Interview with Erin Jane Nelson on the subject of ceramics

So how did you get into ceramics initially?

Well, I think like a lot of kids, I had some exposure to it at a young age, but nothing mentionable. I really started getting into it during my second or third year at Cooper Union.

Were you taking classes?

Not then. There was one really kind technician in the Cooper sculpture shop who knew about the process. I was asking him a lot of questions, and he helped me fire my first pieces, but the rest of it was self-guided, very trial and error. I started learning about clay in a more structured way at Ox-bow, where I was on a fellowship during the summer of 2011, immediately following my last year of school. After that, I studied pottery formally when I was living in New Mexico the following year. I had very little structured time out there, so I was at the clay studio about 25-40 hours a week.

Were you focusing on a particular technique at that point?

Not really. I was always just working with what was available to me. I started out handbuilding simply because there wasn’t an electric wheel at Cooper - which was actually fine, because at the time, I felt like learning to use a kick-wheel would be way too archaic and frustrating anyway. I was really more focused on the pieces than the process at that point. But that changed pretty quickly once I got to Ox-bow, which has the most beautiful clay studio. The wheel definitely started to take over once I was given better tools and more formal instruction.

Throwing is funny, because everyone has different techniques, different formations for the hands, and their own preferred speeds for different parts of the process. I've been told that one should learn from at least three potters, since what feels right will probably end up being a combination of their respective approaches. So while all of this was happening, I was looking for other sources, most of which I actually found online. So much of what I’ve learned has come from watching instructional videos on YouTube.

What was it about the medium that appealed to you? I know you were doing other kinds of work at the time as well – photography, curating, and so on. How did ceramics fit into that broader range of activities?

Well, I initially wanted to use it as a material to incorporate into other sculptures, or maybe as props for my photo stuff. After working with it for a while, though, it became something else entirely. In a way, I didn't think the technical processes would be as hard to learn as they actually are - especially throwing, but even just learning how clay fires or how glazes work takes a lot of investment. As I became more committed to getting the process down, I really got into the potential of the autonomous ceramic object - either for use, for play, or for decoration. So it became a totally separate thing, and it’s only recently that it's come back around to being incorporated into my broader studio practice.

The thing is, at the time I was getting into ceramics, I was also moving around a lot, going from New York to Ox-bow to New Mexico to Oakland in pretty quick succession. As a result, my practice had become much more immaterial and post-studio during that period. So ceramics ended up becoming a kind of gateway back to a more studio-based way of working. Going to the studio each day with the purpose of production definitely helped me start to get my ideas into their proper forms again, be that writing, sculpture, photography, or whatever else.

So now that you've settled in Oakland, what’s your workspace like?

When I first moved here, I had a great studio sublet, but I hardly made any ceramics. I was working a day job as an assistant to a studio potter, but I was extremely broke. I had barely enough money for the space, let alone for materials; the crux of my practice by that point had really become writing plays and organizing this crit group I’d started. So I eventually gave up the studio, but I realized pretty quickly after that I actually did need some kind of dedicated workspace, so I ended up joining a community ceramics studio in Berkeley. That’s where I really began to approach the practice as this kind of high-production, utilitarian "line" of objects - which I realize now was maybe a funny impulse to have. But like I said, I was working full-time for basically no money, and I needed something else. I know it probably sounds horrible, but I knew that people would buy the work if I played my cards right, and it was a process I wanted to become more skilled at anyway, so I decided to put money on the table as a motivator.

What’s so horrible about that?

I don't know. I think that coming from Cooper, which is so academic and political and "high art," I have a lot of baggage regarding intention and money in creative production. I always got a lot of shit in school for producing things related to "craft," both in the realm of objects and photography. But it seemed to me that if I was going to sell something, it ought to be useful, designed objects. That’s how I rationalized it in my mind, anyway.

I'm usually a pretty opaque person in my making, so to think about the viewer/user in this way was pretty new to me. Especially at the beginning, it was a struggle not to make it about compromise or marketability, but simply to think of the patron as one more element to consider.

Do you see a meaningful distinction between fine art and crafts at this point, in your own work or otherwise?

I do think someone with an MFA in ceramics from Cranbrook has a totally different set of concerns than someone with an MFA in painting from Yale, but I also think that the minutia of those concerns is generally pretty boring to anyone outside of that esoteric knowledge. Personally, I haven’t created different value structures for the two. I’ve always been media non-specific; even in my more obsessive moments, or in periods of fascination with a particular history (ceramics, performance, photography, and so on), I still feel pretty resistant to creating hierarchies between different mediums. I get very frustrated by the forces that ask us to specify ourselves or assign different values to those worlds.

In your experience, does that pressure to define ones practice tend to come from one community more than the other?

Honestly, I don’t know that most people in the ceramics camp are really even cognizant of the distinction. Like, the actual potters who are just doing their thing and aren't trying to be part of a gallery-based conversation – I don’t think it’s something they think about. But I know there are a lot of people coming out of rigorous interdisciplinary art schools who have started making ceramics recently, so maybe they're becoming more aware.

