Ceramics Monthly: What led you to pursue curatorial work as part of your career path?
Jo Lauria: My leap into curating happened organically. After receiving an MFA in ceramics from Otis College of Art and Design, Los Angeles (formerly Otis Parsons College of Art), I intended to become a studio ceramic artist. At the time, my work was focused on exploring the vessel and conveying a sense of being female through form, process (labor), and materiality. I observed that work about the female experience wasn’t very visible in ceramics in the early 1990s. So, I organized an exhibition that provided space, breath, and depth to ceramic objects that had, at their core, a female-centered perspective. “Exploring a Movement, Feminist Visions in Clay” (1995-1996) was the resulting curatorial project, a multisite exhibition of over 200 ceramic objects divided between 4 hosting venues in Southern California. This experience launched me into curation, and I pursued it as a career. I spent several years as a decorative arts curator at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), where I gained an understanding of museology and broadened my knowledge base. This led to the breakout exhibition, book, and film Color and Fire, Defining Moments in Studio Ceramics, 1950–2000, which showcased LACMA’s permanent collection of ceramics and highlighted the significant donations of Howard and Gwen Laurie Smits.
CM: How do you go about choosing a subject/artist or developing a theme for an exhibition?
JL: In the 20 years since, I’ve been an independent curator and have been fortunate to work on large-scale comprehensive exhibitions that narrate the story of American crafts (“Craft in America: Expanding Traditions,” 2007–2009), and occasionally I find support to mount one of my ideas. I’m invested in the dialogical approach to curation, where the meaning of an artist’s work is fully grasped through interviews, archival study, and oral histories if the artists are no longer living. I jumped at the opportunity to organize retrospective exhibitions for Ruth Duckworth, Ralph Bacerra, and Anna Silver, and to contribute to the accompanying book for Ruth Rippon’s retrospective. I greatly admired these artists for their visions in form, expression, and design intellect. Each had reached the apex of their career without a retrospective of their ceramics; this provided the impetus for action. I had access to their life stories and the primary research materials that contextualized the work. (Ralph Bacerra mentored me at Otis.) Their retrospectives, accompanied by catalogs, now serve as the culminating document of their careers, providing meaning and fulfillment to mine.
As the Adjunct Curator for the American Museum of Ceramic Art (AMOCA) (Pomona, California), I’ve developed two thematic exhibitions that I’m passionate about. As a native of California with a strong interest in regionalism, I’ve always been fascinated by the aesthetic variations between Northern and Southern California studio ceramics that surfaced post–World War II. To investigate the regional movements and illuminate the contemporary ceramic artists who contributed to these developments, Beth Ann Gerstein, AMOCA’s executive director, and I organized “Mind + Matter: Five Bay Area Sculptors,” which featured the work of Robert Brady, Arthur Gonzalez, Beverly Mayeri, Richard Shaw, and Nancy Selvin (2021). In the 2022 AMOCA exhibition “Connected Spaces: Cheryl Ann Thomas and Michael F. Rohde,” I proposed the theme of a “call-and-response” interchange of ideas between Thomas, a ceramic artist, and Rohde, a weaver, who are longtime friends. This was a daring move for Gerstein and me, and ultimately the pairing was compelling. The exhibition provided a meaningful connection between the work of artists from different disciplines.
CM: What is your process for developing a survey exhibition of a contemporary ceramic artist?
JL: Once my interest is sparked, I visit an artist’s website or request images and an artist statement for review. Then I work toward establishing a relationship through studio visits and open communication. I need to understand the artist’s motivation, intent, and ambition. I see my role as bringing their vision into the public sphere and generating a community around the work. This arrangement functions best when the artist and curator are in sync and have clearly defined goals to which both are committed.
Above: Jo Lauria with works by Cheryl Ann Thomas (background) and Margaret Keelan (right). Photo: Shelly Simon & Jane Feldman.