Interview with Deborah Schwartzkopf at Mudflat Studio, July 2009

This is a full transcript of Molly Hatch’s interview with Deborah Schwartzkopf that was done in preparation for the article “Deborah Schwartzkopf: Full Circle“, which appeared in Ceramics Monthly magazine’s February 2010 issue. To get great content like this delivered right to your door, subscribe today!


Molly Hatch: Start by telling a bit about yourself and your relationship to clay. How you started…

Deborah Schwartzkopf: How I started…(the) first time I was ever in a ceramics class I was in high school in a running start program (you can take college classes while still in High School). But I didn’t really latch onto it (clay). I also took photography and political science and drawing.

When I was 19 or 20, I transferred to Alaska after a year and a quarter at school in Seattle. I needed to kind of have some space to away from, you know, the roots. I needed to have other people informing my life. I wanted to be alone which is a good place to do that, in Alaska. So I went there and took a class with Pam Pemberton–a beginning ceramics class–and I really liked it so I kept taking (ceramics) classes. I also took classes in sculpture and jewelry. Steve Godfrey and Robert Banker were my two main teachers up there. That’s where I really started studying intensively. I had two mentors up there Kris Bliss and Peter Brondz. So that really brought me into clay because I needed a practical application for my degree. I came from a real working family and the whole idea of being an artist was pretty foreign. So I needed something that was real and practical–a cause and effect situation. That was really what drove me into ceramics…

M: So that was part of your motivation to make utilitarian pots?

D: Huge motivation, because I felt like I had a way to exist I guess, it wasn’t just…. I loved it (making art) it was a way to make it turn into a life instead of just something you study in school.


M: Interesting parallel, I think I had a similar reason for making functional work as well…

D: Yeah I think that happens with a lot of potters. It’s not just the artwork you love the lifestyle. The lifestyle that sounds so wonderful like having a beautiful home, you know with a garden and having roots which I have, but they are all over the place. They aren’t just in one place.


M: I suppose that’s something they (universities) don’t really prepare us for…

D: No, not exactly, hah hah…


M: Do you think that your move to Seattle will slow some of that moving down for you?

D: I’m not exactly sure. I’m moving there with Daniel, my boyfriend and I’m reluctant to say I’m settling there but it is also something that I want. So I don’t know, I’m just going there with kind of open expectations to see what happens. I think we are hoping to stay there for two years, maybe a little longer. It’s different when you are making decisions with somebody. I have been moving every single year for the last three years. I’m really tired of that and I can’t say that is over. I’d like to not move around so much…


M: Right, but it’s an opportunity for a long-term position?

D: It’s up to two years.


M: So to get back to your talking about your interest in utilitarian clay, could you expand on your ideas, your making process, how you came to working the way you do and describe how your process has evolved?

D: In Alaska there were two ceramics studios because of a merger between a Community College and a Vo-Tech College. One studio was at one end of the campus and it was more predominantly hand built and sculptural (clay) work and the other side was high fire wheel thrown, functional. I took classes in both (studios) and I had two separate bodies of work. One was wheel thrown and the other was pots, but they were more sculptural than functional–they were only hand built. So I feel like that set me up for being able to experiment in a lot of ways. (It) was also irritating–having to work in two studios at the opposite ends of the school but it was good because I experimented a lot more in totally unrelated ways with the same material. I feel like as a process I merged those two things so now I do a lot of both within the same body of work. I throw a lot of parts but I also hand build a lot of parts with slabs. So that was the beginning of my process as far as construction goes.


M: Sewing and other craft processes influence your work as well?

D: I come from a family of people that make things. My mom taught me to sew when I was really young. My dad is a woodworker. I grew up making stuff. My grandparents immigrated, they came from a life where you make everything, all the blankets, I mean anything you can make, you make. So I did a lot of handcrafts like crocheting and other things. I feel like if there was an opportunity to make something for someone it was made. It was a way of showing affection and caring between people in my family. Food was the same way. Making as much food as possible was a way of showing love. It came out of a family that struggled, that food was a gift.  Sewing was something I think particularly influenced the way that I see things because it starts with this flat 2-D  piece that you turn into a hollow form that moves around and doesn’t just have straight lines necessarily. So learning how to fit flat paper like things to a body is really similar to making paper patterns into volumous pots.


M: This is a tough question to answer because you have been moving around so much…there are key aspects to each of our studios that we set up and always keep the same. What do you require in your studio space?