I think it's trickier when you've seen both sides, because you’re much more sensitive to which materials are trendy and why. So I think if anyone is having a hard time crossing over, it's probably the self-aware art practitioners. But at the same time, I think artists are generally as willing to buy ceramic cups as "muggles" are. Like, at the moment, I'm trading some cups for a painting by an artist I really admire. That’s exciting to me, and makes me feel more confident about the potential for crossover.

It’s interesting, because I don’t think there tend to be many qualms in terms of artists purchasing ceramics, or even making ceramic work themselves - as long as it’s seen to be a casual interest. Things get more complicated when it's presented as a viable facet of one’s practice – although then again, maybe not! People seem to be doing it a lot at the moment without much criticism or fanfare.

Totally! It’s funny, because when I tell other young people that I make ceramics, they tend to assume that it’s a hobby for me, which never happens when I tell people I make photographs or plays. It’s interesting that people in our generation still have those assumptions, where one is more associated to leisure than the other, because the truth is that ceramics is actually the more sustainable and public practice for me. At least in terms of getting the work out of the studio and making back production costs, it’s much more viable.

Which brings us to M’M’M’, the commercial studio you established in 2013. The studio is a collaborative effort between you and your boyfriend Jason. Can you talk about that dynamic a bit?

Well, it’s somewhat collaborative. I do about 90% of the production; he helps more with fairs and photographing the work, although he does occasionally glaze or draw. He also helps me make decisions about the work. Every piece goes through Jason's filter of "Yep, that's good" or “No, that’s ugly” - which is actually really important, as I find it hard to judge the work objectively sometimes. I just have a different set of criteria because I’m so close to it - like, I’ll be into something simply because it was really fun to make, or because I’d never gotten a glaze to look so gross before. So Jason really helps with quality control. He also runs a gallery out here called Important Projects, so he’s already pretty busy, but I’m currently teaching him to throw and trim so he can help more with production.

The work on the site is divided between functional objects (vases, cups, etc.) and more purely sculptural forms - the puzzles, the “Shapes” series, and so on. Generally speaking, do you prefer making one type of work over another?

It’s hard to say. I'm kind of a bad production potter, because I don't really enjoy making the same thing more than once. (laughs) Typically, when an edition of an object sells out, it’s over. I’ll only go back if it's a form I’ve really enjoyed, or for some special occasion. So the process is always changing, and my preferences change along with it. If I had to choose, though, I’d say that while I do like a mix of both approaches, I think I most enjoy throwing really brutal, weirdly shaped pots. Those don’t tend to sell as well, so they end up at home, but that’s fine - I love having them around.

What appeals to you about working that way?

I think pottery is so much about giving yourself over to the material, allowing the clay to do what it wants, while also being able to negotiate that tendency and force it to be something else. I'm generally not into that kind of Zen materiality, but somehow clay really does it for me in that department. I also like it because pottery is thought of as having this "pleasant" history, at least on the West Coast. It's closely tied to a hippie history and the Bay Area obsession with constructing an aesthetic lifestyle. Everyone is so obviously wearing their politics on their sleeves out here - there's a pervasive fetishism around farmers’ markets, communities, environmentalism, and the handmade - and, at least in California, ceramics is generally thought of as belonging to the same domain of “goodness.” In light of that, trying to make these evil, hostile forms can be really fun.

At the same time, you and I have also spoken about your interest in freeform surface modeling, and how that influences your approach to form.

Right! I’m really interested in throwing forms that look like they could have been digitally rendered – less “potterly,” more CAD-inspired. I think there's something about a pot on a wheel that really relates to computer modeling and notions of "fluidity." The thing is, with pottery, there are limits to what the clay can do on a wheel, whereas in 3D modeling, the limits of form aren't so tied down. Deciding when a form is “complete” is very different when you're thinking of it in terms of rendered potential as opposed to physical throwing. Sometimes I wonder what it’d be like to throw with some sort of fluid plastic or clay-like rubber - I think the results could be really interesting.

I mean, there are so many computer-generated forms that I find inspiring. Water bottles are a great example: it’s an update on the vessel motif, obviously, but in terms of tone, surface, and form, the difference between a traditional pot and a contemporary water bottle is huge. It just seems like something new to mimic, borrow, and explore. I don’t think potters of the 70’s were necessarily thinking that way, but it seems like we could be doing a lot more of that right now.

Absolutely. It seems strange that so many ceramicists are still so tied to these traditional, fairly archaic forms.

It is. I think part of it might be commercial concerns. There’s definitely this weird line you have to negotiate when you're a young person making craft-based consumer items, just because it's so sexy and marketable. I think that’s part of why we’re seeing so many potters making this nostalgic, neo-modern work - it seems to be what the general consumer wants right now. They want something traditional, something easy and familiar. Like, at craft fairs, I’ll so often get asked things like, "Do you have something red with a big, cozy handle?" My answer is always, "No, sorry - I would go to Heath if that’s what you’re looking for."

