Lovely Intangibles: A Statement

This is the article I wrote for the NCECA Journal, Volume 34 as one of the
demonstrating artists for the 2013 conference in Houston; my thoughts on
function and ornamentation:

Kristen Kieffer Cups 'Clover deluxe'

“Look Doris, someday you’re going to find that your way of facing this realistic world just doesn’t work. And when you do, don’t overlook those lovely intangibles. You’ll discover those are the only things that are worthwhile.” ~ John Payne as Fred Gailey in the 1947 film Miracle on 34th Street

I believe beauty is a worthwhile pursuit, and my pots are a celebration of that beauty. Stated simply, I make decorative pottery that is meant to be used. While working in my studio, I simultaneously consider the aspects of a well-functioning pot and the elegant decoration that enhances a strong form. These three components (function, ornamentation, and form) combined yield a beautifully designed object celebrating the beauty of everyday use. This “ornate utility” is probably an oxymoron to some, but it is my goal as a potter. I seek to make pots that balance good function with robust decoration, which is very different from making complex pieces for special occasions. The latter pursuit is more about elaboration than use. Making decorative pots for everyday requires equal consideration of function, form, and surface; an attention and tribute to what I call the “lovely intangibles.”

The lovely intangibles are what I think about when I’m working in my studio and reference when I teach; the elements that we can be more aware of when they are missing, ironically, than when they are included. They are the aesthetic and functional components that make up the whole of a considered pot, anything from the ribbed edge that delineates a curve to the shadowed reveal of a carved foot. They are the fine details necessary in creating an equally well-functioning yet elegant piece, but something that may not be definable (or even identifiable) to the user. These lovely imperceptible, elusive intangibles are crucial in the completion of a beautiful, useful object.

My active consideration of the details is required for the pots to be both appreciated and used when they leave my studio. The best compliment is when a customer is attracted to my work because of the form, picks up the piece because of the surface, and delights in the strength of the piece once it is in their hands; none of which may have been conscious thoughts. A customer’s split-second conclusion to like and/or buy a piece is in response to my attention to all the micro and macro intangibles, like purposefully making my pottery handles plump, walls strong, and lips full for comfort, for example. By altering and/or stamping the clay at an early stage I refer to as suede, the pots have a soft appearance which makes them more inviting. I use a variety of decoration techniques like slip-trailing and slip-sponging to provide tactility and visual depth. All of my work is glazed with mostly satin surfaces of rich colors adding to the user’s pleasure. The integration of tactile decoration with soft forms and solid components make the pieces touchable and inviting.

I refer to my work as ‘ornately, elegant for everyday’ and classify my pots as ‘Victorian modern.’ Both of these phrases fit my desire for cross-cultural influence, and an appreciation of an era when ornamental abundance was also useful. I want to offer my customers a bit of luxury for their home décor and daily life. My hope as a maker is to marry my diverse influences and the splendor of past eras with a modern desire for artistry and function. My influences range from 18th century, silver service pieces and Moroccan architecture to couture clothing and industrial design for form ideas, and from Art Nouveau illustrations and vintage embroidery to cake fondant and upholstery for pattern ideas. Such diversity combined with my own background and distinct studio processes culminate into a style that I hope is as unique as it is luxurious.

I enjoy my pursuit of beauty, making ornately functional pots for those who would like a little elegance in their everyday. Attention to those lovely intangibles so another can enjoy their morning coffee a little more is what makes being in my studio worthwhile.

Layered Layers

Kristen Kieffer Yunomi Mishima groupingYunomi detail

I spend most of my studio time thinking about (and blog time writing about) form and pattern interplay. My decoration can’t exist without the forms they wrap around, and the forms are incomplete without their surface layers. I make decorative ceramics because I love clay as a material, function as a parameter, and pattern as a layer that ties it all together.

