The audio file for this article was produced by the Ceramic Arts Network staff and not read by the author.

1 Turquoise/orange/white basket, 12 in. (30 cm) in height, handbuilt white earthenware, Amaco Velvet underglazes, 2021.

Nikki Blair’s sculptural vessels are quirky, neat, and colorful, just like her. For someone who considers herself a clumsy person who is also a self-described “clean freak,” there is a playful balance between loose/gestural and sharp/geometric in her cheerful yet cheeky utilitarian works. Basically, she is her work, and those opposing forces are what draw you in. 

Propelling a Career 

Blair grew up outside of St. Louis, Missouri, in two small towns on the Illinois side of the Mississippi River. Her mother died when she was six and she was raised by her father, who was a sign painter. Every day after school, she would go to his cold sign shop, which smelled like paint thinner. He would roll out a big piece of paper and Blair and her brother would just draw. “That’s where it started,” tells Blair. “I was five when I got my first easel and a set of ‘pirate paints,’ what my family called the cheap watercolor paints that had a pirate ship on the label.” And then, as luck would have it, her high school art teacher, who introduced her to ceramics, happened to have been taught by her future professors at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville (SIUE)—Dan Anderson and Paul Dresang. She wouldn’t meet them until she was enrolled at SIUE a few years later, but Blair is a good example of the power of lineage in our field—teacher to student, teacher to student, and so on. “That was my local college! An hour’s drive away. I was really lucky. I stumbled into the ceramics program, and it happened to be huge. It was intimidating for me, but they encouraged me. They were hard-core guys as far as work ethic, but very supportive. They changed my life.” 

2 Nikki Blair in her studio. 3 Blue Tornado, 15 in. (38 cm) in height, white earthenware, handbuilt, Amaco Velvet underglazes, 2021.

At Edwardsville, the emphasis of the education in the ceramics department was on functionality, not something Blair took to at first. “I wasn’t very good at it. At the time, functionality was a barrier, but I learned how to throw, etc.” From there, Blair went on to Ohio University for her master’s degree, and under the direction of Brad Schwieger, Chuck McQueeny, and Joe Bova, she pursued sculpture and installation primarily. There, she wasn’t limited to one material, and her early work combined clay with other mediums, such as rubber and various metals. It was content-rich, challenging work, “all about ideas and conceptual things,” mostly exploring dualities, such as attraction versus repulsion. This line of work propelled her career, landing her a tenure-track teaching job in the art department at the University of North Carolina in Greensboro, where she has been teaching now for 22 years. 

Making a Shift 

About seven years ago, Blair made a shift in her work. “I just wasn’t feeling that conceptual work anymore. I wanted to make what I want to use and what [other] people might use. The utilitarian part of it all came back into my work. When you’re casting aluminum and stuff like that, you have to depend on other people. You have to schedule it, which I hate. Making work that people could use became more meaningful to me and it opened me up. Now, I really connect with this movement of makers, of connecting with the user. I didn’t before.” 

4 Orange bottle, 9 in. (23 cm) in height, handbuilt white earthenware, Amaco Velvet underglazes, 2021. 5 Pink Flamingo, 13 in. (33 cm) in height, handbuilt white earthenware, Amaco Velvet underglazes, 2022.

That said, Blair’s functional work is quite sculptural and expressive. Her colorful baskets, jars, flower bricks, and vases are essentially three-dimensional collages, handbuilt from drape-molded slabs that are pieced together. The bright colors and bold lines are what draw you in at first. Sharp black lines, precisely drawn on the edges of each slab part, emphasize the vessel’s gestural movement while preserving its geometric nature. Often seeming to defy gravity, the work is at once loose and tight, soft and hard, geometric and organic. There are opposing forces in the work, which no doubt adds to its spark. “That duality has been there my whole life. Like with losing my mom—one moment there’s just the father. It is about the struggle between, the tug of war. But then again, I need the work to be gestural, quirky, and weird. A lot of it comes from watching my chihuahua or the birds out in the yard—the movement of things.” 

