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American Craft Magazine June/July 2009

Making the Most of the Margins

Andy Brayman’s Kansas City “factory” is a launching pad for his 21st–century version of studio pottery.

<p>Creating functional objects such as this porcelain bowl appeals to Brayman because he can surprise people. "People aren't expecting much from a dinner plate," he says.</p>
<p>Brayman's cups with hidden decorations must be used to "work." Hot water fades the glaze, revealing concealed text.</p>
<p>Brayman's Gold-Lined Cup with Concealed Decoration {h. 2.20 in, w. 4 in, d. 4 in}.</p>
Photo gallery (10 images)

Andy Brayman’s Matter Factory, in what he triumphantly refers to as the “hinterlands of Kansas City,” is a laboratory, launching pad, and, yes, factory for his distinctly 21st-century version of studio pottery. It is, in many ways, a perfect illustration of how craft’s venerated faculty and its freshman class can happily co-exist in consistent symbiotic evolution. With the imminent closing of his secondary and more commercial business, Easy Ceramic Decals, Brayman’s Matter Factory is on the brink of reinvention and renaissance.

After teaching stints in New York and at Bennington College in Vermont, Brayman settled in Kansas City, Kansas, and in 2005 set up his businesses in a former farmer’s market from the 1930s that sits, as his website notes, “at the confluence of the Missouri River and the Kaw River.” Brayman, who almost obsessively harvests inspiration from his surroundings, invested part of his honorarium from speaking on the “New Artists/New Work” panel at the American Craft Council’s 2006 “Shaping the Future of Craft” conference in the purchase of a 1956 Alumacraft boat for better exploring these neighboring rivers.

From this huge space, a square footage definition of Midwest breathing room, Brayman founded the Matter Factory and Easy Ceramic Decals. “I wanted to start the decal business to be the democratic will-print-anything-for-anybody model, totally commercial,” he explains, “And the Matter Factory would be more curated, less commercial.” The decal business took off and became what Brayman refers to as “the sugar daddy” for the Matter Factory. “Even if I’d had a ton of money to begin with, I wouldn’t have known what to do with it. I learned a lot by printing everything—from cool projects for artists to memorial plaques for dogs who’ve died.” Thanks to this democratic array of jobs, Brayman was able to build up a collection of equipment that will allow him to produce his own work at a high technically professional level.

Brayman doesn’t eschew commercial leanings, but he does eschew stagnancy. His main goal is to keep himself nimble creatively. “Easy Ceramic Decals is going strong so I’m shutting it down. I just changed the message on the machine today. I feel like I got away with something, but it stopped feeling creative so I became less interested in doing it.”

In his own craft, Brayman describes his predominant working model as that of a studio potter. “My background is different than a designer’s. I start as a potter. So, I start with serial production and in a way I still go by the model I learned in school: you create a body of work, there’s a critique, then you create a new body of work.”

He also has unerring comic timing and a wry ironic incantation regarding the ever-present debates about the theory and politics of craft. Asked if the error message that greets anyone following the “theory” link on his Matter Factory website is an intentionally comic statement about his interest in theory, Brayman laughs, “No, but that’s a great idea.”

After an education in ceramics that includes a B.F.A. from the University of Kansas and an M.F.A. from Alfred University—a sort of Ivy League for pottery—Brayman casually peppers conversations with references spanning centuries of ceramic history to contemporary craft-design hybrids like Droog. In a Ceramics Monthly essay he recently published, “The New Factory,” his future-favored appeal—“As a field, we are particularly good at time travel, but really only in one direction. . . . We can, and should, start to look forward—further and more often than we do”—was carefully backed up by an erudite summary of the prevailing perception of the potter and his studio and the possibilities presented by the 21st century.

In establishing his own studio, Brayman confesses that he developed a “spiel” about making functional pottery. “I don’t want to say I’m devoted to it because I’m not afraid to do other work, but it is important. And I find the constraints tolerable, even inspiring.”

His ultimate stand on functionality is a marriage of common sense and prankster plotting—“I like working with functional objects because people aren’t expecting much from a dinner plate. You can sneak something in. But if you screw with it too much it won’t be used. It’s more interesting to me that these pieces get used.”

