When I was first introduced to Christiana Whitcomb, way back in the early 90s, she was a sly two-year-old hiding under food tables at parties. Since then, Christiana has gone on to graduate from Bowdoin College, was awarded the Elie Wiesel Prize in Ethics in 2014, received a master’s degree from the University of California, Berkeley, and currently manages Planning and Real Estate Analysis at UrbanSim.
Oh, and has somehow found time to cultivate her impressive talents with the pottery wheel!
I sat down with Christiana (well, actually, we FaceTimed) to discuss her love of ceramics, how she manages her hectic schedule, and what inspires her work.
EM: First of all, and I don’t even think I know this story myself, but how did you initially begin to work with clay?
CW: Well, as you know, I did a lot of sculpture in college. I think sculpture is interesting because there is an architectural aspect to it and I have always been interested in architecture. But the hard thing about sculpture, if you aren’t pursuing it professionally, is it requires an enormous amount of time and space to be able to do it, especially with large-scale sculptures. I did sell a sculptural piece my first year of graduate school, but that required a huge amount of planning and effort to produce. And so I was, maybe subconsciously, looking for something else.
At Berkeley, they have this great studio called the Berkeley Art Studio and I stumbled upon a ceramics class there, which I had never even considered before. It was one of those things where I started and instantly realized this was what I wanted to spend my time doing. In thinking about it now, it’s probably because it has this connection to sculpture, but is much more accessible. I love the fact that I can make things that people use in their daily life. I love how practical and tactile it is, that the scale is smaller, which lends itself much more easily to experimentation.
EM: What’s your process in the studio? From conception to completion.
CW: I’ve always loved to draw and that’s been a big part of my artistic process in general. I think drawing is really important for pottery because the scale is small, so the ratios and dimensions really matter. There are so many elements of a single piece — how it slopes, how it feels in your hand, how wide the mouth is, how it sits on the table — that nobody thinks about in their daily life, but really impacts how useful an object is.
I always start with drawing for the more practical, everyday tableware things I make. I also love adding elements of chance to anything I do. I think that’s a really interesting way to discover new methods of working. I’ll often wedge ten pieces of clay that are the same exact size (wedging is when you prepare the clay to throw) and then one after the other make ten different forms, each one similar but slightly different, allowing the clay to dictate where I go in the moment.
EM: Do you always know exactly what kind of object you want to produce before you begin to work with the clay?
CW: I think it takes a lot of discipline to sit down and do exactly what you’ve planned for, but it’s also really important because it’s hard to get anything done at scale unless you do that. There are a lot of times where I just play around and often that can produce the best results, but it’s very mixed. I do enjoy both, but for practical reasons I usually have to make a plan and stick to it.
EM: You are working full time and squeezing in your artistic pursuits on the side. How do you find time to create? Where do you work on your pieces?
CW: I belong to a studio called Gasworks in Park Slope. Honestly, I chose my apartment based on its proximity to two different pottery studios [laughs]. Pottery is time consuming because it’s extremely messy. Pottery also has a lot of phases — you work on one piece over the course of several weeks — so you really have to plan. I can’t just throw a piece and move to the next phase whenever I want. It’s based on the right level of dryness in the clay. You have to commit to a schedule and work regularly.
In terms of finding time, I work almost entirely at night. I do go to Gasworks on the weekends and spend some Saturdays and Sundays in the studio, but could end up working for ten hours. Whereas if I go for three hours on a weeknight, it’s more effective. It’s one of those things where I’ve decided this is what I’m going to spend my extra time doing. And I love it enough to commit that time.
EM: What are the phases of creating a piece that you mentioned before?
CW: The first phase is throwing and that’s when you’re actually — this is if you’re throwing clay; a lot of people hand build pottery which is different — making the form on the wheel. Trimming is when you trim the excess clay off of whatever you’re making. That’s also when you form the foot, which is the part that comes into contact with the table or surface. If you flip over a bowl, the rim at the bottom is the foot. Once it dries into what we call greenware, which is unfired but totally dry clay, that’s when you do the first firing. After that, you glaze the piece and do another firing. You can also add surface painting, decorating, or any other elements you might wish to include.
EM: Do you have any figures you draw inspiration from? What informs your work?
CW: Ceramics is interesting because it has an extremely long history, mostly because it was traditionally utilitarian, so there are ancient ceramics traditions in almost every culture. Magnolia Mountain is a group of Australian ceramicists who I love. They travel and make clay bodies and glazes out of the sediment and rivers of wherever they’re visiting. Their stuff is really contemporary style-wise, but also ancient in the way its produced. I think the fact that pottery is, at its core, made from dirt [laughs] is interesting. I’m inspired by nature in general, so its interesting to me that something so central to our lives can be so ordinary. Its such a low-tech practice; you are essentially just using your hands. There are some tools involved, but they’re wooden. So, yeah, I think its primarily nature and the history of ceramics that inspire me.
EM: Your Instagram handle is ‘@abiding_clay’ — can you explain what it means to make ‘abiding objects?’
CW: Abiding in this context sort of means enduring or lasting. One of the reasons I love clay is one of the same reasons I love to sit down and have a cup of coffee in the morning. These objects should be meant to last. We should have objects in our home that are meant to be used forever, but also create these moments of calm that seem so simple, yet are so essential to being human — sharing a meal with people you care about or having a quiet moment in the morning. The enduring nature of these objects feels very counter to a lot of what our culture in the U.S. is today and, in that way, makes them special and important. It’s kind of similar to the actual process of making pottery, which is long and requires focus to produce something that is seemingly simple and trivial.
Ok, so now the really important question: How can we all get our hands on one of Christiana’s creations?
Visit the Gasworks Holiday Sale on Saturday, December 14th! The studio will be open from 1-8pm! Gasworks NYC, 673 5th Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11215, USA
Or check out Christiana’s Instagram page: @abiding_clay!
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.