6 Large Yellow Basket, 16 in. (41 cm) in height, handbuilt white earthenware, Amaco Velvet underglazes, 2021.

Inspiration and Playfulness 

Looking at her work, right away you can see the influence of her father’s sign shop and growing up in a small-town, mid-century modern environment. “My Dad had a Chevy truck that he would paint a different color every year—purple, turquoise. Then he started painting his phone number in Roman numerals on his car because he was so busy that he didn’t want anyone to call him,” she explains. “A lot of it comes from that experience. Going to the laundromat and the colors of the washers and dryers—mint green. It’s the car washes, old TVs, bowling alleys, old signs, and gas stations from back in the day. Structures and signs, silhouettes of buildings, lettering, fonts. Fonts are a big deal.” 

7 Blair working in her studio.

You can tell Blair has fun in the studio. At first, she sketches everything, working things out on paper. Recently, she ran out of paper and started playing with some tracing paper she had lying around the studio. She began layering drawings on top of one another, kind of like a collage, and once again, things opened. This sketch-paper happenstance ultimately changed her approach to handbuilding, and then her forms. Using low-fire white clay, Blair starts by rolling out several slabs and lets them set up to leather hard in drape molds, which is how she achieves the subtle curves in her forms. She then starts cutting and assembling the slab parts together, which is her favorite part. “This is where it gets exciting. I will be working and will say to myself, this one’s going to make it. This one might fall over in the kiln. This one’s cool, or this one surprised me.” 

If her playfulness comes through in the form, it is for sure heightened by Blair’s approach to the surface, which is color and line. “Color is secondary, but essential too,” states Blair. “Sometimes I know that a piece will need to be pink or orange and the form will dictate the color.” Only working with color after the bisque firing, she applies tape to a form to mask areas, sprays it with underglaze, and then bisque fires it again to set the underglaze. Next, she hand brushes the black lines along the edges, and finally sprays the form with Woody Hughes’ clear glaze, firing one last time. In the kiln, the clear glaze often pulls a bit on the black lines, softening the form’s edges in a way that gives the overall piece a feeling of being alive or animated, despite its obvious status as a functional object. While her forms’ dualities are amplified when put to use, casually holding flowers from the garden or fruit, they are not fussy about their household role and are happy to stand empty. 

8 Light Green Pocket Vase, 7 in. (18 cm) in width, handbuilt white earthenware, Amaco Velvet underglazes, 2020. 9 Turquoise Line Vase, 14 in. (36 cm) in height, handbuilt white earthenware, Amaco Velvet underglazes, 2021.

Selling Work 

As far as her process goes, Blair typically builds all her forms in the summer, when she has the most studio time, bisque fires everything, and then glazes during the school year, when she’s teaching. “It took me 20 years to figure that out,” she says. Unlike many artists who juggle a teaching career with a studio practice, Blair is not deadline driven. Entering into the world of functional pots not that long ago, she is getting used to actually selling her work, and it is a whole new world. “If I’m not teaching, I’m usually in the studio. My husband is a workaholic. He’s a contractor and is always working, which I am so glad [for], as it allows me studio time,” she laughs. “I don’t really make to sell. I like to just have a lot of work ready to go when it’s time.” She has sold her work through Red Lodge Clay Center and Shape Theory Collective, and those two platforms really launched this new line of work and led to other exhibition opportunities around the country.

10 Orange Fade Basket, 11 in. (28 cm) in height, handbuilt white earthenware, Amaco Velvet underglazes, 2021. 

When asked about her titles, it is clear that here as well, there are no strict rules. “A lot of times the color adds meaning to the piece. Like, I’ll think this one looks like I Love Lucy, or a Blue Tornado, or a Goldfish. Sometimes they are not titled and sometimes they are. I don’t shy away from giving a representational title. It makes them more humorous and funky. I seek humor in my work, definitely. I’m goofy! The work is goofy and clumsy like me, and all of that is in there.” 

the author Leigh Taylor Mickelson is an artist, writer, curator, and independent consultant working with arts businesses and non-profits to help them develop and grow. Visit her website at to learn more.