Meet Emily Schroeder Willis!

Emily's Background

Emily received her MFA from the University of Colorado, Boulder in 2006 and her BFA in ceramics from the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities in 2000. She was awarded the Jerome Fellowship from the Northern Clay Center and the Sage Scholarship from the Archie Bray Foundation. She was an artist-in-residence at the Archie Bray Foundation in Montana, the Zentrum für Keramik in Berlin, Germany, the Alberta College of Art and Design in Canada and Watershed Center for the Ceramics Arts in Maine.  In 2012, she was a presenter at Arrowmont’s Utilitarian Clay Conference where Objective Clay was formed.  Currently, she lives in Chicago and is a Lecturer at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.  Her studio is located in the Ravenswood neighborhood in Chicago. 

You can also see more of her work at www.emilyschroeder.com

Are there any books you are looking at lately you want to share?

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Oh YES!  I have come across some real gems lately!  The book A History of the World in 100 Objects by Neil MacGregor is simply fascinating.  It really turns you on your head for what we (the west) have deemed worthy of value.  And looking at all these objects from around the world but with a different lens has been very eye opening.
Also the book Vitamin C: Clay+Ceramic in Contemporary Art by Phaidon is a great book to learn about a TON of ceramic artists I have not heard about who are making really interesting work.  It is a little western influence heavy, but I am still excited to dig into those artists and learn more about them.

And lastly two books I picked up recently from the Chicago Art Institute Book Store that are incredible are For Hearth and Altar: African Ceramics from the Keith Achepohl Collection by Kathleen Bickford Berzock and For Kith and Kin by Judith A. Barter and Monica Obniski.  The Hearth and Altar book is of interest to me because I feel like in all my studies of ceramics, I have not learned or read much about African Ceramics and this book has a lot of great history and information on historical African ceramics.  The Kith and Kin book also looks at some great American Folk Art which is often left out of Art History books as well.

What are you listening to in your studio these days? 

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Well, I guess I must confess that I am a Friend of the Pod and that Pundit is an angel.  And if you know what those things mean....well, then you listen too. Truly, I listen to Pod Save America & Lovett or Leave it more often than I should (only because I get really feisty after listening to them).  But I try and temper that by listening to a lot more classical/mellow music these days. Nico Muhly, Sufjan Stevens, Sylvan Esso, Phox, Bon Iver, Julianna Barwick, Ólafur Arnalds are on a constant rotation in my studio.  But if I had to pick only one, Sufjan would be on non-stop.  He's just amazing and his latest collaboration with Nico Muhly, Bryce Dessner and James McAllister, Planetarium is absolutely MAGICAL!  I think I have listened to that full album at least 100 times this summer.

What do you do to stay motivated in the studio?

Honestly, getting to be in the studio these days is such a treat!  It's still is hard to get in there in the capacity I want because of being a mom of a three year old.  Recently I started a practice of making 5 drawings in my studio each time I am there.  It helps me think differently about my work.  Sometimes I keep the drawings, sometimes I throw all of them away.  It just helps me to let things go and not be so entrenched in one way of working/thinking. 

Who are your role models/mentors?

William J. O'Brien, Cecily

William J. O'Brien, Cecily

At the moment, I feel really, really lucky.  I teach at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago with some really incredible artists and several have become huge role models to me.  Bill O'Brien who teaches there is just absolutely the most hilarious, kind and incredible artist.  I love the way he works so fluidly between so many different mediums (printmaking, ceramics, metals, drawing, textiles....) and he has a really unique way of dealing with each material. He is so earnest and raw in his work it is really inspiring for approaching my own work in a more honest manner.  His Instagram feed is a total riot.  If you don't follow him, you should.  It will brighten your day!

Marie Hermann is another professor at the Art Institute.  I love her innovation with looking at objects: how we collect them, how we integrate them, how we move them and how we move around them.  As a potter, I can sometimes get bored with looking at "pots", so I love finding people who use them in a more nuanced way.  And like Bill, Marie is an absolute gem of a human being.  Like I said earlier, I feel really lucky to be teaching at a school with amazing artists who are also such brilliant people.

