Interview with ceramic artist Jennifer McInnis-Wharton

“It’s very messy, and I am probably one of the messiest potters I know, but I embrace the mess and I don’t mind going out in public covered in dust and dirt. It’s part of what I do and I do clean up pretty well when I choose to, but I don’t even mind being in the studio in my good clothes, because I just love what I do so much that it’s ok to be dirty.” – Jennifer McInnis-Wharton

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Mark: On the line right now, live from the Barracks, we have Jennifer McInnis-Wharton. Welcome, Jennifer, to the show.

Jennifer: Hi, how are you?

Mark: You are another artist at the Barracks and – the description here lists you as an emerging contemporary artist, which is a very complimentary and positive phrase, but doesn’t tell me kind of what you do, so let everyone know what you do.

Jennifer: That is not usually a phrase that I use to describe myself. I’m a potter, and I guess ceramic artist might be the formal title, and I’ve been studying at the New Brunswick College of Craft and Design for the past 3 years, and I have been focusing a lot on raku-fired pots and also learning about hand building and installation sculpture as well.

Mark: What’s raku-fired pottery?

Jennifer: Raku-fired pottery is a method that was developed in 16th century Japan and the Western practice that we do now has been pretty far removed, so it’s a little different, but it’s basically a process where you pull the pots out from the kiln where they’re molten hot and glowing red, and you put them into metal bins that are lined with sawdust and newspaper, the pots ignite the combustibles inside the bin, and then you smother them by putting a lid on. What goes on in there is all kinds of fun chemical reactions that cause the glazes to come out with really vibrant metallic colours a lot of the time – it’s very exciting. There’s lots of fire.

Mark: I was just about to say – that sounds pretty exciting and maybe a little dangerous and somewhat intimidating art form?

Jennifer: It is a little dangerous – I have definitely lost eyebrows, eyelashes, bangs, in the process, but it’s really exciting; it’s a very hands-on process, there’s lots of labour involved, and you’re always kind of with your pots every step of the way and that’s a really fun way to be really involved in the process.

Mark: That one in particular you’re not gonna be able to set up in your average apartment, obviously. Do you have your own studio for that? Or are you working at the College of Craft and Design?

Jennifer: Not yet. So far I have done it entirely at the college, and I’m renting space over the summer so I’m still doing that here, and yeah – it’s definitely something that you definitely don’t do inside.

Mark: What drew you to pottery? It’s a very hands-on art. Was that the appeal?

Jennifer: It is. I think every since I can remember, I’ve always been interested in sculpture and sculpting things and I spent hours and hours in my bedroom as a child with pounds and pounds of plasticine, building things. When I graduated from high school and decided I would go off to college, fine arts seemed like a logical step. It was in my first year where you’re sort of trying everything that I really fell in love with clay. It was just an instant and beautiful relationship – I felt like I really understood what I was doing and I just really enjoyed it.

Mark: It’s a hands-on and very messy art too, right? So does that mean that when you’re working on pottery that you kind of have to plan if you’re going anywhere else afterwards?

Jennifer: It’s very messy and I am probably one of the messiest potters I know. But I embrace the mess, and I don’t mind going out in public covered in dust and dirt. It’s part of what I do and I do clean up pretty well when I choose to but I don’t even mind being in the studio in my good clothes because I just love what I do so much so it’s ok to be dirty.

Mark: Besides raku-pottery, what else do you do? Do you do the typical turning pottery?

Jennifer: All of the raku pots that I do, I do throw on a wheel – the majority of them I throw on a wheel. So it’s the traditional pottery in that sense. But also this past year, I spent some time learning about more sculptural stuff like hand building and building out of flat slabs of clay as well, just to see how I enjoyed that. I love both, actually, is what I found.

Mark: So when you say hand building, what do you mean by that?

Jennifer: Hand building is, I guess, the most basic form of working with clay because it involves mostly you and your hands, typically the same way children would play with Play-doh and tools and build things out of their hands. That’s sort of the same thing that I do.

Mark: Do you build that over a skeleton or just on its own?

Jennifer: You typically would build them over what’s called an armature. For smaller pieces, the armature can be something as simple as balled-up newspaper. For larger and more complex pieces, which I have not gotten quite that far yet, you could have other materials inside your armature, or you would build your larger sculpture in pieces and then later piece it all together and remove the armature after from the inside, before you piece it all together.

Mark: What kinds of things do you typically work on? Is it mostly working on the pottery, or working on elaborate shapes, or the exterior carving or structural elements?

