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Kevin Snipes creates highly personal narrative works – challenging the rest of us to decode their meanings.
"I think of myself as a storyteller," Kevin Snipes says. "I don't think of myself as a potter or a painter, but as a storyteller." He's teaching a two-day workshop at Red Star Studios in Kansas City, Missouri, and a healthy dozen of us are gathered upstairs in the Belger Arts Center gallery to look at images from a projector. He shows us a photograph of a gritty, industrial riverscape in Cleveland, where he grew up. He shows us the first slab-built piece he ever made that merged two objects, the moment his particular blend of form and concept, surface and narrative, took shape. It feels intimate, individual - which is fitting.
Snipes' work isn't for everybody. He wants people to engage with it, of course - that's an essential part of his conceptual approach. But in another way, his work is just for him. "My work is pretty personal," he says. The ceramist hasn't sought the spotlight and seems gently surprised when I approach him for this story. "I always feel like I'm a little bit anonymous," he says, "just working away at what I do."
It's paradoxical that he's leading workshops at all, Snipes is quick to point out. "I don't want to teach other people how to make the work I make," he says. "Ideally, I want people to think about how they make, how to pull from their own ideas." He's encouraged his students to bring their sketchbooks, images that mean something to them, fuel for their creativity. The emphasis of the class is ceramic surface decoration, but to Snipes, surface design is inseparable from storytelling - and storytelling, well, that's personal.
Snipes traces his technical approach - hand-constructed clay objects with carved detail, surfaces embellished with narrative illustration - back to his youth. "I realized recently that, as a child, I was a builder. Legos, Tinkertoys, you name it, I had it." In school, of course, he didn't get to build all day, but he could doodle, and he became known for his cartooning skills.
After high school, Snipes enrolled at the Cleveland Institute of Art, planning to pursue drawing and painting, perhaps a career in children's book illustration. He took a clay class, he admits, because a girl he was keen on at the time had signed up for it. The builder reawakened. He graduated in 1994 with a BFA in ceramics, a minor in drawing. Six years later, he enrolled at the University of Florida, Gainesville, where he did his MFA work. It was there that Snipes, who largely had been making work on the wheel, picked up some slab scraps and built that first two-figured, two-sided piece. Something clicked.
As an artist, Snipes is fascinated by duality - the tension and connection between perceived opposites. Self/other. Subject/object. How do we recognize difference? How do we communicate across those lines? Here was a form that lent itself to that exploration.
Most of Snipes' pieces have two primary "faces," each one illustrated with a figure, one male, the other female. Decoding their exact relationship and the storyline is a task left to the viewer. "I like to give lots of clues," Snipes says, but he won't fill in all the blanks. While he's drawing from his own experiences (and things that happen around him), "I love that possibility for people to project their own life into the story," he says. He's asking people who encounter his art to investigate it in earnest, to engage with it one-on-one. A subject and an object, a self and an other - engaged in the imperfect process of communication.
To create his imaginative illustrations, he sketches ideas on leather-hard porcelain forms with a soft pencil, before picking up an X-Acto knife, his favorite mishima (inlay) tool. He carves thin, shallow lines, paints on an oxide wash or underglaze, lets it dry, and scrapes the surface. Only the color in the crevices remains. Perhaps fittingly, he also uses sgraffito, more or less a reversal of that process: Underglaze goes on first; then he scrapes the edges, reducing the patch of color into a precise shape. He draws intuitively, letting the form suggest the drawing, enjoying how the 3D canvas distorts, enlivens, and challenges his 2D work.
When Snipes demonstrates his illustration techniques for the crowd in Kansas City, a current of delight runs through the studio as he scrapes. His mishima drawings materialize from nowhere - and an object that, moments ago, was an off-center lidded box, is suddenly and undeniably Snipes. He would go through this process much, much more slowly in his studio, he explains. After carving and scraping, there's more glaze to be added, more layers to the story. Figures and words, but also mathematical and scientific images, hinting at an underlying universality. At home, he always has several pieces in progress, working on one while another dries.
Where's home? Right now it's Las Cruces, New Mexico. He's just recently relocated, having spent the first half of 2011 in Minneapolis, as a resident artist at the Northern Clay Center. Before that, he lived in Helena, Montana, for two years, a resident at the Archie Bray Foundation for the Ceramic Arts. Before that, he spent some time in Cleveland, including a semester as a visiting artist at his alma mater. "This is the first time that I've been just pure artist and nothing else," he says.
It's clear the transition has his mind buzzing. He's thinking about scale, about pushing his forms into more sculptural territory, but is still drawn to the potter's vessel whose conceptual qualities - familiar, intimate scale, interior and exterior space - he finds so metaphorically rich. A solo show this summer at Boston's Society of Arts and Crafts, where he painted on the walls as part of the installation, has him thinking about pursuing a long-held desire to do more 2D work. But he's also grappling with the business side of things, the daily challenges of making art full time.
No matter where his explorations take him, though, it's a safe bet it'll be one of a kind. "I'm always trying to get at something that's just me," he says.
Julie K. Hanus is American Craft's senior editor.