Teresa Williams, public program intern, interviews artist Erik Scollon about his work and his Artists Drawing Club project which took place at the museum, March 19, 2015.
Stepping close, visitors gathered around the Korean moon jar from the Joseon dynasty. As their eyes swept across the ceramic’s form, taking in its smooth and elegant shape, its simplistic beauty evoked great appreciation. Erik Scollon, ceramicist and professor, allowed for the object’s beauty to captivate the visitors for a moment before beginning to describe the process behind creating the object before them. . As Erik described the way the ceramist’s hands slowly created the form, the visitors developed a deeper respect for the work.
Leading the group back downstairs, Erik brought visitors to a long table stocked with ink, watercolor paper, and paintbrushes. He asked the group to imagine themselves in the potter’s seat, building and forming a ceramic piece from scratch. Taking his brush, Erik dipped it in indigo acrylic ink and touched it to a piece of paper to create a blue dot in its middle. He then slowly added simple brush strokes, swirling tightly around the dot, to create the form of a circle. He asked the group to follow his lead. As each slow, methodical brush stroke completed its rotation, the dot grew larger and larger, expanding outward from its center.
This simple drawing exercise helps Erik meditate on building form in his work. I had the pleasure of interviewing Erik both before and after his Artist Drawing Club program. During these discussions, I learned more about his career as an artist, how he helps shape the next generation of artists, where he finds inspiration, and what he means by “draw it like you throw it.” Here are excerpts from our discussions:
Teresa: When did you decide you wanted to become an artist? What is it about ceramics that spoke to you?
Erik: I’m not really sure when I decided I wanted to be an artist. I was always interested in making things, I guess because of my Midwestern background. My dad had a workshop in the basement, and he showed me how to use tools. I thought this was something everyone did. In junior high school I had wood shop and metal shop. I don’t think I saw those classes as vocational training—I thought of them as art classes in a different format. So I was always making things. In high school, I took a ceramics class at the local community college and knew that I loved it. I liked ceramics because it was a very physical kind of art making, and it spoke to the athlete in me. I was used to the discipline of being on a swim team, so the years of practice it took in order to make a good pot on the potter’s wheel didn’t seem like a big deal. In fact, I liked that you could only get good through discipline.
Teresa: When you were starting your career as an artist, whose work did you find most influential in shaping your practice? Which artists inspire you now?
Erik: The first artist I remember being really excited about was Jonathan Borofsky, who I discovered during my freshman year of college. My work is not very much like his, but his vision and way of working really excited me. Being exposed to his work expanded my ideas about what art could be, what it could look like, and how it could function in the world.
Today, picking a short list of influential artists is really difficult. I’m overexposed to, and possibly overloaded with, work that I love through sites like Tumblr and any number of art blogs. Lately, I’ve been thinking about color and how slippery and difficult it is to put words to describe it. I’ve been looking at painters and the way they use color to help me think about color in my own work.
Teresa: Can you describe to me the process that you call “draw it like you throw it”?
Erik: Making a sphere on the potter’s wheel is a process where the form emerges slowly. I find the process of meditative drawing feels similar to the way that I throw pots on the potter’s wheel, where I get to evaluate, respond, and adjust until I feel out the form and it feels “right.”
Teresa: You teach students at UC Berkeley and at California College of the Arts. How does your teaching practice shape your artistic practice and vice versa?
Erik: I think teaching and art making go hand in hand. Each of the projects I assign the students starts with my particular interests, and I teach the kinds of skills I value. But, hopefully, students can find their own voices within the constraints of the assignment. And, because so much of my time is taken up with teaching, I get to keep my mind and hands active by proxy of what I do in the classroom. More than once I’ve realized that I was getting a little too involved in a class demo, because I hadn’t had enough studio time of my own. But watching the students work is always a revelation. They approach something that I think that I know in a different way, in a way that expands my ideas and helps me understand them better. I often get really excited about what they do, which in turn gets them excited about what they’re doing.
Teresa: Can you tell me about your work Using Erik Scollon? How did the idea come about?
Erik: Using Erik Scollon came about when I was invited to participate in a figurative clay show in Ohio. At that time I was making mostly vessels and functional objects, often with a participatory twist to them. So, I just fused the ideas of “figure” and “vessel” together. At the start of the show there was a wall of cups; when placed together, the paintings on them created my figure. One by one, visitors would take a cup from the wall if they agreed to make a video of themselves using the cup. In this way the portrait slowly disappeared. I was interested in how people responded and interpreted the simple cup object. Some of the response videos were stunning and enlightening. The idea underneath the whole thing had to do with a subtle queering of the objects and how that provoked viewer responses. There was one person who created a really beautiful video of a cup being used a bunch of different ways during the day.
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