Questions posed to Pots at Rest curator Elizabeth Robinson
What compels you to make dinnerware?
What I find most compelling about making dinnerware is its ordinariness. Bringing a cup to our lips as we scan the computer screen, scraping a spoon across a bowl to get that last bit of soup, piling a big salad up on a plate… these ordinary moments that occur all through the day sustain us, but are often unconscious or rushed. A handmade pot brings a level of consciousness to these moments, both through the act of its making, and in the fact that it has been brought home.
In use, a handmade pot is both special and ordinary at the same time, somewhat like the astounding experience of life with a child, his presence momentous, you reflect, as you wipe the poo off his back….
What is the relevance of handmade dinnerware in the 21st century?
In a nutshell, I think contemporary pots are about the people who make them. And owning handmade pots is as much about the relationships, real or imagined, that we have with their makers, as the objects themselves.
The time is long past when a humble pot, dug from local clay and fired with fuel found nearby, was the most practical way to fulfill the functions of daily life. Yet there are still people digging clay by hand, firing with wood. Why? There is romance and nostalgia in the act of making, and nostalgia and desire fulfilled in the act of owning. Clearly there is still a need to make, and a need to own, these objects- and, in both cases, a very real human connection between the maker and the consumer. It’s stating the obvious to say that connection between the things we own and the person that made them is missing in today’s culture, of course we’re each striving to fill that void in one way or another.
Making pottery today is almost a symbolic act, practically a performance- the careful making of a functional object, its display and marketing, the point of sale, and where it ends up- a collection or a museum sometimes, often in someone’s home, perhaps carefully displayed, but more likely stacked in a cupboard. What then? Do they become family heirlooms? End up at the thrift store? Get broken and end up in a landfill? As someone who has made thousands of cups and bowls that have gone out into the world, I know my body of work is in all these places, and I find that fascinating.
I’ve walked across a desert mesa treading on pottery shards hundreds of years old. Though their culture has disappeared, the remnants speak of both a single person and her culture. I think handmade pots still do that work today, giving cultural clues to their time and place, playing witness to their role in society.
Why did you choose the work/makers that you did for your display?
Picking work for this display was very personal. The work itself I love, but the connections I have with each maker spans the time I’ve been working in clay. Some of the artists are dear friends and mentors, some are people I’ve met who’ve made an impression, helped or encouraged me, though they may not remember who I am; and some aren’t even acquaintances, though their work I find inspiring. It is the personal connections that happen between an object and its origin that I find most meaningful.
Here’s what I mean:
As a beginning pottery student in Virginia, while learning about the incredible history of Asian pottery, I also became enchanted by the Southern folk pottery traditions whose roots were closer to home. I drove south with a group of friends to look up potters from the traditional family lines, and also visited Ron Meyers at his home. There I bought the very first handmade pot I ever owned, and it is in use in my home to this day.
A number of years later Sanam Emami and I were traveling across country, visiting potters and trying to learn what life as a potter was all about. Sanam and I had gone to school together, majoring in more practical things before deciding to totally switch career paths…. Among the many inspirational, generous and kind people that welcomed us into their studios was Linda Christianson, who, in addition to showing us around and selling us some great pots, fed us spaghetti and let us camp in her yard. She, and the other potters we met, really made clear that this life is mainly about having a driving passion to make pots. Her work is layered and nuanced, but pares everything down to the basics- clay, fire and utility.
At one point I was ready to abandon pottery altogether for the security of life as a bank teller when Diane Kenney, whose work in both majolica and the wood kiln I’d noticed in a magazine several years before, hired me as an assistant at the Carbondale Clay Center, which she had recently founded. She has been a mentor and friend for the last 15 years. She’s helped me ‘grow up’ both in the clay world and the ‘real’ world; in fact, I often refer to her as my ‘clay mother.’ Her soulful and joyous spirit and work have always inspired me.
Cruising the exhibitions at NCECA many years ago I fell in love with a group of jars made by a recent resident at the Anderson Ranch Art Center named Michael Connelly. I couldn’t believe it when years later I found myself working with him at the Archie Bray Foundation one summer, where I also met Josh DeWeese, and bought the mug that I have used almost daily for coffee since 1999. While there I also became familiar with the work of Beth Lo, who doesn’t know me from Adam, but whose nostalgic imagery with its familial narratives and homage to her heritage has fascinated me for years.
Returning to the Clay Center as Program Director after graduate school I met Steven Colby, a resident artist just out of undergraduate school at the time, who was, and still is, making intuitive, painterly work that makes me feel, as he often states on his blog: that “I wish I made it.”
When Lisa Orr, whose molded, sprigged, intensely drippy pots, seduced me at an NCECA show in Dallas, invited me to be a guest artist at her local studio tour- Art of the Pot, I was surprised and honored to hear that she had been drawn to material qualities of my work as well. While in Austin I met Ursula Hargens, who loves the play between material and design, cultural references, and flowers as much as I do. At Lisa’s house I kept picking up pots and asking who made them, and, more often than not they belonged to Leanne McClurg, whose sensual work has a visceral quality, depth and soulfulness that seem to match the person I’ve only somewhat gotten to know.
Some of the pots on this dish drainer belong to people whose work I have admired for years, but have come to know primarily through social media- their blogs and Facebook. I love hearing about the shows they’re in or a recent firing, seeing pictures of their kids and hearing about their vacations. I am intrigued by Connie Norman’s use of text, something that intimidates me. I also admire the juggling act she pulls off among mothering, blogging, teaching and making work, and that in addition to this she drove 2 hours to go to the opening of my solo show in Denver this spring, where I finally got to meet her personally. In addition to the fact that I can’t help but love the childlike flower garden that sprawls across Kari Radasch’s work, her earthy use of terra cotta clay and the recent, fairly dramatic transformation she has made in her work inspire me as I feel my way toward a new body of work myself. Michael Kline, a contemporary southern potter, makes work I want to use every day. He digs local clay and fires with wood, and paints flowers on his pots, and raises chickens, is a family man and basically seems to fulfill every fantasy I had about making pots when I took that trip to North Carolina and Georgia 20 years ago.
I have no personal connection with Jenny Mendes and Shoko Teruyama other than the simple fact that I love their work. Love, love, love. And sometimes that’s just all it’s about. I cover my pots with imagery, but they use do with seemingly reckless abandon something I’ll admit I’m still afraid to really embrace- drawing.
Clearly, most of the artists whose work I chose share my love of lush, layered surfaces, color, and in some cases images with a decidedly nostalgic and decorative bent. Yet I think within each person’s work there is also evident a blatant honoring of the material, a nod to process, and even an element of restraint, as well as a clear awareness of the context and cultural references of his or her own work.
These plates and cups stacked together embody what I love about contemporary pottery, and especially what I love about being a potter. Each piece is a carefully crafted object, worthy of contemplation and care. Each dish is ready to sit with me during those ordinary moments of the day when I feed myself, adding beauty and specialness to what is often rushed, haphazard, or mundane, whether it’s that first cup of coffee in the morning after a late night in the studio, a quick snack as I rush out the door take my son to school, or a carefully prepared dinner. Each pot is also partly the person that made it. That pot in your cupboard, or on the mantle, is a relationship which started with an introduction, or an attraction.
I have a lot more pots in my cupboard and more stories to tell, but I’m grateful for the chance to put together this small group of favorite pots.