In September 2020, I developed and proposed Clay+ as a national juried exhibition specifically for the Clay Center of New Orleans (CCNO) with the overarching objective to support and highlight the growing movement of interdisciplinary artists who primarily identify as ceramicists. The jurying process for CCNO was blind, and applicants were accepted on the basis of their inventive use of materials and the limitations of the space. The final exhibition included: Audrey An, Harrison Boden, Austin Bradshaw, Meg Howton, Dasha Kalisz, Patrick Kingshill, Raoul Pacheco, Cooper Siegel, Lauren Skelly Bailey, Ethan Snow, Kourtney Stone, Kyle Triplett, and ChengOu Yu.
The show was compelling, but challenges like COVID-19 restrictions and natural disasters shortened its run. I continue to consider the recent uptick in interdisciplinary clay artists, and decided to further explore it by interviewing five of the artists who participated in the Clay+ exhibition. Our dialog charts the research pathway that led each one to engage in interdisciplinary strategies.
Audrey An graduated from Penn State University in State College, Pennsylvania, in May 2022 with an MFA and is in the midst of planning several new artistic and career endeavors. Our exchange addressed much of the common uncertainty that exists after the graduate-school experience. I have followed An’s practice for several years, and believe of all of her work, the newest body holds the most promise in that it continually and successfully attaches challenging personal narratives to objects wrapped in the skin of familiar architectural-design vernacular.
The traditional Korean moon jar is created from two separate bowls. When considering her own rendition of the classic form, Memory Moon, An asked, “What are the two halves that I am made of?” This led her to consider the notion of her bicultural upbringing. To examine this conceptually, she explored subtlety in textured glazes. The orientation of each hemisphere is tweaked slightly to reveal the in-between space; an internal moment that exposes a digitally collaged photograph of a relative separated by geographic distance. An considers this revelation a “memory portal.”
At Penn State, An initially insisted on using digital fabrication as the exclusive tool for creating pure ceramic work. After the first year, it was evident that the production of work was not immediate enough to receive sufficient critical feedback from fellow graduate students and members of the faculty. “Then COVID hit and everything changed,” states An. During the pandemic, access to digital tools was restricted. This drastically altered An’s approach to making. Without such tools, An turned to handbuilding exclusively. In so doing, An realized a profound connection to clay, which was somewhat absent in previous work.
In pandemic isolation, An reconsidered architecture’s ability to convey a sense of belonging. Additionally, it became apparent to her that the way an individual curates objects within an artwork and in daily life is a powerful and potent reflection of a person’s identity. This new honesty in the work was conveyed through the incorporation of re-created historical works, relevant objects from An’s past, and pieces significant to her time at Penn State. Her work examines dichotomies like Korean and American cultural characteristics, past and present, the self and the other, and digital versus analog. An states, “Clay helped me to develop a deep affinity for materials and digital fabrication helped me to learn to articulate ideas in many forms.”
Early in our exchange, Kyle Triplett recalled with enthusiasm the exhibition “Margins,” which took place at the 2009 NCECA (National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts) conference in Tempe, Arizona. Triplett recounts feeling that this show, curated by Nathan Betschart and Brian Gillis, was an invitation or granted permission to consider the use of any materials or methodologies in cooperation with clay. The show not only validated that mixed-media ceramic strategies were permitted, but also highlighted and even encouraged them.
Salt is comprised of wood, steel, lighting, salt, and clay. “Light has been the thing I keep coming back to,” he says. “It has become a way to demarcate space and I feel every piece needs a lighting component.” For Triplett, the clay is important, but the light is the across-the-room attraction. “Once the viewer has been hit by the light, they encounter the detail, tactility, and content in the clay object,” he adds. The aesthetic look of Triplett’s recent work has been informed by imagery from 2001: A Space Odyssey and minimalist architectural interiors.
Triplett has discussed the impracticality of using clay for all aspects of his work. “At some point, it doesn’t make sense to use only clay,” he says. The ceramic petals in Triplett’s work are tied together with nichrome wire and the stem is made of steel brake line, a tactic developed in collaboration with ceramic artist Rain Harris. Triplett describes confronting disappointed viewer reactions after they learn that the piece is not entirely clay. “The wizardry of ceramics is very alluring and when clay is the room, you expect everything to be all ceramic.” Triplett continues, “Clay is super frustrating, and clay can be good at doing some things and bad at others. As the world gets more expensive, ceramics is going to make less sense for a lot of artists unless they are attached to an institution with access to kilns and equipment. Artists should ask themselves, what are the practical limitations of this material and does it make sense for my practice?”
ChengOu Yu’s work, including pieces from the series Nature, Landscape, Artifacts, is so understated that it could easily be overlooked in a field crowded to overflowing with loud objects.
ChengOu Yu earned a degree in ceramic design from the Jingdezhen Ceramic Institute in Jingdezhen, Jiangxi, China. Then, at the height of the pandemic, he graduated from Alfred University in Alfred Station, New York, with an MFA. We discussed, in great detail, the challenges of preparing a thesis exhibition while simultaneously learning of COVID-19 restrictions, lockdown requirements, and the myriad of related uncertainties. While at Alfred, he worked with Jonathan Hopp, who developed a course that partnered with University of Buffalo architecture students. “For architects, ceramics is just another material,” ChengOu explains. “This fact made me more open-minded about the function of clay—clay is clay; clay does what clay does, and it does it well. Alfred was pretty open about material exploration.”
