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.
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.
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.
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.