Historical Pot

by Emily Schroeder Willis

There are many historical ceramic pieces influential to my studio practice.  Nearly every piece I craft has some underpinning from something seen along the journey: a handle from a English teacup, the raw surface from a Neolithic Chinese jar, a line drawn on a Mimbres bowl, a gentle ruffling of a coil from a Jomon pot. It is unbelievably difficult to pick a single piece to write about, which is why I am not going to write about only one. 

During the time I was a resident at the Archie Bray Foundation, the nearby Holter Museum of Art held an exhibition of Ancient Iranian Art titled “Wit and Wine: Ancient Iranian Ceramics from the Arthur M. Sackler Collection”, which had a profound impact on me. I had never seen nor known much about work done from that region. Being from Mingei-sota most of my influence and education up was based on East Asian ceramics and I was pleasantly surprised by this historical work.  Up to this point when I thought of Iranian ceramics, I mostly drew upon memories of highly decorated ware from the 11th - 15th century. I was completely unaware of these simpler predecessors made during the Iron Age (1000 - 800 BCE).  The minimal forms and surfaces were intriguing.  Pitchers intentionally lacking a spout or a handle held only the essence of their intended purpose, and that was moving to me.  They didn’t need the flourishes and decoration to make them extraordinary pots.  But it was in their “basic-ness” that they had a profound punctuation of form. 

Around this same time I took my first trip to Europe.  I was traveling around for several weeks and wanted to spend some time in Germany, so I could get my fix for brats, beer, and gummi bears.  Maybe a little art too. Being of nearly 100% German descent I think there are several Germanic character traits imparted at birth. The first is the gift of curt language, which I can excel in.  Many find it off-putting, but I think of it as tapping into my inner German’s “directness of speech”.  Why say 100 words when only 10 are needed? Why not get right to the point of what I am thinking rather than dance around a topic or a question for an entire conversation?  Needless to say, not everyone considers this a gift.

Earthenware Jar (1000 BCE) from the Freer Sackler Museum in Washington, DC

Earthenware Jar (1000 BCE) from the Freer Sackler Museum in Washington, DC

The second inborn trait is an economy of style. I find many Germans tend to like things simple, or as others may state, “plain and boring”.  Much of this could be based on their prudency of spending money, but I believe it comes from the same vein of their economy of language. Why put 20 ruffles on something when you can achieve the same effect with one? Or none?  There is a beauty in the simple.  

Bauhaus Museum in Berlin

Bauhaus Museum in Berlin

I bopped around Germany for several weeks, eventually landing in Berlin.  There, I visited several museums including the Bauhaus Museum. I have since made subsequent stops, but my initial visit was quite moving.  During my first trip to the Bauhaus Museum, I felt like Eve walking for the first time into Eden. All of these delicious cups, chairs, teapots, lamps, tapestries, pitchers, and jars, none of which I could touch.  All things were broken down to simplistic forms, allowing you to really see them.  The simple curves, lines and designs from the Bauhaus struck a chord in me I hadn’t really plucked before.  I had been caught up in the more is more is more and never really thought about the commonly riffed “Less is More” mantra of Mies.  At this point I really began reflecting on what could I remove. What was too much?  What was noise and what was excess in my work?

At the museum, I reflected a lot on myself and who I was as a maker.  I sensed a falseness in the work I was making.  I was creating work that wasn’t beautiful or moving to me. Why was I making objects that weren’t who I was?  Before leaving the Bauhaus Museum I stepped inside the gift shop and purchased a postcard with an image of 3 Otto Lindig pieces on it.  Those three vessels signify everything I want my work to be.  Simple. Direct. Profound. 

Three Otto Lindig Vessels from the Bauhaus Museum, Berlin

Three Otto Lindig Vessels from the Bauhaus Museum, Berlin

That Lindig postcard has had some good airtime on my studio walls over the years. From time to time an image of a new fad or a new hot little “Miss” or “Mister” ceramicist of the year has replaced it.  But it has had a stronghold in my way of thinking for over 16 years.  There are pots you fall passionately in love with for a season; your love fades or perhaps you change as a person and your taste for that work subsides. And then there are objects, objects like this simple Iranian jug or an Otto Lindig pitcher, that stick with you for the duration of your practice.  These minimal objects, twins in their own right, are some of the most profound pots I have come across.  They carry obvious parallels in their directness of form, simplistic surface and spare shapes from which I never tire.   These pieces hold in their objectness all I desire my work to become.