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Christa Assad: A Life Made from Mud
"Making utilitarian objects appeals to my practical side, yet the romance of being
a potter seduces my dreamier side. "
The California-based artist Christa Assad has spent the last 14 years exploring the ins and outs of an existence as a studio potter. Her adventures have taken her from Pennsylvania, to Indiana, Colorado, Nova Scotia, China, Greece and seemingly everywhere in between. American Craft caught up with her just as she was preparing to leave the Kansas City Art Institute, where she had been teaching, to set up her new studio in Berkeley. In a whirlwind conversation, Assad offered her views on what it takes to make your life out of clay.
Can you tell our readers a little bit about yourself?
I'm a studio artist with past-life imprints of a gypsy and a nomad.
Can you describe your work, some of the ideas behind your making process and how you came to working in this way?
My work is primarily in clay, though anything involving designing, engineering, and constructing holds my interest. I was accepted as an undergraduate student at Penn State to study aerospace engineering, enjoying physics, chemistry, and geometry in high school. Back then I even had a grasp of calculus! Now I'm much more interested in the hands-on. Making utilitarian objects appeals to my practical side, yet the romance of being a potter seduces my dreamier side. Ultimately I think it is a lifestyle choice that brought me to this place in my career. The Potter is an unusual figure in today's social order - a maverick and inventor functioning slightly on the fringe of society. The pace and length of the work cycle also appeals to me: on average I have a month or two month-long cycle of making a series of pots, glazing and firing them. I don't often engage in year-long projects, for example, and I feel much more comfortable with a quicker turn-over rate, more rapid results, and more frequent check-points with my work.
Can you describe a typical work day?
Wake up at 7:30 to catch an 8am Bikram yoga class; walk to my studio, then sip on some coffee while I plan my attack for the day. Wedge up enough clay for the morning agenda, throw until lunchtime (2pm). I like to spend the afternoon and evening trimming or assembling work from previous day's throwing. I have several damp boxes to keep things flowing, never allowing for waiting time. After another contemplative (or social) coffee break, I lose track of time until around 8 or 9pm, usually roused by hunger! While living in San Francisco for the past 7 years, I routinely went out to hear live music after dinner...oh, you asked about the work day...but seriously, rocking' out to good bands is a HUGE part of my life. It inspires me.
How is your work studio set up and what do you value about it?
Hmmm, right now I'm in transition - moving from Kansas City (teaching job for one year at the Kansas City Art Institute) to Berkeley, California, where I'll soon be set up in a brand-new studio! I am very excited about this new opportunity, sharing a gorgeous space with artists Rae Dunn and Josie Jurczenia. I think what I value most in a studio is GOOD ENERGY. It sounds California-hippy, I know, but from my experiences I know that chemistry between studio mates can be incredible — or not so - which will definitely affect my productivity accordingly. I've been very lucky — sharing a space with Rae Dunn and Mary Mar Keenan in my previous business venture, Verdigris Clay Studio + Gallery, was extremely positive. For seven years we shared a very small studio space, focusing a lot of energy on our consignment gallery that featured all local clay. We managed to let our business evolve naturally, and our personalities melded just as comfortably.
I think ceramic artists work well in a communal environment, sharing kilns and retail space, along with ideas and adventures. From my past studios I've learned that it's smart to have a small area dedicated to the display and sales of finished work - whether you have a retail gallery or not. It's important to reserve some space for the pieces to live and be viewed outside of the rest of the dusty clutter of the studio...that is, if you're interested in selling the work! Even if you don't care about sales, seeing the work properly displayed and lit is just as vital to artistic growth, encouraging room for contemplative thought and study.
Otherwise, my studio equipment "needs" are very basic: a wheel, a kiln (right now I'm using an electric kiln), a table, some shelves and ware boards, my throwing tools and some clay and I'm set! I make an effort to keep it simple so that I'm not reliant on a lot of cumbersome, expensive, specialty machines or materials.
What is your background and education?
