A conversation between Emily Schroeder Willis & Shawn Spangler

SS:  Where did you first study ceramics? How did that influence you and prompt you to continue working in clay?

Warren MacKenzie Shino Platter

Warren MacKenzie Shino Platter

ESW:  I first officially studied ceramics at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities as an undergraduate in 1996.  I actually came to the University under the pretense I would study landscape architecture.  I had taken several ceramics classes in high school but had made a solemn vow to myself never to pursue a career in art (in spite of really liking it) because I thought it was ludicrous to try and make a living off of it.  My freshman year, I happened to get into an Intro to Ceramics course; Geof Wheeler was a graduate student at the time teaching the course and Leanne McClurg, a senior undergraduate, was the T.A. for the class. I really enjoyed that class a lot and it ultimately caused me to shift my degree to ceramics.   At that time (and still) there were a lot of really incredible ceramic artists in the area namely Warren Mackenzie, Jeff Oestreich, Matt Metz & Linda Sikora, Maren Kloppmann, Linda Christenson, Bob Briscoe, Wayne Branum to just list a few, oh and Mark Pharis as well, who was my professor at the time.  Growing up in a city/state with such a rich history of pottery is something that obviously was very influential.  I remember in high school and in college driving out to Warren’s house super late at night with my cousin, maybe around midnight, and we would look at and swoon over the pots in his studio. In those days Warren left the studio and shop open 24/7. There was a basket and a calculator to leave your money in or a check.  Maren Kloppmann was still making functional pots in those days and usually had some pieces floating around. I remember handling her work and being so incredibly inspired by it, wishing that I could afford it. Warren’s place is no longer open in the manner it was, but looking back on it, that was pretty amazing to have that opportunity.  It really helped to fuel that dream of the romantic potter life.

SS:Looking back in your career as a ceramic artist, could you talk about one decision you made that influenced where you are now as an artist.

ESW: Oh boy. I always feel there are a hundred ways I could answer this question.  There are so many small decisions that slowly guide your big decisions that it’s hard to narrow it to one. The decision to go to Australia after receiving a Jerome Grant from the Northern Clay Center and study as a post baccalaureate at the Australia National University with Janet DeBoos had a pretty big impact on me.  It was such a great learning space, being “in school” without the pressure of school.  I feel I was able to experiment a bit more in my work and have really open and honest conversations with Janet and Anita MacIntyre, which have had a lasting impression on me.   Janet always challenged me to keep taking things away, to keep removing things.  When I left undergrad, I think I felt the pressure to add more in, Janet really helped me to be comfortable with less.  After all, all those Mingei-sota pots were influenced by a simplistic Japanese aesthetic, which is what I loved so much about them, so it seemed natural to start stripping away the excess ornamentation.  Also, that experience in Australia helped me to see a world of ceramics outside of American Ceramics. I feel like we tend to really be pretty limited with our knowledge of artists outside of our country.  It has really challenged me to try and see beyond our borders.

Wäsche (from the Fountain Series) Drawings, Emily Schroeder Willis , 2006

Wäsche (from the Fountain Series) Drawings, Emily Schroeder Willis , 2006

SS:  Can you talk a bit about your process in relationship to mark making?

ESW:  I began pinching my work out of a simple need to create work that was less stressful on my wrists.  Throwing pots became problematic for me early on because of tendonitis and early signs of carpal tunnel.  After pinching pots like this for many years I began to think less of the practical reason for pinching and more of the symbolic reasons.  We live in a culture where it is not that common for people to touch one another and I found it rather remarkable that my fingers had literally touched every piece of that object and then a user would pick up that object, touching my finger marks creating this interesting intersection between us each touching the object and essentially touching hands.

I have also been interested in pots for formal reasons.  A vessel is an object where you can create an interesting intersection between surface and form.  When I first started making pots, I was drawn to a very specific line quality on the surface of my work. Almost always, this was a line etched onto the surface of the piece by scratching through glaze coated in wax with a needle tool  and brushing in a stain to creating an almost intaglio-like line on the surface.  While in graduate school, I stopped making pots and explored other mediums, specifically pen and ink drawings which also gave me that same kind of line quality.  I just love that razor thin line.  I am now less interested in a specific line on the surface, but rather a line that is create in the form of the work.  I want to create shapes that stand out on the pot and create a line in space.  How I feel that mark making comes into play with this is trying to figure out all of the different ways you can pinch a coil!  It seems easy, but I will often do little games with myself in my studio from time to time trying to come up with new solutions.  One artist in particular who I often look to for inspiration is Eugene Von Bruchenhein.

