Signature Style

 

There are a handful of questions that I am asked at every workshop: “How do you know when to dart?”, “How do you make your feet?”, and “How do you get the stamping to line up?!”, for example. The answers to those are fairly straightforward: practice, carving, and practice.

I’m teasing with the one-word answers, but alongside those simpler, technical how-to questions are toughies like, “How did you find/get/develop your style?” I love deep questions in workshops, the ones that are about being an artist. Those conversations are a big part of why I enjoy teaching. Workshops are a great forum for learning techniques and discussing quandaries like personal style, not for picking up “style tricks.” There is no sincere short answer to the style question during a workshop or in this blog (though “practice” is part of the answer).

 

A few years ago, while attending NCECA, I attended a lecture* that essentially encouraged the current generation of makers to look not to the former generations’ work for ideas, but rather to their influences. He stated that the prior generation, the WWII-era makers, looked at things (nature, gesture, history, architecture) not other people’s pots.  He expressed wonderment at a potential future in ceramics with artists referencing only the preceding generation.  This observation was profound to me.

To oversimplify with an example, if I like Linda Sikora’s work, rather than imitating her forms and surfaces, I could begin to develop my own voice by researching what has influenced her work. By delving into the handfuls of objects, cultures, and periods that have defined her style, my own work could become unique rather than simply referential. Who I am as a person and maker will affect how I respond to the exact same historic European porcelain pitcher that inspired her. That’s not to say I can’t appreciate, admire, and buy her work, but I am more likely to find my own voice by looking at what is behind her pots rather than just looking at her pots.

 

So that is one of the anecdotes I tell in a workshop to begin to explain how one might develop a style. I honestly think if an artist sets out with style as the goal rather than as a byproduct of making what he enjoys based on what inspires him, he will fail. (Though I’m sure there are artists who receive recognition this way, I don’t think they are happy, respected artists.)

Style is the amazing culmination of everything an artist has experienced, loves and is, manifested in an object. I touch on the wide range of things that have shaped my own work (and style) throughout this blog, and also discuss them in my Bio and Statement.

 

The images in this post represent some of the details—based directly on my influences and interests—I feel make my work unique, my style signatures: slip-trailed shapes that look like rolled fondant; ornate stamping; two-part cup handles;  and Kanthal wire as form. Vessels like my Corset series, surfaces like my satin color palette, and even an actual signature, like my name stamp (below) are also part of that design “signature”.  The best compliment I receive about my work is, “I’ve never seen anything like this before.”  What I bring to the pots is something no one else has: my touch, my eye, my mish-mash of interests and my passion. That’s style.

* I’m sorry to say I don’t remember the speaker for that 1998 Dallas/Ft. Worth NCECA slide lecture.  If someone knows, please drop me a note.

Home as Sketch & Vase

I first made a small house form (little, 4″h maybe) almost four years ago when we bought our home. It currently sits in a windowsill near our front door, reminding me of its idea. Though this little guy was not a vase, vase forms in general have interested me for years because I like the idea of beauty holding beauty, and there are so many possibilities for shape, form and scale. Our house purchase and accompanying sense of Home, gave me the idea to pair my interest in flower display with the new feeling of place, and that first little house sculpture was the beginning.

House_forms_SketchIII kristen_kieffer_house_vases

Three years later (!), when I was at Watershed in June of ’08, I worked out an idea for a slab-built house form as a vase for three flower stems. It was related to both the tile forms I’ve been making, but a free-standing version with openings, and the flower bricks. The drawings, above left, are from Watershed (with the addition of a collaged-on bungalow illustration I found and liked). This last year I made more (above right; a detail of this grouping is also my current website header), and have been drawing new ideas since: salt-box and cottage style vases, different “door” and “window” decoration, various “roof” shapes and size concepts in relation to different flower types.

I’ve written before about how important my sketchbook is to my development of new forms. The sketches are like bookmarks for ideas, like the little house in my windowsill. I have one place where I record my brainstorms (even if I draw on random pieces of paper, they ultimately get taped into my latest sketchbook), and so can easily flip back through a current or older sketchbook to re-work or tackle an idea.

House_Forms_SketchI House_Forms_SketchII
House_vases_In_Progress

Though not all ideas become pots, my tendency is to draw, then make the form and then draw again to reassess what I learned from the first round. There could be a 24-hour or 4 year gap between those stages, but that’s a typical progression. So the  drawings above are from the last six months after that first round.  I still haven’t made the “compound” house form (above right), but did complete the pictured  grouping of small (7″h) house forms yesterday that incorporate some of the different architectural styles I had been contemplating in the above image, left.

I will post these again after they have been glaze-fired, hopefully outfitted with some approriate posies.  This round of houses was thrown on the potter’s wheel instead of slab-built which gave them a natural fuller form (kind of marshmallowy).  I had to laugh when I finished the second or third.  I scaled these down by a couple of inches and also experimented with a square “footprint” in addition to rectangular.  The result for one in particular was a bit more outhouse than house, especially with the little window slit in the door.  I do laugh a lot in my studio, but this is a good example of the unexpectedness that can materialize from translating two to three-dimensions (though I do 3-D paper and/or clay “sketches” too), how improvisation and scale can impact an idea, and that fun is really important to my making.

Cake as Influence

Thiebaud cake A. Steeter cake Oldenburg floor cake Cake Girls
Couture cake Thiebaud wedding cake M. Braun cake Trend de la Creme blog image
Cupcake color Architecture as cake Julia Jacquette cake painting

From top left: Wayne Thiebaud’s painting Let Them Eat Cake; Painted Bird Cake, (a real cake) by Amanda Streeter; Floor Cake by Claes Oldenburg; and couture wedding cakes. Second row: another couture wedding cake; Wedding Cake by Wayne Thiebaud; a real wedding cake by Margaret Braun; a great blog entry from Trend de la Cremé pairing runway fashion with couture cakes; Third row: cupcakes by Dozen Cupcakes; architecture as cake; and Julia Jacquette’s painting White on White (Thirty-six sections of wedding cake, swans).

I started looking at wedding cakes eight years ago for decoration ideas. It seemed an obvious reference for me as slip-trailing (squeezing liquid clay through a bulb syringe) is the clay equivalent to cake-decorating.

I’m not sure when I first came across Wayne Thiebaud’s pastry paintings from the ’60s, but I love them. If I could paint, that is the style and possibly content I would choose. I enjoy his fantastical and exaggerated use of color (hard shadows of electric pink) and style that reminds me of the vintage ads I like. The paint is thick, and somehow simultaneously gestural and precise. Some of my influences are abstract ideas, and that last sentence would be a good example of something I see [in a Thiebaud painting, for example] that I would like to emulate in my work —a feeling, a presence.

Kieffer tile trioI also just like the word, cake (the title of and text on the left tile, actually). I am drawn to the sound of certain words (Who doesn’t like to say rutabaga?), especially if they can have different meanings and contexts. I don’t know where I picked this up, but I sometimes use it as an expression to mean, “exceedingly lucky”. As in, “He is in a pretty cake situation since he married a millionaire,” for example.

I chose Claus Oldenburg’s Floor Cake to show because it fits today’s theme, and because I am drawn to his sculpture and drawing for making real, hard forms soft and humorous. Both elements I look to capture in my own work. Kieffer Soft Treasure box

It may or may not be obvious from the images I chose above (and from my last post below): many of my influences overlap. In these things, I see hard and soft lines, humor, form, context and content. A couture dress looks like a tiered cake which looks like a Victorian home, which could be a covered jar—or maybe that’s just me. As I’ve said before, we artists are the blenders of the disparate creating the unified.