1 Horacio Casillas Jr. and Justin Rothshank’s dinner plate, 10 in. (25 cm) in diameter, mid-range clay, underglazes, decorated with decals, 2021.

To collaborate is to work jointly on an activity, especially to produce or create something. Collaboration is also about risk taking. It’s intimidating to invite someone into a collaborative process. It’s scary to trust someone with a project or idea we’ve invested time and energy into. It’s disappointing to make a mistake with the work of a partner. Yet, artists take risks regularly; it’s inherent in the creative process. I love the shared risk of collaboration and am interested in the failures, the tests, and the work required for the process, even though it isn’t always comfortable. 

Spirit and Tradition of Collaboration

I grew up in a local Mennonite tradition of collaboration. Craft and labor projects in the historic Mennonite communities are often a collaborative environment. Barn-raisings, quilt making, and food preparation all require a spirit of collaboration, work ethic, and craftsmanship. My personal history includes many of these experiences, which feel both familiar and comfortable. My extended family grew up on rural farms, where joint work efforts were daily occurrences, and I currently live in a rural area surrounded by Amish farms.

2 Justin Rothshank and Isaac Scott’s cups, 4 in. (10 cm) in height, wheel-thrown earthenware, glaze, decals created using photographs taken in Philadelphia, 2020.

As a young artist just out of college, this spirit and tradition of collaboration translated into my job as a community organizer, volunteer coordinator, and program developer for the Union Project, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Upon the solidification of that nonprofit organization, this spirit carried through into my work as a clay artist. Kiln-building classes, collaborative wood firings, and building a cooperative clay studio were critical to my learning, skill building, and early successes. And finally, as a self-employed person, husband, and father, I regularly collaborate with interns, my accountant, my wife, my children, and of course, many other artists to succeed, or fail, at my daily work.

Staying Inspired and Connected

This joint, shared work is a necessary, important, and inspiring part of my human existence. Some collaborations are more successful than others. Not all lead to further collaborations. The best collaborations blend concept, skill, and vision to produce something better than the singular participants are capable of alone; however, I think it’s idealistic to assume that each attempt will be spectacular. Something less than perfection can still be inspiring and lead to better attempts. 

3 Justin Rothshank and Brooke Rothshank’s Illuminate (intention jar), 12 in. (30 cm) in height, soda-fired stoneware, gold decal drawn by Brooke Rothshank, decal made by Milestone Decal Art, 2019. Part of a year-long collaborative project on intention setting with Brooke Rothshank.

I seek out fellow collaborators, and I often welcome invitations for collaboration. As an introvert and rural dweller, collaboration is a way for me to stay connected to my national and international craft community. It’s necessary for me to talk, communicate, and dream with current and future collaborators. It’s beneficial to create with others to promote my own studio work, their work, and to find innovative ways to continue earning an income. Each collaboration, even if it’s not perfect, represents a new approach, a worthy step forward, and an opportunity to gain feedback from fellow makers, collectors, and curators.

Growing Out of Mistakes and Opportunities

As an artist, I work intuitively. For me, this means I am often responding in the moment to work that’s in front of me. I make intentional decisions at early steps in my preparing and making process (like which clay and decals to purchase and what form to make), so that when I begin to create, I trust my intuition. I work quickly and in succession, often responding to tasks of making as a collective grouping of work. Even when working on collaborative projects, I find that intuitive response is still my primary reaction. I will choose decal patterns or a shape in response to a collaborator’s color scheme or form. Often, I make mistakes, or even bad work. Then I consider my task to be correcting or building on these mistakes. How can I save that piece? What if I cover the mistake with a glaze? Should I refire it hotter or in a different atmosphere?

4 Brett Kern and Justin Rothshank’s dinosaur, 8 in. (20 cm) in height, slip-cast ceramic, underglaze, wood-fired for 95 hours, decal decorated and refired, gold luster, 2019–2020. 5 Brett Kern and Justin Rothshank’s first orange dinosaur collaboration, 8 in. (20 cm) in height, 2013.

One of my longest, ongoing collaborative projects grew out of such a mistake and the opportunity that social-media engagement gives us. Brett Kern, whom I had initially never met, posted an image of his work, an inflatable clay dinosaur that was glazed orange—too orange for his tastes. I commented that I could “always decal it!” Before long, a collaborative relationship had begun, one born out of a shared desire to make something better, and the challenge to see where it could go. Now, many years later, our familiarity with the work allows us to move past preciousness and into the challenge of making work that neither of us could create alone. The challenge of wood firing paper-thin, slip-cast pterodactyl wings for 95 hours is one that we both met with excitement! 

