July 21, 2014

Facing the challenging medium of clay: Justin Hart, the Problem-Solving Ceramist

By participating in the tradition of ceramics, Justin Hart persists, as he put it, to “create functional objects of beauty.” Here, he generously talks about his zeal and experience in meeting the demands of making ceramic art that satisfies a rigorous process of design and execution:

On being a ceramic artist

You made the transition from a project manager 
to a ceramic artist. Can you please elaborate on this journey?
I’ve been working in ceramics for most of my life and have been more engaged in the practice at various times than at others. I had left a position with Redmoon Theater, overseeing their build-shop and intern team as a project manager. In this role, I managed custom art jobs and a line of environmentally friendly children’s furniture, and was generally a jack-of-all-trades, doing everything from product development to fabrication to drawings and design work. From there, I became a science teacher working in some of the most challenged neighborhoods in Chicago.

You can see the trajectory: one challenging high-input job after another, with the potential for burnout at every turn. While teaching, I began establishing a new ceramics practice, which I had put on hold since grad school to explore other career options. I started, at first, doing a bit of consulting, everything from clay and glaze chemistry to production solutions for ceramics. I also provided some other services such as mold production and small-scale product runs. At the end of the day, the work was interesting but lacked a tactility and evidence of the handmade. I shifted and began making my own thoroughly handmade objects of beauty and service.

You call yourself a “Problem-Solving Ceramist.” 
Cool job title. What does this mean?
During undergrad, I was pursuing two degree paths. I was very much interested in science, specifically environmental science. I worked toward a degree in this field, as well as in art. With art, I always knew I was going to focus on ceramics. At this point, I had already been working in clay for a few years, so I focused on this and art history. Because during this part of my journey, I had a lot of people, especially from family, asking me what I was going to do with myself. What I’m pretty sure they meant had nothing to do with “what I was doing with myself” and had everything with how was I going to earn a living, and they thought I was unfocused in my studies—they could not see the relation between the arts and sciences. To me, these areas were a part of the same practice: asking questions, solving problems, and telling people what you found out—which translated into my always present long-term goal of what I wanted to be doing with myself: solving problems and making things. Those are the only two things that I have ever wanted to do.

I not only make ceramic work, but I also help other people solve just about any kind of ceramic problem, and if I don’t have the answer, I can always figure out a way to find one. Folks also come to me with other sorts of problems, with my work experience I have a broad-ranging fabrication knowledge that allows me to take on non-ceramic projects and provides new insight into how to solve ceramic problems. I call myself a problem-solving ceramist, because solving problems is so ingrained in my practice, and I work in so many different areas that simply labeling myself a clay artist or ceramist is too narrow.

What were essential activities/steps you took to start 
and establish yourself as a ceramic artist? 
And why were these activities/steps important?
I wouldn’t say that the ceramics community-at-large considers me established in their ranks. Too much of the work I have done exists in different areas that I have been unfocused—intentionally, on a ceramics career. I would say I am more established in the design and fabrication world as much, if not more, than ceramics, especially in the Chicago area. I think an appropriate anecdote here is that I ran into someone at a charity event where I was selling my work. It was someone I had known for the better part of ten years. He was surprised to see me selling ceramic work. He had always thought of me as a woodworker or shop fabricator and had never been exposed to the clay side of me. In fact, he never knew I was an artist.

Regarding the steps I have taken toward my ceramics career: First, get educated. Ceramics is art, geology, chemistry, physics, engineering, and design all rolled into one practice. Second, get a studio and really work in it. Ceramics is capital heavy and expensive. Kilns alone are the cost of a car, and materials are the cost of a new car. It is hard, but band together and find other like-minded people—that’s why I have become part of the Midwest Clay Guild. By working in a co-op ceramics situation, we can afford really nice equipment and a fully stocked materials lab. Show your work. People have got to see what you make. Send off your images and get your rejections, but you’ll also get your acceptances. Most importantly, network. Always be on top of generating new connections online, and in person, because you are only fertilizing your own little garden of potential.

Who and/or what are your influences 
related to art, design, craft?
Early in my career, I gravitated towards ceramic artists like Ron Nagle, who still hovers in the back of my mind. I would just sit and look at images of his work for hours and think about their juiciness. I learned a great deal about light and layering from Ken Price, another ceramic artist. I look toward Anish Kapoor and Juan Munoz for what I think of as consumer experiences.

For user experience, this will sound crazy, but I look toward the makers of Festool equipment. In the hardware industry, you will find no other brand that is as thoughtfully designed. Their equipment is on par with Apple for design, but also because what they make functions best inside their ecosystem of products. and inside of that ecosystem is a world of innovation when it comes to woodworking.

