Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Potter to Potter Interview: Shawn O'Connor

In this first of a series of Potter to Potter interviews, Christina Kwan recently spoke with Shawn O'Connor whose work is featured in Daily Conversations, a solo exhibit at MudFire Gallery.

I have to admit, the idea of speaking to Shawn O'Connor intimidated me at first. His pots are so robustly elegant and his artists statement so eloquent that I thought I would have to be at my most "on" to be on par with his conversation. Quite the contrary happened. Shawn is as casual and friendly as the potter on the wheel next to yours. And his genuine candor made me feel like I was talking to an old college buddy. I guess at the heart of it all, that's what his pots are truly about - an invitation to connect, an opportunity to nurture, and just a natural sincerity. I guess maybe all pots are just mini-me's of the potters who created them.

 CK - So just to start off, where are you from? In a nutshell, how did you get where you are now? 

Shawn - Well, I grew up in a small town in Maine named Minot, so Maine has always felt like home to me. After I ended a residency at Arrowmont, I really just didn't want to move back into my parent's house.

CK - Of course, no one wants to do that. So what are you doing now?

Shawn - Luckily, an opportunity just sort of fell into my lap - working for the Robert M. MacNamara Foundation. They pay for me to live and they fund my studio work. 

CK - Well that sounds pretty much like every artist's dream. You're very lucky. Is clay your primary medium? How did you first become interested in it?

Shawn - Yes, Clay is my primary medium. I was always into art growing up, so it naturally evolved from there. In college I was a sculpture major and in my junior year, I took my first ceramics course. I initially took the class in order to use clay as a sculpture medium and I just fell in love with the material itself. That eventually turned into learning throwing and then solely making utilitarian pots.

CK - I think that's how it happens for most people. It starts off as just a human impulse to create and express oneself and then you decide to take little steps here and there and before you know it... you're a potter! That's how I got interested in clay as well. As your career continues to develop, what part of the process are you most enjoying and what are you most surprised by?

Shawn - What I most enjoy doing is being in the studio and just making the work. What I'm most surprised by is how much work is needed beyond just making stuff. I'm always surprised by how much self-promotion is really involved in being a working artist; you really have to work to get your name out there and keep it relevant. It's funny how much that affects your business. Whether or not your work has true merit, if your name is "branded" or easily recognized, people will be more willing to purchase the work and consider it worthy. 

CK - Yeah, they never teach you that in college. The "real world" of being an artist is never a topic of discussion in art courses. So why is it that you make primarily utilitarian/functional pottery?

Shawn - I'm really interested in creating the experience of using the work. Of course the actual object and its aesthetic is important, but what I'm truly trying to do is create a connection; it's more of a sociological way of looking at pots. I like the idea of people using my pots day in and day out, with that experience becoming a part of their everyday life. 

CK - I completely understand that. I think that's actually an essential core of functional pottery making and most potters probably feel the same way you do. It's a way to build human connection through an object. What techniques do you employ that make your work different? Are they traditional or things you've invented? What makes your pots special? 

Shawn - That's a tough one. Right now I fire my work in a wood kiln, which is a method of firing that's been around for ages so it's pretty hard to "break new ground" in that discipline. I'm constantly experimenting in trying to break the traditional aesthetic and I actually just wrote an article regarding this very topic (Ceramic Technical Nov Issue).

CK - So do you think you've succeeded in doing this?

Shawn - I think I've succeeded in doing this in the sense that I'm continuing to find new ways, new possibilities to break the tradition of the past. I feel like we're in this period that's sort of like how Raku was in the 80s.  Woodfire is a real trend right now, but everything is looking somewhat similar. I'm just continuing to try to set myself apart from that. 

CK - When did you first learn to woodfire and why did you continue working in this type of firing?

Shawn - Well my first woodfiring experience was up at a residency at the Watershed Center in Newcastle, Maine. That was when I learned how to woodfire and I immediately felt a soulful connection to it because of my family background. Wood firing involves stacking and splitting wood and that was just something that was engrained in me throughout my childhood. I went back to Watershed the very next summer as a staff member and I just kept doing it. The more I fired, the more my interest (and love) grew for it. 

CK - Very cool. Not many people have that sort of background so it's great how strong of an affinity you have to working with wood. How much of your time to you devote to "making"? Are you also teaching or doing other things to supplement your craft?

Shawn - I am fortunate enough to just be making. I spend about an average of 50 hours a week in the studio. Sometimes it's more because, for instance, this past week I worked Monday through Friday just in my studio and then I spent the weekend wood firing. So if you count firing as part of "making", then it goes beyond 50 hours sometimes. 

CK - What accomplishments are you most proud of at this point in your life? 

Shawn - I'm pretty proud that I got my graduate degree, my MFA. I never would have thought I was going to get an advanced degree of any kind. When I was young, I hated school, so it was never a thought in my mind that I would do that. I also have had two articles published in Ceramic journals and that's another thing I never would have dreamed I would be doing. 

CK - What has been your motivation or your inspiration? 

Shawn - To be honest, my motivation is that I just love what I do. I'm really a maker of things and so it never feels like "work" for me. I love being in the studio. And as far as inspiration, I think it was one of my graduate professors who said it best; he said, "You're not a butterfly. You don't go through a metamorphosis; you evolve progressively." So I agree with him in that there's no overnight change or inspiration that results in any dramatic change in my work. There's a slow progression and evolution so as I learn and experiment, the work sort of inspires itself and I just continue to figure things out and move forward. Does that make sense?

CK - Of course. It's not always about eureka moments, but rather, development and growth that happens over time. So my last question is how do your collectors feel about your work and what kind of feedback has been the most memorable or most influential?

Shawn - Wow, umm.. you know, I don't really recall particular "collectors" per se, but I did get a memorable email recently from Jack Troy. He's a ceramics guy - a real figure in woodfire. I've admired Jack for a long time, both as an artist and as a person. He sent me this short email saying that he was using my cup and thinking of me. Though it sounds so simple, it really made an impact on me. To have someone I've really admired say that their using my work is a big deal because Jack truly understands what a good pot is. Knowing that he's using my pot on a regular basis is really… fulfilling. 

CK - Yeah, I can only imagine. It's sort of like your work coming full circle, to have someone you really admire admiring your work. That sounds like a really satisfying validation of everything you've been working towards. Congratulations on being awesome!
Check out Shawn's Solo exhibit online or in person at MudFire Gallery.

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