Just the Facts
New Mexico Clay’s Chocolate, Laguna Clay’s B-mix
Primary forming method
wheel throwing, slab building
Primary firing temperature
cone 5–6 electric with some soda/ wood firing thrown in
Favorite surface treatment
underglaze painting, water etching, and homemade stencils
all ribs—rubber and metal
50/50 silence to music. Music varies from Radiohead to Nina Simone to Nick Cave.
more space and light
Heading up the Crystal River, just outside of Carbondale, Colorado, you enter a lush canyon with epic views of Chair Mountain. This is where my husband and I live. In the upstairs of our house, in a small room under the rafters, you’ll find my home studio. It is technically 115 square feet, but the slant of the ceiling rafters on the northwest wall actually makes it even smaller in usability. Every inch of the studio is put to use with shelves and storage (including a couple of damp boxes), a long table for handbuilding and painting, and a corner for throwing. Under one end of the table are glazes, and at the other end of the table are buckets of different clay body scraps awaiting reclaim. It is a studio for one, though my studio cat, Cosmo, assures me that we both fit just fine—his favorite spot being in the alcove of the window. And now and again, even my husband comes and joins in for some creative time in the mud. It can become quite cozy!
While being upstairs offers lovely views of the trees out the window, it does come with some challenges. One is water. I bring my water in and out in a 5-gallon bucket that I haul up and down the stairs. Alas, the stairs are not as wide as those in Kill Bill, so my workout is a bit more awkward. As such, I’m quite frugal with my water usage, letting any sediment settle and washing tools and hands carefully in the clear top water over the course of many days. The other challenge is bringing pots down the stairs to the kiln, which is located in the garage. I’ve learned that many small trips is always the better choice. In winter, I time my firings to heat the garage when there are house projects to be done. And of course, there’s the challenge of not tracking dust into the house itself. I take extra care to contain the clay and dust by using a two-rug/mat system at the door. One on each side of the threshold. When I enter the room, I slip on my clay-room-only slippers, not unlike Mr. Rogers in his daily routine. While not perfect, this seems to work fairly well, though it does also require that I keep the studio relatively clean. I suppose the upside of a small space is that it means there’s only so much I can get dirty (though I do my best!).
On warm days, I’ll often bring the pieces I’m working on to the back deck where I can look out toward the majestic Chair Mountain and get buzzed past by hummingbirds. While this isn’t much of an option in the winter snow, I take full advantage of it during the rest of the seasons. I particularly appreciate being able to apply luster in the open air. And, being that much of my surface decoration is inspired by my time in nature, working on pieces outside brings me great joy. That and the feeling of incredible spaciousness is a good antidote to the small space of the studio.
I’ve worked in many communal spaces over the years, and while I sometimes miss the camaraderie of shared studios, I truly appreciate having my own space in my own home. Being able to check on pieces at any point, whether first thing in the morning or right before bed is a godsend in regard to even drying. And I can’t imagine not having a studio cat. Yes, his long fur gets everywhere, and I get grumpy, but it’s all worth it when hearing him snore loudly in the window while I throw. Of course, I do have the incredibly good fortune of being able to go down to town to the Carbondale Clay Center (CCC) for a dose of clay-family time when I’m feeling too isolated in my tree house. And not only that, if I have work that I want to fire atmospherically, I can rent out the CCC soda kiln. It is truly a win-win—being able to have my own studio while also having my clay community close by.
We do have future plans to build a studio space behind the house. One that would be larger (on the ground floor), that would have a sink, and much, much more light. Surprisingly, the thing I yearn for the most, even above more space, is more natural light. I’m hopeful that the plans will become a reality one day.
Paying Dues (and Bills)
I have another profession that I’d consider my main job, and that carries the larger portion of paying the bills. As such, it also gets a larger share of my time. I received a BFA with a concentration in ceramics, along with a BA in English literature. However, when I went on to graduate school, I went in a different direction and received a master’s degree in oriental medicine. Part of the decision was influenced by all the bad advice of “don’t make your art your livelihood.” The fear of injuring my love of ceramics with the requirements of making ends meet slowly seeped into me and I thought I couldn’t, and shouldn’t, ever make it my work. I don’t believe that anymore—being honest and discerning with yourself is important, but making life decisions from fear is rather self-defeating. The irony, of course, is that my choice of career was definitely not motivated by financial reward. While I sometimes regret not having the immersive experience of going to graduate school for ceramics, I don’t regret my other decisions. Rather endearingly, I recently came across the essay I had submitted with my application for my master’s—the whole piece revolved around the metaphor of working with clay being kindred to what it is to work in the art of medicine. Needless to say, both are now simply part of who I am.
Sharing my working hours with my other profession, I have to be conscious of my time. I find that what works best for me is to work in the studio in concentrated stints with blocks of space in between.
At present, the income I receive from my ceramic work is a 50/50 split between gallery shows and selling directly. While it certainly pays for itself, until the day when it becomes my main focus for time spent, my ceramic work will remain in the supplemental income department.
While I love sharing my work with the world (I mainly use Instagram to do this), I’m really not very good at being an extrovert, which means I find venues like fairs or festivals painfully exhausting. Although I make less income from the commission-rate structure of working with a gallery, the care and representation given make it completely worth it to me. I truly appreciate having someone else who is knowledgeable talk about my work. I am grateful to have someone else deal with the transactional aspect, and, when needed, do all the boxing and shipping! And then there’s the wonderful relationship that occurs when being shown alongside other artists in a gallery. Ceramics as a field has a very strong community orientation to it, and having my pots share space with other artists’ work is part of participating in that community feeling that is so important to us all.
Inspiration and recharge usually go hand in hand for me. Seeing art inspires me, it fills me with life and engages me. This could be the art of ceramic artist Jennifer Lee, the paintings of Richard Diebenkorn, or the writings of Annie Dillard. Or, it could be the art of the natural world. Being out hiking in the woods is quite possibly one of the most fulfilling things for me. All the colors, textures, and wildlife fill me up; they recharge both mind and body. The wide-open space, the light, the movement—it all makes my world right again. And if I’m stuck in the studio, an outing up one of the mountains here will usually get things moving—both literally and metaphorically.
When it comes to inspiration for my ceramic canvases, well that is equal parts nature, literature, and humor-filled adventures with my husband and Cosmo.
I’ve found that one of the most important aspects is to be open to new experiences. Looking at art in many different fields, learning new skills, exploring different terrains, and eating new foods; by expanding the walls of my personal box, these experiences also expand the ways my art can unfold.
Photos: Michael Sweeney.