Published May 2, 2022
I admit it. I completely lack the patience (and, if I am being honest here, skill!) to do detailed drawn decoration on my pots, so I am really awed when I see other potters pulling off intricate imagery. Such was the case when I first saw Terri Kern's work.
Terri painstakingly creates her beautiful surfaces by building up layers and layers of underglaze colors, skillfully blending colors to add shading and detail. A self-proclaimed workaholic, Kern says she tries to put one thousand brush strokes into every piece. Now THAT is patience. Here, I am sharing an excerpt from an article in the Ceramics Monthly archive so that you can all share my awe. - Jennifer Poellot Harnetty, editor
Every now and then I run into work that hits me hard. When I was recently in Terri Kern’s studio in the Pendelton area of downtown Cincinnati, Ohio, I was struck by the force of some images of her recent pieces hanging on her wall. The combination of form and surface on this work was unlike anything I have run across in recent years and very different in palette from her previous work. I became intrigued and decided to spend some time picking her brain. Kern describes herself as a workaholic, spending long hours in the studio and many hours on each piece, striving to put a thousand brush strokes onto each one. She has been making a living selling her work for over seventeen years.
She is pragmatic, learning early the forms and designs that could sell well in a retail environment but like many artists wishing for a connection and dialogue with the public beyond the sales. The story she tells on each piece is important to Kern and something she wants the public to engage with and understand as well as buy.
Kern’s playful use of narration is the key to her creativity. Stories unlock the part of her brain that designs her work and she says that she has to construct the story first, and then design and complete the piece. For her, working in the studio is a constant narrative of story after story, leading to corresponding pieces where the story is illustrated through form and surface decoration.
Kern has a unique approach in her studio, centered around narration that springs from both a depiction of personal stories and her study of drawing and poetry. She does not spend time viewing contemporary work, rather she speaks of her enjoyment of 14th century illuminated drawings and the poetry of Richard Haig, which she has illustrated in the past, and which influenced some of her recent drawings. Other influences she credits to the painter Frida Kahlo. Kern spends a lot of time drawing, recently participating in an international drawing/montage collaboration with artists in China and Europe. Her drawings help her formulate narratives.
Working form a personal narrative is a common methodology in art and at some level everyone’s work is about themselves. An approach such as this is all too often offered as a value judgement, as if the means justify the end or the mere existence of the means affect the quality of the end product. In Kern’s work, the means are a vehicle to superior work, much less common when working from a personal narrative, an expression of personal emotion and experience.
Yellow underglaze is applied to block the dark hue of the red earthenware. Then, several layers of a lighter yellow underglaze are added. To create a background blend, I lay out the underglazes in the order that they will be applied, because I will blend them right on the surface of the pot. Depending on how many colors are being blended, this step can add anywhere between three and six layers of color to the surface.
Once the base layer blend is completely dry, I draw directly on the surface of the underglaze with pencil to establish the design.Before adding fill color, I’ll brush yellow underglaze on areas where the darker background color needs to be blocked out (yellow blocks better than white). I use three layers of fill color to make sure I have a nice solid layer of color. I’ll fill all areas before going back and adding blended shading.
After all the fill colors have dried, it’s time for the blend coat, which usually consists of one to three layers of a darker version of the fill color. This basically creates all of the shadows on the piece. Once all the color is dry, I use a liner brush (with packing foam taped around the handle for comfort) to apply outlines and details with a black underglaze. This black happens to be Duncan EZ Stroke 012. When creating the sgraffito areas, I paint the black underglaze on in a small area and, while its wet, I use a sharp tool to pull away the black and reveal the underglaze color beneath.
Terri Kern received her MFA in ceramics from Ohio University, and lives and works in Cincinnati, Ohio. For further information, see www.terrikern.com.
Gil Stengel is a potter and ceramics instructor in Burlington, Kentucky.