Senses of Living® Décor

October 2006
© 2006 by Bret S. Beall


My friends know the kind of art that appeals to me. So, I wasn't surprised when a dear friend in Ann Arbor sent me a newspaper clipping several years ago of a ceramic vessel that just screamed "organic art." The clipping only indicated the Detroit gallery that was displaying the vessel. Being the experienced researcher that I am, I tracked down a telephone number for the gallery, and called them. It took several back and forth efforts, but they finally were able to give me the artist's name and her phone number. This was during the busy season for her, but eventually we were able to talk, when she shared a bit about her style and goals.

That was about three years ago when I first encountered Jennifer McCurdy and her ceramic talent. I've exchanged the occasional email with her since then. I recently saw one of her vessels featured in a spread in the July issue of Gourmet Magazine, and took that juxtaposition of food and design (a hallmark of Global Organic Designs) as a sign to reach out to Jen and see if she'd do a Senses of Living® interview. I was thrilled when the email from her popped in agreeing to be interviewed. Knowing Jen McCurdy has enhanced my life, as has her art, so please read on to enhance your own life.

Bret: Jen, you know I'm a huge fan of your work. Could you tell me a little bit about the Path that got you to your current style? What is your formal education? How did you start initially in art?

Jen: It has been a windy and somewhat rocky path so far, but the main constant of it has been the little choices of direction that maintain a stubborn commitment to do my own work. I'm 50 years old, and I started working with clay when I was 16. I was living in Michigan at the time, and through school I started working on the potter's wheel, and found that I just really liked the feel of the clay on the wheel. Every opportunity I had, I got to the potters wheel. I studied art in college, and after graduating I worked to make a living at it. As most potters, I began by making cups, plates, and other sellable items. One has to make a living, yet one also has to experiment. It's an incremental process, slowly building, similar to anyone's career. I've always pretty much worked for myself (as has my husband), so we have been quite self-directed. We have three children and have guided them to value self-direction.

Bret: Have you always worked with porcelain? What other media have you experimented with? How did those experiments turn out?

Jen: I've experimented with many different clays, and I use many different clays now. I'm known for my porcelain, but I also use terracotta and stoneware. I keep coming back to the porcelain, as that is the purest clay form to me. When I used to glaze my work, the glaze was brighter and more pure when it was on the porcelain. It was a natural choice for me. I've been interested in pure forms, and have always wanted to throw forms that had a sense of movement. Like vases that grow upward … I just wanted to capture movement.

Bret: What are your influences and inspirations for your style and creations.

Jen: It's really very much process-oriented for me. After I throw a simple and flowing form on the wheel, I take it off the wheel and, while it is still wet, alter it into a new, more organic shape. Then, when it is half dry, I carve away the clay to complete the design. It's sort of a deconstruction process. Consider a shell that you find on a beach. You can see the perfect whole of the shell. It looks pretty cool on the outside, but if you break it open, you can see the pattern indicating how the shell grew. At some sort of philosophical level, this is a kind of "truth" that I like to pursue in my work. With this deconstruction process, one is dealing with space as well as time. Time becomes important to try to communicate in the process. One can appreciate natural things such as shells or bones, but what is appealing to me is their response to time moving through them. Consider a smooth stone, which started out rough and took many years to achieve its current smoothness. Time in inherent in its current form. This translates into my own work in that I don't set out to make something that looks like a pre-existing form. What you see is the end product of a dynamic process.

Bret: You live on Martha's Vineyard. How does your physical environment impact your work? Have you lived elsewhere? You also travel a lot throughout the year to various shows and exhibitions; how does this travel impact your artistry and creativity?

