Interviews with Ceramicists Lee Wolfe and Jill Fine

By Victoria Webb of Furiousdreams.

In this first interview series on ceramics, the focus is on two unique and successful potters in different parts of the country, who sell online and in galleries; Lee Wolfe from One Clay Bead in Asheville, NC and Jill Fine from Glazed Over on Long Island, NY. Both women have unique styles and as a painter I'm drawn to ceramics myself. At some point, I had hoped to apprentice or at least take a class to immerse myself in this very special art form .We begin with Lee Wolfe from One Clay Bead. You can view her personal blog here.

VW(Furiousdreams): Lee, I lived in Atlanta for twenty years and am familiar with Asheville for a vibrant arts scene. In fact, I visited one of your galleries, Seven Sisters Gallery in Black Mountain, NC and bought beautiful ceramic bowls and plates there in the 1980s, on a painting trip with my mom. My attraction to the area was the renowned Black Mountain College where Josef Albers taught, closed by that time. Can you tell us what's so special about North Carolina clay and your particular attraction to the genre of ceramics.

LW (OneClayBead): Thanks for writing this, Victoria. You probably saw some of my early work at Seven Sisters Gallery in the '80's. My maiden name is Heminger, and the pots were signed BLH back then. NC has some of the first American galleries that promoted fine craft as an art form, and handmade crafts are our third largest industry in this state. We have an abundance of functional potters and a wonderful network of peers. Although my work is often purchased for display only, my forms all have their roots in functional work, which I find most pleasing and satisfying. The clays blended here in Asheville at Highwater Clays are some of the finest functional clay bodies available.

VW: What does heirloom quality mean for the customer?

LW: Heirloom quality means that I use glazes and techniques that are highly durable. My pottery will be as rich and glossy 100 years from now, and probably much longer, too. I formulate and make my own glazes for stability and a hard, scratch resistant surface. I also use Japanese techniques to compact my clay, releasing air and aligning the clay particles so that it is very strong and chip resistant. Give my pieces as gifts to your parents and grandparents and you will own it yourself one day! To make this type of work, I have consulted with glaze chemists and the many scientists in my own family to understand how raw materials interact in the heat of the kiln at a molecular level.

VW: You have a very unique way of getting texture into your designs, through utilizing actual lace and pressing it into the wet clay. Can you elaborate on how and why you began using lace for textural interest? Is there a better type of lace than any other that works well?

LW: Pressing textures into clay is universally fascinating, and probably taught in every children's clay class, so maybe I just never grew up enough! I prefer the old laces that were crocheted or tatted as they make deep impressions. In my work I use 3 pieces of lace that were my Nana's- a tablecloth, curtains and a collar from a dress. This fits with the whole nature and spirit of clay- that it is an old artform passed through countless generations. A part of our human ancestral heritage lives in each piece of pottery.

VW: Can you talk about your influences or what inspires you to create?

LW: The natural world, with its exquisite organic perfection. Living close to nature and closely observing it is a kind of holiness or reverence for me. No matter how downcast I might otherwise feel, a cheeky blue jay tilting its head to peer at me unafraid or the leaves of a hosta unfolding from a tight spiral lift me up.

VW: I see that you've been on Etsy for just over a year and have done quite well. How does selling online influence your production, and your sales both online and in galleries?

LW: I have less work available for wholesale! I also have more freedom to grow and explore new ideas as Etsy sales give me instant feedback about what is marketable. I can develop and tweak ideas and then offer them to galleries with confidence that they have an audience and are priced right.

VW: How does the idea of sustainability factor into your work or business?

LW: Sustainability is a vital consideration in how I live my life now. We must understand the web of life and our part in it. Small changes make huge differences at a collective level. As one example, we use recycled packing materials. My husband found a nonprofit store run by volunteers that could not easily take all their boxes to the recycling center. So he picks up all their packaging once a week, sorts through what we can use, and takes the rest to the county bins for them. It's a small reduction in consumption, but if we all used boxes 10 times, we would need 10 times less each year!

VW: What is the biggest challenge for most ceramicists or more personally, for you?

LW: Ceramics is an interesting field right now. We are working in a medium with artifacts that are tens of thousands of years old, in a society that encourages disposable consumption. My personal challenge is to make works of meaning that will give pleasure and pause for contemplation and become artifacts. Should humans last on this planet another 10,000 years, I would like those people to remember the era when humans turned the tide of environmental destruction and willfully, creatively chose a life sustaining path.

Thanks for an informative and inspirational interview, Lee!

Interview #2:
Our next interview is with Jill Fine from GlazedOver. Please visit her personal blog here.
VW (Furiousdreams)- Jill, I really liked your profile description on your blog: "I’ve always felt a profound pull toward clay, starting from a very young age. The texture, the smell, the provocative mess, its earthy unpretentiousness…"

How did your trajectory develop from pursuing a doctorate in archaeology to becoming a potter? (or is this a question that's even relevant?)