Emily's sketchbook

Emily's sketchbook

SS: How do you find resolution in a particular piece you are working on? 

ESW:  I am a big advocate for sketching.  When I taught at ACAD in Calgary Canada, one of my colleagues Greg Payce said to me in reference to the importance of giving sketchbook assignments to students was: “If you can’t draw it, you can’t make it.”  When he made this statement, I was a little taken aback. I had always been a bit lazy with my sketchbook, but I must say it really challenged me and made me push myself harder to draw out my ideas quite specifically.  So now, I use that as a blueprint for pieces I am working on in my studio. So, to answer your question, when my work matches the drawing, then I can move on.

SS: How often do you work towards new and different designs in your work?

ESW:  I am always trying to work towards new forms and ideas in my work.  Sometimes those changes seem to be epically slow. Like at the moment, being a stay at home mom of a two year old with a studio across town, studio time becomes very scattered and it seems when I get there it is a mad dash to make as much as I can in that time, so I don’t feel like I get the luxury of contemplation or play or exploration.  At the moment though I am really trying to push myself to move to work with a dark clay body.  I feel like I need a bit of a break from porcelain. We’ve been working together for about 20 years now and I am ready for something different.  I have tried a few commercial dark clay bodies and they have proved to be very problematic in the glazing firing: meaning not a single one of my glazes even remotely works on it. This means, not only am I switching clays, but also all of my glazes, but I really feel that I am up for that challenge, I am just not sure I am finding the time to resolve my issues in a speedy manner, so I am working simultaneously with porcelain and dark clay, which is kind of a studio nightmare when your studio space is roughly 150 square feet.

Oribe Serving Platter

Oribe Serving Platter

SS: What influences your work? 

ESW: I always feel that landscape and environment are huge influences on my work.  Living in Chicago, where things are constantly moving and busy, I want my work to be quieter, more subtle, more hidden and subdued. I want it to blend in and not feel so constructed. I wanted it to feel looser. At the moment, I am really fascinated by historical Oribe ware.  I love the way the forms are constructed with that drippy green glaze poured over one side and a loose brushed pattern decorating the other parts. It makes me think a lot about control and giving up a little bit more of it in my work.  I tend to be really tight in my glazing process.  Sometimes I just want to pour a bunch of glaze over a piece and see what happens.  One my colleagues at the School of the Art Institute, William J. O’Brien has been really inspiring to me lately.  I am completely in love with the freedom he has in creating his work, both in the drawings and sculptures.  I have been trying to take that to heart.

SS: What does you current studio schedule look like? 

ESW:  Ugh, pathetic.  I feel like for someone who has invested so much to this medium I should be giving myself a lot more time.  But as I mentioned earlier, I don’t have a home studio at this time.  When my son was a baby I would take him to the studio with me.  Now that he is older and much more active, I need to get a babysitter to watch him while I work in the studio, which can be really costly.  I typically get 2 days a week in the studio for about a total of 10 – 12 hours a week. My friend, Alison Reintjes, told me early on to give yourself a break when your kids are little.  This time with them at home is so fleeting. I have cherished being a stay at home mom, but sometimes the pressure to be in the studio gets really overwhelming.

SS: Why do you find making pottery in the 21st century to be important?

ESW:  Again, this is a question that I feel like I could go in a million different directions.  I think it is really important to be surrounded by beauty.  Beauty in nature, beauty in your home.  It’s a pretty remarkable thing to be part of that community that helps to create beautiful objects.  I think beauty also speaks to community and stories.  Art /vessel making/pottery talks a lot about that relationship between object maker and user or viewer.  It shares this incredible narrative that we all share as humans.  We all, essentially, have the same needs, but we can create this unique space to fulfill those needs with these objects I create.  I love creating and adding to those stories.



