Joanna Poag Studio Visit by Handwerker Gallery



    On a recent drive to Rochester, gallery director Mara Baldwin and I had the pleasure of meeting with Joanna Poag, a ceramicist and professor at Roberts Wesleyan College. Poag began her position earlier this year and was still settling in to her new workspace. Currently, she had her computer set up in front of a pin board with text pages, images from her MFA project and other drawings as a source of inspiration and reflection for her current work. Poag’s work consists of large ceramic forms hung together to reveal patterns. When not being displayed or still in process they sit on shelves like experiments patiently waiting to be completed. She explains that she starts by drawing the design on her computer. This lets her see how the shapes work (or don't work) together when they are stacked on top of each other. From there she prints out the shapes and uses them as templates for creating her work. Poag’s uses long thin forms that wind around each other, a style that is not structurally possible with a normal clay body. Instead, she uses paper clay; a type of clay with paper added to it to increase its strength. This allows Poag’s work hold up in the process without having to sacrifice any of its formal qualities. 

    Conceptually, Poag draws from chaos theory and other mathematical elements. Though she admits she doesn't have the same grasp as a mathematician on chaos theory, the readings are influential to her development of shapes and forms. Works such as Flourish blend together chaos theory and undulating forms to create a piece that draws the viewer in to the formal qualities of the work. Poag's practice however, is not strictly for those who have a high level understanding of mathematical theories—she negotiates the line between the tradition of working with clay, the formalities of abstraction, the structural limitations of earthbound gravity, and the social experience of interacting with her work within a space.

    As a result Poag’s work can be accessed through multiple lenses. She mentions that her work has was of speaking to people in very different ways. “A mathematician will see my work much differently than a Yoga master,” Poag explains, an aspect of her work she finds positive.

    When asked about her choice in color and why she chooses to almost exclusively work in black and white, she explained that color is encoded with so many emotions and ideas, both personal and social. To emphasize the focus on the forms she is creating Poag chooses to use neutral blacks and whites in her work. 

  Untitled, Equilibrium Series

Untitled, Equilibrium Series

    Scale is another element that seems to be a constant consideration in her work. Poag expressed that would like to work exclusively with larger pieces but there are limiting factors such as the size of the kiln and the the space she has to work in. She feels as though her work is much stronger as large scale installations, but due to these limitations she has begun to work in smaller scale and has found some success. 

    Currently, Poag is exploring new ways she can connect these forms. Rather than multiple pieces hanging together she wants to see the repeating forms exist as one connected object. As this project is just beginning it was fascinating to talk to the artist and see how her process works be hind the studio full of experiments, analogous to a laboratory. 

    Joanna Poag’s ceramic work utilizes traditional means of making but take on more contemporary concepts. Her work subverts the partition between art and craft through medium and concept.

  Progression, 2013

Progression, 2013

    Thanks to Joanna Poag for our wonderful conversation and visit to her studio. Check out more of her work here.

Julie Crosby Studio Visit by Handwerker Gallery

 Originally a cow milking barn, Crosby's studio sits among a lush rural landscape. Photo credit: Julie Crosby

Originally a cow milking barn, Crosby's studio sits among a lush rural landscape. Photo credit: Julie Crosby

    On a rainy morning in early July, gallery director Mara Baldwin and I had just arrived to the home of potter Julie Crosby. Located only a short drive outside of Ithaca in the town of Mecklenburg. Crosby’s studio and kiln is situated on one acre of land amidst corn fields against a distant line of trees. 

    After greeting us Julie introduced us first to her hand constructed kiln, built ten years ago with a grant from the New York Foundation for the Arts. Each year Crosby invites a few potter friends to help fire the kiln. In exchange for space in the kiln, they help with all aspects of labor, including wood preparation, stoking the kiln around the clock, and clean up afterward. 

    Her kiln is a magnificent piece of work in and of itself. The kiln is called a Bourry Box wood-fired kiln.The tall chimney stands about fifteen feet high,  protruding though the open structure that protects the rest of the kiln from the elements. It is designed to efficiently burn the wood while allowing the flame and ash to travel through the ware chamber. It is based on the design originally made by the Frenchman Emile Bourry in 1911. Many versions of this design exist throughout the world today. About two cord of wood per firing get used helping the kiln reach a temperature of about 2400 degrees, during the 35 hour firing. It takes a wealth of knowledge and skill to operate the kiln. From finding the right placement of unfired ceramic objects to maintaining the proper temperature. “The flame finds different paths through the kiln depending on where you placed the objects.’ Explains Crosby “This leaves different markings on the objects.” This variability is why Crosby chooses to use a wood kiln as opposed to an electric kiln. 