Can you give a tour of how an idea, for a ceramic piece, 
gets real? For example, please pick one of your 
favorite ceramic pieces. What were the steps and tools 
used to materialize it?
Like a lot of designers and makers, ideas for new pieces begin on paper in the sketchbook. I draw a lot, sometimes I’ll fill whole pages with the same idea with slight variations looking for specific proportions. From the sketches, I move to a more formalized technical drawing with dimensions and detailing. This is a step most potters would not even consider—they would hop on the wheel or hand-build what it is they are looking for. Since I am combining the mold-formed and hand-built in my work, I know there is a big investment in time to produce the molded parts—I need to know exactly how everything is going to come together. I could choose to use a computer to generate the drawings and then have the model, for the molded components, milled or printed. I have done this in the past, but for current work, I am sticking to handmade models. From the technical drawings, I will then construct a paper model to get a better sense of size, proportion, and feel. This step also helps produce the production templates I use in cutting the handmade components. Next, I develop the handmade components of the piece and turn the necessary models on the wheel—think of a horizontal lathe. From here, I cast the molds for the piece and begin prototyping.

The most recent example of this is for a new bud-vase shape (below). I was getting requests for the item, so I thought about what molds and parts are already in my vocabulary that could be adapted to the vase. Then I began pushing ink to generate many iterations on form as I could, and began settling on a general shape. I have always had a deep love of science fiction and space, which always manifests in unusual ways in my work. For example, I have always been interested in the development history behind the German V-2 rocket, for the technology in the drive system is a precursor to modern boosters we use in space travel today. This interest led to part of the development of the foot I use in my cups and vases, as they look like older booster rockets, not exactly mind you, but reminiscent. Back to the bud vase, I had settled on a shape and had already done the technical drawings, then made a template for cutting the frustum that would make the body of the vase, and prototyped the shapes. I showed people the new form to generate some feedback, which was somewhat surprising in that they were talking about Apollo capsules. They were right. This was a case of working on instinct—for this shape, I was not consciously making a capsule form.

This form is so new I haven’t glazed and fired any of them yet, but once I have the form settled and bisque-fired, I develop what I call the “glazing protocol.” I find that the method of glazing for each form is different, and because I am working in a production world with this work, it needs to be fast to keep it affordable. Some forms involve masking and having glaze sprayed on them, others employ pouring for their interiors or dipping for their exteriors. Typically, there is a combination of all of these to achieve the end result. I have also developed a method of masking that involves spraying wax resist (coating) as though it were a glaze to make later stages of the glazing process faster and easier. I don’t want to get too technical here—once the form has been fired in a high-fire reduction atmosphere I can work on surface design.

All of my patterning and coloring comes from a multi-fire process, meaning, using glazes that fire at different temperatures to achieve specific effects. By multi-firing, I am able to achieve different kinds of layering that would be difficult to do in a once-fired piece, because all the glazes would want to blur or melt together. My line work is usually the first layer to go down, I use a slip-trailing bottle that I can attach metal nibs to, that acts like a rapidograph pen, but with glaze, instead of ink. I fire the piece, then apply more layers of color. One of my pieces can get fired up to five times depending on the surface treatment.

How did you find your tools to make ceramic art?
I started, as any ceramics-practicing person, with the handful of basic clay tools that you buy as a set, and over time, you begin to realize their limitations, so you start altering them and making new tools to do very specific things. I would really say the catalyst for my tool-making was from a class I was in with Tim Mather who showed us the tools he had made over his long career to meet his specific needs. I thought that I could do the same. I made a bunch of new fettling knives in my father’s barn. The results were clunky in finish but great in function. From then on, it was a continued exploration of new hand tools for ceramics and for non-ceramic purposes.

Ceramics history has always had a strong presence do-it-yourself tool and equipment making. Most of the commercial ceramics equipment companies out there were started by ceramists solving their problems with a good idea and selling the result to other ceramists. Michael Sherrill is a great example of a tool maker and innovator in ceramics. His company, Mudtools, expanded the notion of what a ceramics toolkit can be, simply by breaking away form the traditional materials of metal and wood, and looking at polymers. A lot of his tools are not new but better designed, and his products show real innovation. I buy some of Sherrill’s tools, especially his ribs, but I make all of my own knives, paddles, trimming tools and wire tools, myself.

If you dig into the provenance of a lot of the ceramics tools and equipment out there, you’ll see a real DIY culture, unlike most artistic fields. I worked in clay, and let my experience drive the need for tools.

Many independent makers, particularly with regards 
to ceramics, exhibited at the Chicago Mini Market, 
Renegade Craft Fair 2014. This is only one showcase. 
How do you cope with the competition in 
handmade-ceramic products?
Either for better or for worse, I make what I make—an artist’s approach to the business of the handmade and not completely a sensible businessperson approach. As a result, I don’t look at other work as competition but as potential inspiration.