Jen: Certainly I am fortunate to live in a beautiful place, and I try never to take it for granted. Through my life, I have lived in Delaware, California, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Florida, and now Massachusetts, in that order. At home, I maintain discrete roles in my family as a wife, mother, cook, dishwasher, etc. With my kids who are nearly grown up, we have typical family roles. I've always had my studio attached to the house, even before I had children. Clay is pretty much a 24-hour process that requires continuous tending, covering and uncovering the work. Moving through and supervising the stages of where the clay is wet to where it is dry is very important, and when it needs to be worked on, it doesn't wait, so I'm always minding the clay. I try to organize my days into a fairly tight routine. My kids think I'm crazy, when I tell them they're looking at the artist now, or that they're looking at the cook now; we'll see how they turn out when they get to my age. I try to get up at 6am, and get everyone off to his or her goals (like school). Then I go on a 20-mile bike ride. I try to go every day regardless of weather. It's fairly temperate here, and I ride to stay strong in order to handle some of my pieces which are quite large; it is also meditation to calm my thoughts. When I come back to the studio, I'm ready to work. Then I'm wearing the "artist hat," and I'm very disciplined. I might do paper work or various other things related to the business, because I can't always be working on the clay, but I will say that I'm not very happy if I'm not able to work on the clay. I often work until 6, 7, 8 or 9 in the evening, especially if I'm working on something that can't be interrupted. After that, I become the cook. Changing the persona seems to be important to how my mind works.

I like to have a constant input of information. I love books, and read a lot. I try to listen to books on tape when I can't read. It can be non-fiction or fiction, especially good literature, as long as it is a good story. It helps me analyze my own point of view. Bret, you wrote in one of your emails to me that everyone has his or her own filter through which he or she perceives life. I definitely know that everything I perceive is passed through my own eye, my own filter. I want to move, shift and grow a little bit mentally everyday, letting in ideas that may influence me, exploring new points of view. When I experience these new concepts, I don't say, "Oh I should do this." I just do what I want to do, and sometimes a new point of view will influence what I do.

The travel is great. It does the same thing as the books and stories. It gives me new input. Each place, each community, each local environment has its own unique flavor, a different "feel." I'm always around art and artists because I do art shows. I get to see my old friends, some of whom I've known for over 20 years; for instance, I may run into an artist from Florida while in Colorado, so we tend to bring our own communities with us.

My kids say that I lecture them all of the time. They complained about my lecture on infrastructure on our trip from Milwaukee to Des Moines to Denver this past summer. I pointed out bridges and overpasses and types of infrastructure, and the technology required to achieve these examples of infrastructure. Everything comes out of the earth. Think about the tons of iron ore that we now use to make bigger machines after generations of making structures by hand. It's an example of the diversity of humanity. Here, on the island, I have a lot of alone time, a curse of life required to create my work. When I leave life on the island, I feel like coming from another world, and entering a new one that has 100 types of cereal and other "alien" items.

Bret: Your website, www.jennifermccurdy.com, outlines your goals with regard to investigating the potential theoretical limits of porcelain and clay as media. It illustrates your very mindful, very intentional approach to your art, bordering on the philosophical, yet your work implies great freedom and spontaneity. Would you care to comment on this aspect of your artistry?

Jen: I told you about how I love to listen to books, and indeed, I'm always listening to new books. I feel like I've become somewhat of a connoisseur of books. Some books have stories that aren't as deep as others, so that they might be considered more like a pop or hip tune as opposed to a symphony. Other books are true works of art, their structure is carefully organized, and they try to illuminate the human condition. I think it has to do with the fact that a good story or a symphony has layering. It needs complexity to make a grand statement. Someone who is really good at creating a story can mastermind, being able to see the "big picture." They haven't approached their work haphazardly or randomly. It takes great skill to be a good writer. The reason my work has movement is the careful application, the "layering," of my own skills. That skill has to continue to grow, otherwise there is no point in my exploring. Without exploration, my work would be unsatisfying, even worthless, on a personal level.

Bret: Given your artistic goals, are there any forms that you have abandoned for one reason or another? Could you explain those forms, and explain why they were abandoned? What have you learned? And what about forms that are on your "to do" list? What shapes might we be able to expect from Jennifer McCurdy in the future?

