Bryan Hopkins: Potter of the Month

With a new year on the horizon, I’m excited to close out 2014 in style with Bryan Hopkins!  Bryan consistently impresses me with his innovative, architectural forms and his inquisitive, technical research into soft-paste porcelain.  His range of work is smart and sophisticated, yet approachable and honest.  In the interview, Bryan explains what keeps him engaged with porcelain, what outlets are best for his work and why he chooses to use “common” textures for his surfaces.


tn_1200_909aefc9c6e93c83cf81e0f59573a3b4.jpgHow did you first get involved in ceramics? Can you briefly describe your background and education? Both my parents were teachers, and although my mother taught pottery and sculpture in a high school, my brother and I were not exposed to art. My father taught mathematics and played sports, and I gravitated to those activities. I went to college for mathematics and had to take an art elective to graduate. A friend was taking ceramics so I decided to sign up, too. Within a semester I had dropped my math major and started taking art courses. I graduated with a B.S. in Liberal Studies with minors in Art, Photography, and Political Science. My MFA is from SUNY New Paltz in Ceramics.

e39545fba91c497c82cf75e77452299fYou settled in Buffalo, New York and set up a personal studio. How have you been able to establish yourself in your community and gathered support? When I moved to Buffalo I decided to join a group studio (Buffalo Arts Studio- BAS) as opposed to working in isolation. The BAS had about 20 artists then(we have 40 now), and no specific ceramics area. Another artist and I gathered support to build a clay center as part of the BAS (which is a 501(C)3 org.) complete with a designated kiln room, teaching classroom and 8 clay artist studios. There was an opportunity to run the gallery space of the BAS so I did that for about 6 years, being paid if there was money available- and there usually was not. The time spent doing that was a great introduction to the Buffalo art scene, and led me to have the confidence to curate and set up regional and national ceramics exhibitions

26f0abcdc1b1ca4bf85357ac164bd13eWhat decisions went into you selecting a place to settle? The woman I was dating in grad school lived in Buffalo, and when I visited it seemed like a good place. The idea was to give it a try, and that was 19 years ago. Buffalo has a lot of opportunities for people who are looking, and the city really is what you make out of it. And I did not have to have a full-time job, other than my studio, to support myself. My mortgage now is less than my rent was in college in 1989, and it makes a big difference in my approach to my studio practice when decisions are not based on selling to make ends meet.

You teach part-time at Niagara County Community College.   As a potter who also teaches part-time, I am keenly aware how teaching can cut into studio time. What I am interested in knowing is how does teaching inform your work, studio practice, etc? Teaching does not inform my work or studio practice, and it never has. What teaching allows me to do in my studio is to not care about selling work, which gives me the freedom to push, to experiment, to be unapologetically self-indulgent. What affected my studio practice deeply was having a son (Lucas is now 11). Being the “primary caregiver” meant a complete change in my schedule to keep up with studio demands of orders and exhibitions. I have a good work ethic, but my studio practice became much more efficient and time was much more focused. I do find teaching 3-D design allows me to explore (through my students) ideas not suitable to clay. Like inflated biomorphic forms, or book art. Teaching is fun for me, and I encourage my students to be playful in their problem solving, which is how I approach my studio practice. So for me, teaching does not inform studio: studio informs teaching.


Same vessel as below, but lit from within to showcase its translucency.

tn_1200_02e8c6abdcf0d476f063a12d6208a047.jpg You’ve worked in porcelain for the past 20+ years. What is it about porcelain that keeps you engaged? I am a perfectionist, so porcelain and I are made for each other. White, translucent, smooth, and no grit. I hate gritty clay. Porcelain is not passive in the outcome of a piece- porcelain is a partner I am working with, trying to negotiate simple issues like verticality. It has a mind of its’ own and I feel I do not simply “use” porcelain, but I feel we are in a long-term relationship.

You used to wheel- throw your cups and now you slip cast them. Can you talk about what prompted the change? The change had to happen because I wanted texture fully around the cup, and there is no other way to do that (with porcelain fired to cone 11 in reduction) and keep the cup round. And all the cool kids were casting, so I thought I should try it. I would like to say I hate making molds, but they are necessary, and I can not afford to pay someone to make them for me.

