Where did you grow up and what brought you to Cardiff?
I grew up in Queens and then Peekskill, New York. When I was awarded a fellowship at Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs in 1998 I met a British sculptor who told me wonderful tales of a town called Merthyr Tydfil nestled in the South Wales valleys and so I moved there in 1999 and subsequently moved down the valley to Cardiff in 2000.
What is your most vivid childhood memory?
It is difficult to choose as I have many vivid memories but I particularly remember my architect Dad taking my brother and me up high rise projects that he was working on in New York and then my friend’s Mom taking us to see the musical ‘Hair’ on 42nd street when we were 8 and I have very special memories of days and days of ice skating on the frozen lake at the back of our house when we lived at Peekskill.
What sparked your interest in ceramics? When and how did you realise it was a material you wanted to continue to explore and experiment with?
The first time that I really enjoyed ceramics was at summer camp when I was 12 but at 16 I attended throwing classes with a potter called Laura Drucker and the passion for working with clay really took hold, prompting me to apply and then attend the School of Art and Design, at Alfred University where I received my BFA degree.
What are your major sources of inspiration?
Inspiration can strike from absolutely anywhere or anything at any time. Initially my tutors, Wayne Higby at Alfred and then the tiles and multiples of Jim Stephenson at Penn. State were hugely influential along with a broad range of contemporary artists that included Judy Chicago, Miriam Schapiro, Lynda Benglis, the collages of Tom Wesselmann, Antoni Miralda as well as Matisse who was a major inspiration in my formative years. My work is constantly evolving with themes and narratives emerging and disappearing. One series of work will naturally flow into the next but if you look at work that has been created some time apart it may not be immediately apparent where the connection lies. Over the last twenty years inspiration has come from sources as disparate as Victorian corsetry, scantily clad women in Cardiff, weddings from different cultures, the Japanese tea ceremony, insects eating cakes, visiting European cities, Goya’s black paintings in the Prado, Madrid, walking the Coulée Verte René-Dumon in Paris, the Mercat de Sant Josep de la Boqueria in Barcelona and Eisenman’s Holocaust Memorial along with the concrete Brutalist architecture of Berlin that has had the most influence on my recent work.
Your latest body of work looks like a miniature dystopian cityscape. Studies have shown that architecture, through elements like space, light, geometry and materials, can have a powerful effect on people’s mood and emotions. What do you think about the things that influence our emotions and capture our attention in the material world and their relationship to our interior reflections? What are you looking for in shapes and surfaces?
Our immediate environment has a huge effect on our physical and mental well-being but of course there is no perfect habitat that would suit all needs. There are those that are only fulfilled in a bucolic idyll but whilst I appreciate a rural break, I am essentially a New Yorker who thrives in the pace and intensity of a cosmopolitan urban landscape. Likewise, those who enjoy high tea using a very decorative baroque style porcelain ware will not necessarily appreciate my stark concrete inspired stacked ware.
There is a contradiction in that although I enjoy the pace of city life, I am interested in the notion of slowing down, especially when we dine. The forms in my towers, the plates, bowls, cups, etc, are constructed in a way that the act of deconstruction will force the users to participate in a ritual, slowing down the process of eating, creating opportunities for conversation and communal engagement; Utopia from the dystopian.
How did the idea for Kitchen Storeys Live Intervention come about?
I have been thinking about the form and function of tableware in relation to the foods that they are used for and the possibility that certain foods would directly influence the form of the ware and vice versa for a long time. After eating at a supper club created by The Herbivore, enjoying seven courses of tasty, inventive vegan food in the company of twenty or so strangers around one large table, the idea of integrating my stacked towers with the Herbivore’s food took hold. Talking with Simon, the herbivore, and subsequently planning and experimenting in my kitchen, the whole event was designed.
How did the audience engage with you during the intervention?
Initially the audience observed the set table with the stacked towers containing the cooked food, forming Kitchen Storeys as though looking at an installation in a gallery. Then the performance artist, Tiff Oben, acting as Mistress of Ceremonies, set the scene and then invited all to deconstruct the towers revealing the various elements of the buffet which they were then encouraged to eat. The interaction with the food as well as each other was immediate and conversation flowed with the audience who engaged with me and the chef and each other. Naturally the focus, initially, was on the food and the ceramics but like all good social events that are based around food, the conversation was diverse and dynamic.
Your Kitchen Storeys series is informed by the brutalist aesthetic and is based on the idea of sharing and community. Tell us about your dream community, both from the social point of view and from the designer’s perspective.
In many ways I am already embedded into the ideal community both in my studio at Fireworks and the community of Riverside where Fireworks is based as well as where I live. It is a diverse multicultural community with around fifteen languages spoken in my street. It is friendly and sociable with neighbours who look out for one another and often share food, especially at times of religious festivals. I am not sure that the ideal community ever occurred from the plans of a designer. The best communities often develop by chance of geography, socio-economics and the willingness of a populace to give and take and care. History is full of attempts at social engineering that ended in dystopian nightmares, although by chance it often produced some visually exciting architecture. I think that the designs of my tableware and the events that use them are merely aimed at temporary, enjoyable, social occasions.
