A Certain Fluency

A Certain Fluency

Rae Dunn Ceramics

An array of Dunn’s ceramics stamped with her hallmark words and images. Photo: Rae Dunn

Rae Dunn's quirky ceramics reflect a lifelong love of language and the tactile.

If a coin had landed heads rather than tails 23 years ago, Rae Dunn might be manipulating colorful glass rather than tending to a kiln in her sunny ceramics studio in Berkeley, California. 

A self-described Luddite who likes to get her hands dirty, Dunn was trained as a graphic designer but jumped ship when that field started to skew more digital than tactile. While riding the merry-go-round in Golden Gate Park one day, she spotted a cobblestone-clad building with a fairy-tale aspect. It was the Sharon Art Studio, which offers classes in everything from sculpture to printmaking. “I knew I had to do something in that amazing building, so I flipped a coin – stained glass or ceramics – and ceramics won.” 

The minute Dunn’s hands touched the clay, she was hooked. “I fell in love with the idea that you could make stuff out of dirt.” She slowly gained her ceramic chops, taking classes and learning how to throw, but ultimately found her calling in hand-building vessels. Within a year after she started, Dunn began making plates embellished with a single image or word stamped into the glazed white clay; within a couple of years, she started carting them from store to store in an old suitcase, racking up accounts. “That’s when I realized, ‘Hey, maybe I can make a living at this clay business.’ ” 

Because the public studio did not allow production work, Dunn made her early pieces in her kitchen, then drove them to a kiln to be fired. She worked continuously, not only making, glazing, and firing every object, but also seeing to the shipping and bookkeeping. 

When Dunn was approached in 2005 by Magenta, a Berkeley manufacturing and distribution company, she had hopes of reclaiming some time to explore new ideas and focus on one-of-a-kind gallery objects. But as her production pieces began to fill shelves in hundreds of boutiques and stores – including Crate & Barrel and ABC Carpet & Home – demand also continued for her handmade goods, which she insists on crafting herself. “I know I could make a lot more money if I had an assistant. But if my name is on it, I feel my hands have to be on it, too – and I like to work alone.” 

Thus it seemed that fate intervened in 2011, when Dunn was invited to apply for an artist-in-residence program in the French town of Vallauris, far from the daily stress of production schedules. “It’s this poor, working-class town near Cannes, full of potters, artists, and painters, where Picasso made his ceramics.” The residency provides lodging and a studio for six weeks, and culminates in a show. “It couldn’t have come at a better time. I had such an acute craving to make something I wanted to make, rather than what people expected of me.” 

Dunn has returned to Vallauris every year. “Every day I run to the sea, stop at the farmer’s market, paint, and make whatever I want.” The most recent residency resulted in “Made in France,” a show at the Roscoe Ceramic Gallery in Oakland this past fall. The nearly sold-out collection included ceramic cooking utensils and non-functional vessels made from dark Spanish clay and pale Limoges porcelain, adorned with stripes, dots, harlequin diamonds, and stamped typography, including snippets of poems by Jacques Prévert. “I’ve always had an obsession with words – not just their meaning, but also the way they look.”

A prolific sketcher, Dunn also fills journals she dubs À la Minute (each sketch takes less than a minute) with scenes from her travels, be it that morning’s croissant or a striped beach umbrella.

Although Dunn prefers working solo, she is never solitary. Following the sunbeams around her studio is Wilma, a Jack Russell terrier who is the subject of thousands of photos taken by Dunn and star of her own blog. “I’m no photographer, but people kept telling me that I should make a book about her,” says Dunn. Wilma’s World, a collection of snapshots and captions devoted to the winsomeness of Wilma, was published by Chronicle Books in March. 

Dunn seems to make something graceful out of everything she touches, from a nearly translucent porcelain bowl piled with mandarins to her large acrylic paintings hanging on the studio’s brick walls. A few years ago she designed a line of children’s clothes using textiles derived from her French drawings. And although her dream is to create more “useless” objects – whose only mission is to be admired – for now, she continues to imbue even the most utilitarian object with an undeniable je ne sais quoi.

Deborah Bishop is a writer and editor in San Francisco.