2390c15e39c84a33884417c91f40e85cHow do you come up with new ideas? Can you walk us through your creative process when coming up with new forms/ideas? For about 3 years I did not look at any current ceramics or craft publications that had photographs, and I did not look at any web sites of clay artists. That was about 1999-2002, pre Facebook and Instagram, so it was not so difficult to ignore images. My work went through a major shift then, when I stopped using colored and atmospheric glazes and went to a single clear glaze, to focus on form. I was looking at lots of books of Asian pottery, pre-1900 European porcelain, fabric design from Russia, Hans Coper, modernist architecture, and lots of post World War 2 European ceramics. That detachment was important because I felt influenced by too much- seeing what was being validated in the magazines of craft and art was too much. I got Clary Illian’s book (A Potter’s Workbook) in 1999 and did all the “assignments”, and that was wonderful for me. I was asked to make a salt and pepper set in 2003 for a show, and since then I have found great pleasure in ec4385bac90c423b93c74c6b901dea51trying to revive defunct or little known forms, like egg cups and toast racks. I draw a lot- not well, but I go for quantity over quality. Mostly I draw overhead views of what I make, as I can visualize the side view. Those are re-drawn in my studio on a dry erase board, and then transferred to clay.

What does a typical workday look like for you? I work in the studio M-F, and never on weekends. I get up at 6:30am and make lunches and get my son on the bus. I am in the studio (2.5 miles from my house) by 7:45am. On M, W & F, I work until about 4pm (in addition to making work, that includes all studio business like banking, marketing, etc), then either get my son afterschool or go out on my bike for a couple of hours. T & Th are my teaching days, so I leave the studio by 1pm to teach a 2-5 class, then a 6-9 class. Home by 9:30pm, asleep by 10:30 every night.

What is your most valuable studio tool? I have this weird little wooden stick a painter gave me about 15 years ago I can’t do without. Or maybe my flex-shaft rotary tool I drill holes with.



You recently embarked on a research project that resulted in a couple of successful low-fire porcelain recipes. What prompted this research and how do you plan to add these clay bodies into your studio practice (that had previously been exclusively cone 10/11 reduction)? I had been using a cone 10 porcelain, made in Australia, for almost 9 years, and it was no longer going to be imported to the USA, so I decided to try making it myself. In that quest there are lots of variables, one of which is temperature. I had heard fddcdb04b722379aefbad8be82e98409of soft paste porcelain but knew nothing about it, and a simple internet search came up with stuff called frit-clay. About a month after reading about that I contacted a guy I heard of who was making stuff out of what he calls soft past porcelain. He got back to me a couple of months later with a basic recipe which, coincidentally, I was already using- the clay component is what my cone 10 recipe is based on, so I had lots of very white clay around. After 60 different clay tests I settled on 2 recipes and plan on using them exclusively for light fixtures and cups, adding encapsulated stains for color. They will be at NCECA this year, in the Objective Clay gallery in the Expo Center, and as part of a show I am curating at Bridgewater State University called Dialecticians.

You separate your work into two categories: “Function” and “Dysfunction”. You describe your Dysfunction series as follows: “My work is based on the premise that the clay vessel is capable of more than holding fruit, presenting flowers, or decorating a sideboard, and that there are additional functions of the vessel, such as containing the intangible (light, shadow, idea).” I really love that you address this idea and wonder if you can expand on it a bit more. For instance, how do you decide when the vessel no longer become “capable of holding fruit, flowers, etc…” ? I said that? Well, I guess technically all my work can 77921f79b1924416871f3bd577d8f6f0contain, say, limes- but the Dysfunctional series is not strong enough to do that safely, or practically. Vases with holes in them are not easily utilized to hold a bouquet of flowers, but Ichibana arrangers use them all the time, regardless of assumed or actual fragility. I think what I was getting at with saying “additional functions of the vessel” is that a pot can be contemplated as can a painting. Ceramics is a sub-section of “art” (like painting, dance, lithography, etc) and is capable of conveying ideas and concepts as well as being decorative and useful. Not every object made from clay needs to serve a utilitarian purpose, so stripping any necessity of utility frees me up to push people’s ideas of pots, and porcelain specifically.

You talk about how you transfer low-brow, common textures (construction-grade lumber, diamond-plated steel, etc) onto a high-brow, “precious” material (porcelain)? Can you explain more about this contrast and how it adds content and acts as an access point into your work? Anyone who has been to Home Depot knows OSB (maybe as particle board), so it helps me to get people in to porcelain by association. I grew up 09ef80eb79ce45baa45552138d39c419working-class and I identify with that class still, not just income-wise, but culturally. But I love porcelain and want my friends to as well, so it is essential I add common textures to my work to get my friends to in to it. These simple textures are understood to be of building materials by most people, and then the question is why? Porcelain has always been precious and expensive. If you grew up with a China set in the house, it was not used daily, so again, precious. The textures are at odds with and opposite of precious, and question that assumption of objects made in porcelain.