With Brett, we’ve collaborated both in-person, and through the mail. In several instances over the years, Brett and I shared a studio for a week, and fired the wood kiln together. We talked through the collaborations while constructing the pieces, and loading the kiln. We were jointly soliciting feedback, planning, and joking throughout the entire process.

These in-person sessions often included other artists, and led to collaborations within the whole group. Additionally, the shared studio time led to plans being made for future exchanges using the postal service as follow up to ideas generated in person.

6 Justin Rothshank and Yesha Panchal’s vase, 10 in. (25 cm) in height, wheel-thrown porcelain, slip-trailed, glaze, decals, 2021.

I feel that collaborating extends beyond fellow clay artists. As a maker, I rely heavily on other talented people. I trust my collaborations with Standard Ceramic Supply, Amaco Brent, Skutt, Milestone Decal, Enduring Images, and so many others. These companies help me to create a product by supplementing my studio work with a skill set I don’t have, or don’t want to utilize. 

In moving beyond my own skill set, I’ve wanted to create work that exceeds my own expertise. Historically, I have loved Japanese wood-fired water jars with enamelware lids. They are inspiring to me. How can I revisit this idea in a contemporary context? In thinking through this design challenge, I met jewelry artist Stacey Lee Weber, who uses pennies and other forms of US and foreign currency as her material for creating. Since we had both worked with President Abraham Lincoln as a major subject matter, we bonded over our interest him, and thus a collaboration was born. 

7 Stacey Lee Webber and Justin Rothshank’s Buffalo Nickel Vessel, 22 in (56 cm) in length, wheel-thrown earthenware, glaze and decal decorated by Justin Rothshank with platinum-luster decals by Milestone Decal Art, lid made of buffalo nickels by Stacey Lee Webber. 2017.

Stacey and I met at craft show in Baltimore. It was a long show, so there was lots of time to talk, learn about process, and plant seeds of collaboration in between the occasional sale over the course of several days. The actual making of the work happened separately, and through the mail. Ideas percolated for a year after the initial Abe Lincoln series, and when we met up again at the same craft show a year later, we planned a new series with buffalo nickels. 

This collaboration pushed me to make a jump into printing decal designs using lusters, which was initially a costly and frightening jump, but later transformed my work permanently and independently of collaborating with Stacey. It gave me the opportunity to see my own work enhanced by a new material. I find joy in experiencing my own work not as the maker, but as an outside observer and critic.

8 Bryn Rothshank and Justin Rothshank with their large flower jar, 27 in. (69 cm) in height, wheel-thrown earthenware, painted/drawn illustrations, soda fired, 2021.

Exploring Collaboration Further

In recent years, after building my life and career around collaborative projects, I’ve wanted to find ways to explore collaboration further with the larger clay community. I’ve wanted to push my ideas of form and surface; to continue to test the waters through experimenting, asking questions, and finding new and innovative collaborations. This led to the creation of “Collaborative Companions,” an annual exhibition of collaborative works held in partnership with Companion Gallery. I’ve also begun regular collaborative sales through my own studio website as a way to showcase ongoing experiments with artists who work with me throughout the year.

These exhibitions and sales are a way to examine new ideas, but also to earn an income to support my family. Some of these collaborations are more profit driven and help keep my studio afloat. Others are more research driven and help me learn new technical information for future projects. And some fit into both categories. This approach to hands-on learning (more pots means more kilns to fire more often, which means more results to evaluate) has pushed my knowledge base ahead faster than if I were just working with my own pots. 

9 Justin Rothshank and Steph Galli’s vases, 11 in. (28 cm) in height, wheel-thrown porcelain, underglaze, glaze, 2020–2021.

In recent years, without travel or hosting opportunities due to the pandemic, it’s been more difficult to find regular collaborative opportunities. More exchanges have happened by mail. Less in-studio work with others has meant fewer collaborative firing opportunities and fewer exchanges with wet clay work. I’ve focused on different collaborative projects, including weekly gratitude reflections with my wife, Brooke; knife making with my oldest son; narrative drawing with my youngest son and daughter; and woodworking using found objects from family history and salvaged hardwoods from my property. These family-oriented collaborative projects have stretched me in new ways that I couldn’t have otherwise imagined. 

The willingness to make mistakes, risk bad results, and seemingly waste materials is difficult to summon at times. It’s scary, exciting work. 

the author Justin lives and works in Goshen, Indiana, with his wife Brooke, and their three children. He is the author of  Low-Fire Soda, published by The American Ceramic Society. More information is available at www.rothshank.com or on Instagram at @jrothshank.

Topics: Ceramic Artists