Jen: It's something that I continue to grapple with. When I am set up at an art show, or in a museum show, people who are going to buy work need to be able to visualize it in their home environment. They like what I'm doing, but they can't accept the seeming instability of the pieces, which comes about because I'm dealing with "lifting the life" of the pieces. A lot of the pieces seem to have a higher center of gravity than typical for a stable piece. Those pieces with a lower center of gravity, a broader base, go against the upward spring I need in the form to create movement. They are not mutually compatible, so I'm constantly working to find that balance between what is stable and what isn't. However, I throw other forms for my own enjoyment and use, like a set of mugs that I might carry with me in the car; in those cases I'm going to go with the functionality and create a stable base. I've always loved function, and form with function, but what I really want to be doing are the forms that I'm currently creating, or else I wouldn't be doing them. We do what we want to do.

Bret: As you know, I was drawn to your work originally because of its organic/biomorphic nature. Have you always had an organic orientation? Do you foresee moving away from being organic or biomorphic?

Jen: What you see in everything, and what I think you help others to see, is the complete interconnectedness of it all. What we see, what we think, what we do, these things must be seen in perfect balance. They are all connected to other things. Like with your fossils [Bret's note: I used to be a paleontologist], millions of years have created a quality of existence of patterns through time. These ongoing patterns matter in everything we do. What we feel and experience everyday is its own reward. We don't need to wait for something to happen in the future. We have full "payment" each day. One of the joys of getting up each day is getting the "payment" in everything we do. That is the fun of the things that you are working on when I read your website.

You were talking about physical spaces before. When we moved here [to Martha's Vineyard] 12 years ago, we eventually built the house that we now live in it. It is post and beam. Light and shadow were priorities when we built the house. We considered where the sun came up, how it moved throughout the day, and how this movement affected light and shadow within our home. Another important aspect that we considered in the building process is my love of the outdoors. I wanted my house to express the outside. I want to bring the outside indoors, and experience the inside outdoors. Outside you can see the evidence of the post and beam. Inside you can see stone throughout. It has this great sense of integration of outdoors and indoors.

Bret: What about abandoned and prospective colors? Have you relegated any to the trash bin? Will you be experimenting any further with color in the future?

Jen: The other thing that people often say about my work, other than expressing concerns about potential cat and dog "interference," is that it doesn't "go" with their couches. People come up and say "Can you do this in pink" or whatever color. I work with light and shadow, and making it in pink or any other color will not help that sense of light and shadow. I don't consider trends in colors any more that I would consider trends in metamorphic rocks.

Bret: Let's talk about the decorative and practical aspects of your work. First, I'm an extremely clumsy individual. How sturdy is your work, and how should that level of sturdiness be considered when finding the ideal place and style to display your vessels? Any decor tips in general?

Jen: One of the reasons I'm working with high fire porcelain is that it is one of the hardest substances, unlike earthenware or raku or others that have not been fired to the point of changing chemical structure. My work has changed structure, has become non-porous, translucent. It's really, REALLY hard. I'm giving myself (and my work) all of those advantages. Porcelain reflects light and creates shadow amazingly well. It has an intense quality to reflect. It is not shiny, but it is still bright. People who collect my work are also often very interested in the qualities of light and shadow, and have often considered those qualities in other aspects of their home, like the architecture. If you have high windows, or you have light from east to west during the day and changes, you may be conscious of the fact that objects within your house will change appearance; I'm conscious of this as I create my work. The finished work is breakable, so people who own it usually have a way of showing their collections safely. If you are going to put a piece up high, you need to pay attention to its appearance at that angle. If you are displaying it on a coffee table, you need the most interesting part of the piece to be on top. I often hear about people who are fearful of breakage. People have different approaches to how they arrange their collections and accumulations in their homes. Some people like to have their things gathered together in a beautiful cabinet. Some like miniatures arranged on a protected shelf. They have created a certain treasured-ness, sacredness, a shrine-like quality. Why would you collect art anyway if you weren't interested in bringing a sense of the sacred into your home?

