Interview with Ayumi Horie

Interview with Ayumi Horie

Published on Tuesday, September 2, 2008.

Bowl, 2008

Can you tell our readers a little bit about yourself?
I work as a studio potter in the Hudson Valley of New York, making functional pots in earthenware with animals drawn on them. Every few months, I travel to teach workshops and do visiting artist engagements at universities and craft organizations around the country and internationally. Additionally, I'm on the Board of Directors of the Archie Bray Foundation, the oldest residency in the country devoted exclusively to ceramics. Six years ago, I bought a hundred year old country church with a dilapidated building attached to it that I've since renovated into my home and studio. My studio is sandwiched between my living room and kitchen on one side and the back yard on the other, so my studio life feels very integrated with the normal rhythms of maintaining a home; I stoke the wood stove, snuggle with my dog (who's usually glued to the woodstove), have a snack, check my email, pull some weeds, stack some wood, and then go back to the studio. A great day in the studio might include making a table-full of forty bowls with some new twist in the ribbed pattern, while listening to a nail-biting audiobook, and having a delicious lunch outside with a friend.

Can you describe your work, some of the ideas behind your making process and how you came to working in this way?
My work is largely informed by the process by which I make it. I try to rely on the skill I have in the moment of making and accept what my state of mind brings to it. My cardinal rule is not to overwork a pot, but rather to throw it or assemble it with freshness and candor. If a tear develops, I patch it with a band-aid of clay; if a pot is accidentally dented, it becomes another thing that defines its character. There is great pleasure in understanding a pot's history of making and seeing that it might have a certain awkwardness or vulnerability.

At Alfred as an undergrad, I developed a process called "dry throwing" in which I trim to center using a pin tool, scoop out the inside using a loop tool and thin out the walls by pushing them out with a rib. I use no water because I like the surface of moist clay, rather than wet. This method allows me to preserve the inherent textures in clay that I love- the stretching, cracking, and sagging. Fingerprints have a different kind of crispness and I can coax out a delicate edge of a line on a massive wall. Using this method, I can also work more spontaneously and intuitively because I don't have to wait for the clay to dry out quite so long. When I glaze, I try to keep up the same level of spontaneity and intuition so I can keep things fresh. I've found that if I set up 100 cups to glaze at once, my exhaustion and desperation at coming up with new ideas and variations pushes me to take risks and grow.

Can you describe a typical work day?
I typically work a 10 hour day, 12 if I have a show coming up, and at least six days a week. 6-8 hours is production time with at least 2-4 hours of computer and other work sprinkled in. I work in month-long cycles of production/dirty work followed by administrative/clean work where I photograph, post new work on my website, pack and ship. This seems to work well for me, as I need time to reload my mind and think how the next generation of pots will shift.

How is your work studio set up and what do you value about it?
I'm thankful everyday that I'm not in a basement studio, as ceramic artists often are. When I renovated, I made sure that I had plenty of light and air for my own mental health as well as for the pots as they dry. In the summer, I can open the doors to let air circulate and in the winter, southern exposure and the low sun bring direct light into the studio where I can lay out my pots. I've also set up a work area just outside my studio door where I can dry pots and do dusty work.

What is your background and education?
I have a BA from Mount Holyoke College, a BFA from the New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University and a MFA from the University of Washington in Seattle. My background is as a documentary photographer, I worked for a few years after college shooting for weekly papers in Seattle. I can still see parallels between my photo work and my functional pots; an interest in everyday life, a love of material, and formal compositions that are softened by texture and a bit of disorderliness.

There’s lots of talk about formal training vs. “real world” experience amongst artists these days, and I see real value in both. Since you went the formal route, what do you think art school gave you (besides a degree) that you may not have received had you not attended?
My formal art school training gave me a solid technical foundation, a broad network of friends and colleagues, and most importantly, the ability to critique my own work. I value the opinions of certain friends, but on the whole I feel that I have a decent sense of how my work needs to develop and when I'm being too safe and conservative. While pushing work to a new level can be very uncomfortable, I am my own harshest critic.

Could you describe some of the most influential and career changing experiences you have had since leaving school? What about these experiences was so important?
My work is largely made for other people. Of course, I have the need to make things, to work with my hands and be creative, yet the thing that is most important is that the work comes full circle by finding a home and being used. To this end, community has been crucial to both my studio practice and to the business of selling work and having it exist in the bigger world. I make work within a community whether they are physically present or not and I make work to foster community.

My two-year residency at the Archie Bray Foundation in Montana came at a moment when I knew just enough to survive in a ceramics studio but not enough to really thrive on my own terms. What the Bray gave me was endless encouragement in the studio and countless role models of artists who had designed balanced, meaningful lives. Having smart, funny, kind people around the studio made taking chances a whole lot easier. It also gave my pots a place in the world through local sales and national exhibitions. The community that exists there and the network of people internationally who are connected to the Bray continue to feed my work and life.

Is there anything you wish you had known when you were leaving school but didn't that you might share with us now?
In school, I never heard the words pottery and small business spoken together, but this is the reality of it, with its extreme swings from small bookkeeping details to a larger creative vision. My photographic skills have come in handy with publicity and computer skills are essential for dealing with galleries and websites. They also never told how hard I would work or how much fun I would have.

What is your relationship to design, craft and the fine arts? How do you see your relationship to each? Or one in particular?
I love calling myself a potter; the word itself has no airs or smugness and carries with it a sense of timelessness. Nearly everyone, in every geographic place and at every point in time since human beings created settlements, has understood what a potter does; I feel I am part a meaningful continuum.

I'm much more comfortable with the moniker of craftsman and designer than I am with artist. I'm a craftsman in the sense that I've largely committed myself to one material and am concerned with function, use, and accessibility. I'm a designer in the sense that I understand how my aesthetic translates into various materials and am happiest when I have various side projects in media other than ceramics. Spending three years renovating my house full time helped hone my aesthetic more than anything else. Making daily decisions about trim, shingles, gutters, mullions, and tread thickness made certain aesthetic patterns evident to me and even brought more clarity to my ceramic work.

I'm much more interested in practice than theory. Rather than talk about something, I prefer to just do it, get my hands dirty and explore first-hand the problems and solutions to a project. Tacit knowledge, the knowledge that comes from repeating something over and over until it's embedded in one's body or mind, is something I seek as much as explicit knowledge, which is the more quantifiable, rational rules that define work. When one makes the same basic thing again and again, as a potter does, problems and interests shift. This repetition never bores me. While I've been throwing the same basic cup shape for the past twelve years, I can see a clear progression in its changing. My throwing has become softer and the cups feel more attuned to gravity. The back and forth of thinking and making, thinking and making fine tunes my ideas and opens up the possibility for a spontaneous touch. A poke in the belly of a wet cup or a green dot by a monkey ear could be just the thing to clarify the identity of a pot. Having an open-ended process in which anything is possible without consulting others or disrupting production, as a designer might have to do, gives great freedom, potential, and satisfaction. I'm entirely self-sufficient in my creative process.

I see elements in my work as relational, so I rely on intuition to navigate through problems. For instance, the height of a cup, the position of a handle, the waver in a lip are all elements that change from cup to cup and also relate to each other in different ways each time. When I decide which animal to draw, what gesture it will take and at what scale to draw it, I'm making decisions based on the relationship of all those elements to each other and to the drawing. Almost none of it is planned out; if it was, my work would lack freshness. I love more than anything the possibility of acting spontaneously on a pot, so that it truly is a singular object and an object which is a record of a collection of moments in time. This is also a way of creating value through impulse and chance. Locking myself into a perfect prototype doesn't appeal to me, as it might a designer, at least in ceramic studio work. Using intuition and tacit knowledge to give a pot what it needs in that moment is dependably exciting.

Was there a point in your career that you made a decision to sell your pots for a living? Could you describe how you came to that decision?
It was clear to me once I committed to going back to school for ceramics, that I would make my living selling pots. I felt that the only way I could make something good was to devote myself entirely to it.

What difficulties arise in both making and selling your work and how do you overcome these?
Being a studio potter, especially one whose work is so dependent on a particular touch and intuitive decision-making, makes it nearly impossible to out-source any work, the way most businesses do these days. It's a very old-fashioned model, complete with a studio assistant who works an average of twelve hours a week for me. My assistant helps with jobs that do not need my hand but take a lot of time, such as loading and unloading the kiln, prepping clay, packing and shipping. Having control over the entire process on-site allows me to keep my standards high and gives me flexibility, because I don't have to rely on anyone else. The downside, of course, is the amount of time and energy involved.

What is your relationship with galleries (on and offline)? How has that relationship changed over time? What role does the internet play in your work?
I have several galleries that I have casual relationships with and several wholesale accounts, but I've tried to keep these limited. Over the past few years, I've found myself being overcommitted and overwhelmed so I now try to be realistic about how much I can produce while keeping the quality of work high and carving time out for research. Unlike industry, which makes a commodity, a handmade pot coming out of an individual studio is made with a different intention. Profit is not unimportant, but the relationship created between object and maker, object and user, maker and user are key. Recently, I've made a conscious commitment to put even more time and care into each piece, so that the fact that it's handmade becomes even more crucial.

While some potters recoil from computer work, I love the process of taking and posting new pictures, updating my home page, and designing postcards. I spend quite a bit of time on the internet and on my website. Because it's the primary way people do research and because it's my most important outlet for sales, I'm fairly diligent about keeping it up to date. The best thing about having a presence online is that I've developed relationships and friendships with people who buy my work or simply email to exchange dialogue. In the past, when I was selling wholly through consignment galleries, I felt totally uniformed about where my pots were going and what, if any, effect they were having on people. The internet has opened up a great community for me.

How do you market your work and what avenue has been the most successful?
Links, blogs, and postcards that are beautiful or funny enough for recipients to want to keep.

You must have some favorite designers that you look to for inspiration. What other artists’ inspire you? Where do you find inspiration for your designs?
Mostly I look to antiques for inspiration- primitive American furniture and Japanese folkcraft and woodblocks mostly. When I travel, I also seek out antique store to see what gorgeous handmade or constructed thing I can find. Ceramic artists I love include Annabeth Rosen, Ryoji Koie, Jean-Nicholas Gerard, and Michael Connelly. Designers I admire include Tord Boontje, Hella Jongerius,Sori Yanagi and Piet Stockmanns and my favorite illustrator is Sara Varon, who wrote Chicken and Cat.

Can you tell us about future projects?
Aprons for potters and porcelain pulley lights.

When you have a moment to actually breathe (!), what do you do for fun?
At the moment I'm in Denmark doing a residency at Guldagergaard, and my favorite thing to do here is ride fast on country roads with no clue of where I'm going or what's around the bend.

I always like to ask, do you have any influential books or texts that you can recommend?
Right now I'm reading The Craftsman by Richard Sennett

Any last golden nuggets of information you would like to offer up?
I'm working on dreaming more.

Ayumi will be holding a pottery sale with guest artist Julia Galloway on October 25 and 26, 2008. The studio is located at 167 Cottekill Road, Cottekill, NY.