I’m not sure where my love of decoration and pattern began. Perhaps going to antique shops as a kid had influence. Maybe it was the endless drawings with my Spirograph. There’s just something about pattern that feels like home to me. Like touching my Grandma Idene’s funky necklace or filigree bracelet as a kid during a car ride, and asking her to tell me its story for the millionth time. However it came about, I’ve liked ornamentation forever; pattern and symmetry are in my nature.

Kristen Kieffer Large plate Periwinkle floral Plate deco detail Periwinkle floral
Plate deco detail Frost : tangerine Kristen Kieffer Large plate Frost Victorian Moroccan

Why I choose a particular pattern and layer is no simpler to solve than why pattern at all. I can’t say I layer intuitively. I do pick and chose pattern on impulse, but it’s probably more about what I’ve learned in the 2D and 3D design classes I loved for my degrees than instinct. There’s not always an answer to why we’re drawn to certain colors, shapes, or decoration. I suppose I could just say I love ‘pretty’ and need loveliness in my life, know others do to, and these pieces are my response. But there is more to it.

I’ve been decorating my pots for years, but layering began in earnest when I changed how I glaze-fire my pots, switching from cone 10 soda to cone 7 oxidation in 2006. I could no longer rely on the kiln’s atmosphere to provide depth, so took control of adding levels of richness myself.

Patterns create depth, add visual and tactile interest, as well as invite pause. With forms like these new plates and pillow tiles, I layer in part to create an environment in which my customers can get lost for a moment (like the atmospheric paintings I love by Martin Johnson Heade). In a form like the yunomi cups, the extra layer of stamped pattern can spark reflection on a customer’s own history, culture, youth, or vacations abroad perhaps. What I bring to pattern and form as the maker can be quite different from what a viewer takes. What I see as Art Nouveau flora might remind someone else of their aunt’s cottage garden, for example. I like the personalization that can happen in the translation of decoration.

Kristen Kieffer Large plate Green flora Plate deco detail Green : tangerine
Plate deco detail Periwinkle arabesque 

All of the images in this post represent the recent addition of a new decoration layer; a new series with a ceramic technique called Mishima. Originating centuries ago in Korea, Mishima is a way of drawing on clay by inlaying color into a (usually) fine line. I’ve demo-ed this technique for years, including on my Surface Deco DVD, but this is the first time I’ve incorporated it into my own work. The delicate, navy blue line on all these pieces is Mishima. And for me, that drawn line adds another layer of contrast, another layer of atmosphere, another layer of intrigue.

As I mentioned in my last post, I think of the ceramic layers and assembling the disparate pattern shapes as being like collage. Each of the plates pictured for example (after I throw, trim, and alter) has four separate patterns and techniques layered onto the surface. First, I apply the subtle background texture, kind of the ground for everything else. I brush slip (liquid clay the consistency of heavy cream) across the surface, and press a patterned sponge I make into it, leaving a soft texture reminiscent of the textiles I look to for influence. (This technique is one of many I learned from mentor and friend, John Glick, master of layers extraordinaire.) I use cutout shapes of paper to resist some of the slip-sponging, so there are some smooth areas next to the pattern.

Once the slip-sponging has dried, I apply bright polka dots and stripes of underglaze into those smooth areas, which also requires the use of paper as a resist so the edges are crisp. These pops of color become focal points, and give a perfect contrast background for the next layer of slip-trailing. Once the underglaze has dried, I apply the raised lines, swirls, shapes, and dots of slip with a trailer (like small-scale cake decorating). I think of the slip-trail as the main character of the decoration story. Its imagery ties all the other patterns together.

Pillow tile detail Cornflower blue floral Pillow tile detail Green scroll w. tangerinePillow tile detail Pear Arabesque Pillow tile detail Periwinkle calligraphic

Pillow tiles detail. Full tiles pictured here.

