Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Everyday Artist*: From Sesame Street to printmaker to JAK POT

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*Everyday Artist is original to BoHo Home.
JAK POT sign designed by Barbara Gillespie, executed by Christopher Skura.
What's in a name? Well, if your initials are JAK and you make pottery, maybe the motherlode.

Join Everyday Artists as we profile Julie A. Knight of JAK POT Studio and take a gander at some beautiful wares to enrich your very own BoHo Home.

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Please describe your art.

In my personal studio in the Catskills I work in earthenware with a majolica glaze, painted with colored oxides.

Historically, majolica is stable, white, tin-glazed earthenware. Earthenware on its own remains porous after firing, but majolica glaze makes the vessel able to hold liquid, which allows it to be used for food. I use a contempory majolica without the lead flux because many of my pieces are for everyday use.

I also make stoneware fired at higher temperatures at studios in New York City. It becomes vitrified at the higher temperatures possible in a gas-fired kiln and water-tight without glaze, but the resulting look is quite different from the earthenware.


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Knight's pottery takes on a variety of forms (from left to right): a two-handled jug/vase, a squat inkwell-type vase, and a rounded commemorative jug. (JAK POT photos)

And before clay?

I was always interested in ceramics. I joke with my husband that my first exposure to the wheel was watching a Sesame Street film about pottery-making. The potter threw a mug on a wheel, and it was magic to me! I was still in love with it when I had the opportunity to do some ceramics in high school.

But in art school ceramics was considered craft, not art—which is totally wrong, so wrong!—and I just didn't listen to myself. I then fell in love with printmaking and majored in that. I still love it, too, but eventually discovered I couldn't tolerate the solvents used in lithography and etching and started making watercolor monotypes. I loved that process, but moving to New York City meant limited space—no room for printing presses.

As luck would have it, Greenwich House Pottery was two doors down from my second New York apartment, so I signed up for a class and haven't looked back. GHP is where I truly learned to throw. I'd done it in college, of course. But the instruction there was more sculpture-based, and I was more interested in creating functional work.

Funny thing is, I'm still in love with those mugs and cups; I'm still influenced by that potter on Sesame Street!


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A few of the mug shapes and designs in Knight's repertoire. (JAK POT photos)

How does your background in printmaking inform your ceramics?

The training has served me well with how I decorate a pot surface. I use colored slips—liquid clay with oxides as colorants—on the pots before the clay is completely dry and before any firing, sometimes brushing the slip onto the outside or inside only. When glazed with one glaze, firing makes it look as if two or more different glazes were applied.


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These two vases were decorated with slip but only one glaze. Firing brought out the variation in color. (JAK POT photos)

I also use a resist to layer the slips. This reminds me a lot of the printmaking process. I make multiple paper resists to achieve a repeating pattern. At times, after I've left the negative shape on the clay surface, I'll turn the paper over, pressing the slip onto the clay again to make the positive.


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The designs on these mugs were achieved with white slip and paper resists in positive and negative images. (JAK POT photo)

At first I only used this process with earthenware mugs and a white slip, since the earthenware is a dark color and the contrast shows through the majolica glaze. But in a recent group of mugs I used the paper-resist method with oxides on top of the majolica, having the oxide bleed through the paper, thus transferring to the glaze. At first glance it looks like a type of sponged-on area, but with closer examination you can see how the brush moved over the paper. It's very subtle, but I can't wait to make more.

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Knight used paper resists and painted oxides on top of majolica to finish some of these vessels. (JAK POT photo)

How have other careers or jobs influenced your art?

The arts have always played a role in jobs I worked to support myself. I'm a fine arts graduate of the Ringling College of Art in Sarasota, FL, a school started by John Ringling of Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus, in 1931. Although ties with the school were eventually cut, many students and graduates—me included—worked at the Ringling Circus wagon workshop.

My special skill was painting and "flittering" the wagons—applying layers of enamel, glitter and lacquer to the surface. I had to be careful not to mix the colored glitter; if an area was to be red, the wagon would have red paint and red glitter. While the base paint was still wet, I would grab a handful of glitter in my palm and blow it onto the paint. You have to work pretty fast. A colleague warned me early on not to breath in with the glitter up to my mouth. If you forget, you only do it once—a mouthful of glitter is awful!

Once the paint dried, I smoothed down the glitter with a bone burnisher and painted it with thick lacquer. The wagon then went to a spray booth to be covered in a thicker clear-coat, which gave the glittered areas more depth. Then I added glass jewels onto the highest points on each wagon to catch the spotlights during performances. It was a fun job as well as beautiful, but when I went home at night and showered, glitter coated the tub. When I did laundry I would find even more. I still have a few of the small jewels in a jar in my studio, and they make me smile every time I see them.


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A plain earthenware jar (left) fashioned by Knight becomes a one-of-a-kind treasure with the addition of glaze and slip decoration (center front). All three finished jars (center and right) show the variety of decoration she uses in her work (JAK POT photos)

Every inch of the wagons was decorated, and nothing was too large or too small to add on. In that spirit, when I'm first working out a new design in my art, I push the decoration to the edge of ridiculous before I step back and simplify.

Also in Sarasota I worked with Dr. Hans Wiehler, then head of the Gesneriad Research Foundation, as a botanical illustrator. My job was to draw these rainforest plants from live and dried specimens to accompany Dr. Wiehler's descriptions for scientific research. It was definitely a collaboration. Dr. Wiehler would guide you as you drew to insure you depicted the characteristics of the plant, which was more difficult if working with dried specimens, but also rewarding. He was, quite simply, one of the gentlest people I've ever worked for, and I think of him often when I'm in my garden. He died in 2003, but his specimens and papers are housed at the Selby Botanical Gardens, Sarasota.


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These images of unglazed earthenware vessels show the botanical detail in Knight's embellishment. (JAK POT photos)

Beyond that, I've painted walls at the Guggenheim between exhibits, done museum framing, designed frame moulding, worked as a mount maker and artist assistant, and now I teach ceramics to adults.

Describe your daily art-making routine, along with your studio or workshop.

My personal studio is in upstate New York, near Woodstock. For the last five years I've been working there with my husband, Christopher Skura, who is also an artist. His studio occupies the upstairs of our building, while mine is downtstairs. We collaborate every once in a while; he'll paint the large platters/chargers, which I throw.


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Sometimes Knight and her husband collaborate on ceramic pieces, such as this charger, which she formed and he embellished. (JAK POT photo)

How did you get from Florida to New York City?

I grew up all over the map, but mostly in the south and southwest. My father was a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army, so we moved a lot. I get teased by friends that if you talk about somewhere in the United States, I'll say, "Oh, I lived there."

My last year of school in Sarasota, I was awarded a place in a New York studio program run by the Alliance of Independent Colleges of Art & Design, working as an intern under master printmaker Judith Solodkin at Solo Press. The program was a chance to experience the city and see that it was a real possibility for me.

Christopher and I met at a party the first week I was in Sarasota, so I've known him as a friend since I was 19. We became a couple later, and when he accepted a position at the Guggenheim Museum in 1995, I went along.


How did the two of you end up with a studio in Woodstock, NY?

When we decided to get married, we wanted it to be just the two of us and tell everyone later. The person who issued our marriage license said it was good anywhere in the state of New York. We'd already planned to honeymoon upstate, so we ended up getting married in Woodstock, too. It's one of the oldest artist colonies in the country and the home of Byrdcliffe Pottery since 1902. Since then, many artists, writers and musicians have settled there. The energy of that creative community is what drew us to it.


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Knight works in her Woodstock studio, painting a majolica glaze onto a covered urn. The studio's living room can be seen through the doorway beyond her. (JAK POT photo)

We founded our studio there five years ago. It was previously a two-story garage used for storage, and it didn't have water or septic. It did, however, have electricity and a raw space, so we didn't have to do much demolition to reconfigure it. We made a small living area in the ground floor with a kitchen, a bathroom, and a living room with a wood-burning stove, plus a bedroom upstairs. In the city we have a studio apartment with our bed in a walk-in closet, so to have a complete bedroom is a real treat!

Getting the studio up and running was a big undertaking, but it's so inspiring to go there. We don't have a landline, cable or Internet, and we can completely cut ourselves off and concentrate on our work.

Where do your ideas come from?

All my 48 years of experience influence my work. Some days it's a favorite painting—not the exact image, but the feeling you get from looking at it—or a book I'm reading. Most of all I enjoy the act of making the work, and that leads me to the next piece.

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Metropolitan Museum of Art photo
There's a Minoan mug (left, dated 1950-1700 BCE) at the Met in the Greek wing that I often visualize. It astonishes me that it's survived, and it has a quality that draws you in. I want to pick it up so badly, hold it, drink from it. It's perfect, so perfect, that it has survived and we can view it in 2017. We don't know the potter’s name, but he or she is there in that mug. That’s the “it factor” I strive for: I want to make a mug that causes someone to want to touch it and use it.

How long does it take you to complete a piece?

It takes a few hours of actual making time. The real time is in the drying and firing. In my personal studio, it can take one to two months to fill the kiln, bisque, glaze and fire. But in the studios where I teach it’s much quicker since I'm not filling the kiln with only my work. But that work is like sketching; I don't consider it mine because it’s done for instruction.


Knight first makes a batch of mug bodies (left), then fashions the handles (middle) to attach, and finally adds her maker's mark to the baseall before any glazing takes place. (JAK POT photos)

What’s your favorite piece that you’ve made?

I was honored when I was asked to make an urn for the ashes of my friend, Sam Andrew, from the band Big Brother and the Holding Company. He married a good friend of mine more than 20 years ago and was such an amazing person—a talented visual artist as well as a musician, and so supportive of Christopher's and my artwork.


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Knight was commissioned to make this urn to hold the ashes of a friend, Sam Andrew, of the band Big Brother and the Holding Company, who died in 2015. The rich warmth of the earthenware peeks through the simple majolica glaze. But as the closeup photo on the right shows, the piece is not without detail. (JAK POT photos)

Beyond that, I'm very fickle. I always love the next piece I'm making. Once I finish something, it's not as exciting as what I'll make next.

How has your art changed over time?

My work can be over-decorated. I get excited about a new technique and I overdo it. But I've learned to pull back and simplify. I try to give myself boundaries, then see how much variation I can achieve within them; otherwise, there are too many choices. The combinations of glazes, clay, colors, and forms is just endless.

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Two tall, unusually shaped bases, reminiscent of African forms. The method of glazing lends a wood look to each one. (JAK POT photos)

Do you ever get blocked? If so, how do you deal with it?

I try to keep a few projects going at once, in different stages of drying and firing, which helps. If all else fails, I mix glaze, reclaim clay, or even clean. Just being in the studio doing something gives me new ideas.


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Reclaiming clay is one exercise Knight employs to ward off creative block. (JAK POT photos)

How do you market your work?

I’ve done craft sales, which are great but require so much work in a short time. I ‘ve been so consumed with getting my studio running the last few years, but now I'm working on having more of an online presence. Currently Martha Stewart American-Made sells my bowls on Amazon Handmade, and I have a Facebook page where I post my work and my husband's.


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Bowls by Knight include two (top) patterned using a paper resist. The white majolica-glazed bowl (lower right) is currently available through Martha Stewart American-Made on Amazon Handmade. (JAK POT photos)

What other artists do you love and why?

Picasso especially. He was a force of nature: no fear, never held back, so inspiring! Frida Kahlo for her openness and how she reinvented herself; Ed Ruscha for his humor; Robert Rauschenberg for the multitude of materials he used, including found objects; Leonard Baskin’s stunning woodcuts; Wayne Thiebaud for his paintings of cake. I can go on and on there are so many!


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Knight works on an abstract lantern at her Woodstock studio. The adjoining living quarters are visible in the background. (JAK POT photos)

Who has influenced you most in your work?

My first college drawing teacher, Pamela Blume, because she taught me how to see. Drew Montgomery was also an instructor I learned a great deal from. He gave me my first teaching opportunity at the Painted Pot in Brooklyn, where I discovered how much I love teaching. Throwing is so intuitive that having to explain all the steps made me more aware of my own working style.

Later on, I was given the opportunity to teach at Greenwich House, which is such a special place with so much history. All ceramic studios are unique. Not everyone who takes a pottery class will become a potter or ceramic artist, but when you come together in a space to learn a skill, or at the least to develop an appreciation of the media, you meet the most amazing people from all walks of life, joined by their love of clay. What could be better?


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One of Knight's finished abstract lanterns. "This is is a shape I've made over and over," she says. "Chris likes them on stools, like sculpture, but I prefer them as shades. With a light in them they look as if they could hover." (JAK POT photos)

What advice would you give an aspiring artist or collector? Any books to recommend?

I went to a traditional art school, where I learned drawing, painting, sculpture, ceramics, and printmaking. I wasn't sure how I was going to make a living, but I've always been able to support myself in art-related jobs. Moving to New York was key. Even there, I haven't been able to support myself by my art alone. I know it's possible, and I know people who have done it with hard work, a little luck, and much more hard work. But it takes a lot of money just to live here.


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Julie's painted decoration on this urn, as well as the botanical detailing on the feet, give it a vintage look
and feel. (JAK POT photo)

For a collector, I would say to collect what moves you. You’re living with it, so you should love it. If you love ceramics and form, it’s always good to take a class to understand the materials. Not that you want to be a potter, but it gives you a better appreciation of the media. Same with a drawing class; it can open up an amazing window to the world around you.

When I was 17 I read Frida, a biography of Frida Kahlo by Heyden Herrera. I've loaned it many times; it’s an amazing book. My husband also gave me one of his favorite books he read when he was young, and it describes the drive to be an artist so well: My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok. I love it, too.

If you want more...


   

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