Interview with Jessica Hans on her use of ceramics

Around 2009 or so, when I was first getting into your work, I knew you as a photographer who made woven pieces on the side. How did you come from those pursuits to focus exclusively on ceramics?

Well, I’ve always taken photos - from early high school up until pretty recently, I always had a camera with me. It’s just something I did naturally - not necessarily as “art,” but as documentation of my life, my travels, and so on. I loved all aspects of the process: taking the photograph, scanning the prints or negatives, uploading the images, posting them to a blog.

I was still taking photos when I started at Moore College of Art & Design, where I was enrolled in the textile design program. That’s where I began weaving and became really interested in dyeing. I learned all about synthetic dyes versus natural dyes - the havoc that synthetics wreak on the water supply, the history of natural dyes, the various techniques for natural dyeing - and was totally enthralled with the idea of foraging for my own dye materials. So I started going to the woods to harvest things like sumac berries and lichens, always with a camera in hand, taking pictures of the plants that yielded the colors that I was incorporating into my tapestries.

At first, the photography was just another means of journaling - a way to remember the sources of the colors and the experience of foraging. At a certain point, though, I realized that I cared just as much about the compositions of the photographs as I did about the materials I was photographing. That’s when I started treating the photos as works in their own right. It was also around that time that I began to lose interest in weaving.

Why’s that?

It had to do with the physicality. When I look back now on the woven pieces I've made, I do think they’re beautiful, but at the time, I didn't like their lack of dimensionality. I really wanted to be able to integrate the woven works into photography somehow, but I just couldn’t figure out a way that worked for me. That’s really when I started looking into ceramics. It seemed to have that physical element I wanted, and would allow me to continue to use raw, natural materials. So I began working with clay in the summer of 2010, when I transferred to the Maryland Institute College of Art, and it pretty quickly became my primary medium.

That’s much more recent than I’d realized.

Yeah, I feel like I’m still really new to it! It was great, though, because I had basically met all of my fibers/textile design requirements before I transferred from Moore to MICA, so I just spent the rest of my time at MICA taking ceramics courses. I dove in pretty heavily, and continued after I left MICA, when I got a job at a ceramic engineering facility outside of Baltimore.

Right! What was that like?

It was amazing. Everything about that job was really satisfying. I learned so much about chemistry and engineering. I spent most of my day in the lab, precision-mixing epoxy resins with ceramic materials to be used in a stereolithography machine for building these really tiny precision ceramic parts. It was great having the opportunity to build on the little bit that I already knew about glaze calculation and raw materials from art school ceramics class, and to apply it on an industrial engineering level. It definitely further informed my love for chemistry and raw materials, which I think is related to my love for foraging.

In fact, you started driving out to remote sites to harvest your own clays around that time, right?

Yeah! That actually started happening shortly after I got into ceramics, while I was still at MICA. I’d heard about a place called Calvert Cliffs in Solomon County, Maryland, which was great: on top of it being a truly beautiful hike out to a remote beach along the Chesapeake Bay, the site also had a couple of cliffs made entirely of clay. One of my professors had encouraged us to check it out and bring back samples to experiment with, so I did that and really loved it.

Did those initial experiments yield any interesting results?

Oh yeah, it was always really interesting. I think the most informative thing was taking samples very near one another and firing them at the same temperature, but seeing that sample A had a much lower melting point than sample B. All of the clay at the site was iron-rich earthenware, but some parts had less deposits than others, which means they could fire at higher temperatures without warping. I also really enjoyed taking large chunks right out of the cliff face and firing them whole, as-is - you could really see the color variations in the strata. Those firings always gave beautiful results, and I learned a lot.

Is the foraging still a regular practice for you?

Unfortunately, no. I really loved doing that, but foraging is a lot of work, takes a lot of time. I’ve also moved to Philadelphia since then and don't live particularly close to any good sites. So at this point, I just use purchased clay.

So what’s your process like once you’re in the studio?

It really varies. I like taking each material I use to its limit, to see what it’s capable of. So I switch between different types of clay – I’ll work with porcelain for a while, then switch over to earthenware, then maybe try stoneware for a bit. Each different clay body offers different results, so that keeps it exciting.

In terms of form, most of my pieces are sort of my interpretation of pinch pots and coiling. Most of the time, I’ll start with a base - usually a flat one. From there, I’ll add to the base by compressing half-dollar-sized pieces of flattened clay together, building upward or out. That’s basically how I construct most of my vase and planter forms, but there are always variations in the surfaces, where I’ll either leave the scalloped texture or smooth it out.

Yeah, you seem to have a sort of split approach to finish: some of the pieces get pretty experimental with their palettes and textures, while others seem much more about design, with clean, hand-painted patterns on glazed surfaces.

Well, with the more experimental pieces, I’m really interested in working with the chemistry of glazing to approximate the growth patterns of fungi, coral, slime molds, and other geologic formations. I like thinking about the way that things grow – different species of plants, types of coral, strange marine animals – and I like to think that by replicating those forms in clay, I might understand those processes a little better.

Up until recently, the experimental glazing was used exclusively for the sculptural work, but I’m finding ways to integrate those odd, rocky surfaces into the functional objects as well. It can be complicated, though, because by adding found stones, glass, and other minerals into the clay or glaze, you’re sacrificing the integrity of the structure. For example, you’ll often get small cracks where the rocks are embedded too closely together. I think those cracks are really beautiful, and it’s important to me that I leave a trace of them in the form, but at the same time, I still have to figure out ways to seal them, to keep the pieces watertight and functional as vessels. I’ve been attempting to do that through multiple glaze firings, which has worked pretty well.

