Clay, Glaze & Firing: Minnesota

Photo by Ani Kasten

Whether we’re talking sculptors, painters, authors, musicians, or any other creative, decade after decade, the Midwest produces some of the most profound artists in the world. In recognition, this year we’re zooming out from Wisconsin to celebrate ceramicists in our neighboring states. First stop: Minnesota.

Photograph by Ani Kasten

Challenging expectations in art is an art all itself. Some markets might be really receptive to the obscure, but tunneling out a niche risks giving outsiders a reason to neglect what’s going on when presentation doesn’t fit preconceived notions of art. Ani Kasten doesn’t have a formal background in art. As a result, she can challenge even the artist’s comprehension of pottery by doing something quite outlandish: focusing on the traditions of pottery and clay beyond conventional avenues of academia.

“I came to ceramics through a really on-the-ground, hands-on learning environment,” says Ani. “It was a lot about working with whatever materials were available to me wherever I happened to be. In Nepal, there’s no ceramic supply store where you can go and buy material, so I would have to look around and dig up some clay and process it.”

Backing up, this isn’t to say Ani didn’t have any formal training in ceramics and functional pottery. She was in an apprenticeship in England before going to Nepal. This is where she gained the vocabulary used in her discipline, which she later reencoded to describe her work in ceramics.

“My work, there’s a lot of brokenness involved in it. I use a lot of vocabulary that in other realms of ceramic art would be considered undesirable side effects of working with clay: cracking, warping. My process is always about letting the natural proclivities of the materials express what they want to express and also the impact of my craftsmanship on how those qualities develop.”

Each of Ani’s works feels like its own experiment. The choices she makes when creating her pieces are inspired by the moment—an investigation of what-ifs as they come up. She says, “I have a really spontaneous way of working, especially with incorporating other things.

“I’m very interested in the relationships between the clay and other materials and how things can be incorporated and melded together harmoniously, whether it’s things fired in with the clay or afterwards using hardware to attach pieces of wood. … I’ll add in rocks or gravel that I just find outside and sometimes metal wire or pieces of driftwood. … I try not to have too much of a plan.”

Some of my favorite pieces of Ani’s have an almost barnacle quality to them. Her kurinuki boxes are a dissonant mix of glazes coming together through material and sharp edges with the jaggedness of chipped shale. I’d expect most initial reactions to her work would be confusion because they’re so out of most people’s preconceptions of ceramics. In fact, it’s fair to say there’s such a high degree of play in her work that Ani’s thoughtfulness can be misinterpreted as carelessness, bringing up questions of how value is defined in art.

Still, when Ani’s moment has a mind for it, she can come up with pieces that weave traditional notions of attractive pottery and function with her explorative nature. Her elegant On the Rocks yunomi cups (tall Japanese teacups) look like they’ve been excavated from the ocean.

For the patron who appreciates Ani’s work, there’s a wealth of insight to be taken from her large sculptures concerning place and function. For the artist who studies Ani’s work, there’s a widening peripheral into understanding just what the world of clay and ceramics can give. Universality in purpose has been unwrapped from accessibility in material, and maybe it’s worth investigating why.

To view more of Ani’s work, visit Abel Contemporary Gallery in Stoughton.

Photograph by Janel Jacobson

Finding yourself as an artist is a lifelong journey, and Janel has taken to it like a red maple through the seasons, at her most brilliant just before changing her leaves. From functional pottery to carved porcelain to woodcarving then back to pottery, each of her endeavors has shown growth and evolution as she whet her eye for detail.

Most endearing in her work is the supple movement in shape. It comes from her interpretation of something she was told by one of her teachers. Janel recalls, “Learn from what you’re learning here and move on. She encouraged looking at the nuances: how to make a lip more comfortable in your mouth, a handle more comfortable to hold, a way for something to function well for the intended purpose.”

Though the sentiment is easily applied to her pottery, Janel’s carved porcelain and netsuke woodcarvings take those lessons and give her pieces a sense of how they might feel before being handled. Soft on the eyes, smooth in the palm. Much of her work captures the more serene aspect of nature as she’s experienced it, such as Tree Frog in the Grape Vines. Then there were katydids and other things. Rather than make them edgy and that stick-out-of-clay kind of sculpture in porcelain, I needed to work within the positive aspects of the materials, like the porcelain itself and the glaze.”

Her understanding in how depth and shadow interact informs her on how to breathe life into a piece. In Tree Frog in the Grape Vines, the frog is perched on a branch. In order to really give the impression of a branch, even though the branch is in front of the frog’s body, Janel carved it deeper than the rest of the image so it would be darker than the frog and leaves.

