Interview with ceramist Craig Schneider

“My vision always throws me off the edge of a cliff. I’ve come to realize that’s one of the things that motivates me; going into the unknown and taking on those challenges helps me learn how I can make future projects better. I’m always going into new territory in terms of scale or a particular process.” – Craig Schneider

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Mark: Welcome, Craig.

Craig: Hi.

Mark: Craig, you are the other artist in residence this week alongside Carter Chase. Can you tell people exactly what sort of art you work in?

Craig: I work in ceramic sculpture, with a clay body from Chipman, actually.

Mark: That seems very specific – is there something about that clay which really draws you to work?

Craig: I actually just have tons of it. I used to work for a period of time with Shaw Brick company and they had a break factory out in Chipman and I was sort of like the artist in residence for the company so I was designing and creating new ideas and using old product and creating new products out of them, so I ended up with a lot of this particular material that is great for bricks and really challenging for sculpture but something about the challenges continues to intrigue me so I continue to work with it.

Mark: I find that fascinating because bricks, to me, everything about them is ordered, and structured and very, very regular, and sculpture is very, very different.

Craig: Yeah. So when I was originally working with the company I would get ahold of bricks in a pre-fired state, so it was like really cold butter, so quite hard but still carvable. Then I would create a brick wall in the studio kind of as it would be laid as fired brick, and then I would carve into it and then take it apart and fire the bricks. So that was one of the things that I was doing – it wasn’t an original idea, it was something that was being done a lot in North America at the time, but it was interesting and fun.

Mark: So what sort of work are you doing here at the Barracks? I assume you aren’t building a wall, but maybe I’m wrong.

Craig: I have a couple things on display just to show people what I have done and kind of bodies of work I am working on and there are two series: one is working with an impression of an image of a house – kind of a common one and a half storey house that you might see around town but without any windows, just the basic shape. Another body of work has to do with these vessels – very shallow bowls – that I fire and I put gold leaf in and actually float down kind of as an offering into waterways, like the Nashwaak River. So I have those there so that people can see the things I’m working on or have done. The actual project – I’m doing a lot of thinking and exploring and drawing and small sketching so it’s not that entertaining – that’s why I have the other stuff – but the other project I’m working on has to do with porcupine quills and I find them very fascinating. I took some pictures and blew them up and really started looking at them and I’m amazed at the variation – it’s not something that we tend to think too much about, but when you look at them it’s amazing. They’re very simple – kind of like rolling out some dough or a clay snake kind of thing or as if you were making French bread – long, narrow, pointed at both ends, and this simple white and black, so you have a black tip and a rather large proportion body of cream white. I’m making them somewhere between one and two feet, and I will be taking those (once I’ve worked out the process) into the woods and actually installing them or kind of giving them into the earth as a homage to nature and so forth. As well, I have some vision of patterns that could be made with these long black and white forms and patterns that I could create on the floor or going up a wall. It’s really at the starting point of what I imagine I might do.

Mark: Now, porcupines and porcupine quills usually have a very negative interaction with people, more often pets actually – how did you come to notice the porcupine quill as a piece of nature’s art?

Craig: Well I teach at NBCCD and it has an Aboriginal Visual Arts program and they are teaching participants many of the traditional art practices and history. One of the materials that they have used traditionally and is being explored in modern takes is the porcupine quill. Besides the quills in dogs’ muzzles that I have seen and have had to deal with occasionally, I’ve also seen that it’s a material that has an innate beauty, so I guess that just got into my brain and I’ve started thinking about it the last couple of years. I was thinking about what I could make that kind of belongs and is of the woods as some fundamental quality of the woods, the environment, the ecology of it, and at the same time, it generally isn’t something that is given a lot of attention.

Mark: You mentioned them being between one foot and two foot. I’m assuming that one foot is closer to real scale and two foot would be a very scary porcupine, am I right?

Craig: Well, here in real life they range from half an inch to an inch and a half, but one inch is pretty average. I’m really blowing these up.

Mark: Is that to get at the fine detail?

Craig: No – I don’t work in the traditional sense of porcupine quill, I’m working with the idea of a quill, so I’m taking it out of its direct material and actual reality of it and taking it out into a larger size so that we can actually look at it from a different point of view. This would be what I’m exploring either conceptually, or just the idea of the white and the black and the scale and the patterns and taking it away from the animal sense of it.

Mark: So you’re doing a lot of sketching and drawing right now – is that the typical process for you when you approach a new pottery idea?

Craig: Yeah – I’m not a heavy drawer in great detail but I do start out with some simple sketches to start to develop the idea and also it’s a way to contemplate and start relating and looking and seeing, and so in the process of drawing you’re observing. And as you’re drawing and observing and just focusing in on it, the mind wanders within the subject, and out of that, ideas arise. As well as that, I’m also dealing with particular problems that I have to figure out before I actually start the process. These have to do with ‘how are these going to be mounted if I’m doing something on the wall’ and ‘how am I going to hollow them out so that the clay can fire and not explode. So there’s design evolution and problem solving taking place.

Mark: You’ve been at this for quite a while, as I understand.

Craig: I started in a serious fashion in the mid 70’s so it’s been something like 40 years.

Mark: That’s a long time to be devoted to any one particular thing. What’s kept you in that mode for so long? Has it been the discovery of different materials or aspects, or like you said, the problems to be solved?

