This month features studio potter, Tara Wilson. Tara makes beautiful, feminine, wood fired pottery. Her work is a perfect partnership of form and surface…the drama of the melted wood ash and blushing patterns from the flame roll effortlessly over the curvy volumes of her forms. Her pots, with their atmospheric patina, smooth surface and undulating forms, often remind me of tumbled river rocks.
Tara and I crossed paths a few times at the Archie Bray Foundation (first as summer residents in 2003 and then later as year round residents in 2006). The first moment I set eyes on Tara’s work I was in love. Her work is warm, inviting, graceful and generous. Not only is her work visually comforting…but it is a true pleasure to use.
A handful of years ago, Tara built an amazing studio on her property in Helena, Montana. Adjacent to her studio, she constructed two wood kilns (a large train kiln and, most recently, a smaller catenary kiln). Tara is currently at Watershed Center for the Ceramic Arts for a two-week residency entitled Atmospheric Perspectives. You can find out more about Tara and her work by visiting her website: tarawilsonpottery.com. Enjoy the interview!
How did you first get involved in ceramics?
I first got involved with ceramics in High School. I attended a small public school in Clyde, Ohio and my high school art teacher included a lot of ceramic projects in our classes. By the time I was a senior I was spending as much time as possible in the art room.
Can you briefly describe your background and education?
I received a BFA from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville and a MFA from the University of Florida, Gainesville. I went straight from undergrad to graduate school then did a little adjunct teaching and community class teaching; so most of the jobs I’ve held have been art related. The most interesting job I’ve had was working as a potter at Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee.
How would you describe your work? How did you arrive at working this way?
My work is mostly wheel thrown and altered. I started altering my work when I was an undergrad, but although I was using similar methods the finished pieces looked totally different than the work I’m making today. In graduate school I developed this style of work and it has slowly evolved since finishing school in 2003. Most of the work has an animated quality about it and relates to the figure, either the human form or different animals.
Would you explain your attraction to functional ceramics?
I’ve always been attracted to functional work. I enjoy how accessible it is. We live with and interact with it in very intimate situations in our homes.
How do you feel that your formal education (undergraduate-graduate school) prepared you for your career in ceramics?
I think my formal education prepared me for a career in ceramics in more ways than I realized. As an undergraduate student I received a strong technical education, I learned how to mix clay, glazes and fire kilns very early. I got involved in wood firing in my beginning throwing class and was hooked. Not only did I learn about firing wood kilns, but also many local artists would participate in the firings and that was a valuable resource as well. Knoxville’s close proximity to Arrowmont and Penland provided another educational resource. Many studio artists live in that area of east Tennessee and Western North Carolina. I remember making an annual pilgrimage to Rock Creek Pottery’s studio sale. Graduate school taught me to think critically about my work and prepared me for teaching. Linda Arbuckle is an a
mazing teacher and artist. She shares so much information with her students and alumni through her list serve which we all greatly benefit from.
You’ve attended numerous residency programs and presented at countless conferences/ workshops throughout your career. Could you describe some of the most influential or career changing experiences you’ve had?
One of the most amazing experiences I’ve had was the opportunity to be a long term resident at the Archie Bray Foundation. I think I learned as much or more about what it means to be a professional artist during my time there as I did in school. A time that I will never forget was the Bray’s 55th anniversary, which happened while I was a resident. For the month of June a group of international artists worked in the summer studios. Getting to know them and work along side them was an amazing opportunity. I feel extremely fortunate to have worked with Janet Mansfield during this time. We fired the train kin together at the Bray and she invited me to come to Australia and be an assistant at a Gulgong conference. While in Gulgong she introduced me to many Australian artists which led to presenting at a conference a few years later in Tasmania and I’ll be going back next April to participate in a woodfire symposium on the south east coast of Australia.
What is the inspiration for your pieces? How do you come up with new ideas? Can you walk us through your creative process when coming up with new forms/ideas?
I draw a lot of inspiration from nature, the environment that I’m surrounded by and the figure. Sometimes the work itself leads to new ideas and new pieces through experimenting with different parts of each piece while in the studio. Spending time outdoors is very important to me. It not only provides a source of inspiration but is also a time to unwind from the studio and reflect on ideas. I try to spend time outdoors everyday even if it’s just a short walk. My house and studio is located near the end of a dirt road with easy access to great hiking and mountain bike trails. In the winter I make time for backcountry skiing with my dog Willow. Animals are another source of inspiration. I enjoy being around animals, I grew up showing horses, and sometimes I feel like where I live in Montana is a wildlife sanctuary. Just in my yard alone over the past few years I’ve seen deer, elk, pronghorn, fox, wolves, bear, and lots of small animals and rodents (which aren’t always cool, such as the pack rats). A few months ago I got chickens, which are a great source of entertainment.
What advice can you give aspiring artists struggling to find their own voice/style?
Work super hard! This is a difficult, or rather competitive field that requires many hours of practice especially in the beginning. I think it’s important to realize what you’re passionate about and figure out how that can be incorporated into your work. I often encourage young artists to look not only at contemporary work, but more importantly at historical work.
Generally speaking, female potters who wood-fire are not the norm. Can you describe what its like working in a seemingly male-dominated tradition? I agree that woodfiring is a male dominated field. I’ve never really had any issues with this or negative experiences. I think I’ve been very stubborn in sticking to my beliefs and opinions and have just always jumped in and been part of this scene. Now that I have my own kilns I’m the one in charge and even when it’s mostly guys helping there’s never been any issues. I think my work is fairly feminine compared to the typical woodfire aesthetic and in recent years I’ve really tried to embrace this and create work that’s embraces this feminine quality.
