Entries in ceramics (1)


Interview - Shannon Sullivan

The 48th annual NCECA conference is in Milwaukee this year. In conjunction with the event we'll be showing new work by Shannon Sullivan. A Wisconsin native, she now lives and works in California. Sullivan combines traditional ceramics practices with more contemporary ones such as installation. 

"Dangling Blue Pits" 10x30x3" ceramic and acrylic

In your work you often combine ceramics with other elements such as acrylic. How did you become interested in mixing these specific mediums together?

My breakthrough as an artist came when I learned to work with metal. My sculptures that referenced invented laboratory tools became possible to build in a more sophisticated manner with the strength and of durability ceramic parts married with metal elements.

From this point my studio practice became a material investigation. How could I marry clay with other media such as metal, glass, polymer, wire and acrylic to pose questions about material use? How could I convey my ideas more clearly? I wanted to literally reference a microscope slide in the work, so I started incorporating various transparent materials, first plexiglas, then Envirotex tinted with ceramic pigments. On and off since 2005 I’ve been experimenting with, inventing, and perfecting the craftsmanship, compositions, and integrity of the floating ceramic and acrylic panels.

What type of conceptual concerns do you address in your work?

My work explores natural phenomenon from the vast to the microscopic on various scales and in numerous species. This endless source material rooted in the prevailing ways of the natural world allows me to combine source material such as fingerprint patterns and ocean currents, cellular forms and vegetal dissections into objects, installations and floating wall panels that are familiar, but maintain a sense of seductive mystery. My work is about cultivating reverence for the quiet, nuanced beauty that surrounds me. I’m interested in calling attention to the connectedness of seemingly disparate parts of the natural world.

Recently I’ve been particularly inspired by the writings of D’arcy Wentworth Thompson and Peter Pearce, two scientists whose research on growth and structure in the natural world has influenced the Minimum Inventory, Maximum Diversity series that I began this past summer during a residency at the Pottery Workshop in Jingdezhen, China.

"Sprout Cluster", ceramic, hand cut vinyl, dimensions variableYou also have an interest in using ceramics in an installation-based context. Can you talk a little about how this relates to your other work and how it is different?

For me the object-oriented pieces like the Minimum Inventory, Maximum Diversity series or the Floating Wall Panels series feed the installations and vise versa. For example, I was given an opportunity to make a piece for a 90” gallery wall at Brookhaven College in Dallas, Texas. Many of the ceramic and acrylic pieces during that time contained elements that I referred to as “sour wheels” or “citrus orifices”. These ceramic configurations combined imagery reminiscent of a lamprey eel’s mouth and dissected citrus fruit. For the installation in Dallas, I removed any suggestion of an acrylic support from the piece, freely placing the components of the piece entitled Sprout Cluster strategically on the gallery wall to create a dynamic overall composition comprised of delightful smaller groupings that the viewer could inspect from a close distance. I incorporated hand cut vinyl shapes in this installation to ground the small ceramic objects and suggest bull kelp, a plant I love to dissect and examine when exploring the beaches in Humboldt County where I live. The next ceramic and acrylic wall pieces such as Dangling Blue Pits utilized the same reference to Bull Kelp, but the linear elements are made up of small cellular forms being buoyantly tugged by mushroom peach hybrids.

I love the intimate, craft-centric, and emotive possibilities of working small. I am interested in people living with my work, and sometimes objects are more accessible than large installations, however my practice has been invigorated by opportunities to create large site-specific pieces. I see myself continuing to grow and learn by working both ways.

"Nature Excels at this Game #10" 12x12x10", ceramicHow has your personal history influenced the type of work you do and the larger conceptual issues behind it.

On November 12, 1999 as a sophomore in college I was injured in a car accident. I broke several ribs, suffered lacerations on my face and neck, had collapsed a lung, and a broken, displaced pelvis. After multiple procedures, surgeries, and plenty of morphine, I was released from the hospital to recover.

During my recovery, I fixated on what was going on inside my body. I thought of myself as bionic. Imagery produced through tools such as microscopes and x-ray technology became interesting to me. X-rays of my bionic pelvis allowed me to see the stark contrast between the bone, tissue and surgical hardware that was holding me together. I imagined the smallest component of my being; individual cells, being profoundly affected by my physical predicament. After returning to the studio, large slabs of clay became canvases for interpretations of microscopic imagery, a language I then realized I was familiar with before my accident. When I was young my sister and I were given supervised access to microscopes at my mother’s workplace, a medical lab in Madison. I remember watching her count cells, use a centrifuge, and organize specimens in special racks as I quietly pondered the vast viewfinder full of nuanced orbs, linear formations, and floating diagnoses. The language of cellular organization and ideas regarding multiples, accumulation, growth, repair and decay has become my core visual vocabulary.

Late night slip-casting session at the Pottery Workshop in Jingdezhen ChinaWhat types of issues do contemporary artists who work in ceramics face? How do you address them in your own studio practice?

I see a lot of art made out of clay that has baggage; work that does not transcend evidence of process, technique, or firing method, work that’s inadvertently made out of clay that doesn’t support the concept or form of the piece. On the other hand I’m seeing really well executed, experimental and well-crafted works of art that happens to be made of clay being celebrated by the mainstream art world and supported by galleries who do not have a ceramic focus.

In my studio practice, I try to ask myself difficult questions about material use. Why am I using clay? Today I can articulate that I use ceramic for its physical properties: I can slip cast, hand build, or throw parts, accumulating elements quickly, and then attach them without a secondary adhesive. I use clay because I can cover forms in glazed surfaces that I’m intrigued by. I use clay because of its immediacy and malleability, its ability to capture spontaneous moments or to be smoothed into a buttery surface free of texture. Through my research and travels in Germany, China, Denmark, and Morocco I have a good sense of the history of ceramics and ceramic design. I appreciate how clay making connects people and cultures worldwide. However, when I step into my studio, I approach clay as a big chunk of nothing, with endless possibilities that do not need to reference any particular historical tradition to be relevant in 2014.