My mother, when I was a child, would take the shells and bones she collected and lay them out on windowsills. Today I like to place these things in a large bowl to obtain an object-within-an-object effect that provides a different perspective, and I think a different perspective is good. It's also good for people to consider the path of light through their houses when they think about how to decorate. It's nice to accentuate this sense of movement that occurs in your house. I work in other media, creating mobiles featuring origami, and sometimes with items like maple and money plant seeds that move in a sense of randomness. If you have a mobile with 50 origami birds, you are going to get a lot of patterns of movement, light and shadow.

Bret: On your website, you encourage the use of candles with at least some of your creations. Do you have any specific insight into using illumination in conjunction with your vessels?

Jen: Since the work is about light and shadow, the work responds differently with different lights. Light is SO important, as we've noted. I think it is important to keep light physically and metaphysically in your life at all times. The process of clay involves melting it, at the molecular level. It embodies the essence of fire and light. When you put a candle on the inside, it flickers and the shadows move and change. I have had many people get back to me regarding the pieces they have bought, telling me that they have used my work as a focus for meditation, for centering, because of that sense of movement of light and shadow when used with a candle.

Bret: If someone wants to obtain one or more of your pieces, how do they do that? What is the best way for people to contact you?

Jen: Sure, I get email from people daily, and I send out work around the country every week. I have a great packer and shipper; he's an artist at what he does. I don't do it myself because he is so much better. I have galleries around the country, listed on my website, so if people are near a gallery, I'd love for then to stop in and see the work. The image and the energy are not the same as they are in person. My work photographs well, but a photograph is entirely different from the actual object. Photography is also about light and shadow, so my work is easier to photograph than lots of 3d objects, but it also flattens an object, and that removes the dimensionality and consequent movement. Most of my best pieces are not my most photogenic pieces because they have action going on all around, not just the profile. Hopefully people will try to visit a gallery or a show. And though I'm very happy to send out pieces sight unseen, they should really try to see the work in person.

Bret: Do you have any advice for budding or prospective potters? Do you have any "insider" advice?

Jen: Know that it's a lifestyle. You have to love the clay and the total lifestyle, and then you'll be happy. It's not going to involve fame or fortune, but it will involve a lot of great people. The many artists whom I am able to consider friends make me very rich indeed. If you like being on the road and meeting people, having a simple, down-to-earth love of earth and fire, you should be a potter.

Bret: Jen, this has been just wonderful. If you could leave the readers with any final thoughts, what would they be?

Jen: I really believe that every body is an "artist." They just need to practice their unique "art" in the various areas of their lives. I'm pretty sure that all of the thousands of people I meet and talk to at art shows, who say they could never be an artist, just need to discover the unique artistry that is already within them. All of us just need to have a sense of belief and confidence about what we do.

Bret: Thank you so much for your contributions, Jen.

I hope you will visit Jen's website, www.jennifermccurdy.com, to see her breathtaking work. I also hope you will seek out galleries that offer her creations. Until recently, I had only seen her ceramic masterpieces as two-dimensional image. Being the consummate artist, Jen thought I should really see her work in person. Imagine my shock to receive one of her pieces in the mail as a gift! This beautiful piece is now sitting on a very special antique table in a "safe" corner of my dining room where I see it every time I walk through the room (which is often). The piece is a gorgeous white porcelain egg with amazing "lift" due to the curvaceous carvings that bow outward, making me think of swirling palm fronds, or sun-bleached skeletal ribs, or even a three-dimensional representation of the GOD-DESS logo; Jen told me that it's an experimental variation of the "contour" theme displayed on her website. I can vouch without hesitation that Jennifer McCurdy's ceramic piece has enhanced my home, as well as my life (her friendship has definitely enhanced my life!).

Enhancing one's home and life is what art and décor (and friendship) should do, and that is the goal of the Senses of Living® component of Global Organic Designs Lifestyle Services. That's what the columns are about. That's what the interviews are about. That's what my consultations and lectures and demonstrations are about. There are many ways to enhance your home using décor, and I hope you'll let me help you. Give me a call at 773.508.9208 or email me, and let's get started enhancing your home and life!