Art Talk: Stephanie Kantor

Art Talk: Stephanie Kantor

CultureJune 28, 2014

For our first-ever ceramics interview, we talked to local clay-tamer Stephanie Kantor about the joys of giving up control in art, how she comes up with the crazy shapes she does, and whether or not she's being visited by the ghost of Patrick Swayze.

What do you like about ceramics?
I like working with ceramics because it's a process-oriented material that goes through various working stages.  Clay is such a physical material when it’s wet, you can shape it and manipulate in any way.  Once it’s fired, you can’t go back so there is a level of commitment.  Decorating vessels can be a bit like a puzzle. It’s complex to find decoration that compliments the shape and how that imagery changes and moves around a three dimensional form. Slip and glaze have a variety of qualities; they can be opaque, translucent, matte, and glossy.  This allows for depth in layers of painting and I love the glassy quality of glaze.  There are endless options to what you can make in ceramics, I’m really into vessels. Trying to reinvent or reinterpret such a historical and traditional object is challenging and exciting. Physical objects have a presence and potential that I don’t think exists in all 2-D work.

What's it like to express yourself using ceramics vs. more common methods like drawing or painting?
Painting is really immediate, impulsive, and direct. I like putting down a pattern or color and being able to see the results right away.  I recently started making paper cut outs of my pots.  Originally this was a way to plan the process of building and decorating, trying to be more present in the entire process. A funny thing happened, some of the paintings on paper were better than the actual pots. I realized that not all of these need to physically exist in ceramics. There is a directness and energy in my painting that is really hard to capture in ceramics. Ceramics takes patience and a lack of control.  It’s hard to control everything in ceramics, materials change, painting and glaze application varies, how the kiln gets fired, these are all factors that can make or break a piece. This is why I love and sometimes hate ceramics.

How do you know what kind of vessel to make? Are they functional?
I always start by looking at historic vessels. I make paper cut outs and paint them in different ways. Then I make xerox copies, cut them apart, and collage them back together.  This is a really freeing and exciting exercise that has yielded some interesting results.  That’s a hard thing to do in ceramics, especially making vessels, is to make a new form that has never existed.

My vessels are not functional, at least the larger ones that I am making now. I recently had a huge increase in scale, these objects have a presence that I don’t want to get convoluted with use and utility.  They are contemplative objects that I see as three-dimensional paintings. I do make functional pottery here and there but it is usually when I am testing glazes or working through a surface decoration idea.  I am a sucker for cups. I will always love making cups, buying them, or trading with my friends.

Where do you draw your inspiration from?
All over the place. I look at historic pots, which I have obviously mentioned, and both historic and contemporary painting. I am obsessed with patterns, textiles, color, and clothing where many of these are pulled from travel.  Travel is a huge inspiration and I try to do as much as possible (as my bank account will allow).  When abroad, I’m always looking for how really simple things are different, interior spaces, markets, store displays, clothing, etc. For example after a trip to Morocco, I found that interior spaces were just decked out in pattern. They use pattern on top of pattern on top of pattern.  I’ve kind of adapted this into my aesthetic, where more is more.

What ideas are you trying to convey or explore with your ceramics?
I’m trying to figure out what cultural exchange in the 21st century looks like.  Porcelain, specifically Chinese, was one of the first global commodities that was traded throughout the world. Porcelain had such a influential impact, that many countries and cultures began imitating these products. I find this fascinating. Now when I find objects from around the world that I love, I want to imitate them or make my version of that thing. I’m interested in what gets lost in translation and how ideas from one place can affect another.

What's the hardest part about working with ceramics?
Accepting failure. Because you don’t have complete control, kiln and materials, you have to prepare yourself for potential failure.  This doesn’t always happen but there is a looming chance that it could, but often you can be quite happily surprised. Ceramicists operate very differently than other artists, we understand that there is loss and we accept that.

Have you seen Ghost? Is that your everyday?
Of course, that’s how I spend the majority of my time. 

Ceramics gets less attention than other art forms it seems like. Are we wrong in saying that? If not, why do you think that is?

Well that’s complicated. Historically, yes, you are right. We’ve been dealing with the division of craft versus fine arts for a long time. There is baggage that comes along with the crafts. Ceramic artists have been exhibiting in fine art museums for a long time, Betty Woodman, Viola Frey, Robert Arneson, and Peter Voulkos. These artists have paved the way for contemporary ceramics. Recently, it is more common to see ceramics in fine art galleries and there has been more inclusion of clay at the Whitney Biennial in the past few years. Contemporary ceramics is really exciting and I think that division will be blurred very soon.

What's your biggest pet peeve?
Grumpy people.

What's your favorite 80's band?
Talking Heads.

If you could combine any two animals to create one super-animal, what would you create?
A penguin and a cat, imagine that.