Slip-trail is the last step for most of my pieces, but now I’ll be adding the technique of Mishima here and there, as with these. This requires first laying down a layer of liquid wax to protect all the prior layers. Once the wax has dried, I use an Exacto knife to incise into the leatherhard clay surface, and then fill that line with underglaze. I like the navy underglaze because it’s a dark classic color, and not severe like black. It’s not as quick and easy as drawing with a fine Sharpie, but it does result in a similar drawn line that I love. These lines feel like memories or echoes of the raised slip-trail lines.

All of these ceramic decoration techniques result in very different qualities of line (as I mention when I teach and on my Deco DVD). Each line yields a different shape and pattern, and when paired and layered, they become a formal investigation of 2D decoration on a three-dimensional form. Or they tell a story. Or they’re just pretty. I think all three, but am happy with what you see.

This new series of Mishima pieces is debuting exclusively in my online Etsy shop. I did a countdown to New Year’s listing a pillow tile a day in my shop with updates on my FB page, so those are available now. The plates and yunomi cups will be listed daily throughout this week in the same fashion, so check the top of my shop here. And stay tuned!

Pierced Pottery: Basket Faves & Influence

    

A couple weeks ago, I was in my studio pondering, and had a ‘piercing epiphany.’ I haven’t had time to do more than draw just yet, but am excited about expanding my use of piercing/reticulation/cut-outs (as pictured above) on some new and existing forms as a way to play with line, light and shadow, and form through articulated pattern.

The development of new forms paired with new surfaces is a given goal, but some days I feel more inspired (a.k.a. internally pressured) to bring that back-burnered desire to the fore. That drive usually sends me to my books on silver, my favored springboard for new forms. (It is perhaps odd to be influenced by centuries-old objects with functions so specific, many are now obsolete, but most any form for me can become an idea for a vase, which can then lead to many more ideas.)

So I was down in my studio thinking, but my books were upstairs and are worn from years of gleaning, and my computer was downstairs with me and filled with new, enticing images I’ve been bookmarking, so of course, I opened my computer. I visited my own Pinterest boards where I ‘pin’ both objects I enjoy (favorites) and objects that inspire my forms and surfaces (influence). A common thread popped out to me from my Form & Pattern, Oldies But Goodies, Ceramics: Vintage/Historical, and Ceramics: Studio Potters/Artists boards, and sent me to my sketchbook to draw: Piercing.

  

Pierced work was very popular in both silver and pottery in the 18th century (particularly the latter half) in England and Europe. I haven’t found specific information claiming so, but piercing seems a wonderful blend of form and function: the cut-outs allow air circulation (for food service and storage) while both visually defining form and lightening materials (silver, clay, wood) that can otherwise appear a bit more heavy or dense. (I sometimes envy glass’ ability to be simultaneously solid and transparent.) I also enjoy pierced elements in architecture, furniture, clothing, and many more mediums.

So, I’ve yet to get started on my own cut-outs, but have done some drawings, am very excited about minimal and maximal piercing (particularly for fruit bowls and baskets), and collected some of my favorite basket-y forms by fellow studio potters mixed in with ones from the 18th c. for you below. Enjoy, check out my new Pinterest board Cut-out & Cagey, and stay tuned for some pierced pots from my own studio!

                   
  

From top left: Rebecca Chappell; Shorthose & Heath creamware; and Kari Radasch. Second row: Dr. Wall chestnut basket, c. 1750s; and Bryan Hopkins. Third row: Baddelly creamware basket, c. mid 1700s; and Creamware basket, c. 18th century. Fourth row: Brian Jones; and Bruce Cochrane. Fifth row: Odette fruitbowl w. silver stand; Steven Godfrey; and Monticello creamware basket (reproduction). Sixth row: Malene Mullertz; and Julie Crosby. Seventh row: Spode Pierced Creamware Basket and Stand, c. 1820. Last row: Sunshine Cobb; and Remodelista ‘Farmer’s market basket’.

