Part 4 | Pursuing Self & Finding the Other: The Gestures, Incarnations, and Secrets of Artist Charlotte Potter
August 28, 2015
Part 4 | Pursuing Self & Finding the Other: The Gestures, Incarnations, and Secrets of Artist Charlotte Potter With Ideas on Craft and the Craft School Experience from James Baker, Executive Director, Pilchuck Glass School
When I asked James Baker, Executive Director of Pilchuck Glass School, recently, how would he answer the question: What is craft? – I found his answer, in a way, accurately sums up my in-depth investigation into the topic of Craft at this junction of the series (part 4) quite perfectly. He said, “I deeply believe in the role of craft in art making. I’ve been immersed in this discussion so often over the past thirty years that I’m caught between having way too much to say and nothing to say at all (that could be easily summarized) and is deserving of vastly more time than my current circumstance allows me to invest in answering properly.” It is indeed an all or nothing conversation; and the further I go, I find it is a field that is complex and deep, regarded and dismissed, emotional and academic. And if I am to follow Baker’s lead into a lifelong investigation (which I hope to do); I, too, will find there will always be more to discuss than I can adequately find the time to do so. What I have found, though, whenever the dialogue turns to glass, it is impossible to deny the important role of Craft-specific education and experimentation; and it seems that no school does this better than Pilchuck.
I’ve known Jim Baker for nearly eight years and I’ve had the distinct pleasure of hearing him speak specifically about the field of glass and of the Studio Glass Movement on several occasions: the rich history, the complex present, and the exciting future. At the heart of every exchange, lies Pilchuck: a renowned, international school focused solely on the field of glass nestled in the Pacific Northwest. I asked Baker recently to speak about what makes this place so special, so magical, and he began: “one of the core values of craft education is to provide ways for people to fulfill their natural urge to express themselves, and Pilchuck is dedicated to the attitude that this form of education [craft] can be effective either as an adjunct to other forms of art education, or as a sole means of developing into an independent artist. More importantly, part of our mission is the advancement of glass as a material for expression.” This audacious focus on conceptual development beyond the mastery of technique is unique to Pilchuck and critical to its artistic development and success. It is precisely this type of progressive thinking, and the artists who embrace it, that allows Pilchuck to reach beyond the ‘enclave’ traditionally attached to the material to entice and excite a much broader audience.
So, when I asked Baker for suggestions of artists who could speak to not only their experiences at Pilchuck, but who embrace the same kind of cutting-edge attitude, I crossed my fingers that he would recommend Charlotte Potter: an artist who both honors tradition, but also harnesses the ancient material to rigorously examine and depict the modern identity and existence. I have longed to speak with her one-on-one about her beautifully crafted, gorgeously personal, and increasingly conceptual work. What surprised me most during our conversation was this omnipresent feeling of desire: to fall (no, jump) off the edge towards something outside myself; which shouldn’t have been so surprising given the fascinating risks she takes in her practice. The greatest strength of Potter’s work (and her ideas) is that there is no ambiguity here: she delves (and does so deeply and headfirst) into the abyss between self and the other, between the actual and the imagined, between denial and understanding. It is a public plunge into a private world and I simply can’t get enough. Potter is tapping into something primal, intimate, and innate – read our captivating conversation to get but just a taste of the secrets she so masterfully reveals (and one has to do with gnomes):
Q: If you had to describe your work in three words what would they be and why?
A: articulating modern relationships. All of my work is stemmed from an earnest interest in connecting with others.
Q: Conceptually speaking, what do you identify as your primary concerns? If these have changed over the course of your career, can you speak about where you began to where you are now?
A: In my studio practice I have been exploring and attempting to facilitate different kinds of human relations, associations and interactions. Initially, much of the questioning was open ended – the work was interactive, inviting others to step into experiments to be connected with others; however, in the past five years I have focused on mining my own personal friendships as a point of departure for the work. This approach invites the viewer to find the universal through the ultra-personal. This shift is exposing, but by sharing my private relationships, the viewer is included in a secret.
Q: Who do you draw inspiration from: artistically speaking (artists, philosophers, writers, musicians, etc.…)?
