Colleen McCall. Ceramics.
ML: Why are you an artist Colleen, and when did you consider yourself a professional artist?
CM: I have always been compelled to create. Being an artist is the only way I know how to do that full-time.
My definition of professional shifts and evolves as I set new goals for what I want to accomplish with my artwork. When I completed graduate school I certainly felt my skills as an artist were validated. Over the years I have taught, been a resident artist, had my first solo show and even sold a few pieces. The real commitment is sustaining a vision, finding a studio to make the work, a venue to show it, and, when you’re a sculptor, adequate storage to live with that vision.
ML: Would you tell us about your studio; how its functionality helps your daily process? And how does teaching effect your work?
CM: Up until last year, I had always worked in a community studio at an arts center or a college studio. This exposed me to many other clay artists, materials and firing methods. Since we have settled in the area, and I am making more work, it was clearly time to set up my own home studio. The studio is still a work in progress. However, the first year has been much more productive since I am not transporting work between two studios.
I am currently set up for making pots, so my studio looks like a kitchen with a ten foot long counter and lots of storage. I make work by the kiln load, thinking of how to most efficiently load my round barrel kiln. My two cupboards for wet work hold exactly what will fill the kiln. I press mold and pattern cut many of my forms using soft slabs of clay. It can take a week or more to decorate everything in the cupboards then two more days of glazing after the bisque firing. The best part is having all the work in the same space. This allows me to work in a series when considering pattern and color harmonies.
I hope to very soon transform the space and take a couple months to make new figurative work. The last body of figurative work I made in residence, returning to Alfred for a month of solitude. My new challenge will be the scale of the work. I have been exploring paper clay with my students at the art center in preparation for working in my studio and potentially transporting the work for firing to a larger kiln.
I presently teach ceramic sculpture classes in Corning at 171 Cedar Arts Center as well as Ceramics for credit at Corning Community College. I enjoy the community aspect of teaching in a ceramics studio even more now that I have my home studio. Seeing clay respond to new hands is always exciting and affirming of my own unique touch. I love teaching a variety of ages as well. With the little ones, we jump in literally with two feet and mix clay or eat s’mores made in the kiln. My wiser students are eager too but in more insightful ways. Many of the techniques I employ in my own work were first explored because of a student need.
ML: Will you talk a bit about how your work with figures began and how it has shaped your perception of your work?
CM: In college, I was smitten with clay and figure drawing. I wanted to combine both somehow. I loved the power of a line to define form from ground as well as the responsive touch of clay. The common denominator was gesture. In the beginning, I drew figures all over the surface of figural vessels. After studying in Italy for a summer, I began working more directly with the female form, thinking of the qualities in classical sculpture that transcend time and define humanity. I was never concerned with identity, capturing a pose or completing the figure. I studied Modern Dance in graduate school, hoping to better understand body mechanics and movement. Since I chose to work in a hollow format, I had to learn how to define the void. I opted to focus on the torso as the source of movement and breath.
ML: Your work is commercially marketable while also appealing as fine art. What creates that balance?
CM: My ceramic dishes are certainly more marketable than my sculpture. However, in deciding to blend both into a career, I have become more conscious of how to present my figurative work in a more domestic format. Mounting work to the wall helps make that initial leap from the gallery pedestal to a home interior. Also condensing the gesture from the corporeal to a communicable life-size hand, such as those in the Offering series, introduces narrative while offering a less is more approach.
ML: Have you been influenced by anyone? What do you think of my impression that the Caryatids are reflected in your broken female figures? There appears to be a direct line from the classical Greek sculpture to your exploration of the female form.
CM: Going to college in rural Missouri, I did not see a lot of contemporary ceramics. It’s funny to admit that the artist who first influenced me was Peter Voulkos. He was an Abstract Expressionist painter turned potter turned ceramic sculptor. Not many people were visibly working with clay as a primary sculpture medium. Having followed a similar path from painting to clay, I aspired to be this macho Greek hulk of a man. I also studied Michelangelo’s work early on. Both artists’ works have a similar poetic presence that is powerfully raw yet still.
Your impression of the Caryatids is spot on with the strength and vulnerability I try to balance in my fragmented figures. Most things that are broken are dismissed as incomplete. I continue to play with this concept of “seeing” the whole in the Metope series inspired by my travels in Greece.
ML: What, in your day-to-day, influences you and inspires you? The decorative motifs in your ceramics are unique and caught my attention right away for their funky, almost nineteen-forties feel. I also found it completely satisfying to lift a piece I liked & find that you had given as much attention to the underside or inside as you had the focal point or “face” of the piece.
CM: Early on when I first started making dishes for my children, their interests, such as dinosaurs and pink elephants, adorned the ware. I would also gather ideas from the pattern on their clothing or an illustration in a book we were reading. One year I made nothing but circus themed teapots, partly to explore vivid color but mostly just for fun. Soon textile patterns began to catch my eye as well as the trim and color of the Victorian homes in Elmira. The bottom of a bowl or plate became a great place to test out new ideas. I like the whimsy of flitting from pattern to pattern. However, along the way I have found a few motifs worth repeating.
ML: Tell us about your tactile sense? Is there a difference when creating the practical items, such as mugs or those gorgeous bowls, and the human figure?
CM: I tend toward a tight, controlled aesthetic prevalent in my functional ware. Discovering clay as a painter helped me to loosen up and focus in on form and texture. The process of constructing a figure is very physical but slow. I approach making the hollow torso in much the same way a vessel would be coil built. A form emerges bit by bit from the core of the figure by squishing together hunks of soft clay with stiffer clay slabs. I enjoy manipulating the clay, achieving some control over the form, while taking cues from the clay and gravity. The surface is often left unglazed to absorb light and appear soft.
When I design my ceramic ware I get to use color and line, decorating every imaginable surface from top to bottom and inside out. I try to spend as little time forming the clay as possible, so I can just paint. With a template or mold, I can quickly create a mug or bowl. I craft the ware to be light and durable considering how it will be used and handled.
ML: Do you find that it helps or hinders you to think about who will view your work or how it will be interpreted?
CM: Much of the response is affected by what the viewer brings to the piece. I wish I knew more stories of how my work has been perceived. Often it is a feeling that is difficult to put into words. Perceptions are generally mixed because I play my work on the edge of grace and vulnerability. I sometimes reference historical works which not everyone may have knowledge of such as the Greek Metope and Kore figures. A title or artist statement can assist the viewer.
ML: If you could own one piece of world-famous art, what would you choose?
CM: The Torso Belvedere in the Vatican Museum. Yes, I would want a giant marble pelvis. The history of this fragment is intriguing as for many centuries conservators have tried to complete the figure by attaching limbs in different postures. It has since been left to stand on its own.
ML: How have you handled the business side of being an artist?
CM: I try to value what I offer society as an artist and hope that others appreciate it, too, by supporting my work. Making, shipping, insuring and exhibiting life-size sculpture is difficult and expensive. I primarily focus on regional exhibitions unless the show is really exceptional. There have been some amazing opportunities this past year in our region.
Making beautiful pottery as well as teaching helps offset some of the cost of my sculptural endeavors. Presently I sell my dishes locally through an independent gift shop, Cappy’s, in Elmira and an artist cooperative, Handwork, in Ithaca.
Undercurve, Life-size 28" x 23" x 17"H, immature stoneware with copper sulfate wash, 1998. ColleenMcCall