The audio file for this article was produced by the Ceramic Arts Network staff and not read by the author.
“We tell ourselves stories in order to live . . . We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely . . . by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the “ideas” with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.”
—Joan Didion, The White Album (1979)
Carefully Constructed Realities
Any visit with Joanna Powell, whether in her sunlit studio, over coffee, or immersed in one of her fantastical installations, leaves you feeling that she has an imaginative, maybe secret, inner life. To a degree we all do, but Powell feels like she might be having more fun than most of us.
Powell’s most ambitious works are room-sized installations made up of various objects—ceramic vessels, folk-inspired self-portraits, neon signs, and odd furniture, plants, or rugs. The installations she creates have a powerful pull, as all tableaux do—they are pure theater and appeal to our love of stories, even if the narrative isn’t immediately clear. Throughout the arc of her career, Powell has created an installation every two or three years. The installations have narrative, poetic titles that are self-referential, including: She Ain’t Pretty That Way (2021); Lay Me in a Hot Bed and Try Not to Drown (2019); and Everything Belongs to You (2016). They often include some form of self-portraiture, either directly or indirectly, and are a way for her to try on ideas, identities, and sensibilities.
Viewers are drawn into Powell’s carefully constructed reality(ies), populated by improbable characters who enact lavish social and psychological accounts, often reflecting Powell’s internal monologue or personal biography. Powell states, “The stories [I tell] are all true; to survive, I turn my uncomfortable experiences into humorous objects. The work [also] contains how I experience the world in a woman’s body.”
Powell is not a ceramic artist per se, but an artist who uses ceramics, as well as a menagerie of other materials. Still, ceramic objects are the polestar around which all the other collected materials revolve. The ceramic vessel is a tool that she uses to investigate a variety of interests. A visit to her studio reveals that it is decidedly dedicated to ceramics, though populated with a healthy biosphere of plants, a few long-lashed paintings of faces with red lips, odd wooden constructions, and likely some glitter. One of her frequent touchstones is something her dad told her, “Life was like taming lions, you have a gun, a whip, and a chair.” Powell reflects, “This is accurate. . . it’s wild out there and it’s important to learn what you can do with the things you have,” a sentiment that bleeds into her installations, which feel like they were made at whatever the cost.
Form, Function, and Heart
Powell isn’t anti-craft but comes up with unusual or unexpected practical solutions to form and function, like cutting the long neck of vases so they fit into her kiln but reassembling for exhibition, or adding the thin, bird-like appendage to the handle of her cups because it feels balanced. Her vessels have become wonderfully sophisticated and elegant with rotund, generous forms and narrow, almost impractically delicate, appendages. When asked about functional ceramics, at which she excels having been classically trained to be a potter, and sculptural work, at which she also excels, Powell pauses and says, “Well, do I have to decide? Can’t I make it all?” Indeed, she can.
Powell is, however, all heart. That’s what you get 100% of the time, both in her work and in her person. She walks around with her emotions dialed to a ten, a sensation that gets translated into her work, which contains a range of emotions and experiences drawn from the everyday. In addition to humor, she heartily touches on embarrassment, anxiety, tragedy, comedy, joy, sensuality, and sadness.
Her mom passed away five years ago, and it was a sea change in Powell’s life, resetting her personal timeline into a vivid before and after. Like anyone who has lost a close family member, that person is ever present, while no longer being here at all. Grief is a steady undercurrent, which lingers unheeded for days only too well up suddenly. She recollects, “I didn’t know what love was until my mom died. We’re all mortals, we’re all going to die,” a philosophical reflection on how we occupy our time on this planet. Indeed, Powell’s work, far from being a meditation on death, is concerned, perhaps, with all the mundane and minute things that happen between birth and death. Her strangely compelling, elaborate stage sets are devoid of people—ready for us, the viewers, to walk in and inhabit them. Their emptiness points to an interior life or introspection. Powell says, “One thing I would say is that the work embodies lonesomeness. I have always been really okay with alone time since I was a kid.”
Exploring New Work
Powell is a plant person and a cat lover, which any arm-chair psychologist will tell you means she gives the love and care she wishes to receive. Indeed, her next body of work, born amidst pandemic isolation, relates to care and caring—take for instance the plant vases encircled by supportive hands. Her work recently has also shifted. The predominately rich, white surfaces feature subtle decoration of color or luster applied almost indeterminately. Despite their outward appearance, Powell’s pieces have an elegant reserve, an austerity that takes time to appreciate fully. She made this shift after revisiting her work and deciding that the overt riot of pattern and color felt garish. The new work feels quieter and reflective, almost formal. Though maybe formal splashed with a bit of gold luster and blushes of pastel-colored glaze.
The play-acting in Powell’s work affords the maker and viewer the ability to explore identities, histories, or ideas safely. Her stories are truthful, are fiction, are self-aware of their own making, balancing reality and artifice, and Powell’s complicity in this is as a generator of stories and creator of the installation. Tableaux allow us to explore sensitive topics or histories, and work through issues, especially in the wake of some sort of trauma. It is misleading to assume trauma in Powell’s case, but the ability to imagine alternate outcomes or even her own life at a remove is certainly prevalent. Rather, Powell creates her installations to uncover truths, plural. The appeal of her work is in the misalignment between how things are and how they should be, or as Powell states, in “how the world we live in is different than we perceive, from the tangible to the intangible.” Truth, whether it is relative or fixed, or the ways that perception or experience can affect what we know and believe, creates a tiny space between the two. This is where alternatives unfold, stretching for an ideal. She says, “On a daily basis, I pretend so that I can break more rules. I don’t like to follow rules. I think it’s against my will. It’s more of this habit of playing dumb so that I can hear how someone explains something they know, and I can compare notes secretly.”
Powell (b. 1981) received a BFA in ceramics from the University of North Texas (2008) and an MFA in ceramics from the University of Colorado at Boulder (2012). Powell has exhibited her work at venues throughout the US including the Archie Bray Foundation for the Ceramic Arts in Helena, Montana; The Clay Studio in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; and Greenwich House Pottery in New York, New York. From 2013–2015 she was a long-term resident at The Archie Bray Foundation. In 2015, she was named an NCECA Emerging Artist. Currently, she maintains a full-time studio practice in Helena, Montana.
the author Brandon Reintjes is a senior curator at the Missoula Art Museum. He writes about contemporary ceramics for Ceramics Monthly and Ceramics Art and Perception, and recently wrote about the postwar craft movement in Montana for The
Journal of Modern Craft.