A: In no particular order:
Artists: Duchamp, Vito Acconic, Janine Antoni, Beth Lipman, Rebecca Horn, Mark Zirpel, Jocelyne Prince, Marina Ambrovic’s work with Ulay, Rose Lynn (her work with tears), Eve Laramie, Mark Dion, Lygia Clark (You series), Bohyun Yoon (Merging series), Do Ho Suh (Armor), Xu Bing (Tiger rug of cigarettes), Julie Green (Last Supper), Nina Katchadourian (maps & webs)
Regular reading: Cabinet Magazine, the New Yorker, Anything Lawrence Weschler, Facebook feed nonsense such as hyperallergic, David Sedaris (all of his books)
Radio: This American Life, Radio Lab, NPR all day long
People: family, work colleges, friends, all of the lovers, Lena Dunham/Amy Schumer- respect how these ladies mine their own life for material
Museums I frequent for research: Mutter Museum, Computer Science museum, Shelburne Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art (particularly Decorative Armor)
Other: Cartography, maps, graphs – all all Edward Tuftes’s books about making carts and quantifying information visually, old mosaic portraiture, miniature eye portraits
Q: In viewing your work, there are definite questions about the philosophical need for the space between one and the other; but, what’s interesting is that all three components receive equal exposure: self, other, and the space between. Do these weigh equally for you conceptually as well visually?
A: Different bodies of work attack these three ideas from distinctive angles. I think you can’t have a relationship without self analysis and awareness, the basic need to be understood by someone else begins with understanding oneself. For this reason, I felt I needed to create work that went deep into myself, and then you get macro-outside yourself and consider “the other” – which is a natural transition to the in-between: the nether zones, the communication or miscommunication, the connections and the ties. I think the relationship itself is at the heart of the work, but you can’t discuss it without defining the two parties.
Q: In your artist statement, you note: “The human desire and dilemma to bridge the unfathomable distance between each other is at the heart of my investigation.” Immediately I think of your installation Message Received from your Cameo series, which charts and logs the arc of a relationship solely through a timeline of text messages. This is a definitive work for me of all the current conversations about the impersonality and immediacy of the digital vs. our desires for tangible and sincere communication. Can you talk about this piece, how it came about, what conclusions you drew?
A: Message Received was hugely revealing for me and the man I collaborated with. It was a different kind of exposure, more so than even Armor. I was fascinated by a new element of my recent relationship with a talented writer, our short text exchanges were more illuminating that any love letter I had ever received: they were funny, conversational, they were heartbreaking, everything was playing out in a strange new interface that I found both exhilarating and unnerving, the very act of texting seems trite and distancing. However, suddenly this phone and the little dots appearing showing another message was being constructed were tantalizing, and I was waiting for them expectantly. I wanted to make these fleeting communications, (the modern day love letter) physical again, and to hold these important moments through a locket, through adornment, through cameo and intaglio engravings, the most permanent form of writing throughout ancient history (I’m wearing one right now). The relationship was exciting, it was a rollercoaster of love and lust, of complex layered interactions and I wanted to chart the ups and downs, so I could stand back and see if we were ending up for the better.
Q: Glass plays a pivotal role in much of your work, how did you come to work with it as a medium? What is it about this material that drew you in and continues to provoke your interest? How do you incorporate all of the unique qualities it carries with it: a long history of both form and function, or that it is simultaneously bold but fragile, or liquid but solid?
A: Because I have come for a medium specific background, I have always been concerned with having historical references and some kind of reasoning in place for using glass. This unease has troubled me since the moment I fell in love with the process of making with glass (the love of making predated any emotional interest in the final object.) Why, why glass? Because glass does not sit neatly in categories, neither liquid or solid, both ancient and modern it in many ways is the ideal medium to discuss concepts of nether zones, spaces between places, presence and absence.
I came to glass because I was enraptured with the dance, the physicality, the magic and the wonder of a molten material becoming a refined object. The process has always kept me engaged and humbled. After years of study and practice, I am still learning to this day, and am finally invested in the final result.
Q: Checking for Vitals, from your Remedy Series,is an interesting work that delves into glass as both subject and material, describe how you combined a more formal investigation with something so decidedly human.
A: I had a brilliant and supportive professor, Jocelyne Prince tell me that I seemed to be a person who set out knowing where I thought I was going… and that I needed to stop knowing. She encouraged me to experiment and deliberately take risks.
One day I walked into the hot shop with 3 different props from the medical field: a stethoscope, an oxygen mask and a thermometer. I decided to try to create different ways of using these tools that are fashioned for a very different purpose, to measure, listen and facilitate healing – for glass making purposes. From this one set of simple exploration came Checking for Vitals and Bottled Emotion. This philosophical shift from goal to unknowing, from end to journey opened up the way I conceive of glass making.
