Interview with Jeanne Quinn

Interview with Jeanne Quinn

Published on Tuesday, September 2, 2008.

Lacemap, 2008, installation, detail, black porcelain, pins, wire, paint, vinyl, paper {h. 38 in, w. 54 in, d. 4 in}

Can you tell our readers a little bit about yourself?
I grew up in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., and spent a lot of my free time as a kid studying music. My non-structured time, however, was spent learning every craft ever invented. I went on to study art history and baroque music performance at Oberlin College. I wasn't sure quite how to put that all together after I graduated, and I spent some time apprenticing to a woodworker and living on a commune in Tennessee. Then I apprenticed with a violinmaker in Italy; I came back to the U.S. and got a job making flutes in Boston. Making instruments was really interesting, and had this great quality of combining the act of making with hanging out with musicians. But after doing it for a while, you realize that it is all craft and not much about creativity. I needed to be inventing my own things-although relating them to use and the body, as musical instruments did, was interesting to me. I began taking some ceramics classes at a community center and did a bit of work as an assistant to a wonderful ceramicist, Anne Smith. I realized that ceramics was the thing-it had that history of relationship to the body, but had the possibility for all kinds of invention. I ended up becoming a student for a few semesters at the University of Colorado in Boulder, where I worked with Betty Woodman-she became a great mentor for me. I then went on to graduate school at the University of Washington. Two years after graduate school, I got a job teaching back at Boulder, and I've been there since.

Can you describe your work, some of the ideas behind your making process and how you came to working in this way?
For the past seven or eight years, I've been making installations, using multiple small parts to create a larger piece. They often reference decoration or the history of decorative arts in some way. I'm also interested in material as a metaphor. I'm interested in the dialectical nature of ceramics: soft and plastic to hard and immutable, permanent and fragile . . . these contradictory qualities invite endless exploration.

In 2001, I spent 8 months in Europe-most of it was at the International Ceramic Center in Denmark. They invited me to be part of a symposium called "Object and Installation." Up to that point, I had been making vessels that I arranged in small groups, usually pairs, to create some kind of narrative still life. I thought it was interesting that they were inviting me to be part of a conversation about installation, as I hadn't considered what I was doing to be installation-it was so small-scale. But simply having someone else frame my work around this question made me understand it in a new way: I started thinking about how the space between objects was as expressive as the objects themselves.

Can you describe a typical work day?
It varies tremendously. If I'm teaching, I generally focus on school for about 4 days a week. I try to spend at least one whole, uninterrupted day either drawing at home or working in my studio. I often hire an assistant during the school year-I like the rhythm of work that is imposed by needed to be ready to work with an assistant.

If it's during the summer, or other time off, I usually spend one or two hours in the morning doing business work-correspondence, phone calls, working on a grant or proposal, etc. I pack a lunch and head to the studio and work steadily until dinnertime, listening to NPR all day.

How is your work studio set up and what do you value about it?
At the moment I am working in a studio in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. I share the space with a sculptor, Liza McConnell, who is a smart, funny person who I love to have around. I also have a stunning view of lower Manhattan, the East River, and the Williamsburg Bridge. I can watch the weather move in from the west, and can see when it is starting to rain at the Empire State Building; I know that it will hit Brooklyn a few minutes later.

It is a simple space; two large tables are on castors so that I can rearrange freely, depending on what I am working on-drawing, casting, installing, etc. I have aircraft cable strung across the ceiling at 1' intervals, about 12' up, so that I can hang things and see how they look.

So I value the view, the flexibility of the space, and the high ceilings. And the industrial beauty of the architecture. I value the incredible solitude of my studio. I feel free to experiment and try anything. It feels like a place of possibility.

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?
For me, as a student and now as a teacher, school's greatest value is as a community. You meet a lot of people when you go to school. Some of the people who were most valuable to me in graduate school were not official faculty members, but artists in Seattle who had a connection to the school in some way. Jeffry Mitchell was a fantastic artist who periodically participated in critiques at UW; I admired his work tremendously and cultivated a relationship with him. He remains a dear friend. I had professors who helped me find a studio after graduating, who helped connect me with galleries and collectors . . . all of these things can happen outside of a school context, of course. I have also found residencies to be great places to meet other artists who can be helpful, both personally and professionally. But school concentrates people who are passionate about the same discipline, and provides a more formal space for important conversations to happen. I found that helpful as a student, and I value it tremendously as a teacher. It's very stimulating. School keeps me from being lazy; there's no time for it.

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?
Probably the most important experience was my first extended time working in Europe. I began with two weeks as a guest professor at the Muthesius Hochschule in Kiel, Germany. I couldn't have had a lovelier group of students-they were all women and they really took tremendously good care of me. We had a wonderful time talking about their work-there were some different sensibilities that were very interesting to me-but the important thing about that experience was realizing how similar we all were. The subculture of ceramics completely trumped the superculture of nationality.

I then spent a month working in a porcelain factory, Kahla, in the former East Germany. This was one of the hardest experiences of my life; in retrospect, I learned a tremendous amount. There were fifteen artists and designers who had been invited to work at Kahla Porzellanmanufacture; everyone spoke German except for a designer from Japan and myself. Almost no one in the factory spoke English. I was so accustomed to making allies through language, and this ability was rendered useless. I had to figure out other ways to navigate this incredibly rich situation without using the skills I always relied on. It was a great realization, ultimately, to see that I had more resources than I knew, but tremendously challenging and sometimes painful while I was there.

I then went to the International Ceramic Center in Denmark, where I spent seven months. I had a show while I was there at the Grimmerhus Museum, with Sadashi Inuzuka and Satoro Hoshino. That was the first show that I had in a non-commercial gallery, and so of course I made a large installation. I hadn't previously thought about the unspoken agreement that had existed while showing in commercial spaces: I was agreeing to make things for sale. As soon as that was removed, my work changed. To my surprise. I hadn't even realized that I was responding to that pressure.

Is there anything you wish you had known when you were leaving school but didn't that you might share with us now?
I'm sure there is but I can't think of it.

How has your experience so far been different or similar to your expectations when you set out?
Surprisingly similar. I ended up getting a teaching job, which is what I wanted. It has allowed me to pursue my studio life in a totally free way, to make whatever I like. That is an incredible gift. I always assumed that that was the way it would be; what is different now is that I realize how precious that is.

What is your relationship to design, craft and the fine arts? How do you see your relationship to each? Or one in particular?
I am interested in all three. I am constantly looking-and, most importantly, seeing things in person. I'm much more interested in going to museums than in looking at magazines, for instance, although of course I do both.

I think what is most important, though, is simply to be interested in my own work. It is easy to see something and say, "oh yes, that is what I should be making; if I make work like that I will be successful." I have realized over time that introspection, investing time in my own ideas-wherever they come from-is what leads me to my most interesting work. Rather than worrying too much about what categories others might impose on it.

Was there a point in your career that you made a decision to sell your work/pots for a living? Could you describe how you came to that decision?
I've never done it. I've made my living through teaching. It's always great to sell work, but I've never relied on it.

What is your relationship with galleries (on and offline)? How has that relationship changed over time?
I have worked closely with galleries in the past, although that is not happening at the moment. I have enjoyed those relationships-I have been very careful in choosing who I wanted to work with over an extended period. Currently, as I have been primarily making large-scale installations, I have been exhibiting in non-profit art spaces, museums, university galleries, etc-places where the market is relatively absent. Although I have sold some of these large installations, when it happens it feels like an accident. It's not something I put energy into.

What role does the internet play in your work?
I put up a website about two years ago, and have been very glad that I spent the time and energy to do it. It's great just to be able to refer people to the website when they are interested in my work. It's also handy for me, to have a repository of all of my own information. When I need to look up the dimensions of a piece, it's always right there.

Most inquiries about my work-invitations for shows, lectures, etc., come by email these days. I think that people are happy to have the website to reference-when someone else recommends me for a show, it's easy for a curator to look me up.

I also use the web as a visual reference. I think that a lot of artists do this. I just discovered the photograph file at the Library of Congress that has tens of thousands of online images-I've been researching chandeliers for an upcoming project, and it is an incredible resource.

I've also been doing some collaborations over the last year or so. One collaboration started in person, in Brooklyn, and was completed at a distance-being able to send images instantly was critical. I'm just embarking on a collaborative group project, "Manufacturing Content," which involves each of us using CAD programs to create designs that we will render using rapid prototyping technology. The whole project thus far has existed via email-we're about t o meet in person for the first time.

What other artists inspire you? Where do you find inspiration for your designs?
Currently my favorite artist is Diana Cooper. I love the way that she makes drawing and installation into one thing. She also has a fantastic sense of play with materials-she really sees possibilities in things, all the while maintaining a very sophisticated sense of form. She's super-playful and super-serious.

I also love the drawings of Nina Bovasso-again, colorful, playful, but very ambitious, very grand. Also Thomas Nozkowski. It's so interesting-I've never been all that interested in abstract painting/drawing. But I find his work totally compelling. He is onto something big. I can't name it but I sure recognize it.

The artists I'm interested in change all the time-I think it depends on what I need to learn at a specific moment. I study what I need to learn.

Can you tell us about future projects?
At the moment I'm working on drawings (perhaps not surprising, considering my answer to the previous question). I'm experimenting, trying to get my sense of materiality/physicality that exists in my installations into drawings. It has allowed me a lot of space to play, which has been great. I'm also interested to see where these collaborative projects are going.

When you have a moment to actually breathe (!), what do you do for fun?
The obvious answer is Aikido-it's a Japanese martial art that I have been training in for about six years now. I like how non-verbal it is, especially after a day of talking, talking, talking at school. I find it very useful in a number of ways. I like being a student, having someone else in charge. I like learning something completely different. I like that it involves big movement, whole-body movement, instead of the micro-movements I make while working in my studio. It also gives me a great lens through which to look at the world, which is very different from the art lens.

I also love to cook, and I spend a lot of time reading/thinking about food. When I am in New York, I work as an intern at Murray's Cheese, and I have learned a lot that way. I love it. I have also met a lot of high-level New York foodies.

I always like to ask, do you have any influential books or texts that you can recommend?
I think that fiction ends up influencing me more than anything else. Or occasionally movies. Some idea will strike me, some emotional state, some character, some sensibility . . . something will catch my imagination and get me going. Currently I'm working my way through the books of Walter Mosley (incredible characters, incredible prose) and Haruki Murakami (it's like Japanese magical realism).

Any last golden nuggets of information you would like to offer up?
Be yourself. If that means making art, great. If it means finding another way to express yourself, do that. If you end up making art, make work that is important to you. All of the other motivations will fade away.