D: That’s interesting because this space is the smallest space I’ve ever worked in and it really taught me the baseline of what I need. I need a lot of shelving. I built all the shelving in the studio. I painted the walls because the color of the walls influence how big something feels I painted it yellow and white which makes it have a brighter feeling. I really want windows. Making every space do something. Every space has to have an actually function. I always need a table. I do so much slab work that I need a space to roll out slabs. A wheel and a banding wheel are two really important tools. I also have a small box of hand tools. It’s all I need every time I do a workshop….Square bats, I can throw 50 cups and not have them spread out really far.


M: So when you are throwing you would throw on a bat?

D: I learned not to throw on bats but I started throwing on bats because I throw a lot of my work without bottoms and its makes it more difficult to pick up with out squishing it. I don’t want that kind of fingerprint on the work, I don’t want it to look messy and sloppy.


M: So your forms are often made with the bottoms added?

D: Yeah…


M: What does your normal workday look like?

D: I’m a really bad person for routines. Seriously…I try to have some goals for the day, which is one of the only routines I have. It varies so dramatically. I can’t glaze and make things here. So there isn’t a steadiness for making things for deadlines. I try to make extra for deadlines. Here my rhythm has been really strange because I have to stop and then haul everything to another facility to glaze.


M: Which has been Mass Art?

D: Which has been Mass Art.


M: You really haven’t been doing firings here?

D: No, I only did one glaze firing here…Mass Art has this gigantic glaze room and a spray booth that works really well. I store all my glazes there. I have 20 glaze buckets. For me it just made sense. Even in other facilities where I have everything in the same space I always work cyclically and make work for three or four, maybe five weeks. In my best health I fire a glaze kiln every month and a half or two months. January, February and March I just got through Christmas and I have to breathe. Usually it’s pretty cyclic.


M: You are firing gas kilns?

D: I fire in oxidation. I find that gas kiln oxidation firings aren’t as clean as electric and I think that’s good for my glazes that they get a tiny bit of variation as opposed to an electric kiln.


M: Do you want to talk a little about your forms? You have incredibly smooth surfaces on your work, could you talk about that?

D: My glazing…I guess I want my work to look like it has a skin on it. Like it could be made out of the glazes. I don’t want it to look super plasticky. I want it to look somewhat natural, where the variation is occurring because of a natural process. Whether its because it grew like that, or because the wind blew on it which happens when you spray glazes…or because fishes have speckling on the top of their back and on their bellies. (I am) referring to those sorts of natural markings. I also want to reference the more technological world. That is where the accents (on the surfaces) come in. Well actually, those are similar to bird markings too, its kind of a combination between those two things. Looking at things like traffic lights or brake lights and what they’re telling you what they are lighting up. What other markers I see around.  Even how extension cords are orange so you don’t trip on them as often. Like bird markings are a seductive call if you will, or even wearing lipstick. I want those accents to kind of float in the body of the piece so it creates depth based on color and shiny versus matt. So, often the accents are shiny the overall glazes are matt.


M: It seems like you are doing a similar thing in the forms as well.  Where you have fluidity, or an organic quality, but then also a rigidity that you might find in architecture.

D: Yeah.


M: Do you think that living in Boston or living in the city has affected you one way or another or are you holding onto some space from before?

D: I don’t know. I have this personal theory that when you get out of the place you are is when it actually affects you more. I feel like right now maybe I am still thriving off being in Ohio and the country more you know? But I don’t really know, I do really like looking at the buildings here. I guess when I think of the technological aspect I’m not really thinking of it always in terms of buildings that I see. It is more the contrast I see between people-they are these soft squishy things but they have teeth. Or even with birds, they are these puffy, fluffy things but they have this (hard) beak. I really like Frank Ghery’s buildings. He is an architect that I seek out.


 M: Is that because of his use of materials or shape?

D: Mostly shape. I feel like there is this great parallel between how buildings are often squares with box windows and box doors, but his aren’t.  But (his) still function and they inspire people because of the space they take up and the space they give. I think pottery can do that too. Based on tradition, you can take (clay) and morph it into something that’s not necessarily what is expected of it. It can make you more aware. It can change the way you see what you are holding because its not what you would expect.


M: Like a traditional cup versus non traditional…

D: Sure. I’m really interested in form. I approach my work really formally. It is often out of shape and surface that I am moving forward. I really want everything to function. I am really fascinated by that tug of war between surface and form and form functioning.


M: Its rare that I see a physical texture in the surface of your work. I feel like there is a glaze that might have a texture but there is a lot of visual texture, through mottling or dots. Why no texture?