You’ve sold work at numerous retail craft shows and wrote an eloquent article for Studio Potter entitled “What’s That For” where you talk about the importance of the marketplace as both a place to educate and to learn. Can you briefly describe how you select the craft shows you do and how they have been part of your studio practice? Over the past several years I have been applying to retail craft shows based on whether there is someone who lives close I can stay with. That makes it much more affordable, and a lot more fun.

tn_1200_169e9fc2f1ff40816797d782cefa8c67.jpgCraft shows are exactly that- shows. I see them as very important to my career and livelihood. Craft shows are great marketing opportunities and I have lined up workshops and visiting artist gigs because of them. Professors from surrounding colleges bring students to those bigger shows and it is always fun to talk to people who are new to the filed, and will some day be sitting in the (uncomfortable) chair I am siting in my booth. I usually get a commission or two from each show, and I enjoy the opportunity to work with a customer on specific pieces that are a little different from what I typically make. Like a toast rack with 9 slots (absurd, right?!)

Which marketing venue(s) (website/social media sites /galleries/studio sales/etsy/craft fairs/etc.) have you found to be the most lucrative for your work? East coast, metropolitan, in-person sales. I find I do not like selling on-line or over the phone, although I do it. No etsy yet. The Clay Studio in Philadelphia sells a lot of my work, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art Craft Show is great for my work, when I can get in to the show. I just had a great time in Demarest, NJ, at the School at Old Church Pottery Sale. I have taken part in bigger studio tours and sales around the country, and find that it is best to meet the people you sell to- it helps them understand your work better, and build a stronger relationship to, say, a mug that person will use every day for years.

Finally, what advice can you give aspiring potters trying to make a living?  Find a good place to live, and a good person to share your life with. Take care of your whole self, not just your studio self- your career is a Grand Tour, not a match sprint.

For more information about Bryan and his work, please visit his website:






Sarah Jaeger: Potter of the Month

As 2014 is still in its infancy, I look back at the whirlwind that was 2013.  My first kiddo turns one at the end of the week, and throughout her first year I somehow managed to interview a dozen potters that I adore and publish our dialogue on my blog.  I’m eager to continue this trend, to fill up another year with a dozen more insightful interviews…and I’ve got an exceptional line-up scheduled!

To kick off 2014, I am thrilled to feature one of my heroes…the brilliant and beautiful Sarah Jaeger!  I first met Sarah in 1999 when I took a two-week workshop with Bobby Silverman at the Archie Bray Foundation.  I was an undergraduate student at the time…and as a part of the workshop we visited local artists’ studios.  I remember the trip vividly and recall being quite starry-eyed when we toured Sarah’s charming home, studio and garden.

Sarah’s work and work ethic are inspiring.  While her forms and surfaces nod to history and tradition, they are undoubtedly fresh and timeless.  I feel lucky to have a handful of Sarah’s work, some colorfully decorated and some simply white…all of which are in regular rotation.  When using Sarah’s pots, I am reminded of an impeccable craftswoman, someone who genuinely honors the handmade.

One of my all time favorite postcards is one of Sarah’s from a few years back.  It’s a delightful display of her work in the home.  Here it is…

kitchen sink postcard

kitchen sink postcard

…enjoy the interview!

How did you first get involved in ceramics?  For reasons that remain a mystery to me, I decided to take a pottery class at a local art center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, when I was a senior in college.

Would you explain your attraction to functional ceramics?  I think my strong attachment to functional pots has its roots in my childhood home, which was an 18th century farmhouse in Connecticut.  We did not have hand made pots, but we did have hand made furniture, country pieces from the 18th and 19th centuries, totally utilitarian, beloved and part of our everyday life.  With furniture as with pots, when you use something you have bodily contact with it; the tactile element is fundamental to the experience of the piece.

Sarah Jaeger glazing

Sarah Jaeger glazing

Can you briefly describe your background and education?  I had a classical liberal arts education, was an English literature major at Harvard – and then I took that pottery class.  In the second semester of senior year, totally smitten with clay and determined to get some academic credit for all the time I was spending in the pottery studio, I got approval for an independent study in Japanese tea ceremony ceramics. It was my great good fortune to work with Louise Cort (author of the book on Shigaraki, and at that time, like me, taking a beginning pottery class).  That was my introduction to ceramic history and to Leach/Hamada/Yanagi, the beginnings of the 20th century studio pottery movement in the west.  Through the readings about the connection between the tea ceremony and Zen philosophy, and the role of the tea bowl in the tea ceremony, I began to think about how much meaning a “simple pot” could contain and communicate.  Louise also took me into the storage areas of the Harvard museum and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, where we could see (and touch!) some of those amazing historical pots, like Shino and Oribe tea bowls. What an experience for a rank beginner! Twelve years later I went back to school, to Kansas City Art Institute for my BFA, where I studied with Ken Ferguson, Victor Babu and George Timock, and where I had the fabulous Nelson-Atkins Museum right across the street.

