Nick Joerling Shifts Gears: A Potter Takes a Risk and is Rewarded by the Results


Why would a potter change a very successful, established body of work in order to move in another direction? That’s one of the questions Nick Joerling was asked in the March 2011 issue of Ceramics Monthly. In today’s post, we’ll share the interview and show you some of the old work and the new.

Speaking of change, Ceramics Monthly has taken on a few changes of its own lately and the editors are proud to present the fruits of their labor: the relaunch of Ceramics Monthly. You could think of the March 2011 issue as their “new body of work.” Not only is there a new look, but the entire contents have been reconsidered, tweaked, reinvented. Today’s post is an example of one of the new departments: Spotlight. This department features interviews straight from the artists’ studio and about a body of work, a way of working, an aesthetic proclivity, or a particular creative experience. We hope you like it!

P.S. Find out what else has changed in CM right here! – Jennifer Harnetty, editor.


An example of Joerling's earlier work. Ewer, 2009.

An example of Joerling’s earlier work. Ewer, 2009.

CM: What motivated you to move away from what was arguably a very successful body of work toward something clearly different?

NJ: I like to make pots that are familiar, and pots that are unfamiliar in every cycle of work. Working only on familiar pieces is too boring; working only on unfamiliar pieces is too exhausting, where every step is a decision. It’s the back and forth rhythm between the two that’s right for me. I’m using the words familiar and unfamiliar deliberately, instead of old and new. It doesn’t mean that the familiar pots aren’t open to change. With familiar work we know where we’re heading, and the unexpected comes along the way.

This combination of familiar and unfamiliar is one of the things the studio teaches: we all have our own particular desire, or formula, for security and risk.

I think it was John Dewey, the philosopher/educator, who said that human beings have built into them the desire for novelty, so in that sense making new work is hard wired into us.

CM: Is this something that was an abrupt change for you in the studio, or more of a gradual transition?

NJ: In my potting life there have been several times when stumbling on a new technique (cutting pots, stretching pots from the inside out, working with closed forms) has shifted how I work, but in all those cases the pots in my mind have stayed “on message.” For me, this means pots that are animated, sensual, and useful. By natural inclination, and hopefully without being literal, body references turn up in my pots, but it’s not like I’m being direct about that reference. When I wonder to myself what it is about the work I’ve made that appeals to me, often times I trace it back to our bodies. First it’s just working, then comes the wondering. I like having the cart slightly ahead of the horse.

About five years ago I began wondering if I could get figure references not just in the pots but on the pots. That’s most of what has had my attention recently. Because I don’t have any drawing training, I have to use my lack of training to my advantage, so I do a kind of stylized, shadow figure.


This article is featured in Ceramics Monthly magazine’s March 2011 issue.
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Nick Joerling demonstrates at a workshop at Penland School of Crafts in North Carolina.

Nick Joerling demonstrates at a workshop at Penland School of Crafts in North Carolina.

CM: What is the effect a shift like this has on your studio practice and livelihood?

NJ: I think I’d come at this question with the recognition and gratitude that, this many years in, I’m just as eager to get to the studio now as I was at the start. This question has a “making a living” component to it. While it’s true that, when you’re experimenting, your efficiency plummets, I’ve always felt that, though I give up income in the short term (by being stubborn—or open—to trying new things) I gain income in the long term. I keep myself interested and wanting to be in the studio. What we’re all after, if we’re trying to make this our livelihood, is to get making a living and making what we want to be as parallel as possible.

Concerning the economics of potting for a living (meaning setting aside the internal necessity of trying new things), my experience is that the audience is as apt to reward you following your curiosity as penalize you for it. It might not be that they buy that particular new piece (and when they cross with that new work it might not be worked out and ripe for selling) but they stay interested in your body of work.

Sometimes I think it’s important to try something new, not because you’re after something new but because you have to keep understanding why you’re doing what you’re doing. For instance, I make a curled handle that seems very right for many of my pots. What I have to guard against is that handle becoming clichéd for me. I don’t want to bring that same handle to old or new work simply from laziness or habit. So periodically I’ll try a different handle, not because I’m dissatisfied with the current handle, but because I need to keep understanding why that handle is right. That, hopefully, keeps the familiar work lively.

CM: What do you see as the biggest difference between your previous and current bodies of work?

NJ: I think with the recent work, the surfaces have gotten more active. That has to do with my attempt to “draw” on the pots, and those “shadow” figures break up the surface in a much different way than a brush stroke does. I’m finding out that running multiple figures across a pot sets up a rhythm. If I simply, identically, repeat the same figure, that’s one rhythm, but my inclination is to vary the figures. Our eyes, I think, have more fun with that. We search out what’s in common and what’s different, our eyes are busy and curious. It’s that interesting combination of repetition and variety, which on their surface seem contradictory, but turn out to be “holding hands” (repetition for the sake of variety).

My speculation is that the newer work is more sophisticated, meaning that as you continue to make pots you increase your form vocabulary, that over the years you get to work out and fine tune. It’s all about “seeing,” another thing we learn from the studio, and which is so contrary to our general culture. Things take time, whether it’s understanding a form or getting to know a glaze.

To learn more about Nick Joerling and his work, go to

  • There is always so much pressure for artists to create “a body of work” that we sometimes loose sight of why we do this in the first place. As for me, I will never stop experimenting. You are so humble, you are not attempting to draw, you are drawing!
    Thank you Nick!

  • Cynthia L.

    Ditto! I like the humor and dancing quality of your work. Your platter is on stage. Bravo!

  • Carter H.

    Thanks to a perceptive CM interviewer and the artistic self awareness of Nick Joerling to describe his path of creativity and realization of how the final piece fits into the world of acceptance is wonderfully clear. I look forward to rereading this article over and over. Like looking at one Nicks wonderful pieces, allowing my eye to read the relationships he is presenting.

  • I love the way Nick expressed his artistic thoughts and values. Experimenting with clay is thrilling to the maker but definately detracts from productivity. Nick clarifies that the search for new is what keeps work fresh. I look forward to hearing more from him!

  • what a great interview, with so many valid points! This attitude retains the energy of discovery, opens your mind to the voice of the buyer & keeps creativity alive.
    thx for sharing

  • The late Paul Soldner used to advise students at his kiln-building workshops, that as soon as you know exactly how your kiln is going to fire, it’s time to tear it down.

    I have long believed this applies to ones style as well. To Hell with efficiency!

    “Style is but the faintly contemptible vessel in which the bitter liquid is recommended to the world.” _________ Thornton Wilder

  • Great platter. There is hope then for my “experimenting” without disappointment . Each piece is unique and enjoyable.
    Did you use a “crawling glaze” to lift your design?
    Thanks for the encouragement.

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