JF (GlazedOver) - As a graduate student at the University of Chicago, I was studying the history, archaeology and languages of the Ancient Near East. My emphasis was on the languages, specifically text decipherment and tracing the development of the extant Semitic languages. To offset the stresses of my course load and to give my head a chance to clear, I took a ceramics class and, as I suspected, I was smitten. It was no surprise to me that my passion clearly lies in the mud.

VW- You have some beautifully colored glazes on your bowls, large mugs and vases. I happen to covet the big 28 oz mottled green ones. Can you tell us how you come up with these wonderful colors and glazes?

JF - My glazes are a combination of scads of experimentation and a measured amount of secret sauce. I’m almost involuntarily drawn to a vibrant color palette so that’s what I focus on. Colors that make my heart go pitter patter almost insist that they find their way onto my bisque ware, so I duly comply.

VW- You mention the term anthropomorphic as a descriptor for your work. I notice that some of your stoneware bowls resemble sunflowers, does nature serve as a source for some of the designs? I wonder if you could tell us more about your process and how you find inspiration for your work.

JF- Inspiration for my work comes from all places, and usually it is a very subliminal process. Of course, I am deeply influenced by my studies of antiquity so often motifs like the Philistine bird show up here and there in my work as they do on these coasters:

Anthropomorphisms and inscribed carvings are all my nods to antiquity. My personal aesthetic tends toward design simplicity, symmetry, and balance so I instinctively incorporate these principles in my work as well. Like a magnet, I am attracted to handmade pottery so whenever I come upon the work of other potters, I can’t help but handle it. You’ll see me turning a piece over to check out the underside, feeling the comfort level of any handles or spouts, and evaluating it for proper weight. I am particularly drawn to pottery that feels lighter than I expected.

Although I do find inspiration in nature, especially as it fuels my love of sandy browns and sky blues, the sunflower bowl specifically was influenced by one that my daughter had made. She was throwing a bowl on the pottery wheel and ran into difficulty with its integrity. The walls started drooping because she had thinned out and over-moistened the upper lip. Rather than scrapping the bowl though, she went in the direction it took her and made it into a charming little sunflower. It was so charming that I had to get in on the fun and, with her blessing, made a version of my own. It has been a big hit. As a matter of fact, I’m currently working on a dinnerware set featuring her sunflower motif.

VW- The stoneware herb and veggie stakes are so great for us gardeners who are always reaching for a sharpie and metal (or worse, plastic) stake. Mine are usually unreadable by mid season or I've bent them to smithereens with my shovel. You must either have gardener friends or have in depth experience with our plight. That's not really a question, but I hope you'll speak to their creation.

JF- The glazedOver herb and veggie garden stakes were my answer to exactly the problem that you addressed, Victoria. My neighbor was the one who brought the issue to my attention. The stakes that she used to use in her garden were adorable, but not sturdy by any means and by mid-season, they’d be not only unrecognizable but they were making the garden look unkempt. Stoneware is so durable and I use rich, high quality glazes. My neighbor is still using her garden stakes year after year and they are still in top shape.

VW- I see that you've been on Etsy for a little over a year and have done quite well. How does selling online influence your production, and your sales both online and in galleries?

JF - Selling online has been a thrill. I have tried to find my niche by creating exceptional utilitarian products with great aesthetic appeal, by paying attention to detail, packaging with a handmade vibe and providing wholesome customer service. More than selling in galleries and shops, selling online has enabled me to reach across vast expanses to connect with people on the opposite side of the globe. It has been such an enriching experience and I have “met” so many delicious people. Many have wiggled their way into my heart and have become a part of my own pottery “tapestry.” It has been so enriching. I am a new and better Jill for having had this venue for sharing my work.

Thank you for your exceptionally thoughtful questions, Victoria. Doing this interview with you has been a JOY!

Thanks so much to Lee and Jill for their graciousness in spending time with us. Stay tuned for the next Artisan Gallery Team interviews.


paula said...

splendid interview, love knowing more about lee and jill. such talented artists!

Waterrose said...

I absolutely love pottery and both of these artists are among my favorites. But it's not just their creations, but also how nice they are. Hugs to both and so glad to get to know more about you!

anakim said...

Such a delightful interviews! Thanks Lee, Jill and Victoria for this interesting and enriching read.

WolfeWoman said...

Thanks for great interviews, Victoria! I've never met Jill in person and was struck by many similarities in our pull toward pottery. Very provocative juxtaposition!

Kendra Zvonik said...

Fantastic interviews, Victoria! Thank you so much for this thoughtful and enriching look into 2 of my most favorite clay artists. Keep up the great work Lee & Jill!

Dawn of LaTouchables said...

This was a total joy to read--to get to know more about Lee's and Jill's influences, thoughts on creating...it is truly fascinating! Their work is magical, and I love following their shops and blogs.