Jennifer: I get very, very excited by texture, so no matter what I’m doing, I’m always working hard to figure out how I can get the most interesting and/or surface patterns out of my work. Recently I completed a big installation – actually it’s a 15-piece installation that’s currently installed in the college gallery, where I rolled out these great big slabs of clay and constructed these huge tree stumps – they look like chopped wood – and I spent hours and hours hammering tree bark texture – I had little pieces of tree bark and a rubber mallet and I hammered this tree bark over and over again until I had actually what looks like fairly realistic tree bark texture on the pieces. So I think texture is the most exciting thing for me. I don’t do a lot of carving, although I do sometimes, or a lot of painting – mostly I’m trying to find ways to make really exciting surfaces.

Mark: So is pottery and clay work the opposite of carving? It seems like in clay work you’re always adding on more bits and shaping them, whereas with carving you’re taking away bits. Is that a proper view?

Jennifer: It is, but it really depends on how you’re working with the clay, because we do what we call relief sculpture and relief carving sometimes where it’s actually a mix of adding and subtracting clay so sometimes you’re using your tools to carve away a little bit here, and then you’re adding a little bit of texture there to have more depth. So it’s kind of both ways, I guess.

Mark: With painting, I know that you can kind of stop painting, and come back, and you can make sure that your paints are fluid enough to use again and you can continue – is that the same thing with sculpting or with the pottery that you’re doing, or do you have to kind of finish it all at once? Can you come back to it? Is it malleable again?

Jennifer: It’s a long process from the beginning of a piece to the end and there are multiple steps, so usually you can’t do it all in one go because you have to wait for the clay to be the right consistency to work with. There’s usually a lot of what we like to call ‘babysitting,’ involving a lot of spray bottles and plastic wrap, and we try to keep things that are in progress at the perfect consistency to work with the next time we pick it up, which involves a lot of spritzing, or opening up the plastic and airing them out. I had a little problem yesterday because I got distracted by some really cute kids who I was teaching how to throw, and while I was teaching, all the little lids that I had thrown had dried up. I wasn’t paying attention and I didn’t keep them wrapped up so I had to toss those, and that happens every once in a while. But with beautiful things, you can always make more.

Mark: You’ve been working at the school for the last 3 years and you said kind of, just as an enthusiast before that. How many things have you had a chance to make over the last 3 years or so?

Jennifer: Oh my goodness – I would say that because we’re learning, [I’ve made] hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of things. I’ve thrown out more things than I can imagine. The only way you can get really good is repetition and working at it and making as many things as possible, so, hundreds. I don’t think I could count how many things I’ve made.

Mark: Of those hundreds, what have been some of the most interesting for you to work on? Obviously you said the one with the tree stumps was fascinating, but what else have you worked on?

Jennifer: I spend a lot of time working on pieces that are very architectural. I love to throw – I love the connection to the clay with my bare hands, but I’m also really fascinated by tools, and very fascinated by architecture. A lot of the things that I’m striving to accomplish are very architectural. I use a lot of tools to get a lot of really clean, sharp edges. I developed a series of pots that have internal columns inside them. They’re really long and very hard to describe if you can’t see them, but when you pull them out of the pot they have these great big ornate tops and when you pull them out, they kind of look like a little sword because the inside of the lid extends down almost to the bottom of the pot. It looks like a fancy turned table leg or chair – it has lots of different details in it. So I cut open the front of the pots so that you can see the column inside when you’re standing in front, and I think those are really exciting. I think those are the first thing that I ever started producing that was definitely all me. So those are great.

Mark: Clearly you’re seeing this from a very artistic standpoint. If you cut out the pot to see the inside of the pot, you haven’t really got a pot anymore, you’ve got a sculpture. But what about the practical side? Do you make things that you’re going to then use in daily life, or that others might use? Or is it purely intended for artistic desires?

Jennifer: I can make production pottery and I do, depending. It’s a great thing to be skilled at if you’re trying to make ends meet, and it’s a wonderful art form in itself and it’s a very meditative process where if you’re making things that are all the same, eventually you get to the point where your muscle memory kind of takes over and you can just drift off into thought. It’s a really great process. My cupboards are filled with things I made myself and I use them every day. If I’m giving gifts to people, I tend to like to give them things that they can use, so I do. But the other thing that I like to do is to try to push some of my functional pieces into more sculptural work. So I’m a huge fan of teapots because they allow you to combine all the skills that you’ve learned as a potter – there’s hand building, throwing, trimming, the elements of design – there’s a lot going on on these little teapots which makes them really exciting, so I really enjoy them as sort of a bridge between the functional and the sculptural.

Mark: People think of pottery as probably one of the oldest art forms in many ways, because it’s made from the earth and your hands. How does a modern potter explore it? Are there things that people don’t realize about modern technology or is it down to those basics again?

Jennifer: It’s part of the close relationship with the earth, the dirt, the mud, that I really enjoy, but the new innovations are all really exciting. All of the tools that I have on-hand are just mind-boggling. There’re just so many wonderful, new developments and the modern side of it is very exciting. I haven’t had much chance to explore the more traditional methods although I would definitely love to one day.

Mark: I would imagine the clay itself has been innovated over the years, too?

Jennifer: Yeah. One of the things I love about being at the college and what I do here is that I’m involved in the process from the very beginning. Here we mix all of our own clay in batches of approximately 300 pounds so you’re getting all of the dry ingredients and putting them into basically the biggest KitchenAid mixer you’ve ever seen, and you’re responsible for weighing out all those ingredients and getting them out of the mixture. We have a machine called the Pugmill which is kind of like a spaghetti factory that squeezes out these perfect blocks of clay that are all nicely mixed and the same consistency that you can then use to throw and make your pots. I had this moment this year where I thought, “Man, this school is just so cool! They taught me, literally, how to make art out of bags of dust!” It’s really exciting to be tied to it right from the very beginning. It’s like how proud people are when they bake a cake from scratch.

Mark: I’ve had that experience myself so I totally agree. You mentioned that some kids have come by to check it out, and you’re doing demonstrations with people there?

Jennifer: Yeah, I’ve got a wheel parked right out front and I’ve just been working away, throwing and explaining bits of my process as I work. It’s great – people are really inquisitive and friendly, and the kids just love it. They ask the best questions and I had a couple of girls yesterday who just snugged up as close as they could get and I could tell they really wanted to try. They hung out with me for about an hour and I taught them the basics.

Mark: Are they allowed to get their hands dirty?

Jennifer: Oh yeah, definitely – I encourage it.

Mark: So what sort of questions have the kids been asking?

Jennifer: They like to know a lot about what the tools do. They ask really practical questions that I think adults are afraid to ask simple questions, like “what are you doing?” and “how does this tool work?” and “how did you make that?” It’s really fun, it’s a good challenge to try to break things down to really simple terms to explain them in a very basic way, which actually helps me to relate to the adults because it’s hard, when you get excited, to remember that not everybody knows all the technical terms.

Mark: Are you working on any particular pieces while you’re there?

Jennifer: Yes. My mission for this week is to throw a series of pots that are based on the buildings in downtown Fredericton – the historical buildings – because they are something that I have enjoyed every day for the past 3 years and I really love Fredericton and I think this is just a really nice tribute to the downtown core where basically everything exciting has happened for me since I moved here. I threw the pots on the first day and today I’m trimming them because they’re firm enough, and over the next few days I will be carving some details. You know, bricks, windows, any parts of the buildings I find really interesting – I’ll try to incorporate them into the design of the pots. They will look kind of like buildings but mostly like pottery when they’re finished.

Mark: So you said you threw them on the first day – that’s the first process of just taking them on the wheel and manipulating the basic shape, is that right?

Jennifer: Yeah.

Mark: And then you let them dry – have they been baked or fired yet, or is that the last step?

Jennifer: They will be fired at the end of the entire process, so I won’t have any finished products here by the end of the week – they’ll still be in progress. But most of the exciting work happens before the firing, at least the way I work.

Mark: Do you finish or glaze the outside of your work? Is that part of your practice too?

Jennifer: I do, yes. The raku process that I was talking about earlier is actually the glazing and firing process so I use mostly raku glazes. The ones that I enjoy are quite metallic. They almost look like – oil slick is the best way I can describe them, because the way the flames work inside the little bins – you can see the flame patterns and the different colours of the pots in the surface. It’s very spontaneous – you don’t know what you’ll get when you lift the lid.

Mark: That must be exciting and also kind of terrifying.

Jennifer: Sometimes it is terrifying, but one of the beautiful things that I have found is that if you don’t enjoy the results, you can just put them back in the kiln and try again. Sometimes, because so  much of what happens is based on what goes on in those bins with the newspaper and the sawdust, if you try again you usually get a better result. Not always, but usually.

Mark: Well we’re just about out of time – you said that there’s a gallery right now at the college, which has some of your work?

Jennifer: Yes. It’s actually featuring the work of my graduate studies class this year so it’s a really dynamic group of artists and a really good mix of work from textiles to digital media to jewelry, ceramics, and rug-hooking. It’s a great show.

Mark: Do you personally have contact information, or if people want to find out more about your own particular work, or is that still in progress with your studies?

Jennifer: The easiest place to keep current is my Facebook page, which is Jennifer McInnis-Wharton Ceramic Artist. That I update fairly frequently with images and little bits of information.

Mark: Well I certainly recommend that everybody check out what, as you said, is hard to describe when it would visually impact people, so I wanna encourage people to check out your work down at the Barracks square. I’ve been talking with Jennifer McInnis-Wharton, a potter – what’s the proper term?

Jennifer: Ceramic artist, potter, mud enthusiast… there’s all kinds of titles.

Mark: I wanna thank you Jennifer, for joining me for this half hour.

Jennifer: Yeah, thank you.

Find the audio podcast of Jennifer’s interview here:

The Lunchbox Interview: Jennifer McInnis-Wharton (Potter)


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