot of my potter comrades at art fairs in the Midwest. Iowa and the larger Midwest region have good traditional and utilitarian potters, but interacting with these artists was also a reminder that I come from the Andes and from different approaches and traditions. So when I arrived in Arizona, it was like a boom of ideas and a re-connection with the earth, the land, and the history of ceramics (pre-Columbian) in the Southwest and the contemporary appreciation of ceramics in the region. I started rock climbing again while there, and the topography was an infinite source of ideas and inspiration—with its colors and textures, the geography of the Southwest is reflected in my work.
I think becoming a studio potter is a journey, una travesia. It is a commitment to yourself, to the craft. Keep evolving and try to keep open to the adventures of the clay.
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