D: Well I just don’t have a knack for it. I think my professor Steve Godfrey in Alaska uses texture in a really beautiful way. I feel like that’s the only kind of texture I could imagine liking. Then it would look just like his work! So I guess its something I have stepped away from.  I also like the feeling of the surface when its just this taught curve it feels like its opening, I’m referencing flower petals and how they expand and have that really high energy when they are just starting to pop. I guess I’m just not that interested in texture. And also my process doesn’t lend itself to texture because I’m always scraping and surforming. I want my pots to look fluid, but I’m not fluid. I have enough going on in the pots right now.


M: One of the things we have talked about is school and education. There is talk in the larger craft world beyond ceramics of real world training versus formal training. You and I have chosen academic routes. It would be interesting to hear about undergrad and continuing on to get your masters. What is some of your thinking around formal education and its relationship to teaching and making pots?

D: My experience in school was fantastic. Every place I went. In Alaska, in San Diego, in Pennsylvania…


M: Was San Diego a post baccalaureate?

D: It was an independent study for a year and I went there because I wanted to study glaze chemistry. In the programs I was in, there was a lot of freedom. They were really studio-based and I spent all my time working in the studio. I didn’t go to graduate school so I could teach. I went to graduate school because I wanted two years of feedback and practice before I had to be a real potter. It kind of led me into a deeper search of myself, which I found really meaningful. Being in the school system as compared to working on my own, I feel like my learning curve was a lot higher because everyone else around me was failing too and I could learn from their mistakes and get lots more feedback. I felt like it was a good opportunity. I guess I am also intensely competitive, so it was a way I was introducing myself to the ceramics circle, and that wasn’t working on my own– hoping they would find me. I was pushing really hard to get myself into every single circumstance that I could to grow and to get my work more known. I have to say though, without the experience of working for those two potters, I don’t think I would have done what I did….


M: The mentors that you had?

D: The mentors that I had taught me that I could make a living and have a balanced life. Which is not what I have yet, but it’s my goal and so that is what really keeps me going. Even though I have chosen a more academic route.  My real hope is to someday offer some sort of work situation to somebody if they want to work in a ceramics studio and see how somebody actually makes it happen. I’d like to teach maybe one class on the side. I don’t think that full time teaching is what I’m the best at. I love it. My one year at Ohio was wonderful. I feel like I learned more than anyone around me. It was really challenging. I think that the school system is really important because it challenges you to think, to improve your ideas. I think that sometimes it doesn’t cover enough of the basics about efficiency. What you are actually going to do with this–how you can really live off of what you do? I think that learning how to live off of what you do can sometimes be really stunting.  I think there is just a really fine balance that’s hard and I think it’s very individual. Some people do really well immediately selling work. I didn’t really sell my work a lot until I was at the Bray. I had a long time where I wanted to sell my work and I sold a few things. Most of it I gave to my mother and I think that was healthy for me because it allowed me to experiment longer without consequences and make things that didn’t really work for longer. I think everybody has to seek out their own way. I think both are valuable and if you can do both, so much the better.


M: One of the things I’m interested in your practice as a studio potter is what your relationship to marketing is, how you are using the internet as a tool and generally your approach. I have had to figure out the different ways to navigate my career as a potter on my own through talking with people. It sounds like you had somewhat of a similar experience?

D: Penn State is where I went to grad school. I feel like my professors were incredibly supportive but at the same time there wasn’t a lot of  “in order to succeed you should do this.”  And partly because I don’t think its that clear cut.  Everybody’s paths are different. I was really lucky to get the Bray right away I didn’t have a reality kick as hard as some people might. When I was there I decided that I needed to get my work out there because I made a lot of work and nobody knew where it was and nobody knew who I was. I needed to change that, so I used the internet to research galleries. I looked at a ton of galleries and sent out about fifteen applications in January when I knew everybody was going to be slow because I don’t want to be sitting at the bottom of the pile. I wrote them a short letter saying “I think my work might do well here can you take a look at my images.” I was really well received, actually a little over well! I kind of got myself into a…I had five or six shows that year and its kind of snowballed from there. I also entered every single juried art show there was, which cost a fortune. At that point I felt like I was investing in my career.  So that’s what I did. If the juried show went well and sold, sometimes I would call and ask if they would like more work. At the very end of grad school I got a website which cost me a fortune–well for me. I also paid the guy who built the initial page to give me lessons on how to maintain the site. He taught me how to make the gallery with images. Now I can add and totally change everything. I keep up with that which makes me insane. Every time I move, I send a card which keeps people updated as well.


M: Describe some of the more career changing moments or places since leaving school. Clearly the Bray and teaching. Is there anything else since leaving school that stands out in your mind as career changing?