Reiko Yamamoto
Invited by Jen Allen

OC: Where is your current studio (city, state)?
RY: Pittsburgh, PA

OC: How long have you been working in clay?
RY: On and off for 25 years!

OC: Can you share a bit about your education or background?
RY: I was born in California, raised in Japan. I always had a strong interest in making objects, but when I moved to United States as a high school student, I took my first ceramics class. I did not speak a word of English when I moved, and I was looking for a class that I could participate while I learned the language. I was fortunate to have a very dedicated, great teacher and there, I fell in love with the process, the material.

That classroom was the only place where I felt comfortable, where I felt I could communicate despite my not knowing a word of English. Since, I went onto pursue a BFA from Alfred University, where I graduated in 1999.

I chose Alfred because I was interested in ceramics, but there I developed other interests such as video and printmaking. This lead me to take a break from clay for a number of years until about 2008 when I started to miss the tactile quality of the clay so much that I went back to taking class at community art centers. It was when I was pregnant with my first son in 2010 that I realized I wanted to take my interest in ceramics to the next level. From 2011, I have been more active in getting my work out, to be seen and to be sold.

OC: What is a current go-to for studio tunes?
RY: Usually NPR, but these days the news can be quite depressing so I turn to podcasts more. Open to any recommendations!

OC: What is your favorite thing about clay/the ceramic process?
RY: The tactile nature of the material is something that I was drawn to from the beginning. I love that the clay responds so directly to your touch, and reflects your state of mind. It helps me slow down and pay attention, something I’ve grown to appreciate even more now that I am a mother of two!

To find out more about Reiko, please visit her website:


Moises Salazar
Invited by Emily Willis

OC: Where is your current studio (city, state)?
MS: Chicago, Illinois

OC: How long have you been working in clay?
MS: I have only been working 2 years with clay

OC: What is your favorite thing about clay/the ceramic process?
MS: To me the process is very similar to oil painting. I come from a very heavy painting practice and I always struggled to find a material, in sculpture, that is as free/forgiving and close to the process I already have.  When I paint I make a layer, then wait for it to dry, paint another layer and wait for it to dry. Working with clay is the same. You throw something on the wheel and let it dry. I hand build a structure and I have to let it dry until I can keep one going.  Waiting for the right time to do something has been embedded in my practice because of my painting background and ceramics fits into that process. I’m used to waiting and allowing the material to do what it is suppose to do.

OC: What do you feel is your role as an artist? 
MS: As an artist I believe my role is to present new possibilities for exploited people, undocumented immigrants and people of color. I come from a long history of laborers and ancestors that came to the U.S to find opportunity. In the eyes of some American citizens these people are criminals, but they are my heroes and the reason why I have the privilege of being a U.S citizen. My role as an artist is to show their history and have a broader discussion of their struggle; to show how we can engage with the current situation in which these people still find themselves. I am an artist of color and I make it my mission to discuss the values and concerns of people of color in my artwork. I wish to reclaim, our stories, our culture and image.

To find out more about Moises and his work, please visit his website:



Aleka Tomlinson
Invited by Brian R. Jones

OC: Where is your current studio (city, state)? 
AT: Portland Oregon

OC: How long have you been working in clay?
AT: I have loved clay since I first touched it in grade school, but I began pursuit of it in a more serious manner in 2006 while taking courses at a community college. I worked primarily in clay for two years following, but took a hiatus from the material until returning to it in 2013.

OC: Can you share a bit about your education or background?
AT: It is a struggle for me to pin down exactly when my background in art began. Although I do have some years of formal training in ceramics through Clark Community College, and the Oregon College of Art and Craft, I did not obtain a degree. Due to medical complications in the middle of my second year, I left OCAC to recover and did not return. In the time following, I turned to bookbinding, sewing, and painting to fulfill my creative outlets. It was not until several years later, when I began working at Pigeon Toe Ceramics, that my hands returned to clay. I quickly climbed the ladder at Pigeon Toe, eventually finding myself throwing for production full time.