I grew up in a suburb of Pittsburgh, PA, graduated Valedictorian and punk-rock poster child. Ran around Europe on a study-abroad program through Penn State, and there went my engineering aspirations! How can you visit Rome and think about pursuing anything other than art! I changed majors about nine times and ended up in the ceramics department my senior year of college, as a beginner under the guidance of Dave Dontigny of "Super Mud" fame. Little did I know that my next professor, Department Head Chris Staley, was one of the best potters in the U.S. He took an interest in my work, pushed me hard and encouraged me to pursue ceramics as a career. At the same time I was urged by my college advisor to apply for a Fulbright Grant - and I had the grade point average, professional recommendations, and guts to try. At that point I had nothing to lose, and everything to gain...that's the best part about being 20-something and naive! Staley had referred me to Walter Ostrom at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, who helped me work out a proposal and budget for a year of study in Canada. I was awarded a Fulbright Grant that year, and Walter was my host and mentor. That year (1993-'94) was an incredible, pivotal year for me.
Just like following clues of a treasure hunt, I picked up the clues to my life-path from teachers like Chris and Walter. Walter's clue was to go to Anderson Ranch Arts Center, in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. Doug Casebeer, director of the clay program there, invited me to spend 9 months as a resident artist, during which time I think I realized I was a "for-lifer" in clay. Residencies are ideal opportunities to gauge your commitment level to your work, and to try the lifestyle of a self-employed artist on for size (it doesn't fit everybody). The veils of student life and familial security are lifted and there is just you and the studio - it's sink or swim! I was slightly paralyzed by the freedom at first, but soon established a work schedule for myself, along with regular visits and conversations with other resident artists at the Ranch. I took my first wholesale orders, made wares for a local restaurant, and experimented a lot with pricing my work. It was the perfect time and place to practice the potter's life while still in the supportive, nurturing environment of an arts center.
Two years later I went to Indiana University for graduate school - a well-endowed, well-equipped three-year program, complimented by an incredible art museum on campus. During that time I built my first kiln, engaged in my first collaborative projects, and began building a network of peers and clients. Those three years at I.U. helped me to gain confidence in my work, and to build the exhibition record I had begun while in Canada and during my residency. Really, it all blended nicely into what is now my professional studio arts career. I was 29 when I finished grad school, and I think it really benefited me to have spent those four years in between undergraduate and graduate studies working to build my portfolio, and also testing the waters of full-time studio practice and production. I also dealt with the sudden death of my mother during that time, and the notion of adjustment and adaptation to all of the circumstances surrounding this type of loss.
There’s lots of talk about formal training vs. “real world” experience amongst artists these days, and I see real value in both. Since you went the formal route, what do you think art school gave you (besides a degree) that you may not have received had you not attended?
Obviously my formal training and "real world" experiences have been rather intertwined. I found value in the structured curriculum of a four-year degree program, as well as the actual classroom and studio dynamics. Also, I didn't exactly attend art school, I went to a state university both for graduate and undergraduate study. The open-forum style lectures at Penn State encouraged discussion, debate, and ultimately comradery and peer support. As an undergrad I studied a lot of academic courses like Astronomy, Anthropology, Symbolic Logic, and AP English. These courses definitely impacted who I am as an artist today - and the practice of persuasive writing, developed from years of answering essay-question exams, has been particularly useful in my grant-writing pursuits.
While pursuing an MFA at Indiana University I was awarded a teaching assistantship all three years - an unparalleled opportunity to teach at the university level while still a student. I led courses in ceramics and 3-D design fundamentals, and gave my first lectures and demonstrations in front of a group. It also put me in the position of leading group critiques and grading others' artworks. I'm not sure that I would have experienced anything like this in an apprenticeship situation.
Could you describe some of the most influential and career changing experiences you have had since leaving school? What about these experiences was so important?
As already mentioned, Anderson Ranch was a life changing experience because there I was first confronted with the isolation of working in the studio, and the unstructured, open expanse of time of a studio art lifestyle. Both can be crippling, and at the Ranch I learned how to schedule my studio time and invite others in for discussion when needed.