I wanted the glass to be the subject or patient, I wanted to hear it growing, to calculate the expansion. The sounds were recorded and measured as well: squeaky little breaths of contact.
Q: In a number of works, you are integrating ideas from the medical and scientific fields, in many of the works in your series titled Self + Other. Can you talk about your interest in this arena and how you’re translating it into your works such as Attempting Synchronized Palpitations (pictured here), The Opposite of Mitosis (pictured above), or Proxemic Hyperventilation?
A: As I stated earlier, I am interested in having historical reasoning for using glass. Medicine and science are industries that have utilized glass for centuries. In this particular exhibition I was employing the architecture of display that harkened to these fields to create a series of interactive experiments that linked, connected and joined people in sometimes poetic and other times sensational ways.
Q: In that same vein, we also have to talk about Armor, my favorite work. Talk about deciding to work on microscope slides, the process of having your body mapped, the assembly, the final presentation of your nude body, the concepts, etc.
A: Armor began as a skin study in which I had people lay on my body until the impression of their hair was visible on my skin. These ambiguous images left me feeling there was more to map and explore with skin, our largest organ that holds us together and is our barrier to the world. When discussing relationships and the notion of letting another close to you, the act of touch becomes implicit. Because of medicine’s long history with glass, I thought to use microscope slides to chart, archive and map every inch of my own body (I was researching at the Mutter museum at the time and loved their old glass slide collection of images of skin diseases.) Glass slides are the very apparatus that skin cells are placed onto to view and diagnose. Initially this was going to be an interactive slideshow, however as the idea evolved the notion of skin as armor continued to nag me. Eventually after much research and trips to conservation labs to see how different kinds of Armor were historically assembled, the full scale glass dress of my body was constructed. We took images of my body from 4 views, I then photoshopped them together and mapped each section onto an 8.5 x11 inch sheet. They were printed on lazertran and then cut and applied to the labeled glass. Each slide was sealed with urethane and then painstakingly sewn together with sterling silver chain. Each 11-inch-tall section was then attached to the metal armature and sewn together in place. The work has been installed as both a cape and a dress.
Q: Can you elaborate on your notion: “the allure of fusion”? Is this how you would describe the impossible amalgamations in your Hybrid Antler Series? What is it about the combinations of reality and fantasy that so interests you?
A: In nature, the most direct result of all of this relationship research is procreation; however, often two people/species are not compatible. In this rather fanciful series I am really interested in discussing what would come of impossible fusion. What happens when the heredities are hybridized (dolly, and other genetic cloning comes to mind) and the unimaginable is made possible through invention?
The history and legend surrounding mixed species is particularity fascinating, janus, centaurs and mermaids come to mind. Also, on a side note, I am a total fantasy nerd – I grew up in a hobbit house built into a hillside and want very much to believe in gnomes.
Q: The same could be noted in your work, Oil + Water: Spinning my Wheels, where you tirelessly pedal but never achieve the impossible: the permanent mixture of the two liquids. Are these metaphors for just you and the other or does it expand beyond this? In the end, do you consider this merging a fruitful or fruitless pursuit?
A: What I found the most interesting in this experiment is that you can actually emulsify the two materials, but the metaphor continues here, because once the effort is halted, they eventually re-separate. So I suppose it seems like you need to continue to invest in the relationship for it to be fruitful.
Q: On your website, you offer an interesting Glossary of Sopolistic Terms (click here to view) – some of my favorites: absurd, chimera, Infrathin, other. Why include this point of reference?
A: This is a section that I am in the process of developing a really involved document that delves more deeply into this topic … I include them because I think sometimes when I use a word often, say it over and over in relation to my art practice, it begins to mean slightly different thing to me than the dictionary definition. If they are important descriptors, I want to define them an align them with my work in a relatable way.
Q: Although you are trained as a traditional glassblower, you’ve really been a pioneer in developing glass as a performance medium – in both actual performance and in video – seen in works like Cirque De Verre and certainly The Glass Theater, which really highlights the already performative quality of the creation of works in glass. What led you to add these new dimensions to your work? And what do you feel they bring to the field?