How do you market your work to your audience (galleries/studio sales/crak fairs/etc.)? What venues have you found to be the most lucrative for your work?
So far the most lucrative venue has been selling through galleries. I think maybe because that’s where I’m most established. I built my studio five years ago and I’ve just recently started having studio sales. They are a lot of fun and I enjoy meeting new folks in my community but these sales are not as lucrative as I would like. I think over time they will get better. Also, I’ve had an etsy site for about a year now and I think there is a lot of potential there. I’ve only posted work a few times, but I’ve sold most of what I’ve posted.
How did you arrive at the decision to settle and build a studio? What were your must-haves when building your studio and choosing a location?
This was probably the most difficult decision I’ve ever made. All through school I thought I would probably pursue a teaching career, so deciding to be a full time studio artist was a major decision in itself and then deciding where to do this was another huge thing. I fell in love with Montana while I was at the Bray. I like many things that Helena has to offer such as the amazing trail system with great mountain bike trails right on the edge of town and although it’s the capitol it’s still a fairly small town. The Bray has a clay business so I can easily get clay and supplies. When I built my studio I knew I wanted a space that was large enough for a few people to work in so that I could eventually have assistants and be able to offer them workspace. I knew during firings there would be more people around so I wanted a kitchen and bathroom in the studio as well. And there is a separate room with a garage door for the electric kiln and all my wood shop tools and other random stuff. Another factor in choosing this location was the fact that I wanted to have wood kilns, so I needed to live somewhere that I could make this happen.
What does a typical workday look like for you? How much do you spend on marketing vs. making?
My typical work day changes depending on where I’m at in the cycle of making work. It takes me about six weeks to make work for my train kiln. An ideal day during the making is, get to the studio fairly early, work until 3 ish, go for a hike or bike ride, eat dinner, then work a little in the evening. But like I said that’s an ideal day. In the winter I will usually ski in the morning or first half of the day and get in the studio for the second half. Then after the making cycle it takes me a few days to glaze, a day to load the kiln and two days to fire. These are usually very long focused days in the studio, or at the kiln with not much other activities going on. Once the work is fired it takes me a few days to sand and clean up all the work. Packing work for shipping is another big time commitment in the studio. As far as the marketing goes, I know I need to put more time into this. I spend time everyday, maybe an average of two hours keeping up with e-mails and paperwork stuff. I guess that is considered marketing. I know I need to put more time into taking advantage of social media. I realize this can be a great way to market my work, but I’m not really good or consistent with it.
You have built many wood kilns over the course of your career. Can you talk a little bit about the critical things to consider when building a kiln? Which resources (books/magazines/ websites) did you find the most helpful?
Well the things I considered when building my kilns were, the size, length of firing, and surface effects. After spending three years primarily firing train kilns at the Bray and then as a resident at Red Lodge Clay Center, I decided that I wanted to build a train. The interior of my kiln is 45 inches wide, and the stacking space is about 10 feet long. The kilns at the Bray and Red Lodge are very similar and I liked this firing cycle as far as how much time it took to make work to fill the kiln. It’s also big enough that I can offer space to folks in exchange for help. I like the surface effects that can be achieved in trains in a fairly short firing as well. This last winter I built a small catenary arch wood soda. I’m really enjoying this kiln and looking forward to experimenting more with glazes in it. I think I will probably fire this kiln at least once or more between every train firing. It’s much smaller so the turnaround time is much quicker, and it can be loaded in a few hours and fired off in a day. It’s also nice to be able to offer another type of kiln to those people who are working with me in the studio. Some helpful books are the The Kiln Book, and Woodfired Stoneware and Porcelain, but I think the best resource is looking at a lot of kilns and talking to other potters.
Over the years, you’ve had a handful of assistants/apprentices that come live and work with you. How did you arrive at this decision and what are the specifics of the relationship (how long is the apprenticeship/what is expected/what are the privileges/exchanges/etc.)?
When I built my studio I knew I wanted to have assistants at some point so I built it large enough to accommodate this. I think of it as a work exchange. I enjoy teaching and the sense of community that happens in group studios, so this is a way for me to teach/mentor younger artists and have other artists working in close proximity.
Right now, assistants stay for a year with an option to stay for a second year. I have two assistants and ideally one will leave each year and a new one will start, so they can help train each other. They do all types of chores, basically everything except making my work. Typical cores are lots of wood prep, and everything involved with the firings, prep and clean up, packing and shipping, cleaning the studio. They also help with bigger projects such as building the kiln and shed, finishing the bathroom and kitchen in the studio, even building a chicken coop. I think all these things are good experiences for young artists. They get to work closely with me and learn what really goes into being a studio artist.
Would you be willing to share some advice for potters who are thinking about hiring an assistant/apprentice?
Well, it’s made me be very organized and clear about my expectations. Clear communication is also extremely important. I think having assistants is a great way to teach an offer opportunities to younger artists.
Finally, what advice would you give to aspiring potters who are looking to setup a studio and make pots for a living?
I think there are so many opportunities for young artists now, such as residency programs. I would recommend doing as many of these as possible, and traveling before sefng up a studio. If you know you want to set up your own studio, start collecting stuff, equipment, wheels, brick, anything you’ll be using in the studio so you don’t get hit with having to purchase or find everything all at once. And think about how the space will function.