 Serving Bowl Wheel thrown with added and cut handles. Cornelian slip inlaid line with natural wood ash. Made at watershed during residency 2013. Photo credit: Alex Solla Photography. 

Serving Bowl Wheel thrown with added and cut handles. Cornelian slip inlaid line with natural wood ash. Made at watershed during residency 2013. Photo credit: Alex Solla Photography. 

    Variability is ever-present in her work. After showing us the intricacies of the kiln Crosby lead us into her studio space, a small renovated barn with yellow paint and green trim. Inside, the walls are clad with pottery stacked shelves; some of the pieces are finished works and others are at various stages in their evolution to completion. She lifts up a large round bowl and shows us the middle, which is speckled with beautiful goldenrod colors. Crosby explains these irregularities as the result of how ash leaves beautiful markings while other times it can be too much or different from what she had hoped for. Another variable that can affect the work is the presence of salt in the kiln. The salt leaves a polished glassy look to parts of the objects. In addition to the ash and salt leaving its mark the flame leaves beautiful charred lines across the work. As the flame travels around the kiln during the firing it darkens the edges and side of bowls and cups leaving only a ghostly outline of the objects that were around it.

    Crosby sees all of these elements as a key part to understanding her work and its integral relationship with her home life. She picks up one of the mugs off the bottom shelf of a rack of finished works and traces the design with her finger “This reflects the land out there” she points through a large window out to a cornfield that sits behind her studio. During the spring you can see the different plots of land sectioned off as different crops begin to grow, giving large blocks of greens and browns that you can see her work. 

    Crosby’s family also plays a role in her work. Her husband is a contractor and helped renovate the barn to be her studio space. Additionally his flexibility in work lets her travel to craft shows and other events to show her work. Towards the end of the visit we were greeted by  Crosby’s daughter, and active participant and collaborator in her mother’s studio. Crosby wants her daughter to see her process so that she understands the time being put into the work and the different ways of gauging labor, values, aesthetics, and time. 

    In this way, Julie Crosby blends and subverts the spaces of work and home. Her studio practice operates around the structure of her daily life, and likewise aspects of home life become elemental to her pottery. The variables of Crosby’s home life culminate in her work as a cooperative component to the randomness of the flame and ash in the kiln.

    Thanks to Julie Crosby for hosting our visit to her studio. Check out more of her work here.

Kala Stein Studio Visit by Handwerker Gallery

 UMBRA Vase, 2015 Slip cast porcelain, appliqué, modular mold system Featured in the 65th Rochester-  Finger Lakes Exhibition, July 26-September 13, 2015 at the Memorial Art Gallery, Rochester, NY

UMBRA Vase, 2015 Slip cast porcelain, appliqué, modular mold system Featured in the 65th Rochester-  Finger Lakes Exhibition, July 26-September 13, 2015 at the Memorial Art Gallery, Rochester, NY

Kala Stein’s work travels between the worlds of function and concept. She is known for her non-traditional mold making and casting techniques. Her work has been shown in galleries across New York state as well as in Tampa, Florida. She was named one of the Top Ten Emerging Artists in Ceramics Monthly magazine (May 2011). 

    Last week, gallery director Mara Baldwin and I had the pleasure of meeting artist Kala Stein. Her studio is located right off the only stop light of the small upstate New York town of Honeoye. The space is her studio, a meeting place as well as a gallery. Across from shelves of casts and half finished projects stands a two-tier display shelf showing her work for sale. These objects are comprised of samples, prototypes, first, and seconds. Stein mentioned that even though Honeoye is a small, quiet  town, every once in a while people stop in and buy an object. “It’s a bonus” Stein describes, “it’s kind of nice when people do stop in and I can have a conversation about my work.” In addition to these sales Kala does custom commissioned work. Currently, she is working wedding plates for small boutiques. One of her most popular works are her Finger Lakes tiles. They are sold in wineries and galleries as a high end souvenir. The success of these projects give Kala the freedom to explore more creative and experimental projects. 


