Working from her faculty studio at Green Mountain College in Poultney, Vermont, Karen Swyler employs what can be described as a thematic approach to her ceramic work. Concentrating on personal relationships and memory, her pieces rely on juxtaposition to one another to be complete both in concept and form. Swyler’s work is clearly grounded in the history of ceramics and the vessel, but through cutting and altering her thrown forms, much of Swyler’s work enters the realm of the sculptural. Her vessels act as metaphoric memoirs—as bodies relating to one another through proximity, palette, line, and contour.
Swyler grew up on Long Island spending much of her time at local beaches collecting souvenirs of her outdoor excursions. With an art teacher for a mother and a physicist for a father, Swyler’s parents are no doubt a fundamental influence on her work. Her introduction to clay was crafting small clay animals as a child while her mother worked at the wheel in the ceramic studio. “(My father) was a physicist so he had this analytical, scientific way of looking at everything. Before I decided to pursue a career in art, I almost went to college to study birds. So there is a part of me that works in that way too.” Swyler has fond memories of growing up surrounded by her mother’s pots, she and her sister thought nothing of drinking from their mother’s mugs. “I didn’t think that was unusual, that was just typical. Today I have her old dinnerware. It is a really wonderful experience to eat off of the same plates that I did when I was 12 years old.” The consistent conceptual thread of relationships in Swyler’s work is grounded in memory. “To be able to interact with these things again makes me think about the times I spent with my family growing up. I can place myself in those times with those pieces. Growing up surrounded by this stuff that has such a memory is poignant. It can be wonderful and painful at the same time. It has shaped the things that I am thinking about when I am making my work.”
For Swyler, growing up surrounded by pots naturally evolved into becoming a ceramic artist herself. As an undergraduate at New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University, Swyler focused on making functional pots and continued that focus through her post-baccalaureate year at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth and into her graduate studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Just before leaving the east coast to attend graduate school in Colorado, Swyler’s father passed away unexpectedly. With encouragement from her mother, Swyler attended the University of Colorado only two weeks after the loss of her father. “The first year of graduate school was me working through ideas, thinking about my dad, and the natural result was making pieces that dealt with personal relationships and how people relate to each other in familial and intimate (ways).” In this important transition time in her work, pots became metaphors for people. For example, through creating two cups with a shared saucer, two people having tea are forced to engage in a more intimate and controlled drinking experience. It was with the development of these pots that Swyler’s work began to foster prescribed interactions between people and pots as well as strong relationships between the pots themselves.
The raw porcelain surfaces and muted glaze palette of Swyler’s vessels developed later on in her graduate career with encouragement from professor Jeanne Quinn. “(Jeanne) had gone on sabbatical in Europe. She came back with all these really wonderful little pots she had collected. Some of them had light glaze colors and some of them were unglazed. She said, ‘Karen you have got to try this. Look at these surfaces. They are sanded and smooth, there is no glaze on them. I want you to try this.’ That was a really big breakthrough for me (because) I started thinking about glaze in the way that I was thinking about the form.” Swyler began to see raw clay as bare skin and glaze as a kind of clothing. Her use of the raw porcelain surface added a desired layer of vulnerability to the work.
Swyler’s use of color is inherited directly from her love of bird watching. Her favorite bird is the cedar waxwing for its subtle coloring that often informs her glazing decisions. The male waxwing is a little brown bird that has brightly colored tips on its wings and tail. These red and yellow tips are often hidden from view, tucked under its flesh and brown colored body, revealed occasionally in courtship. “There is something about the act of bird watching that I equate with making work. There is a level of patience you need to maintain. Sometimes you will get a little glimpse of this amazing bird you have been waiting and waiting to see. It is this patient perseverance that sometimes gets rewarded and sometimes it doesn’t. I think that makes it even more meaningful.”
After completing her MFA, Swyler left Colorado for a residency at the Archie Bray Foundation for Ceramic Arts in Helena, Montana. As a Lilian Fellow, Swyler took advantage of the creative freedoms integral to the residency. “(I had) time to make work in an unprecedented way. I didn’t have to deal with classes or other coursework, I could just make work. The Bray was a nice transition from academia to the real world. Now I work in my studio on my own and face a lot of the challenges (of making art) alone.” At the end of her two-year residency, Swyler sent out 30 applications to teaching positions throughout the country. Only two years after receiving her MFA, Swyler accepted a full time position at Green Mountain College where she is currently the Program Director in the Department of Visual Art and is in the midst of her fifth year running the ceramics area.
Settling into juggling her career as a ceramics professor and artist, Swyler has developed two very different kinds of workdays. During the summer, she focuses on making work for shows that she has scheduled for the upcoming year. Spending roughly six days a week in the studio for eight or so hours at a time, Swyler’s studio practice is uninterrupted by the diversions of academic responsibilities. Her goal is to complete a body of work before school starts up in September, one that will carry her through until the winter break in December. She works less frequently in her studio during the academic year. “It is interesting to shift between teaching and making. Ideas that are fresh and new settle and I have some time to think about them. Maybe I don’t have the time to make, make, make. I have time to think and look at (the work). When I get back into the studio again, I have mentally worked through those things and am ready to take the next step. I feel like time has to pass to allow for change.”
Swyler’s elegant groupings of vessels continue to employ similar conceptual and formal elements to that of the traditional still life. By focusing on the nuanced relationship between two or three forms, she encourages close inspection and even touch. Her employment of negative space, small concentrations of color, and subtle lines drawn between pots, encourage the viewer to look more closely as the pieces reveal themselves slowly over time. Inspired by ceramic history, family, and ornithology, Swyler’s poignant vessels encourage the exploration of our intimate lives.
Karen Swyler’s work is included in the group exhibition “Sumptuous Elegance,” on view from April 1–30 at Schaller Gallery (www.schallergallery.com) in Red Lodge, Montana.
the author Molly Hatch is a potter and author living in Florence, Massachusetts. See www.mollyhatch.com.