You have a long-lasting relationship with Fireworks Clay Studios. Can you tell us about this space and how it influenced your creative process?
Fireworks is a non-profit co-operative providing studios for eighteen artists including two recent graduate spaces. It was set-up in1995 by Dan Allen and I applied and was then invited to become a member in 2000 when I first moved down to Cardiff. There are shared facilities such as the kilns, a photography studio and spray booth etc. and is a hugely creative and supportive environment. The artists there are ambitious individuals who thrive on the exchange of ideas and the opportunities that a group dynamic can provide.
Do you think that is still possible for ceramic artists to invent new visual and functional languages and to discover new territories for experimentation?
Of course, it is definitely possible and I see evidence everywhere of exciting, inventive work. Ceramic artists are immersed in a dynamic, fluid landscape with all other fields of the Visual and performing arts.
To what extent has living away from New York and being a teacher influenced your journey through art?
I was a teacher in New York as well as here and that experience has, of course, been a huge influence at all stages of my career. The influence of being away from New York is however immeasurable, as there is no way of knowing what course my work would have taken. I would guess though, that coming to Europe, visiting cities and experiencing diverse cultures has enriched my work, broadening my horizons and given me the ability to look back at my origins and earlier work allowing a more objective and balanced reflection.
How do you balance teaching and your studio practice?
When I am not teaching I am in the studio and vice versa. Currently I am teaching three days a week and so that leaves four days for the studio but of course there has to be a little flexibility in that arrangement as assessment deadlines or exhibition deadlines can put pressure on the delicate time-split balance.
What are some of the most valuable lessons you’ve learned along the way?
I have always encouraged my students not to fear making mistakes, take chances and learn from the failures. I think that I am now able to listen to my own advice and not have that fear and be prepared to risk moving in a direction that could possibly fail and consume a lot of time. This attitude has strengthened my self-belief in what I do, not in an arrogant way but to be quietly confident in my pieces and visual language.
What do you do or where do you go for inspiration?
As I have mentioned before inspiration can strike anywhere, anytime but is more likely to occur when travelling, walking the streets, visiting museums, galleries and restaurants. Warsaw is next on my hit list.
What was last piece of homeware you bought?
New sheets for the guest room and freezer bags for the kitchen.
What is your favourite recipe?
This is like asking who is your favourite child. There are hundreds of candidates based on foods from around the globe. I have a library of cookbooks and one of those books, picked at random, is my preferred nighttime reading. If I had to start narrowing the focus then I might choose Middle Eastern cuisine with its strong flavours and interesting textures and if I had to choose one chef, then it would have to be Yotam Ottolenghi. OK, if it’s only one recipe then it has to be my Grandmother’s New York cheesecake and that is a secret.
What are some of your favourite places to hang out in Cardiff?
I like to hang out in Fireworks, my kitchen and dining room with friends, my friend’s kitchens and dining rooms, any independent coffee bars and it is good news that Little Man coffee has just moved into Tudor Lane a few doors down from Fireworks.
Are you working on any special new designs or projects at the moment?
My current show that is on at Llantarnam Grange features a piece called ‘breakfast skyline’ and that is going to be my main focus for development over the next couple of months working towards an exhibition in Conwy and possibly one in France in June.
What about the future? How do you see yourself evolving as an artist?
The exciting thing is not knowing how I will evolve. I will continue to make and base my success on the development of a personal language and pursue opportunities to exhibit my work. Although it is always rewarding when someone purchases my work it is never the driving factor.
Can you recommend us a song, a book and a film?
I am an avid reader and love novels, as well as cookery book, and plough through many contemporary authors from the likes of Paul Auster, Elif Shafak, William Boyd, Ian McEwan, Zadie Smith, Haruki Murakami and Amy Tan. But the one book that I just couldn’t put down and often recommend as one of my favourites is ‘Gould’s Book of Fish’ by Tasmanian author, Richard Flanagan. Read the reviews as the plot it is far too complex to explain here.
As far as films go, I love foreign language films as they are more likely to be made purely for the sake of art and often force you to reflect on your own place in the world. As with novels, there are so many to choose from but when I thought about your question, the one that first came to mind is the very quirky ‘Black Cat White Cat’, from the Bosnian born director Emir Kusturica.
Picking only one song, like picking only one recipe is a difficult one to answer as well, but if I have to choose only one it has to be ‘Season’s Trees’ featuring Nora Jones from my latest album download Rome by Danger Mouse and Daniele Luppi... actually loving most of the tracks on this one.
Thank you, Lisa for inviting us to see Utilitarian and for the wonderful insight into your creative realm.