VM: What initially drew you to ceramics? Was there something more than just the medium itself?

KS: I grew up in a rural area on a small farm, so I grew up working with animals and growing food all of my life. Looking back to when first got into ceramics I think its because of that labor that I missed. When I went to college I was in a dorm and displaced from that landscape. I missed the connection of land as workspace. Even thinking about the garden in this way— where it is both natural and man made. Like with clay, similar to growing food it almost comes from nothing. Unlike wood or metal there is no sheet form or dimensional qualities to it. Clay is so malleable. That relates to growing food where you just start with a seed and nothing happens unless you provide it will all of these other conditions to grow. That connection with the labor as well as the physical aspect of working with clay is what really drew me in. 

 Slip cast greenware drying before the bisque firing, 2015

Slip cast greenware drying before the bisque firing, 2015

VM: Did you go to school with the intention of working with clay?

KS: No I started in graphic design but it was too insular and isolated, but I think it still comes though in my work. With the strong linear elements and the graphic qualities. 


 Stacked bowls, custom order for a colorful kitchen, 2014 

Stacked bowls, custom order for a colorful kitchen, 2014 

VM: How do you negotiate the objects that are more static versus the objects that are used in home spaces or more traditional realms?

KS: This work engages that question. You can put them together into a still life grouping in different ways. This series called Form and Plenty, partly because of the pallet and the relationship to candy. I’m trying to reference something nostalgic or a memory. To me there is a sense of separation from being a real object because its flattened. They come from drawings off the paper and they're sort of extruded through the clay slab. There is still a volume, but they're also non-objects… I was thinking about the possibility of closing the tops of all of the objects but I didn't because I do like the possibility of them being able to be used. I don't want to deny that option. People can relate to things when they have a function that’s another great thing about ceramics. It so functional, it’s used in everything from space engineering to medical engineering to the table. To me it feels very democratic. So the work from Form and Plenty is definitely more static but they're not closed off so there still is that potential for activity.   

VM: In terms of how you value the objects how do you compare the objects that were intentionally made for a gallery space versus the object with more functional domestic uses? 

KS: There’s sort of a sweet spot for the functional ware because you're up against so much competition, including Target, mostly Target. People are used to paying three dollars for something, and its really hard to contest with that. So theres a sweet spot where I can get more of what its worth in terms of my materials and time. With a mug for instance, a mug actually takes a extremely long amount of time because of the handle attachment. Where as a large serving bowl would take less time. So the price I can get for the bowl sort of off sets the price I know I can sell the mug at. So in the craft show scene the price is not always the appropriate to the time and work that went it is often based around what people expect to pay. People always expect the price to be based off the size. So sometime you have to play in to the psychology of what people are expecting to pay. With the cast work that is the process is more complicated, there is more time and materials put into the process. They are however shown in a realm, such as galleries, that understand that and understands paying more for those objects.

 Bird's eye view of UMBRA Vases, 2015

Bird's eye view of UMBRA Vases, 2015

VM: What are you currently working on

KS: I'm working on new pieces with a pattern involved. I wanted to bring more surface patterning to these pieces. I’m usually more into monochromatic and  clean surfaces in my pieces but I’m trying to bring in pattern through integrating it into the form. I’m doing vector drawings of the patterning and then milling that out on masonite and then making a mold of that then integrating that onto the piece. I think this piece in particular [points to a unfinished object] where the surface is breaking out of the bounds of the edge, that’s really interesting to me. In this work I am attempting to bring the surface pattern out, but I am suspicious of surface pattern because it sells so well. I want to make sure I stay connected to the original ideas of the work.

Special thanks to Kala Stein for opening up her studio to us. Check out more of her work here.

History Center Visit by Handwerker Gallery

 The library at the History Center.

The library at the History Center.