After grad school, I'd say the most influential event was going to China for six weeks. It was such an eye-opener: an education not only in ceramic history, but also in cultural evolution...it left me wondering about our corporate-run culture, our big-box mentality and greedy capitalism. My parents had started up a few small businesses when I was younger, but now my convictions about the value of mom-and-pop shops were stronger than ever. My greatest fear is total homogenization of American culture, and ultimately, world culture (I guess that's globalization!). Now I'm getting all punk-rock on you again...but there is a point here. This existential crisis of sorts, in response to my time in China, led me to the next milestone of my life. I joined forces with Mary Mar Keenan and Rae Dunn who had just launched the small business venture I would be committed to for the next seven years — that is, Verdigris Clay Studio + Gallery. Our shared devotion to clay and to serving the local ceramics community created a contagious enthusiasm and growing momentum that was surprising even to us. We hosted events, took on interns, and consigned the work of more than thirty California-based artists. Our business plan developed and grew as we experimented with inventive methods of advertisement, publicity, and sales tactics. Often I regretted not taking a business course while in college!
Is there anything you wish you had known when you were leaving school but didn't that you might share with us now?
Uh, that I should have taken a business course in college?! Otherwise, (I didn't even do this, but...) I want to warn you all: DON'T TAKE OUT LARGE STUDENT LOANS FOR GRAD SCHOOL!!! You can get tuition waivers and stipends if you apply to the right places, and avoid falling into debt. It is extremely challenging to start out as a studio artist straight out of grad school if you are $60,000 in debt!
How has your experience so far been different or similar to your expectations when you set out?
When I was an undergrad I thought I would mimic my professors' lives. When I got out of grad school I thought I would have my own studio and store front. Turns out I don't like to work alone, and I don't have time to teach!
What is your relationship to design, craft and the fine arts? How do you see your relationship to each? Or one in particular?
I pick ALL OF THE ABOVE. I'm really tired of the arts/crafts argument, and I think it's just recently been changed to the art/design argument. I see myself as an artist who designs and crafts functional vessels from clay and other earthy materials. I always did like to hang out in the sand-box my parents built for me in our back yard!
Was there a point in your career that you made a decision to sell your pots for a living? Could you describe how you came to that decision?
Being a nomadic gypsy, I always sold my pots - even in my first semester of throwing - or traded them with anyone who would buy me a warm meal. It's as natural to me as making. Although personally I would prefer to barter than exchange paper for everything...and so I do. For instance, right now I am working with a graphic designer/letterpress printer on a new business card - and trading pots for the fee! I also am trading pots in exchange for photography service...AND for help with moving my home and studio to California.
What difficulties arise in both making and selling your work and how do you overcome these?
The hardest part is asking the price your work and time really deserves. People seem to undervalue functional pottery, and it is our job to educate the public. It needs to be a group effort, a movement of sorts, to get the value and prices of pots up to where they should be. Why shouldn't we be paid for our time like everyone else?
The hardest part about making is keeping the momentum going in the studio, even when inspiration is lacking. I try to work through the inevitable dips in enthusiasm - or I go to the museum. I need about three times the input for any output, so sometimes it is crucial that I stop and do some research. I'm not one of those people that can find all of the answers in my own work. I have to go out and look around, travel, read, and of course, rock out.
What is your relationship with galleries (on and offline)? How has that relationship changed over time? What role does the Internet play in your work?
I ship my work out to about a dozen galleries across the country. The specific galleries have changed over time, but the routine is pretty constant: ship out a small body of work to each, then replenish as necessary. Wait for the commission checks to come in. The Internet is beginning to play a slightly larger role in the promotion and sales of my work. I recently took control over my own website (http://www.christaassad.com), changing the format to a blog template that is easy for a Luddite like me to manage. Now I feel much more connected to my peers and clients, and anyone can comment on my writing or images there.
I think what has changed most over time is the familiarity galleries have with my name and my work. Stick around long enough, and people will notice you!
How does an artist go about acquiring business and marketing skills if they aren’t a natural at it already, and cannot afford to hire someone to help them?
Is it bad if I say, "trial and error"? I guess you could take a course at a local community college... I see emails all the time about workshops on this type of thing. Personally I couldn't stand to sit through one, but a good potter-friend of mine, Whitney Smith (see http://www.whitneysmithpottery.com) does this kind of thing all the time - for sales/tax tips, business plan writing, grant writing, etc. And she's the smartest business gal I know, besides Ayumi Horie, of course (http://www.ayumihorie.com).
How do you market your work and what avenue has been the most successful?
The most successful marketing venture for me has undoubtedly been the Artstream Nomadic Gallery (http://www.art-stream.com). Artstream is an entrepreneurial venture devised by potter-genius Alleghany Meadows of Carbonale, CO. Begun as a grass-roots style collaboration between Alleghany and five or six other potter-friends, the gallery was born from an old 1967 Airstream trailer that Alleghany and crew gutted and converted to an exhibition space specifically for utilitarian clay vessels. When not docked at the Aspen Farmer's Market, it has traveled from L.A. to N.Y.C., putting contemporary ceramic art on the street. I've been involved with this project for seven years now, and I credit its iconic magnetism with boosting my career most. If you haven't heard about Artstream you can see some pictures on my website, its own site, or even visit its MySpace page (search ARTSTREAM) and add us! The power of Artstream is strength in numbers: put a group of energetic potters together and bring the wares directly to the market. Have wheels will travel.
You must have some favorite designers that you look to for inspiration. What other artists’ inspire you? Where do you find inspiration for your designs?
I try not to assimilate the work of other clay artists into my own, and instead look to industrial design and architecture for functional tips. Inspiration can be found in the most unexpected things, and usually whacks me in the face right when I'm not looking! I do love the work of Anish Kapoor, Marek Cecula, Sam Chung, Peter Beasecker, Jason Walker...I also have tons and tons of respect for Eva Zeisel, Betty Woodman, Beatrice Wood, and Marguerite Wildenhain.
Can you tell us about future projects?
I'm thrilled to tell you about the very recent publication of the book, “Searching for Beauty: Letters from a Collector to a Studio Potter,” for which I wrote the introduction. It's the culmination of a five-year collaboration with academic, collector and author Dr. Richard Jacobs, whose philosophical and emotionally-charged writings use pottery-making as a metaphor for life. Dr. Jacobs has written more than 1,000 pages to me over the past five years, and together we have presented two exhibitions, several public lectures, and a panel discussion at the National Ceramics Conference (NCECA). The book is the first of a two-volume set that chronicles the 75 letters and accompanying bibliography of texts referenced throughout the discourse. Published in Wales, UK, and not yet distributed in the U.S., you can have a copy shipped directly to you...go to: www.kestrel-books.co.uk. The book has received fantastic reviews in England, Canada, Australia, and the U.S., and I highly recommend it for your personal library!
Also a 13-stop Artstream tour could be shaping up for October, with the Smithsonian as our headliner. We are in the process of lining up workshops at universities and arts centers on the East Coast, where, at each stop, we will also set up an exhibit of functional wares by about a dozen nationally renowned potters. That's quite a lot of set-up, tear-down and pack-up - people have actually asked us if we leave everything set up when we drive! Truth is, the Artstream crew feels a lot more like roadies than rock stars.
On the heels of that trip could be a visit to China in late October for the 1st annual International NCECA conference - I've been invited to be part of a panel discussion arranged through West Virginia University about international educational programs.
Last but not least, there's my new studio collaboration with Rae and Josie.
When you have a moment to actually breathe (!), what do you do for fun?
Uh, besides rocking out to live music? I hula-hoop, drink tequila, crack jokes and laugh a lot...oh, and travel to distant lands whenever financially possible.
I always like to ask, do you have any influential books or texts that you can recommend?
Of course I will take this opportunity to shamelessly put in another plug for Searching For Beauty. A great book about sensory stimuli is Diane Ackerman's, "A Natural History of the Senses." Some of the old staples are still in circulation for good reason: Rhodes, Rawson...and of course Garth Clark, as a contemporary critic. As a teaching tool I recommend Julia Galloway's Field Guide for Ceramic Artisans - it's invaluable to professionals and aspiring artists in our field. I encourage all of my students to buy it (mailto:[email protected]).
Any last golden nuggets of information you would like to offer up?
It's pretty simple - just keep working. Many artists fail because they quit. Success is just a matter of perseverance; sooner or later, you will arrive.