ChengOu creates small-scale, laser-cut MDF maquettes to physically realize forms before producing them in clay; this is especially true for conceptualizing large-scale work. He cites the use of digital tools as one reason he began to consider combining other materials with his ceramic work. He states, “There is only so much I can do with clay, though it is a fascinating material full of potential. At the same time, other materials offer an ability to explore different formal qualities. When I pair clay with non-clay parts, it creates multiple new formal conversations.”
One of ChengOu’s works consists of two forms displayed together. One is a coil-built ceramic outline of a narrow bottle form. Coils are built on top of this outline, which creates a chasmal interior space that draws the eye and alludes to a historical and somatic vastness synonymous with this particular form. Runny glaze drips that accumulated during firing remain. This piece is paired with a laser-cut MDF-lattice sculpture held together with slotted construction. The close proximity of the twin forms creates an undeniably tense visual relationship that examines the sublimity of the infinite and disposability and brevity of the finite.
Kourtney Stone’s wall-mounted sculpture Grandma String Bean Told That One Before is comprised of a deftly executed, unglazed ceramic bust that sits atop a wooden crucifix of reclaimed oak-furniture parts. The lower section of the mouth and chin, the focal point of this dynamic piece, has been replaced by reflective, translucent wax. This part of the face has been constructed from a material that is known for its viscous quality, implying a sense of movement and simultaneous impermanence. Stone explains that the work is an homage to her grandmother, “During the production of this work, I was thinking about her stories and our reactions to hearing them. I wish I could hear them again.”
Stone is a visiting assistant professor at Indiana University (IU) in Bloomington, Indiana. At IU, Stone works with several independent-study students gravitating toward mixed-media. “There is always a lot of trial and error at this stage of development, and I tell my students to act out their questions,” she says. “If you are stuck wondering what will work, you have to do it; don’t wonder.” As we talked about encouraging interdisciplinarity in ceramics programs, Stone mentioned being heavily influenced by Bruno Latour’s tenets of actor-network theory and the philosophy of phenomenology. “I’ve been interested in time and how we experience time—the way we feel it passing in our body,” she says. “These two ideas intersect and overlap in my art practice and have helped to keep the exploration of different materials going.”
An initial influence was Stone’s undergraduate mentor, David East, who insisted his students follow the idea of a piece rather than concern themselves with its material composition. Stone also marks Christina West’s guidance as instrumental in her development during her graduate studies. Stone has a master’s degree in art education and for seven years was an administrator and ceramics instructor at the secondary-school level. As a teacher, with limited time in the studio, she began experiments with different clay processes and other materials. In the end, Stone returned to clay: “I like the way my brain thinks in clay, and I’m captivated by its processes—the way it is responsive to mark making and its transformation and translation of ideas. Clay carries actual weight, but it also carries the weight of history and the passage of time.”
Beyond the obvious visual and striking construction differences of Patrick Kingshill’s oeuvre to that of other contemporary American ceramic artists, his recent creative pursuits have led him to explore an avenue entirely outside the normal trajectory of other artists. I spoke with Kingshill during his lunch break working as an apprentice shipwright in Port Townsend, Washington. Kingshill is part of a team restoring a 1910 wooden sailing yacht. He passionately asserts, “This is the most significant craft endeavor I’ve ever been a part of, and I’m learning everything wood is capable of.”
Kingshill studied under Stan Welsh at San José State University in San Jose, California, and credits Welsh with encouraging his initial foray into the exploration of other materials in combination with his ceramic practice. In our conversation, Kingshill mentioned being subconsciously informed by vernacular architecture. For Kingshill, the architecture of a region could determine the aesthetic look of an entire body of work. For instance, while living for several months in Sunderland, England, Kingshill described being captivated by the industrial brickwork of many of the homes and factories there. This is when he began experimenting with unglazed red clay.
In a way, Kingshill is a material purist. His work seeks to showcase the raw visual qualities of untreated, dark-red stoneware; the subtle yellow of white oak; and the stark, flat whiteness of Hydrocal plaster. While a graduate student, Kingshill discovered the Brazilian Constructivist movement, which promoted art, architecture, and design concepts without excessive ornamentation; emphasized minimal geometric relationships; and more broadly responded to concepts of modernity in Brazil. This revelation had an indelible impact on the direction of his work. Visual themes explored in the work of artists like Lygia Clark and especially Sérgio de Camargo became apparent in Kingshill’s ceramic forms.
“The piece for Clay+ started with the challenge of hanging a multi-part vessel from a tower,” explains Kingshill. Simple prompts like this are usually the jumping-off point for much of Kingshill’s sculpture. In order to address this particular dilemma, he looked at large-scale civil-engineering pieces such as drawbridges with counterweights and other types of common mechanical infrastructure. Kingshill delights in playing with scale: “Formally,” he says, “the piece came out very balanced in regards to color and the counterweight on the back of the tower actually stabilizes the sculpture.” Kingshill circles back to the yacht to convey the immense importance of every aspect of the ship functioning perfectly; it would be catastrophic if something went wrong in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean due to human error.
The pandemic pushed Kingshill to consider new ways to pursue creative endeavors. What is clear is that Kingshill’s newfound relationship to wood has only intensified his connection to clay. Learning the characteristics of one material pushes the maker to consider the processes of another. Kingshill never sees his relationship to clay fading.
The next iteration of this exhibition series, “Clay+/Invitational,” will open October 26, 2022, in the Sarah Moody Gallery of Art on the campus of The University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
the author Wade F. MacDonald is an assistant professor of art in ceramics in the Department of Art and Art History at The University of Alabama located in Tuscaloosa. He holds an MFA from Michigan State University. Wade lives with his wife, Anne Herbert, and stepdaughter, Clara Worley, in Birmingham, Alabama. To learn more, visit www.wfmceramics.com.