(laughs) I’ve heard so many similar stories about fine art collectors.

Totally! I think it’s a given across all forms of cultural production that the market can make things really demeaning for the maker. Luckily for me, snubbing a customer for a $50 ceramics piece is a lot less risky than doing it to a serious art collector with some hugely expensive painting.

Definitely. So do you have any favorite ceramicists, contemporary or otherwise? Anyone who might serve as useful touchstones for your work?

Honestly, I feel like my ideal style would be Judith Hopf mixed with Peter Voulkous' bad attitude, mixed with the batty 60-year-old woman at the Berkeley studio who makes these huge sculptures of dogs. That’s basically where I’m coming from.


Beyond that, I really like Morgan Peck’s work. She’s an LA-based ceramicist who does a great job of referencing pottery and modernist clay ideas while keeping the work functional. I also really like Michael and Magdalena Suarez Frimkess, especially their work from the 90’s. To be honest, though, I'm generally not into other ceramic works as much as I'm into attitudes about materials and history. I think there are a lot of artists who are really into method, into working their way through a medium, but that’s never been me. I’m generally more into exploring forms of production than I am in honing a particular craft. It’s really about energy over finesse. So in working with ceramics, I’m almost more interested in relating it to a photographer’s approach, to writing, to yoga.

How do you mean?

I mean it mostly in terms of having to decide which aspects of your process you want to be associated with. As a photographer, for example, you might ask yourself, are you making work in or outside of the studio? Are you staging? Doing a lot of work in post? Do you make many images or just several considered ones? I’m interested in those kinds of questions, those media-specific conversations, because they're how you shape your practice. So in clay, you might be a hand-builder or a potter; you might be more of a porcelain or stoneware person; you could be very prolific, or only make 3 big pieces a year. And then, of course, there's the distinction between hobbyists and professionals. There are hobbyists, studio potters, fine art ceramicists, and production-potters. There’s also the fine art photographers, hobbyists, editorial/commercial photographers, and contemporary artists who simply borrow the medium for the occasional project. As a photographer, it’s been important to me to consider the various possibilities of the medium, and appreciate how each can be borrowed from or mined to my own ends. I try to do the same when I'm making ceramic works.

We've also talked previously about your interest in situating ceramics within a feminist history.

Well, I think you can talk about it on different levels. For example, Cooper likes to think that it models itself after the Bauhaus, if only in their approach to foundation studies, but it categorically ignores those departments of the Bauhaus that were more typified by a female presence – i.e., fibers and ceramics, both of which were all but despised at that school while I was there. At the same time, I also think it’s interesting that ceramics became the medium of choice for a lot of first wave feminist artists in the 70’s, almost to the extent that it ruined the medium. (Think Judy Chicago.) Today, it seems like certain areas of contemporary craft are largely dominated by women and queer-identifying people, which is really interesting. Especially if you look at the kind of artists that are coming out of craft programs at art schools, you'll find a lot of people using craft as a platform for exploring identity politics. A great example of an artist working this way would be Josh Faught, whose work deals with the relationship between weaving history and queer history. I'm sure there are pages to be written about how race and class also play into this as well.

I think the fact that the medium’s been seen for so long as being culturally “other” - a craft as opposed to the fine arts of painting and sculpture - has led to it being adopted by artists who themselves identify as “other” from the typical systems of art-world power (i.e. whiteness, maleness, and straightness). As a result, thanks to the influence of some amazing women and queer-identifying artists, “craft” has been able to access politics in a deeper way than I think a lot of New York-centric and “high” art has, especially in the generation working now. In a way, the medium has absorbed everything great we inherited from the 1980's art moment, whereas more codified “contemporary practices” I see in mediums like painting have missed that opportunity. Of course, that being said, I do think this has become such a popular strategy in craft-related art practices that it's already becoming somewhat tired. You can already see artists with both craft and studio art backgrounds working to distance themselves from identity politics in their fiber or ceramics-based projects.

This is why it’s kind of funny to me seeing ceramics have this moment of apparent validation within those more codified “high art” or “high lifestyle” conversations. To think of all these cute girls hustling cute ceramics on one end of the spectrum, and then to see Josh Smith and Sterling Ruby essentially do the same thing in a gallery context, with so much more financial and historical agency than those who have been using craft-based work as the crux of their practice for decades - the whole thing is pretty funny. But that’s why I'm interested in someone like Judith Hopf, who’s extremely revered in art conversations (both commercially and critically), who’s incorporating ceramic material into her practice in a way that doesn’t ignore the history, but who also doesn’t necessarily depend on established, medium-specific strategies for producing or presenting her work. For me, that’s the kind of approach that keeps the material exciting.

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