Through this work, I was able to reconnect with the material and the greater ceramics community in Portland. I was fortunate during that time to meet local ceramic artist Lilith Rockett and work closely with her as her studio assistant. The assistantship I had with her was a very special time for me, as I was quickly learning from her how difficult and wonderful it can be to make your own work for a living. It lit a fire in me to apply for the Emerging Artists Mentorship Program at the Ash Street Project, where I became one of four mentees under Thomas Orr and Joanna Bloom. My time there pushed me to find my voice as a ceramic artist.  

It was invaluable to me in what it taught me about my work and myself. Since completing my mentorship at the Ash Street Project, I have sought out similar experiences, which have brought me to assistantships with Brian Jones and Victoria Christen, who have both been very influential. Learning through a mentorship relationship has allowed me to grow as an artist with an abundance of freedom and support. It has propelled me forward allowing me to work with people I truly feel offer me candid feedback on my work, as well as a mutual respect for one another in the field.

OC: Who is your favorite artist/craftsperson (ceramic or otherwise)?
AT: I love Lucie Rie’s work for its elegance and the way she managed to make each pot into a beautifully complicated silhouette. Her svelte forms carry the information of their surfaces with a grace I greatly admire. Her story, as a woman wholeheartedly dedicated to her craft through some very difficult times in the world’s history, is inspiring to me as I find my place in it today.

OC: What is your favorite thing about clay/the ceramic process?
AT: Clay has always held my attention in that it is such a puzzle. There are limitless directions one may take the material and each of these hold great possibility, but also the risk of failure. Navigating this is an attractive challenge that allows me to slow down my busy thoughts, and an excellent time to reflect on interpersonal nostalgia. The difficulties and triumphs involved in the ceramic process bare an uncanny resemblance to daily life experiences, leaving me engaged with my work when it keeps me wondering if it will fail or not.

To find out more about Aleka, please visit her website:


Max Seinfeld
Invited by Doug Peltzman

OC: Where is your current studio (city, state)?
MS: Currently, I work out of a studio at The Clay Art Center, in Port Chester, New York. As my two-year residency comes to an end, I am in the process of building a studio in Connecticut.

OC: How long have you been working in clay?
MS: 10 years.

OC: Can you share a bit about your education or background?
MS: My introduction to clay was through my high school professor who introduced me to a community of wood firing potters in Connecticut. Following high school, I pursued a BFA in ceramics at the University of Hartford in Connecticut and was introduced to visiting artist Doug Peltzman. As I finished my undergraduate studies, Doug encouraged me to pursue a post baccalaureate at SUNY New Paltz, New York. During this period I began working as a studio assistant for Doug. Following my post baccalaureate, I worked in a summer assistantship at Peters Valley School of Craft which led me to my current position as a resident artist at the Clay Art Center in Port Chester, NY.  During my time at the Clay Art Center, I maintain a studio practice as well as assist workshops for Doug Peltzman and Adam Field.

OC: Who is your favorite artist/craftsperson (ceramic or otherwise)?
MS: Growing up in the Tri-State area I have grown to favor works by Sol LeWitt. I enjoy finding them at the most unexpected areas, such as an interior wall of a library in Connecticut or walking through New York City galleries. These paintings are extremely playful in regards to color, and completely captivating based on their scale and precision to detail.

To find out more about Max and his work, please visit his website:


Mark Errol
Invited by Bryan Hopkins

OC: Where is your current studio?
ME: Tifton, GA

OC: How long have you been working in clay?
ME: 20 years

OC: What is your current go-to for studio tunes?
ME: My go-to music in the studio currently is Run The Jewels, Wilco and always R.E.M

OC: Where do you see yourself in five years?
ME: In 5 years I would be very happy to be on the same path I am now. Teaching, showing work of other artists in our gallery and making work that I hope is better than the last thing I made.

To find out more about Mark and his work, please visit his website:


Courtney Childers
Invited by Lindsay Oesterritter

OC: Where is your current studio (city, state)?
CC: Huntington, West Virginia

OC: How long have you been working in clay?
CC: For about 4 years now. I had never worked with clay until taking a foundations class my sophomore year of college.

OC: What song/musician is a current go-to for studio tunes?
CC: Hop Along’s album, “Painted Shut” for sure. That and a variety of film scores-right now I’m stuck on the Hobbit.