Last Tuesday, gallery director Mara Baldwin and I went to the The History Center in Tompkins County to get a first-hand look at the history of craft and cottage industry in Tompkins County. Upon arriving we were greeted by  Donna Eschenbrenner, Director of Archives and Research Services and Kayla Sewell (IC ’14), Visitor and Administrative Services Manager. First, we were able to take a look at the History Center’s open storage collection which contained objects ranging from typewriters to handmade baskets. Kayla had prepared some research guides to help see what objects and materials could be used in later research visits. A large portion of this list was stored in the archives, which contained thousands of glass negatives along with historical documents that could illuminate how craft was utilized throughout local history. After a quick overview of the archives we were led to take a look at the larger objects in storage. We descended down a staircase and through an alarmed door. Once the lighter were on we were able to see a vast collection of objects: everything from millinery (hat-making) tools to beautiful handmade Shaker rocking chairs. This was only an initial visit but it gave me a good perspective of the rich history of craft in our area. Thanks to Donna, and Kayla at the History Center for hosting our hist and keeping  these invaluable resources accessible to the public.

Garden Update #1 by Handwerker Gallery

 Our very own indigo plants!

Our very own indigo plants!

Earlier this summer, artist Sarah Gotowka, gallery director Mara Baldwin, and I planted a few beds of flower at the Ithaca College Organic Garden, coordinated by Professor Anne Stork of the Department of Environmental Studies and Sciences. This is in preparation for the third show at the gallery this fall, for which Sarah will use the pigments for a natural dye workshop. You can check out her interesting practice work on her website here. Across four raised beds we planted cosmos, marigolds, coreopsis, purple sunflowers, indigo, and elderberries. These flowers are used in both traditional and contemporary dye making techniques. 

Educational programming will be planned this for fall in the gallery based around dye making activities, so stay posted.  It has been a little over a week since we planted the seeds (and seedlings) and they are looking great. With the help of plentiful Ithaca rainstorms all of the seeds have sprouted and are growing nicely (aside from a few nibbles from a groundhog friend). Every week I will provide a brief update to the garden as well as some information on one of the flowers and its history with dye making. This week I am going to talk about the history of natural indigo.


Natural Indigo is one of the oldest types of dye used for dyeing textiles. Its use can be traced all the way back to the Bronze Age to the Harappan Civilization (3300-1300 B.C.). This civilization was regionally centered out of what is now India and Pakistan. For centuries indigo was pressed into small cakes and traded with European civilizations. Both the Greek and Roman civilizations valued indigo in their cultures. The two civilizations originally believed indigo to be made up of mineral, but in the late 1200s after exploring Asia, Marco Polo realized that indigo was extracted from plants. As trade routes to China and the rest of Asia were discovered indigos prevalence grew in Europe. Indigo became know colloquially to Europeans as Blue Gold because of its high value and enduring qualities.

Today synthetic indigo dominates the market. It uses numerous harsh chemicals thats pollute  waterways. Additionally as the dye process becomes more streamlined more and more toxins are exposed to consumers who use synthetically dyed products. There has, however, been an increase in demand for natural indigo due to the environmental impacts of synthetic indigo. This process works through a fermentation process with natural ingredients such as ash water and lime. The waste water can safely be reintroduced to the soil where it can provide nutrients for plants and micro-organisms. For centuries this process has been used to dye fabrics, creating fashion staples such as blue jeans, I am excited to be a part of this process and see it come to fruition over the coming months. 

Robyn Love Studio Visit: Exploration Through Art & Craft. by Handwerker Gallery

    Yes ,    Crocheted cotton, 2008. Approx. 6" diameter. 

YesCrocheted cotton, 2008. Approx. 6" diameter. 

The work of Robyn Love is playful, yet evocative. She works to combine contemporary concepts with traditionally domestic techniques such as knitting or crocheting. Robyn also uses her work to give her audience the opportunity to satiate what she calls, “a hunger to work with our hands”. She has had work shown in the Brooklyn Museum of Art, as well as numerous site-specific pieces around the globe.

Drive twenty minutes outside the center of Ithaca, N.Y. head along Ellis Hollow Creek Road and you will find the Constance Saltonstall Foundation for the Arts. The Saltonstall foundation supports artist and writers of New York State, annually awarding residencies and stipends by jury. There I had the pleasure of speaking with Robyn Love, an artist based out of Newfoundland, Canada and Queens, New York, who was finishing up the last few days of her month long residency. It was a rainy June day, and the land around Saltonstall was especially verdant. After a short ride up a meandering driveway I came upon a small house where Robyn was staying; there we spoke about her work and process:


 Robyn Love shows some of her work created during her residency

Robyn Love shows some of her work created during her residency

VM: How did you begin working with textiles and more craft-oriented mediums?

