A Conversation with A. Blair Clemo & Emily Schroeder Willis

"Defunct factory in Jingdezhen, China. Discarded industrial molds visible in background

"Defunct factory in Jingdezhen, China. Discarded industrial molds visible in background

ESW:  Over the past several years you have been traveling quite a bit doing residencies, where
are the most recent spots that you’ve been?
I try to do a residency, or some activity that will take me out of my studio every summer. I like the experience of making in a new place, with new facilities, materials and possibilities. This summer I spent a few weeks at the Archie Bray Foundation in Helena.  Montana with the other Objective Clay folks. That’s where the work in this exhibition was made. Last summer, I spent a month in Jingdezhen China at the International Ceramics Studio. I’m planning to go back to China and work for a few weeks before the new year.

ESW: What’s been the experimentation that’s come out of those experiences?
ABC: Everything is experimental if you change enough parameters. Every new studio, clay, glaze and kiln presents a potential unknown in the work. I find traveling, especially abroad, is an excellent way to invite new processes, material sensibilities and questions into the work. Often when I travel, I take only basic tools with me, nothing specific to my studio work at home. This forces me to engage with the new studio actively and explore new ideas. For example, I am not set up for slipcasting in my home studio, and it is something I have never been particularly interested in exploring. Going to China last summer, and having casting slip readily available to me allowed for me to experiment with that possibility easily, and without any preconceived ideas sketched out. I am still not using slipcasting in the usual sense of the technique, but it has made its way into my practice at home, something that I don’t think would have happened without designating time to play without the pressures of my home studio. I also found a lot of post-industrial molds in China, molds that had been used for factory production and discarded. Using these molds forced me to work with new forms, found forms that I would likely never thought to make otherwise. There is no way to plan ahead for work like that, you have to just jump in, see what’s available and make pots happen! I like working that way.

ESW:  The new work you are making seems to be more based on ceramic history and less focused on utility, can you talk about that a little?
ABC: I would actually shift that question a little. I don’t think I am focused less on utility, in fact, it is absolutely one of the most important and active question in my pots. All my pots (I make non-useful sculptural work also) are intended to work, I don’t undermine their use in any intentional way, and am very considerate of their utilitarian qualities; I want them to function earnestly as pots.

They are pots, just not easy pots.

Everyday Object Series: Mugs. Wheel Thrown and Assembled Red Stoneware. 2016.

Everyday Object Series: Mugs. Wheel Thrown and Assembled Red Stoneware. 2016.

How easy a pot is to use should be an active question for potters! My work is not typically about comfort, and my pots are not meant to be seen-and-not-heard. I have a friend that once told me, “I like your cups, but I don’t want to think about your Graduate thesis everytime I drink a damn cup of coffee!”. I think this is a spot-on criticism of my pots, sometimes their odd nature gets in the way of you ignoring the pot and just enjoying your cup of coffee. Well, I think that is EXACTLY what my job is as a potter! A user may not want to think about a cup, it is my intention to encourage them otherwise! If these pots have conceptual qualities that make their use less passive, that is not meant to undermine, but to raise a question about use.

There is a vast history of vessels that could potentially function as useful pots, but were never intended to do so. Garniture are a perfect example. It is a 20th century modern mentality that utility is the most important aspect of a useful pot. I challenge that. I see use as one of many potentially interesting aspects of pottery, but not necessarily the most important. Sometimes it’s less about use, and more about the questions that arise from considering the potential of use.

ESW: You’ve also recently become Ceramics Area Head of the Craft and Materials Studies Program at Virginia Commonwealth University, how has that affected your studio practice?
ABC:  I am just starting my 4th academic year at VCU, my first full-time teaching appointment. It has completely changed how I think about my studio practice. Anyone familiar with teaching in academia will recognize the “Teaching, Research and Service” breakdown to measure faculty output. The university calls my studio work “research”. That is a term that I have really questioned a lot in the last 3 years and I don’t just dismiss it as university jargon.

What does it mean to be researching in the studio? What does pottery research look like? Consider the other term for studio work: “practice”. Many of us refer to our studio time as our “practice”, but not in the “practice make perfect” sense. It means skilled execution, it implies a certain level of proficiency and ability to anticipate outcomes. Our practice is knowing how to make stuff. A Surgeon has a medical “practice”, and I sincerely hope that they are proficient and know what outcomes to expect when they cut us open! But research is different than practice, the exact outcomes of research are yet unknown. Thinking of my studio as a research space has changed the way I think about pots, and helped me to focus much more on the way that I am making, not what I am hoping for as an end result. Thinking of my pots as a point of research allows me to try lots of different things and see what happens, leaving the outcome dictated by the process. That’s been a huge change in my studio that last few years.

ESW: You’ve been putting up some killer videos on Instagram that I drool over!  How do you feel like social media plays a role in your studio work?
ABC:  I like Instagram, its really the only social media I use. I like posting what’s happening in the studio on a regular basis because I try a lot of different things. Process is something that is so often lost, or taken for granted in a finished pot. I am really focused on process right now in the studio, little videos and in-progress images are a way to show how I’m thinking and where my work is headed. I don’t get fired results too often because I explore a lot and have a lot of failures, lots of work never makes it to the kiln. Posting process shots seems to create some kind of record, even if something doesn’t work out, people still get to see it, and I still get to look back and reconsider it.

Plus, it’s fun to get more followers, who doesn’t like that?

ESW: What are some ideas yet you have been thinking about that haven’t yet had a chance to materialize in your work?
I’m just rolling with the work right now, allowing each pot to inform the next. I made a big mistake this summer though and fired some of my pots (the work in this exhibition) in a Salt/Soda kiln at Penland School of Crafts. I love the results. It feels really right for these pots. I used to soda fire all my work, over a decade ago, and have not really considered it since. The problem here is that I don’t have easy access to a salt/soda kiln right now, VCU is an urban campus and we can’t put off any vapor. So, the next big thing for me is to build a salt kiln at home, I’ll be working on the in the next few months. In the meantime, anyone within a days drive from Richmond, VA have a salt kiln I can fire to cone 9 in November/December? This sounds like a joke... but I’m serious… I’ll pay you.

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