Pictorial: My Mentors

            

From the top, in reverse chronology: 2001-present, Artist-in-Residency and teaching at the Worcester Center for Crafts with Tom O’Malley. 1998-2001: Graduate school at Ohio University with Brad Schwieger, Joe Bova, Chuck McWeeny, Boomer Moore, and Vince Burke. 1997-98 Artist-in-Residency at the Arrowmont School of Arts & Crafts with Pete Pinnell and Bill Griffith. 1996-97: Artist-in-Residency/Assistant at Plum Tree Pottery with John Glick. 1995-96: Internship at Greenfield Village at the Henry Ford Museum with Bryan Van Benschoten. 1993-95: Undergraduate school at the N.Y.S.C.C. at Alfred University with John Gill, Andrea Gill, Val Cushing, and Steve Rolf. 1991-93: Associate degree at Montgomery College, Rockville with Bob Devers, Don Montano, and Kevin Hluch.

For me, mentors are artists/ aesthetic coaches/ professors/ advisers/ career counsellors who I worked with for a couple days to several years; who offered me crucial support, guidance, and constructive criticism; and who influenced me as a maker, full-time artist, and instructor. I could spend pages posting quotes and sharing how each of these artists helped me ‘in the moment’ and over the years, but for now I thought it would be nice to pay a pictorial tribute. (I’ll have to do another post of peers, friends, and loved ones who I also consider big influencers, trouble-shooters, and butt-kickers.) Ironically, I don’t believe that what an artist makes can offer any real clues into how they teach and critique, but I’m lucky that I’ve had such an amazing collection of thoughtfully talented givers help me who are equally talented makers. I’m fortunate, and very appreciative.

Studio Cycles Pictorial 2011

.

I’m certainly in no rush for 2011 to end, though as the holidays approach and attentions (mine) get divided, now seems as good a time as any to post some of my studio and in-progress shots for the year. Ceramics is very much *make, fire, glaze, fire, repeat,* so these images aren’t in order, but rather the repetition is the order. Most all these pictures I’ve shared throughout 2011 on my Facebook Ceramics page (my favored place to post a quick pic, musing or update in between blog posts), but seeing them all in one place is a reminder of my productivity and progress over the last eleven months. 2012, I’m ready for more!

.

.

Batter bowl light and shadow 
 
 
 
 

Lovely Intangibles

  
  

It’s the title I chose for my solo show at Plinth Gallery in Denver. I had jotted down the phrase months ago, but didn’t note the context. I believe I heard it on NPR in reference to something else, but it originated from the delightful 1947 film Miracle on 34th Street:

Look Doris, someday you’re going to find that your way of facing this realistic world just doesn’t work. And when you do, don’t overlook those lovely intangibles. You’ll discover those are the only things that are worthwhile.
~ John Payne as Fred Gailey

The “lovely intangibles” are something I think about when I’m working in my studio and reference about my pots when I teach: the importance of detail (different from decoration), which I define as anything from a slip-trail accent to the ribbed line that delineates a curve. Each of the aesthetic, technical and functional components that make up the whole of a pot —those big and little things that need to be there for me as the maker— may not be definable or even identifiable to the viewer, but if one or more is missing, the whole is no longer the same or as strong. I like the idea that it’s those lovely, imperceptible or even elusive intangibles that are crucial in the completion of a beautiful and useful object. We may not be aware of them when they are there, but somehow we are when they’re not.

The “important” details pictured, first row: 1. The negative space of a pitcher handle and crisp line that defines the handle itself. 2. The stripes that pop the stamped bunny silhouette, and slip-trailed tail. 3. The top flowing line of a cup handle that leads directly into the lip, and the lines the define the glossy interior and satin exterior. Second row: 4. The red stripes that wrap around and define planes and curves. 5. The cut-aways from a jar foot that create shadows and punctuate the softly squared corners of the body. 6. The thrown, altered and ribbed curves of a large pear jar.