Can you talk a bit about your journey including the struggles/sacrifices you made to get where you are today?  It’s probably a good thing that I didn’t know, when I decided to be a studio potter, how long it would take me to become established – or even solvent.  It helped that I have a fairly high tolerance for risk and financial insecurity, along with pretty high levels of energy and determination, and that I didn’t mind living on very little money.

Anyone who has been to your studio has had the pleasure of touring your beautiful home, studio and garden (with its extensive tulip collection).  It really is a quiet, delightful retreat in the middle of Helena.  As soon as you step through the garden gate you seem to be transported to another world.  Being from the East Coast, can you talk about how you decided to settle in Montana and your “must haves” when you choosing a location?  The number one “must have” was that I

tulip tarda

tulip tarda

had to be able to afford it!  Helena real estate was so cheap when I bought my house in 1989, and the house was a dump, with nothing but weeds and a few tough hollyhocks in the yard.  It has been a work in progress ever since, but I knew that it was a bargain even then, and that it had the bones of what I needed for a house and studio. There was an old shack of a garage, 300 square feet, that I fixed up for my studio, and in which I worked for 16 years until I could afford to demolish it and build my new studio.  I had helped a friend build a gas kiln the year before I bought my house, and for the next 6 years I would transport glazed bisque pots 5 blocks up the hill to that kiln, until I could afford to build a kiln at my studio.

I grew up on the east coast but moved west (Denver) when I was 23 and realized I wanted to stay in the west, but my New England sensibility permeates my idea of home. I have made the very small garden area between my house and studio into an oasis in this northern desert landscape.  It’s green, densely planted, and there’s lots of shade, which allows for dappled light filtering through layers of leaves.  It’s about patterns and textures as much as color.

Jaeger glaze detail

Jaeger glaze detail

I have always admired how your surfaces echo the pace of your decoration process.  They are lively, active, rhythmic and meditative.  How did you arrive at this process and where do you gather inspiration?  My decoration process has evolved slowly.  I have always loved pattern, which is about visual rhythm.  My garden (see description above) is a source of inspiration, for the sense of light filtering through layers of color and the feeling of repetition and variation more than the likenesses of particular plants.  Much of the way I use the materials has evolved out of the process itself, the physical activity of painting on pots over many years.

Jaeger tea set

Jaeger tea set

As a former resident of the Archie Bray Foundation, I often romanticize about my time in Helena and the number of people the Bray continues to impact.  I always felt like I was walking in the footsteps of giants and I still love hearing stories that contribute to the history of the Bray.  Can you talk a little bit about your residency at the Archie Bray Foundation and how it has impacted your career?  Like you, I felt connected and in awe of the ceramic giants who preceded me at the Bray.  I also love that the Bray was a brickyard, that connection to industrial ceramics.  So much about being a potter is just plain hard work, like working in a brickyard.  There were only 5 long term residents when I came to the Bray, and the studios were small and funky, nothing like the palatial studios they have now.  The people I worked next to were what made it an amazing experience: Liz Quackenbush and Akio Takamori were residents, and Kurt Weiser was the director.  So much energy and so many ideas flying around, such a rich environment for making work and making it get better.

Living as an artist in a remote location can be isolating.  How do you keep inspired and engaged with the ceramics community at large (apart from the local Bray community)?  It is the Bray community that anchors my connection to the larger ceramics community – residents, visiting artists, slide talks, exhibitions; I don’t know that I would have chosen to live in Helena without that.  Although, to be contrarian, a person can be isolated in a city, too, and sometimes isolation is what we need to focus on our own work.  I read some of the ceramics magazines, especially Studio Potter, and increasingly depend on the internet.  But 2-D representations of 3-D objects, whether on the page or the screen, only tell you so much.  So whenever I travel I look for the clay galleries and museums, and I do go to NCECA fairly often.