He is careful to point out his disinterest in over-romanticizing the idea that an object’s beauty emerges from everyday use, believing that beauty is something the maker brings to the piece. “The functional work I make fits into two broad categories. In the first, the concept behind it is beauty. It has to work, of course, and you experience the beauty through function. In the second, I still want it to be beautiful but there’s an additional concept that drives it, like humor or underlying statements that are more specific than its being about pattern, for instance.”

Two of Brayman’s best-known pieces have emerged from this second category. His Gold-Lined Cup with Concealed Decoration, for instance, has to be used to “work.” These porcelain cups bear text concealed beneath a 23k gold glaze. Described by Brayman as “kind of like a lottery ticket,” the piece toys with the fate fine china often meets in a dishwasher where the hot water causes the luster to fade. In this case, you have to use and abuse the piece for the gold to wear away and reveal the text. For functional pieces of this ilk that rely on user interaction, Brayman allows, “it can get confusing wondering when the piece is done.”

With Change Dish—probably his biggest production run to date of a single idea, with 30 or 40 produced so far—Brayman inverts the vessel concept, using the objects you would place in it as the exterior architecture. In this case the mold is made using the coins found lying around his studio. In the eight-inch-diameter version, the piece sells for $45.71, the same amount used to create the mold.

Although these two pieces have been successes by all accounts, Brayman is aware of the fine line between making a statement or joke with a piece and having it retain its value as a functional object. “I don’t want to make cups with text about Darfur. Not that Darfur’s not important, but once you put that text on an object it overshadows the function. It becomes a statement, a piece of art.”

With more time on his hands to devote to the Matter Factory, Brayman is excited about developing new ideas and expanding his collaborations. He worked with Ayumi Horie on a series exhibited at New York’s Greenwich House Pottery in May 2009. He is also collaborating with Walter Ostrom, “a champion of decoration with expansive knowledge of this history.” They will be crossing national borders to produce a set of plates, with Brayman executing the first stage at the Matter Factory in Kansas City and then sending them to Nova Scotia to be decorated by Ostrom.

Another intriguing upcoming project involves what Brayman calls a “tornado machine.” He is taking brick and cinder block fragments from the town of Greensburg, Kansas, destroyed in 2007 by a tornado, and putting them in a simple centrifuge machine that turns things to dust “using only spinning air in a metal cone.” He is using the dust made from these construction fragments into glazes for pieces that will ultimately go back to Greensburg.

Brayman will also continue to work with his friend Allegheny Meadows to help bring Meadows’s Artstream trailer to craft events to sell pottery made by Brayman, Meadows, Horie, Christa Assad (profiled in American Craft, October/November 2008) and others. This project, a vintage Airstream trailer converted into a peripatetic pop-up shop, is part commune, part rock-star tour bus—at the 2007 National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts (nceca) conference in Louisville, the trailer was mobbed and the potters manning the door had to do double duty as bouncers, letting people in one or two at a time when someone exited.

After explaining that he decided to drive to meet the Artstream at the 2009 NCECA conference in Phoenix so that he could take advantage of the wealth of skate parks in the Southwest, Brayman, a longtime skater, considers the parallels between the sport and learning pottery. Assessing the urban landscape for benches, rails, curbs and pipes to land tricks on teaches you to look at the innate form of objects differently. Skating and craft are also both learned through repetition. “You have to suffer,” Brayman laughs. “You have to learn, practice and try to find a way to keep having fun.

Although he is leaving himself open to experiment and explore new projects as he turns solely to working from the Matter Factory, Brayman has a specific idea in mind for the bigger picture of how he wants his company to run. “I don’t want to be a small production company where I design a line each year for the icff and have the pieces made in-house. I’m interested in figuring out my own model.” Making the most of the margins he relishes, Brayman has no designs on becoming trendy. “I like that craft and function are sort of outside the ‘upper echelon.’ There’s a lot of freedom in that.” Focused on his more creative Matter Factory, that freedom should prove fruitful for Brayman’s studio craft.

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