To speak more to the Renegade Craft Fair experience, all of the ceramics available at that event were drastically different and really made for different demographics. Circa Ceramics in Chicago makes great work, but it is way more functional and production oriented than anything I make. Their work is made to be used everyday, having rounded lips and robust handles with some of the best graphics I have ever seen on a mug. Toast Ceramics, from Madison, represents a similar vein, beautiful work and more oriented to the every-person user with a much more diverse product line than either myself or Circa. So you have Circa which employs jigs and presses to produce their work, and then Toast, which employs the potter wheel, and then comes my work which nestles in between nearly all handmade and very delicate.

The cups and items of service I produce require a bit more care, they have sharp beveled lips, delicate handles and are thin. These are not necessarily objects of everyday but are more objects of ritual and desire that can be used everyday. I also feel that the visual hand decoration of my work sets it apart from most others as it is an abstract product from within, not wholly graphical in a common-sensical way. I guess you could say I cope with competition by doing what the competition isn’t doing.

How would you describe your artistic style?
The things I make in really any medium constantly dance a line between being loose and very tight. I am always looking for this tension, I think of it as controlled looseness or harnessed disorder. For many years, I trained in Capoeria Angola, a form of Brazilian martial-art dance that very much embodies this notion. In fact, there is a line from a capoeria song that goes “Nem tudo que reluze e ouro, nem tudo que balanca cai” or translated “all that glitters is not gold, not all that shakes falls.” The notion being that don’t think that because an object is shiny and yellow, it is gold, and that because something appears shaky doesn’t mean that it is weak and ready to fall. In the capoeria roda this is a warning, but in my work, I let it come forth as a looseness of form and line that communicates intentionality.

Capoeria is also a practice that involves harnessing energy of others and transforming it, making something out of nothing. I choose to work in clay because of this something from nothing nature it has. From this mud, you can make nearly anything. In this vein, the decoration on my work is a scrabbling around on a blank canvas working with a few faint pencil lines or using visual projection to suss out the pattern, shape an idea from nothing. The way I work might be navigation, and the result is a “wandering” line of form and surface treatment.

How do you practice making ceramics in order 
to feel competent and confident at realizing this skill?
I have been working in ceramics most of my life—now it is a matter of figuring out the specific process for new works. In the past, though, I would spend hours in the studio just throwing on the wheel, hand-building, producing molds, and tuning my skills. I worked nearly everyday during my undergraduate studies, weekends would be long days, 12 or more hours, just throwing, building, making, glazing and firing. I wanted experience to be self-reliant in clay, and to be able to make whatever I wanted. I also took advantage of the fact that my university had a highly developed graduate program with many different artists firing in many different kinds of kilns. I slipped work into every kind of firing, from soda to wood-fired anagama to regular gas reduction. I learned by getting involved with what other more experienced people were doing, and learned from them.

Who and/or what keep(s) you going as a ceramic artist?
I keep working as a ceramic artist, because I have not, nor will I ever exhaust the possibilities of what clay can do. I am a maker and will always be solving problems, and making things that I want to do.

Ceramics is a deep well. It has over 10,000 years of history behind it. New work emerges from the field, and it never seems tired. My work is ever-shifting and evolving, because I am always asking questions, and clay can keep up with me in that regards. An analogy here is marriage: in your wife or husband you want a partner than can, for the long haul, keep up with questions you are always asking—ceramics is kind of like the perfect partner. I feel my wife is now central to my practice, in that she is a strong source of support and inspiration.

How do you get the word out about what you do?
How do you attract people to your work? 
What approaches were effective?
I always struggle with this component of my practice/business. I am a maker, and that’s what I want to be always doing, so marketing is challenging for me. Getting the work in front of people is number one, apply to shows, sell your work at events such as Renegade Craft Fair, work collaboratively in cross-field projects, develop a local community of patrons, colleagues, and so forth. I do these everyday, but my social media presence is the number one thing that gets people on my doorstep.

On creativity and working

How do you handle disagreements while you’re working?
I don’t have many disagreements in my studio practice, I work alone for the most part, and I sell my own designs, therefore, not much room for tension. I have done several custom orders and production runs in the past for different clients, and I am very proactive about solving optional problems before they occur. When I estimate a project, I generate a line-by-line contract that describes exactly the work I will be doing, and if needed, I produce approval drawings for the client to sign off on. I also generate approval samples, such as shrinkage tiles made from the clay body I am using and the glazes I am using for the project. I am also clear on the timeline for deliverables and rally my materials vendors early on to ensure we have everything we need to complete a project on time. Lastly, and most importantly, I constantly communicate with my clients. You cannot always foresee the problems that can arise when you are completing a custom, and, mind you, unique project. You need to keep them up-to-date with these issues and provide them multiple acceptable solutions to the problem in order that they feel positive about the change in direction you are asking them to take. This takes us back to being a problem-solving ceramist.