Jaeger tureen

Jaeger tureen

How do you come up with new ideas?  Can you walk us through your creative process when coming up with new forms/ideas?  At times I think that I’ve only had a couple of ideas in my life, and I’ve spent all my years working in clay just trying to figure out how to express those ideas.  It’s the nagging feeling of never quite succeeding that keeps me going back into the studio with questions in my head.  I don’t know what I’d do if I felt like I had completely answered the questions.

vases before glazing

vases before glazing

But there are places I look for ideas and inspiration.  Ceramic history: I have stolen so many ideas from Tang and Song Dynasty pots, and 10th century Persian pots.  Also I look at textiles, for pattern and how it can wrap around a body; and to the garden and plant life.  Sometimes when I feel stuck, or curious, I give myself an exercise, like changing one element of a form (i.e. “what if I move the volume lower?”).  Sometimes that will trigger a succession of changes that evolves into a new form.

What does a typical workday look like for you?  My ideal typical workday allows me lots of time in the studio. I work best when I have fairly large blocks of time, and since I don’t have another job, I have that luxury of time.  I start every day with some form of exercise, either at the gym or a hike with the dogs, then spend some time on the administrative stuff, email and correspondence, and then hopefully will still have a pretty full day in the studio.  I’m not a night person.  I make a lot of pots, but I don’t work really fast.  Glazing especially takes me a lot of time, but I have found that there’s no way to make the pots I want to make without devoting a lot of time to them.

SJaeger at the wheel

Sarah at the wheel

What is your most valuable studio tool?  It would have to be my wheel.  I could probably find substitutes for any of my other tools, but the essential qualities of my pots derive from their origins on the potters wheel.

You have an established gallery connected to your studio where visitors can come purchase your work anytime.  What percentage of your income comes from these sales?  How did you develop your audience?  How do you currently advertise your studio sales?  About 2/3 of my income from selling pots (separate from any income from teaching workshops) comes from sales directly out of my studio. They have grown slowly over time, and I never imagined this would be the case when I started out.  Being near the Bray helps for 2 reasons.  First, many people who come to the Bray for workshops or shows also come to my studio.  Also, I think the presence of the Bray in Helena has created an unusual appreciation and market for pots in this community.  I have been in my studio/house for 24 years and have developed a loyal local customer base. I have 3 studio sale weekends per year in Helena, one in the spring and two in December, for which I mail postcards, send email invitations, and have a notice in the art section of the Helena newspaper.

At what point in your career did you make the decision to sell your pots for a living?  I came of age, and began making pots, in the early 1970’s, and I suppose I am a product of that era.  From my beginning with clay I wanted to make functional pots.  I believed strongly in the importance of handmade functional objects in people’s lives, and I was convinced that if I made good pots I’d be able to sell them. It was a seat-of-the-pants approach.  I had no concept of a career path such as exists in our field today.  During the ‘70’s I was a self-taught potter with a BA in English, working day jobs and making pots on the side at a potters guild in Denver.  I went to Kansas City Art Institute for my BFA from 1983-85 and from there to the Archie Bray.  During all those years I had part time jobs to make ends meet.  It was not until September of 1990 that I was able to make pots full time and support myself entirely, however frugally, by selling my work.

Jaeger striped bowls

Jaeger striped bowls

Aside from studio sales, what other venues (such as craft fairs, group holiday sales, etc) have you used to successfully market your work in your community?  I hardly ever did craft fairs.  I hated them and I never made much money at them.  In Helena I have some pots in the sales shop at the Holter Museum, a more public venue than my studio.  My primary local marketing tool is probably word of mouth.  I donate a lot of pots each year to those ubiquitous silent auctions for organizations I support, from the Humane Society to environmental groups.  Those donations give my work very good visibility in my community and are in my opinion good advertising, and they are a way for me to support these causes when I can’t write the big check.

Jaeger pitcher

Jaeger pitcher

How have your marketing strategies evolved over time?  How do you foresee them evolving in the future?  The internet did not exist when I started out, and now it’s huge.  This past year I hired a good designer and completely revamped my website, my biggest marketing expense ever but well worth it.  So far I have resisted social media (I’m not on Facebook or Instagram) because I resent having to spend too much time in front of a screen and, so far, I feel like I can get away with that.  Because I already have an established presence in the field I (maybe) have that luxury.  People earlier in their careers are in a totally different situation.

Jaeger tulip vases

Jaeger tulip vases

Finally, what advice can you give aspiring potters trying to make a living?  I have gone into some detail about my own history largely to communicate how long it took me to get to where I could make a living from pots.  Patience and tenacity are important.  Low overhead is really important; it means you don’t have to sell so much work to survive.  Low overhead pertains to real estate costs and also studio amenities.  It’s great to have a beautiful studio and state of the art kilns, but beautiful ceramics have been made for millennia without them.


For more info about Sarah and her work, please visit her website: