Interview with Sanam Emami

Interview with Sanam Emami

Published on Tuesday, September 2, 2008.

Tulip Vase and Dish, 2008, porcelain, silk screened underglaze {h. 9 in}. Photo/Joe Mendoza.

Can you tell our readers a little bit about yourself?
I am a studio potter and professor at Colorado State University. Except for the one year I lived in New York City, I have been teaching full-time since finishing graduate school in 2002.

For the past four years, I have traveled to Iran in the summers to see my family. The immersion of speaking Farsi and becoming engrossed in the daily life in Tehran for one month each year has had an impact on me. Although I was born in Iran, I left when I was six and had not returned since 1981. The visual and material culture in the Middle East has followed a different historical trajectory than that of the west. I am often drawn to Pre-Islamic and Islamic art in Iran and attempt to incorporate elements of these influences into my work. The influences are at time visually apparent on my forms and the patterns that are embedded in the wet clay, and at other times, they are only present in the method of juxtaposing selected patterns and images on the surface with silk-screened imagery. Some of my current work places abstract ornament next to more photographic images of nature. I am interested in playing with the idea of representation within the broad scope of Islamic art and architecture.

Can you describe your work, some of the ideas behind your making process and how you came to working in this way?
I work primarily in clay. Sometimes, my curiosity about other disciplines and activities such as silk screening and printmaking in general; on paper, on walls, on clay leads the work in different directions; however, I find myself focusing the majority of my studio time making utilitarian pottery and tiles.

Function is the predominant concept that ties my work together. Function and abstract ornamentation are constants. The idea of function is elastic and in flux. It is a starting point, a system that allows for endless imaginative solutions and variations. Within this framework, questions of form and surface arise and there is a play between the aesthetic and functional qualities of the pot or tile. My pots are time consuming, layered with multiple processes and yet still designed for daily use.

Can you describe a typical work day?
During the school year, my studio days are very divided. I work best when I have consecutive hours of studio time, but you adjust and find a way to get some things done. Currently my studio is at school and this means that at some point the studio is part of the office and the two are never completely separated. The winter break and summer break allow for a very different kind of studio day. That is the time when I can forget and put aside the daily activities of teaching and administration and focus on making pottery.

The type of studio day is organized around where I am in the process. I always try to throw on the pottery wheel in the morning. I am more alert and able to balance the physical activity at hand and the ideas that are swirling around in my head. Most other activities such as stamping, applying silk screens and trimming are done over the course of a few days when the clay is still wet and flexible.

How is your work studio set up and what do you value about it?
During the past ten years my studio space has changed almost yearly. My studio needs and set up are very simple. I need running water, a pottery wheel, a couple of tables and some shelves. I suppose what I value about the studio is that I have a space to work and that I am still excited and inspired to get to there and be with the work.

What is your background and education?
My undergraduate degree is in History with a focus on the Middle East. I always thought I would either go to law school or become a historian. I enrolled in art classes, mostly printmaking and ceramics, but these were among many of my interests at the time. Three years after finishing school, I decided to pursue a career in clay and enrolled as a special student at the University of Colorado, Boulder. After a two year residency at the Archie Bray Foundation, I began graduate school at Alfred University in 2000.

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?
I am not sure there is such a clear line or boundary between formal training and real world experience, nor has there been such a clear boundary for some time. Although most artists today do receive a degree from an institution, there are many other variables that factor into the impact of formal training. Timing is really important - when one finishes a degree and begins another. What one chooses to do before seeking a terminal degree also affects how the MFA will impact an artist. I spent seven years working, doing residencies, traveling, researching before entering graduate school. My two years in residence at the Archie Bray Foundation happened before graduate school. I learned from other more experienced residents about being an artist, multi-tasking and utilizing time: time to be in the studio, be productive and to value the time to reflect and talk about the work. This informative period had as much impact on my artistic development as did graduate school.

Many so called "real world" experiences are in place because of institutional and academic connections or support. We all need training and time to develop our skills as craftspeople. The systems and networks of apprenticeships are far smaller in the 21st century than the 17th or 18th century. The academic institutions provide not only precious time for the development of critical thinking and training, but also connect people to each other. This includes "real world" spaces. I think that the response to a question like this is very much directed by the question. If we approach these spaces as fundamentally separate, we continue to perpetuate the idea that they are not interconnected.

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?
The most influential and career changing experience for me outside of school and academia was the year I spent prior to graduate school and the Archie Bray residency at the studio of Matthew Metz and Linda Sikora in Houston, Minnesota.

Matt stayed and worked in the studio during my first three months of my time in Minnesota. This time was invaluable for me. Matt was in the studio early in the morning, worked all day and often went back after dinner. He talked to me about the details of running and maintaining a studio. Matt and I often talked extensively about everything from pricing work, relationships to galleries, influences of history and the general state of contemporary studio pottery. He was very generous with his time and his ideas. He told me once that perseverance as much as talent was what kept more people in the field. I think he was right.

Is there anything you wish you had known when you were leaving school but didn't that you might share with us now?
I thought that once I finished graduate school that somehow there would be more clarity about how to move forward and make decisions and make my work. I assumed that the failures would be less than the successes, and that the anxiety of being an artist and pushing through ideas and projects would diminish. I have been out of graduate school for six years and I realize now that those things will always be a part of the whole experience. Perhaps how one copes with the complexities and challenges changes as time moves on and skills develop.

How has your experience so far been different or similar to your expectations when you set out?
My one thought for this question is that I expected to have more consistency and continuity in my life after graduate school. Now I realize that many of the concerns that I had prior to graduate school were not the result of not having a degree, they are just part of the daily challenges that are necessary for growth and experimentation. They keep me interested, curious and wanting to rise to the challenges of going to the studio daily.

What is your relationship to design, craft and the fine arts? How do you see your relationship to each? Or one in particular?
Many philosophers and writers have written extensively about the problem of these historical divisions. The creative acts that inspire and have had a lasting impact on society utilize aspects of all three: design, art and craft. When these words get politicized and used to reinforce ideas of hierarchy, economic value and prestige, then I am wary of them. I think each generation, going as far back as Plato and others, have defined and redefined the role of work in society and the value of labor related to the human hand and head. As Richard Sennett writes in the The Craftsman, "Making is thinking." I am interested in what we are able to create when we focus on the connections of these divisions and I can be the thinker and the maker.

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 hope that decision is somewhere in my future, but I do worry about how functional pottery is valued in our culture. Sometimes I think that everything in the world, including painting, sculpture and glass, get more and more expensive. The vast majority of ceramics, and pottery in particular, seem to exist in a pricing range that was determined many years ago and has not changed over time. I think there is a big question for me about keeping the work accessible and trying to gauge value relative to the marketplace.

What difficulties arise in both making and selling your work and how do you overcome these?
Since I teach full-time, for me the difficulty is having the time to be in the studio. The selling of the work seems to be less of an issue. The pricing of work and the way our culture values the hand made and the functional pot seems to be the more pertinent question for me.

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?
My relationship with galleries has developed slowly over the past few years. There is a lot of potential to link up patrons, artists and galleries online, but the question of quality and sifting through lots of information at once is also a reality of the internet. I have a website that archives past and current work, and often I think about selling work from my website. That may happen one day when I am no longer teaching full-time.

How does an artist go about acquiring business and marketing skills if they aren’t a natural at it already, and cannot afford to hire someone to help them? How do you market your work and what avenue has been the most successful?
I don't even have a business card so I am certainly not qualified to answer this question. Ann Hamilton was visiting Alfred University a few years ago and said she spent three full months each year on the business and marketing of her artwork. I have colleagues who are also able to devote that much time to business side of things. I think perseverance and necessity are needed to create and market artwork.

Before and after graduate school, I said yes to every gallery and exhibition opportunity. I am trying to be a bit more selective now, but it is never easy or clear how and when to say no to an opportunity.

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?
Inspiration and influences can come from a photograph of an architectural structure, an historical pot as well as an excerpt of an essay or story. I absorb and fold inspiration into my pots from sketches, textures, shapes and the play between layering all these ideas onto clay. Often inspiration is not an immediate or direct step. Rather, it is an interactive and prolonged relationship that takes time to develop. I see many things that interest me, and sometimes the fun comes through sorting through the inspiration to find the particulars that need to move into the work.

Can you tell us about future projects?
I want to revisit the Tulip Vase. I am thinking of increasing scale and introducing new imagery on the forms. I also want to revisit a project I did at the end of my residency at the Archie Bray Foundation - tiles on a painted and silk-screened wall. I am also playing with color by working with both light and dark clay bodies. The shift has really changed the balance between the forms and the layered surfaces.

When you have a moment to actually breathe (!), what do you do for fun?
Bike rides, cooking meals at home and watching movies.

I always like to ask, do you have any influential books or texts that you can recommend?
I just finished A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini and am currently reading The Craftsman by Richard Sennett. Other favorites include: Ornament: A Modern Perspective by James Trilling, On Beauty and Being Just by Elaine Scarry, Ornament & Abstraction, edited by Fondation Beyeler and The Persistence of Craft edited by Paul Greenhalgh.