Craig: I think there’s a combination of things. I think artists are drawn to certain material without much thought. It’s what you connect to. Why clay – I’m not really sure – I certainly find it both a thoroughly enjoyable and highly frustrating material – very demanding in its own way, and unforgiving in a lot of ways, but also extremely responsive and capturing – the ability to capture and kind of impression or action or motion that you engage with, and being a soft material, and then being able to freeze that moment of time of action and motion. I’m just flashing back now and I do remember being in a historic village like Kings Landing but it was in the States and I remember watching and being totally fascinated by somebody throwing pottery and there was horsehair in it and they were using a wooden wheel, and that was one of the moments that grabbed me into the fluidity of clay. But in terms of longevity, it also has to do with – I’m fundamentally a maker and I have to make things and this is a way of working with my hands – I like hand building, I’ve done pottery, but I’m always drawn to working in a hand process and really getting at the physicality of the hand building. Also I work with wood fired and I love fire so it’s kind of combining all that stuff.

Mark: You mentioned three different kinds of sculpture: with the wall it was kind of carving, with the bowls, it’s turning, and with the latest one it’s forming and then baking. Is there one you find more rewarding or more of an interesting challenge?

Craig: I think they’re separate experiences in their own right, and they’re not so much compared. It has to do with what’s the project at hand and what’s the process to execute the project in the best way. I’ve done brick carving projects and most recently (I’m really talking about 4 years ago I guess) I had a commission for a wall in the Fredericton Convention Centre downtown and on the second floor there’s a tile wall – 9 feet by 30 feet and that was more of painting glazes on tiles rather than carving into the surface, so from carving deeply into the clay, forming with bare hands, or using moulds to press clay to get repeats from the same material.

Mark: I happened to be at the convention centre recently and I actually was standing against that wall and marvelling, and now I know who to ask: how long did something like that take? And how do you maintain continuity for something that takes multiple days?

Craig: That project took over a year to make, but that’s also because I was working full-time so I was doing it in periods. You have a big project and you break it down into little steps, and you just kind of move through them. It starts out with a drawing and you’re doing a lot of the problem solving up front, and then there comes a time when you’re executing, in a sense, what you had already decided to do. The drawing or the idea and the plan become the structure that actually takes you through, so in some ways it’s sort of like building a tree house and in some ways the creative process is at the beginning and then you create a plan and just follow it through.

Mark: Is there a point when you think “wow, I’m really hating myself for the amount of work I’ve created for myself?” or is it a matter of no, this is all to my vision.

Craig: It’s never to my vision – my vision always throws me off the edge of a cliff. Usually on any large project “here I am again, I don’t know what I’m doing – I’ve purposefully thrown myself into the fire.” I’ve done that so many times – I’ve come to realize that that’s one of things that motivates me – is kind of going into the unknown, taking on those challenges – and so I learn “if I have another project like this, now I know how I would do it better. I’m always going into new territory in terms of a scale or a particular process.”

Mark: So was that the largest project you’ve worked on in terms of physical size or were the brick walls larger?

Craig: Yeah – 9x30ft is probably the biggest in that scale.

Mark: You mentioned the bowls before that you said you put gold lace and you offer them to the river – is that right?

Craig: If you imagine a really shallow bowl coming from maybe 2.5 inches high and maybe a foot wide so it’s very shallow. When I was making that mural at the Convention Centre which is called Wolastokuk which is Maliseet for ‘honour along the river’, the commission was to create something that was in response to the Woolastook (the Saint John River). From that contemplation I started thinking about how long this river has been here and how central it is to the life that surrounds it, that is on it, in, and along it. Our family lives on the Nashwaak River, which is a tribute to art. So as I’m working on that project, I’m also thinking about the Naswaak and salmon and the depression that they make in a gravel bed when they move their tail and body in such a way that it disperses the fine gravel to create a depression which they lay their legs in. Salmon aren’t the only fish that do this. That particular depression is called a redd. I started thinking about that as form. A very shallow, low bowl that is sort of like a birthing place, that gives new life, and how important that gravel is, actually. There is whole issue about the environment about silting and logging and so forth, and natural erosion. But those beds need to be clean gravel to create the right conditions. So these bowls that I’m making are representing that kind of nest and I’m putting gold leaf in the ceramic bowl and then placing them in the water at the river’s edge. The river eventually sweeps them down and they sink into the water. It’s a symbolic gesture of recognizing the sense of what of value do we have to recognize and to give back to nature and to this source of life? Those are the thoughts that are going through my mind as I’m doing this project and placing these bowls in the water and giving away that which is falsely held as a higher value than the value and the water and the life itself.

Mark: It seems like a very personal statement – that’s not the kind of thing that is in a gallery somewhere – it’s something that you might be the only one who knows about. Is that the case? Or have people found these bowls and told you about them?

Craig: It was also connected to wanting to do something outside of the gallery situation and just make work that meant something to me and interact with the environment. But at the same time, not wanting to work in complete isolation so I do videotape the releasing of these bowls and recently I was part of a group show in the Saint John Arts Centre and I have a video so I’m working with a new medium, for me, a video installation, so there’s the actual video of the bowls floating down and within the gallery are a few of these similar bowls so that people in the gallery can make some connection to what they’re seeing in the video and what the physical reality of the bowl actually is. To me, that’s a whole new challenge, a new off the deep end of some cliff edge – new territory because I’m not trained in video. A new adventure of how to bridge this very solitary experience between myself and nature, but at the same time, I’m concerned about this on a larger scale and feel as though I need to talk about it, and through the art form is how I choose to start this conversation, let’s say.

Mark: we’re just about out of time here – I’m assuming that you have some pieces out there that people can look at as well as visiting you in person – is that right?

Craig: I have a few pieces, I have the video, I have a couple of these bowls, I have the houses, the porcupine quills in process, so there’s quite a bit there so that people can see what exactly I’ve been talking about.


Find the audio podcast for Craig’s interview here:

The Lunchbox Interview: Lisa Fullerton (Basketry)


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