RL: Well when I went to art school I did train as a painter and I continued to work as a painter probably for six years after art school. Then I did a residency at the Vermont Studio Center in 1994, where I realized that I kind of hated painting. For some reason, I don’t know why, but I had brought a lot of fabric and embroidery supplies with me to my residency. That was my breaking point; I put all of my paints into a corner and I started using fabrics and began to knit. That was when I made my first pieces, suddenly I realized that this was what I actually wanted to do…I had seen a show with work by and artist named Elaine Reicheck-- she was the only artist that I had seen at that point using textiles as serious fine art with no reference to craftiness. It was serious conceptually sound fine art, that she knit embroidered and stitched. I felt as though I had been given permission that I had not otherwise felt.

VM: As you have gotten into working with textiles have you found you have been able navigate a way to place yourself in a realm where you can show your work with out being called too crafty? Or do you not care?

RL: Well the landscape has changed so much, it’s kind of unbelievable really. I want to say I try to sidestep that conversation, but that not really true. In some of my early work with knitting I did some site specific pieces and I really wanted the knit craft to be strong. So I do care about that aspect.

    Unconditional Yes,     Installation and performance, Trustman Gallery, Simmons College, Boston, MA.  2010.

Unconditional Yes, Installation and performance, Trustman Gallery, Simmons College, Boston, MA.  2010.

VM: I’ve seen two of your installations, Unconditional Yes (2010) and, The House Museum (2005-2010), they both seem to create or use home-spaces. I would like to talk to you about how you see the home as a space to work or a place where art can be created. Do you work from home?

RL: I have a studio, but it is much different from here. So coming here was different to be working in a “white box”. I found myself bringing material over into my living quarters to be in a more domesticated space while I work…I’m always interested in blurring that line of what is art and what is life and why are we separating them. I am currently helping curate a show of visual artists who use craft techniques, mixed in with local people from Cape Breton who knit, spin, and embroider functional objects. We are going to present them with no hierarchy; a sweater will be next to a fine art piece… to me that’s very exciting.

VM: Unconditional Yes (2010) and similar projects engage the audience through participation. Could you talk about how you see the role of the audience as producers in the work and the relationship that exists between you and your collaborators and audience?

RL: I think a lot of that comes out of being curious about people… It had been a process of doing projects where I didn't necessarily intend to have other people involved but somewhere along the way I find I need help. And I realized that it was this participation, that is what is really amazing about the projects. I decided to see if I make the project about the participation, then what happens? Sometimes what happens is that I realized that people are so hungry to touch real things and make things. I did a project at Wave Hill, a botanical garden in the Bronx (House Study/ Handmade). It was so unexpected-- I thought I would make dye from plants and I’ll sit in my little studio and spin.  I don't know what I thought I was gonna do [laughs]. But people started wandering in and asking questions, and I would show them how to card wool and how to spin.The next thing I knew there were hundreds of people, and the place was packed for two days a week. I had to have volunteers come help me. There were 75-year old men sitting next to kids, all spinning. It was crazy. I thought, wow, what is this hunger? I think it taps in to something. I think (SpinCycle 2013) also taps into this. 

   SpinCycle ,  Installation and Performance, Brooklyn Museum of Art, Brooklyn, NY. 2013.

SpinCycleInstallation and Performance, Brooklyn Museum of Art, Brooklyn, NY. 2013.

VM: I agree- SpinCycle was a really interesting project in the way you set up the relationship between yourself and the audience using a mirror. Could you talk about that decision and concept a little bit more?

RL: For a while I had the idea to turn my bicycle into a spinning wheel, so that I could ride somewhere and spin. After talking to my cyclist friends and trying to figure it out technically I realized, it would be cool if someone else sits on the bike and they would power my spinning wheel. It all just happened pretty organically. Even the mirror part, I needed something so that we could see each other. So what happened was that distance that you talked about made it safe… That little distance combined with the activity of pedaling encouraged people to really open up, in a very short time, three minutes or five minutes. People would start telling me these intimate stories and there we were together making this beautiful thing.

Special thanks to Robyn Love for opening up her gallery to us. Check out more of her work at her website here.