So at this point, you’re actively trying to blend the two approaches.

Right. I’m most interested when the pieces teeter just on the edge of functionality – I think that’s ultimately where I want to be. I describe almost everything I make as "functional sculpture," but that line is getting more and more blurry. A lot of it really boils down to practical concerns. For example, I was saying a moment ago that the degree of functionality determines the amount of experimentation in the work’s finish. Those decisions are completely pragmatic: if I want the piece to be food-safe, I have to be very careful about the finishes I use; if not, I’m allowed a lot more freedom to play with the surface.

Now, you mentioned earlier that you’re through with photography…

Yeah, I’m just burnt out on photos at the moment. It’s so oversaturated at this point, especially online. For every beautiful landscape photo that gets made, you end up seeing fifteen more just like it, only poorly composed. It’s overwhelming and underwhelming at the same time, and I guess it’s made me a little jaded on making pictures. I still value the process completely; I just need some time away from it.

Well, I think that’s interesting, because at the same time, one of the things that really sets your practice apart for me is the approach you’ve taken to documentation - particularly the images of the works installed in outdoor settings. I wonder if that part of the process might not serve as a logical extension of your photo practice?

Maybe at first. I was taking that approach with the more organic sculptural works, setting them up in these environments that were maybe not the exact source of the clay, but that at least reinforced these ideas of natural materials and growth patterns. But in the past year, I’ve really stepped back from doing the outdoor shooting, sort of in response to the image saturation I was talking about earlier. I haven't totally given up on that approach – it’s a lot of fun shooting that way – but I’m holding off for the time being, just until I resolve my issues with photography. I’ve also found it useful to work with other photographers, to give them the opportunity to arrange and present the ceramics in ways I wouldn’t have thought of. It’s been really nice to have a fresh set of eyes having a look at the work.

Do you have a sense of where your work might fit into current ceramic-specific conversations? Is that something you’re interested in keeping up with?

Well, I feel a little removed, because I live in Philadelphia, where there isn’t any real ceramics scene to speak of - at least not one that I’m part of. I do feel like I’m in dialogue with a number of people working outside of my area, people who I think are doing interesting things, but I don't necessarily think that many of them are working with the medium in the same way I am, in that most of them are just making functional work to sell in shops. I do that too, of course, but I’m trying to think of the medium as more sculptural than functional.

Have you found many other artists taking a similar approach?

Oh, absolutely. Allison Schulnik's ceramic work definitely influenced me in the beginning. I love how weird and creepily visceral her forms are; it made me want to explore the medium, to experiment. She’s a good example of someone using clay as a material to explore, rather than treating it as her primary medium. I've always been a fan of Katy Krantz's sculptural forms, of Julia Haft-Candell's functional work (which is always extremely sculptural), of Zachary Leener, and, of course, of artists like Ken Price and Peter Voulkos. All of those people negotiate the line between functional and sculptural in really exciting ways.

Obviously, you’re aware that a lot of people seem to be getting excited about ceramics at the moment. Any thoughts on why we’ve seen this renewed interest?

I think people are really into the idea of handmade products right now. Because everything in our society over the past thirty to forty years has become so mechanized and streamlined, people are starting to look back and find value in handicraft. I think they’re attracted to the idea that their belongings might be unique and created from an individual set of hands; it just allows for a much more intimate experience with the object. Ceramics is also a pretty accessible craft: learning how to handbuild or throw on a wheel is a fun, relatively easy hobby, and there are pottery studios in most cities offering affordable classes.

Do you think those same ideas might apply to these artists who’ve begun integrating ceramics into their practices?

I think it's different for everyone! That's the coolest part about it. I think a lot of the artists that are switching over to clay are doing it because it somehow further influences their primary practice, which is really interesting to see.

Definitely. Is there anyone you think is doing it particularly well right now?

Paul Wackers comes to mind. For the last number years, he’s been making large-scale still-life paintings of objects, a lot of them referencing pots, pottery, planters, and other ceramic forms. He started taking a ceramics class last year, and he's recently shown the ceramic pieces alongside the paintings, which really confirms the relationship between the two.

It will be interesting to see where things stand in a year or two, once the novelty’s died down a bit and it becomes more clear as to which artists are seriously invested in a long-term engagement with the medium.

Well, that’s the big question. There’s this great comment from a Peter Shire interview along those lines: "[In previous years,] you had your substrates of apprentice, journey men, and maestro. That was the fortress, the studio. Now the art world is broken down to such a degree that qualification isn’t clear. We have artists that make ceramics by punching a slab of clay. You know, babies like to look at their own shit."


It’s pretty harsh criticism, which I think you hear a lot from practicing ceramicists, especially the elders. On one hand, it’s understandable, because I’m sure that 90% of people taking up this medium right now will end up dropping it – that, for most of them, it really is just a flash in the pan, a fun hobby to be involved in for a time, while DIY practices and “the arts of the handmade” are so popular. At the same time, though, I feel like Shire’s criticism is lacking support of a younger generation of artists and crafters alike. There’s still that remaining 10% of people who are genuinely trying to do something new and interesting with the medium, and they should be encouraged to continue to create.

Interview originally published in New Balance: Approaching the Use of Ceramics in Contemporary Art