Janel’s porcelain carving grew into a deep affair with woodcarving, which defined her life as an artist for the next 20 years. As noted, she gravitated toward netsuke, miniature sculptures originating in 17th century Japan. Many of her carvings are no more than two and a half inches in any direction, making their degree of detail all the more wondrous.

Janel loved her life as a woodcarver, but when the collector’s market shifted, “The final three major shows with zero sales in 2015 cost me $10,000 to find out that I couldn’t do them anymore. … It broke my heart because I thought this was the work I’d do in wood for the rest of my life.” She was, however, quick to adapt, and invested in essential equipment to augment her decision to resume pottery making. With a smaller gas kiln, pug mill dedicated to porcelain clay, and replacement electric wheel for her 48-year-old workhorse, Janel’s been making pieces that share in all her past lives brought to new form—learning from what she learned.

In a present that spends so much of its time going full bore, where even our attempts to relax can feel like a sprint, Janel’s mediative works of art have potential to become powerful centerpieces for those looking to center themselves. “There are people, I believe, that every now and then they just need something that’s quiet that they can just go ‘ah’ with—like a quiet celadon cup that feels smooth and warm with a little bit of shape to it in their hands. It’s just calming in this crazy, intense world.”

Photograph by Liz Pechacek

Society hammers in hard-lined mantras concerning what career paths are acceptable and which should be categorized as a waste of time. Without questioning it, art falls into the latter almost by default. In honor of that tradition, Liz Pechacek exited art school trying to figure out how she’d find time for her artwork while fitting into a real job. Luckily for fans of her vessels and sculptures, her welding apprenticeship as a union ironworker was short lived.

That doesn’t mean she escaped some worse fate. Welding would’ve blossomed into a fantastic and challenging career for her. She even gained a deeper understanding into what constitutes the life of an artist beyond conceptuality. “There’s a lot of labor in ceramics that isn’t really that different from the labor at the job site,” says Liz. “A lot of problem-solving, organization, ordering, the same mechanical stuff.” The only difference is now she does those things toward an end more fitting with how she wants to define her life.

It all comes together in the larger scale of her pottery—an opening up of a piece’s potential with a lot of effort put into considering function. Industrial utilitarianism. “There’s some really interesting stuff to play with with function. For instance, I love bowls. I love them just as a form. You really change the functionality of a bowl just by pushing the scale. Some of the bowls that I’ve made are so huge, it’s really humorous to ever think about them being used for food. It’s like a bowl is a bowl until it’s a serving bowl, and then when it’s too big to be a serving bowl, you’re kind of into a sculptural realm.”

Whether a sculptural piece or work of pottery, Liz’s work often explores a contemporary take on modernism and art deco. At least upon first glance. Looking closer, you then start to see how she uses the surface texture to invoke this timeless element of touch. One of her bowls has a golden copper inside reminiscent of a steel drum, complete with thousands of ballpeen hammer dings. But these are her pinches.

The way Liz makes a vessel involves adding layer upon layer of clay coils that she then pinches together, what she calls intuitive groping. “There’s a lot of little touch, and that little touch adds this density of graphic quality. But also, in my kind of metaphysical hope, is that I’m imbuing the form with an energy, like a vibration, by having all of this visible labor that I’m using to produce the piece.”

Looking through her collection of vases, there’s almost a toolbelt quality to them in purpose. Like they’re meant to be used regularly and to make things accessible. Not that they couldn’t hold flowers or act as a showpiece, but they seem more readily suited for holding oversized kitchen utensils or umbrellas by the door.

Time spent thinking about scale then becomes time spent thinking about the person who will buy the piece before they’ve even met. “If I’m making cups, then I need to think about what people will drink out of this. If something’s too weird of a size or it has an awkward feel in the hand, they’re not going to use it.” Like many potters, Liz wants her pieces to be a part of her patrons’ daily lives; however, working larger in scale creates a dialogue between the energy used to create the piece and the energy taken to ultimately decide function.

To view more of Liz’s work, visit Abel Contemporary Gallery in Stoughton.

(May 7–9)
Ani, Janel, and Liz will be featured alongside 62 other potters in the 29th annual St. Croix Valley Pottery Tour. Their varied approaches to pottery and ceramics show a sampling of the range of pottery to be discovered. Noted on the website, the tour’s organizers want participants and patrons to know, “Beginning with our 2021 tour, we intend to amplify the voices of artists of color and also commit a portion of our philanthropy to initiatives devoted to racial justice in youth education for ceramics. We hope to help build a solid and equitable future for anyone wanting the opportunity to pursue a life in clay.”

Kyle Jacobson is a writer and senior copy editor for Madison Essentials.

Photograph by Barbara Wilson

Ani Kasten

Janel Jacobson

Liz Pechacek

St. Croix Valley Pottery Tour