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.