OC: What is your favorite thing about clay/the ceramic process? 
CC: My absolute favorite part about the process – or my regular process – is wiping away excess slip, revealing crisp line work made by the inlay. I use mishima as a nod to the line work in comics, so it’s the moment that everything really starts to come together.

OC: Where do you hope to see yourself in 5 years?
CC: Ideally, I would love to own a small studio that offers classes designed as a youth program, specifically focusing in rural Appalachia where the arts are not often as accessible in public education, while also nurturing and continuously expanding my own work.

To find out more about Courtney, please visit her website:


Isaac Howard
Invited by Deb Schwartzkopf

OC: Where is your current studio (city, state)?
IH: I’m currently working out of Rat City Studios, renting space from Deborah Schwartzkopf. The studio is located in West Seattle, Washington State

OC: How long have you been working in clay?
IH: I made my first pot 17 years ago when I was 16 at Chugiak High School, in Eagle River Alaska.

OC: Can you share a bit about your education or background?
IH: My first serious experience pursuing a career as a potter was an apprenticeship with my brother.  When I was 18 Jeremy was already making a living from pottery so it seemed natural that I should go to him to learn how to make good pots. I worked with him for around a year and then started my first studio when I was 19. From that point on I’ve been self-taught.

I realized fairly quickly that the kinds of pots I wanted to make weren’t marketable in the local area, so I found part time work doing carpentry. That part time work eventually led to a second career that has allowed me to maintain a studio practice, and provide a stable source of income. Without that second career my work may have evolved very differently.

OC: What do you feel is your role as an artist?
IH: I tend to think that the connection to living with handmade objects isn’t just an anachronism. I believe that the importance of interacting with a physical representation of another’s idea will always be important, no matter which art or craft you pursue. My goal as an artist/craftsperson is to create objects that allow the quiet conversation between pot and user to take place. Utility can be an amazing interactive tool that allows us to use our tactile senses to add depth and meaning to an object. Good pots reveal themselves through time and use, and I hope to make pots that can speak for themselves long enough to do so.

To find out more about Isaac, please visit his website:


Jake Boggs
Invited by Shawn Spangler

OC: Where is your current studio (city, state)?
JB: I currently live and work in Honolulu, Hawai’i.

OC: How long have you been working in clay?
JB: I have been working academically in clay since 2010 and playing in mud since birth.

OC: Can you share a bit about your education or background?
JB: I was raised in a small coal mining town in eastern Kentucky where there wasn’t much to do except explore the mountains, fish, and build tree-houses. I think this upbringing in a slightly restricted environment allowed me to expand my imagination and creative capacity. I later attended Eastern Kentucky University where I hoped to go into wildlife management. After a freak experience in the mountains I changed my major to ceramics, dedicated myself to clay, and earned a BFA. I went directly into graduate school at The University of Hawai’i at Mānoa where I pursued various expressions of my passion of clay and the environment.

OC: What song/musician is a current go-to for studio tunes?
JB: My most recent go-to is John Grant of The Czars. He has an honest and dark sense of humor coupled with solid vocals, lyrics and composition.

For more information about Jake and his work, please visit his website:


Claire Thibodeau
Invited by Kip O’Krongly

OC: Where is your current studio?
CT: Currently a Graduate Candidate at Syracuse University, Syracuse, NY

OC: How long have you been working in clay?
CT: I have been working with ceramics for about five years. I took a few classes in high school and immediately fell in love.

OC: Can you share a bit about your education or background?
CT: I was born in Austin, TX but I primarily grew up in Amherst, MA. With an oil painter for a father and a fiber crafter for a mother, there was always a strong sensitivity textile, color, and pattern within our house. However, contrary to the hereditary artistic genes, my sister is a (democratic) politician.

I received my undergraduate degree from Alfred University where I was able to work with artists such as Linda Sikora and Anne Currier. I also have had the privilege to have a summer at Arrowmont where I first met Kip O’Krongly.

OC: What is your favorite thing about clay/the ceramic process?
CT: I love clay because of its malleable nature and how it has allowed me to translate my concepts in any direction. Within my current practice, I am able to shift from more sculptural or performance based work to making functional work.

To find out more about Claire and her work, please visit her website: