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New Heights

New Heights

New Heights

February/March 2016 issue of American Craft magazine
Maren Kloppmann Portrait

Maren Kloppmann portrait; Photo: Mark LaFavor

The way Maren Kloppmann describes her move from utilitarian ceramics to sculptural installations makes the transition sound natural, inevitable. She sees all the subtle threads – how even as a potter, she favored form over function – and how they all wove together, preparing her for this chapter.

Don’t let that camouflage her courage. Because what Kloppmann is describing is also a reinvention, a kind of wholesale reboot that would make the boldest person pause – the gamble of walking away from an established career to pursue a new creative direction.

This is a story of perseverance, timing, and guts. It’s also a love story.

On a Monday morning last fall, Kloppmann lights up as she talks about the installation she is developing for Design Miami/2015. She has dozens of her hand-built porcelain forms laid out on a makeshift table in her studio in northeast Minneapolis. She’s working on their grid-like arrangement, the undulating topography created by their varying sizes. Should it appear random, she muses – or should it have more order, more repetition?

To listen to her speak is to understand that every part of her work compels her – completely, genuinely. She’s fascinated by the way volumetric forms – jutting from walls, casting shadows – can transform our perception of space. “You hang a wall piece there,” she says, gesturing, and “that whole corner shifts.”

A ceramist for 35 years, Kloppmann used to make tableware along with sculptural vessels. She has been focusing exclusively on wall pieces and installations only since January 2013. That’s when she announced her “functional sabbatical” – framing her departure from tableware as a break, an opportunity to explore another aspect of her art. She needed a story, she explains, a way to gently say, “Please don’t call me for pots anymore, at least not right now.” Professors get sabbaticals, she says. “I thought, ‘Well, now I get a sabbatical as a studio artist.’ ”

Saying it is easy; doing it, less so. “To have the courage to do that, when you’re a self-supporting artist, I think is astounding – I couldn’t do it,” says Mark Wheat, her husband. Kloppmann, 50 years old at the time, had spent decades establishing herself. The sabbatical meant ending or changing arrangements with her galleries, turning down five invitations to functional shows. It was like a trapeze artist deciding to perform a new routine – without a net.

But Kloppmann has experience making bold leaps.

Born and raised in Germany, she knew by the end of high school that she wanted to work with her hands. (“I was not very good academically,” she says, “which had to do a little bit with being in rebellion against teachers.”) A trade was a viable alternative to going to university, so she applied to a program that had an opening; it happened to be in ceramics.

For three years, Kloppmann trained with a master potter, replicating traditional Bavarian tableware. She received her journeyman diploma in 1984. The next step was to become a master herself. But first, as a graduation gift, her mother bought her a ticket to Iowa City, where her family had relatives.

“Thirty-one years ago, that’s when I arrived,” Kloppmann says. “I still remember coming into Iowa City. The [university] marching band was walking down the street, and I thought: ‘Where the hell did I land?’ ” She smiles. “But, as they say, I never returned.” The US has been her home ever since.

Iowa marked the beginning of a series of serendipitous connections. Kloppmann started working for a German potter, Christiane Knorr, who in turn introduced her to the ceramics department at the University of Iowa. It was Chuck Hindes, a faculty member there, who told the young artist about Penland School of Crafts in North Carolina.

In the fall of 1985, Kloppmann made her way to Penland, where she spent two years before heading to Detroit for a residency at Pewabic Pottery. “It was wonderful,” she recalls, “but it was such a struggle.” She had always had a teacher, someone giving her assignments, problems to solve. “Suddenly I had to create that for myself.” The other resident, who had been to art school, seemed to be on a different track. Mary Roehm, the ceramist who ran the program, encouraged Kloppmann to pursue her education – traditional trajectories be damned.

And so, at 27, Kloppmann enrolled as a freshman at the Kansas City Art Institute. At the time, nontraditional students were uncommon. “Everybody around me was 10 years younger,” she says. But, it turned out, her timing was unexpectedly fortuitous: She and her cohort would form Ken Ferguson’s last senior class. The influential ceramist “taught me to see my comfort zone, to be motivated to move beyond it,” she recalls. “To know that a deep well of ideas is waiting to be explored.”

Kloppmann went on to graduate school at the University of Minnesota. Looking back, she realizes how her thesis show presaged her current path: Twenty years ago, she restricted herself to the floor and the wall – no pedestals, no tabletops. But after graduation, pottery appeared the more viable career. By the late 1990s, Kloppmann was living in a rural outpost near the Twin Cities, firing her tableware in an old kiln at the enclave of legendary potter Warren MacKenzie. She was also working as exhibitions coordinator at Northern Clay Center, and, through another of her mentors, Randy Johnston, teaching classes at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls.

In her adopted community, the dream was land, with space for a home, a studio, and a big wood-fired kiln. Call it the MacKenzie model, but it’s also a kind of homesteading vision rooted deep in the American psyche. And for a while, Kloppmann thought it was her dream, too. Then, on a trip to Amsterdam, she was struck by the contemporary ceramics she saw. 

“All these crisp shapes and clear forms and colors,” she recalls, of the work by Belgian and Dutch ceramists who were firing in electric kilns – and highly influenced by design. The recognition was instant: “This is my tribe.”

Within a year, Kloppmann had moved back into the Twin Cities. She started firing electric – a controversial choice at the time. “The way I was brought up in school here,” she says, “if you fired electric, you weren’t a real potter.” She began developing her glazes, creating the recipes and techniques that give her surfaces their unique, organic, painterly feel. And in 2002, she got married.

For some artists, marriage might not be a pivotal point in their career. For Kloppmann and Wheat, it was the beginning of a partnership that would deeply enrich each of their professional lives. “We say to each other, ‘I couldn’t do it without you,’ ” Wheat says. “Which means: We couldn’t be where we are in our careers, I couldn’t do what I do without having someone to come home to, to share it with, and to empathize and sympathize and give strength to.” Wheat is a successful DJ for the Current, an alternativemusic public radio station. From the moment they met, the two have been able to talk – really talk. That kind of connection “makes such a difference in your well-being, in your creativity,” Kloppmann says.

Together, in 2010, the couple made a huge investment in her career; they signed a long-term lease on a 1,500-square-foot space in a newly renovated industrial building in northeast Minneapolis. It was a complete build-out. “We literally sat in this space and kind of together figured out what we should do with it,” Wheat remembers.

It was also a gamble – maybe the biggest leap Kloppmann had taken yet. “Maren paid for herself to go through school,” Wheat says. “She’s never been in debt – she doesn’t like the idea.” The new studio tripled her overhead – but she didn’t have to jump alone. “I thought my biggest role in the partnership,” Wheat says, “was to prepare her for us to [potentially] go into debt. The logistics of shifting the business the way she was – if it didn’t work, if the income didn’t come in …”

In the new studio, Kloppmann was drawn increasingly to the wall. She had begun experimenting with installing plates on walls at her previous studio, inspired by the expansive space. Those experiments, in fact, had led to her first commission, an installation in the lobby of a Minneapolis hotel in 2008. At the time, “I thought, this is it: I’m going to be an installation artist,” Kloppmann recalls. “Then the economy tanked.” Her tableware kept her afloat. Now, as she returned to the wall, her creativity exploded. In 2011, she had six commissions, and four the following year.

As exciting as the momentum was, commissions run on a different schedule from studio pottery, whose daily rhythm follows the beat of orders, sales, and shows. For a while, Kloppmann did it all: the tableware, the sculptural vessels, the wall work. “There came a point where it was just exhausting.”

In January 2013, with Wheat in her corner and a Minnesota State Arts Board grant in her pocket, she pulled the trigger. The sabbatical went into effect.

Here’s a spoiler, if it isn’t already obvious: The sabbatical isn’t going to end. “After a year, people were asking,” Kloppmann says – so she told them: It’s permanent. When a new direction calls your name this loudly, you answer. For Kloppmann, committing to the wall has given her the opportunity to explore a deep interest in volume, proportion, and negative space, without the constraints of utility. She counts the modernists Constantin Brancusi, Isamu Noguchi, and Ruth Duckworth among her enduring influences, along with more contemporary artists such as Ellsworth Kelly, Richard Serra, and Donald Judd, and architects Le Corbusier and Tadao Ando. She describes her work as situated between “architecture and archetype,” the latter referring to the shapes and patterns occurring in nature. She loves the threshold where the two overlap.

In the past year and a half, she has created no fewer than 14 new installations – an outpouring that wouldn’t have been possible, Kloppmann says, without the support of her new gallery, Hostler Burrows, based in New York. She connected with the owners, Kim Hostler and Juliet Burrows, in mid-2014, and they invited her to participate in a show, which led to her doing a special installation for their booth at Design Miami/2014 that December. In Florida, they offered to represent her – exclusively.

Last summer, they took her work to Switzerland for Design Miami/Art Basel, before embarking on a run that included Expo Chicago in September, Salon Art + Design in New York in November, and Design Miami/2015 in December. Kloppmann has been making a new piece for each show, each one more ambitious than the last. “Every project, every piece I’ve done for them, has opened up another thing, the next possibility,” she says.

“It is a truly special experience,” Hostler says, “to have a window onto Maren’s process and to witness her actively developing fresh ideas.”

To Kloppmann, it feels like a bygone dream is suddenly coming true. “When I was at Kansas City, I remember Ferguson saying to us, ‘OK. You get out of school, you develop your style, and if you’re lucky, you find that gallery – and they’re going to represent you, and they’re going to shape your career.’ ”

By the time she graduated, that pathway was gone. Artists needed more than one gallery to survive; galleries, in turn, tended to represent many artists. Hostler Burrows is old-school in that sense; while they have long specialized in midcentury Nordic design, they represent only seven contemporary artists. They have given her the “permission and support and confidence” to dive deep, Kloppmann says. “It’s a really beautiful relationship.”

People still call her now and then, asking about functional work. But Kloppmann has grown more comfortable telling them no – she’s on a different trajectory now.

“I feel really lucky what a kind of long and winding path I’ve gotten myself on,” she reflects. “There is so much that I picked up from all these different artists and different teachers and different environments,” she says – from techniques and aesthetic influences to ways of making a living.

“It’s duration. It really is duration of learning and exposure and influence – and sometimes maybe even rebelling against some things,” she says. “But in the end, it just all starts coming together.”