Was there a part of your work that was particularly trying,
and how did you deal with it?
When I set out on a new project, I am always trying to do either two things: make something I have never seen before or do something in a way I have never seen before. These goals let me get some skin into the game, and that’s important, because so much of the things I produce are little games or challenges I create. Some of these challenges are abstract or idea-based and some are technical. In my current line of functional items, I was looking to make something thoroughly handmade, but still maintaining a sense of intention and some tightness. I set out to combine simple hand-formed slab structures with press-molded parts. Sounds straightforward from a ceramics perspective, but what I found were thousands of tiny little details that needed to be addressed. For example, when I first began making the new tea cups, my loss rate from the high firing, due to extreme warping, was over twenty-five percent. It took multiple solutions to solve the problem, starting with breaking the particle alignment of the clay slabs, to carefully timing when to form the cylinder, to properly end connection of the slab, so as to not torque the cylinder, to developing a better attaching slip, to…on and on. It is this warping I am dealing with that has been the most trying problem with this new line, it haunts every new form, from the teacup to the teapot, because they all require different responses to the same problem.

What is your workspace like? How does it contribute 
to doing the quality of work you want to do?
I work in a cooperative space (above). Ceramics is a capital-heavy practice both in materials and equipment. By working alongside other serious ceramic makers, we can afford more opportunities to the group. For example, we have a glorious new down-draft gas kiln that can fire a lot of work, saves us money, allows us to fire big stuff, and also allows us to do reduction firing. This is a very expensive piece of equipment that alone I cannot afford at the moment.

My other workspace is at home, and I simply do not have the facilities for that kind of equipment, and I live in a very urban place where there are just some things you can get away with and others you can’t. The influence of the cooperative space is apparent in the work, through the variety of glazes I use and the multi-fire techniques I employ in my glazing. It would be challenging to develop such a broad range of glazes in an under-equipped home studio with one means of firing.

What tools do you use and recommend to work: 
for collaborating, getting things done, and running 
your practice?
I was thinking just this morning over coffee about the digital transition in art making—specifically how thankful I am that I do not have to produce slides of my work anymore and how much easier it has become to document and share my work. I use a whole host of digital tools to get things done, Sketchup is a go-to for technical drawings and models, Adobe for my graphics needs. I think what is most important today as an individual artist is not these types of tools but your social-media toolbox. It seems as though more and more opportunities are coming my way not from direct connection, but through my online presence, and the ecosystem around me and my work that it creates.

I am from the generation that straddles the analog and the digital, where phone conversations and in-person visits were how you got things done. It has taken real work to generate an online presence on my part, and I am constantly learning new things in that regards. I am continually surprised how a curated Pinterest board I set up leads people to my website, which results in an email and so forth. It seems the buzz around the buzz is more important these days, because it drives people to your work and translates into new opportunities and sales.

How important is it for you to follow your instincts?
When you work by yourself in ceramics, your instincts are all you have, and they are your most immediate metric. There’s been a lot of research into this phenomenon called “Flow”, a state of operation where the person doing a specific activity becomes wholly immersed in the practice and becomes hyper-focused and energized. I think of this as the artist’s “kinesthetic” reaction, just as an athlete reacts physically in the game without thinking.

Earlier you asked about practice, the physical practice of making in clay frees you to get into flow. I find that when I am making and in a state of flow, I am making a million tiny decisions and not looking back, this is relying on my instincts.

If a person approached you and said, “I want to 
make ceramics”, what’s your response?
I would hand them some clay. Ceramics is very democratic in that anyone can do it no matter their age, size shape, physical, or mental limitations. The same thing about its “nothingness” that attracts me also makes it accessible. Now if that person is looking to make ceramics a profession, I would say, “go get some knowledge.” As democratic as ceramics can be, it also has a very stodgy, arcane side that is very technical. A ceramic artist has the option of working on what I think of as a spectrum: on one end is loose and highly idea-oriented, and on the other end is the very technical. Knowledge lets you choose where you fall on that spectrum, not only more clearly, but more intentionally.

How does the city of Evanston, Illinois, contribute 
to your work? And what makes it special for 
Evanston is a great community for small creative startups. The biggest thing Evanston has going for it is its neighborly proximity to Chicago. You get the access to everything the city has: the market, opportunities, vendors, and artistic community, without much of the things that makes Chicago not so much fun, like traffic and higher rents on light industrial spaces. I find that living and having my studio in Evanston makes me more productive than living in the city simply because it is easier and faster to get things done in business and in life. Evanston also has a strong community nature about it—there is generally a lot of support from locals toward artistic businesses, they have particularly strong feelings toward locally made goods.

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All photographs courtesy of Justin Hart.

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