D: I feel like I am more of a cumulative effect person. The Bray was a huge thing for me to launch myself off of, but Ohio was equally difficult and wonderful at the same time. Being in a school system after two years of making was a challenge. Learning from having to do critiques was really amazing and being in the atmosphere of questioning every single thing again. I hadn’t been really doing that as much. I had just been living off of all my questions from grad school at the Bray. Then coming back here, I felt like I have got to do the same thing, I’ve got to let go of the questions, at least internalize them.  I feel like that is something that I really enjoy, although I don’t want to keep traveling for a job and keep doing residencies. I’ve got to figure out something else…


M: Well you have done a lot of travel–we haven’t really talked about that …

D: I feel like that affects me more than anything. Each time I think this time it will be easier because I have done it so much and its not. There’s a whole new system to learn a whole new social circle to learn and a whole new everything. The things that should be easy aren’t, then you break your foot (Schwartzkopf broke her foot shortly after beginning her residency at Mudflat in the fall of 2008)…every single move has taught me so much even simple things like learning what other people are into like restaurants or music. It s amazing to be in this city and learning about all the museums and how to get in free. The traveling stretches me a lot. I really like it. It makes me nuts but right now I’m completely ready to move. It’s not because I don’t like it. I’m just ready. When I say that I’m not sure if I’m settling in Seattle its because I’m not sure that I know how.


M: What were your expectations for your career as an undergrad and how have they been realized or not realized now that you are here?

D: As an undergraduate I wanted to be a potter. Just like my mentors. I actually built a cabin, a studio and a kiln up there (in Alaska) and left it all because of relational difficulties and because I realized I needed to be in a more “in the loop” atmosphere. I mean, Alaska is fabulous, but one of the reasons it’s fabulous is because it’s removed. That’s also a less wonderful thing if you are trying to learn and inject yourself into a community that is not where you are. I took down my kiln and rebuilt it in someone else’s place and left. I did that special student (in CA). It was difficult but good for me. My expectations when I got out of graduate school…at that point I got into the Bray and got a fellowship which was my highest goal–and it happened! It seems completely unbelievable.  I didn’t really now what I would do after that. I am swayed easily by people and opportunities. That is kind of what I am doing right now. I am working intuitively at this point.

I really want to make pots the most. I really feel like I need the social part of being an artist which being a potter doesn’t always give you. Whether it’s teaching or something else.


M: So we talked about a few of your influences. Are there other artists or designers or places you look for inspiration?

D: I really appreciate strong women like Lucy Rie and Eva Zeisel. I’ve read up on a bit and look to for inspiration. The fact that they succeeded in their age and the age they lived in. They made work that’s beautiful in really different ways. I have to say I’ve had so many good teachers. In grad school I had Liz (Quackenbush) and Chris (Staley). But John Utgaard was there. I have just gotten to work with so many great people.

When I was first starting ceramics I took every single workshop I could possibly afford. I like paying attention to what people are making but I really try hard to just be in the world. I’m really interested in the slow food movement. My hobbies take so much of my extra time.


M: Future projects? Anything under wraps that you are working on?

D: I’m trying to figure out working larger using similar techniques which is difficult, it is not similar. Someday I’m going to go to Kohler. When I first applied there I had this (she points to a large hand built piece in her studio) in my brain but I didn’t have any sort of image to apply with. I want to get a studio. I want to try to have a home.


M: So we’ll keep an eye out for bigger pieces?

D: Yeah.


M: Are there any books or texts that you read for inspiration?

D: I have been reading Eva Zeisel “On Design” It’s really a good book. I recently read a “Natural History of the Senses.” Studio Potter-Everybody should get Studio Potter.


M: Do you have any advice for people launching themselves or getting started?

D: Work hard. I think hard work pays off.  I don’t have any tricks. I feel like putting yourself into really educational situations that will make you go insane will stretch you really really hard. I think being stretched hard–as far as how much information you can absorb and learn from is really important for me. Inundating yourself, because you can never absorb everything, even if you’re only giving yourself three things. If you are giving yourself 25, then maybe you are absorbing 20 of them.


M: It seems like you have persisted. Working hard is an underlying thing you appreciate…

D: Yeah, I feel like you have to strive and its worth it. All the time I go around here and I look at all the jobs that people do, and I feel so lucky that I get to make clay. I enjoy the process as a whole. Other people value potters bringing attention to what we do every day.

M: Thanks….


This interview is supplemental to Molly Hatch’s article, “Deborah Schwartzkopf: Full Circle“, which appeared in Ceramics Monthly magazine’s February 2010 issue. To get great content like this delivered right to your door, subscribe today!




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