A: Hot glass processes are quite captivating as a performative medium. It has all the important qualities; danger, drama, dance. For me, the process of making is much more interesting that the majority of the objects produced from this futile pursuit, so why not celebrate the very act of making? The “glassblowing demonstration” is an accepted entity in the field – one that can easily lead to spectacle. Because I came from a performance background of dance and some acting, I immediately saw the infrastructure of the hot shop as a stage. The first major project that I worked on was a collaboration with artist Kim Harty entitled Synchro Blow in a class we took at Pilchuck Glass School. In this work we attempted to have 12 glassblowers with synchronized choreographed movements to join bubbles. We went on to work together (and with many other talented artists) to create formalized troupes that traveled with different acts; some more light-hearted, others parody and some exhibiting natural phenomenon. Eight years later in my role as the Programming Director at the Chrysler Museum of Art, I have worked to develop a monthly program that gives a space for artists that are working in this way to share their ideas with a larger audience. We do this both through live events and strong documentation that live in and online archive.
Q: Can you talk a little bit about Sister Act, the more conceptual performance with your sister and musician Grace Potter? Quite often as artists we are presenting personal concepts by ourselves, how was it working with someone so closely that you were also related to?
A: For this project I listened to all of my sister’s albums and identified a number of songs that I felt reflected concepts which resonated in my own artistic practice. Light and dark, time and passing – I harkened back to some past performances with the Cirque de Verre to create a carnival theme. The songs and sounds became the model or infrastructure to play within and I developed all of the accompanying visuals with another incredible artist Brett Day Windham. Glass and music have many similar qualities; you are collaborating with others to develop a project larger than any one of you. You must have dexterity, practice and the ability rift off of others, this project was one of the more rewarding pieces to put together.
Q: Okay, let’s broaden the scope a bit. To begin, how would you answer the question: “What is craft?”
A: It is not a four letter word.
Q: Historically, and often critically, there has been a delineation between the disciplines of fine art and craft? You deal with this particular notion in your Chandelier series, but can you discuss if you think there should be separate categories? What do you think causes this separation? Do you identify with one or the other or neither?
A: The lines of Craft and Contemporary Art are constantly being challenged and blurred. I identify strongly with both fields, I have a compelling personal history in the field of craft and think that my work is most relevant when put in that context juxtaposed with other contemporary issues of the time. I think that these hard boundaries are becoming less and less of an issue in the discourse; there seems to have been an interesting hang-up about this delineation which tends to be fading as you talk to more people in the field. For example, last night at the opening of crafted: objects in flux, the new director said that the Boston Museum of fine arts "may just be a huge craft museum when you get right down to it."
For me, Craft is synonymous with skill, tradition, and expertise. It suggests that the maker is invested strong technique and historical context. In my work Sideways Chandelier, I am certainly trying to turn on end ideas of craft and contemporary art. For me, putting it on the wall in the same orientation that it was made, horizontally, took it out of the functional and made it an art object.
Q: Name 3 ideas / topics that you feel are the most relevant to the field of craft at large right now.
Q: If different, name 3 ideas / topics that you feel are the most relevant to the field of glass at large right now.
A: Performance, tradition, interfacing with contemporary art.
Q: How would you describe a craft school experience? And how do you think it is different from other forms of arts education?
A: Craft school gives you the important and valued time in an idyllic setting to connect with traditions and history associated with different materials and to experiment with this. It allows you to build lasting relationships in the field that shape your career and the landscape of your practice. It allows you to go deep into an intensive hands-on study which there is not always time for in the academic setting. In the college classroom, theory, history, research, and display are all driven home, but they often will suggest going to take a class at a craft school to refine technique. This kind of paired/hybridized education creates a rounded and aware maker in the contemporary field.
Q: How would you describe your personal experience(s) at Pilchuck Glass School? How has your time there influenced your artistic pursuits?
A: Charlotte’s Web was the pivotal work that has propelled me into the Cameo series exploring online relationships. I had just completed graduate school and was an Emerging Artist at Pilchuck Glass School. My thesis work had ended a bit bleakly, I had expanded upon the space between self and other to the point where I was questioning the space between decisions, words and meaning. I felt I needed to focus again on connections, how we connect, and rather than the differences, concentrate on the similarities, the links. One morning I was looking at Facebook and thought – this is it – this is the modern day prosthesis for connection, this I how we find each other in this huge world. But at the same moment I felt the epiphany, I was immediately distressed with the very interface that we are actually further and further away from those we know and love, and are losing moments to physically hold onto to someone, or receive a hand written letter. I wanted to make these people physical. I had been doing materials studies in which I engraved one person’s cameo silhouette into one side of glass, and on the other side another person, until the glass was so thin that it was breaking away, literally eroding the lines between them. Perhaps because I was playing with cameo engraving for the first time, I went to the idea of using the profile image of the person from Facebook.
But more broadly Pilchuck… I could get teary eyed talking about that place. It has been a transformational place for me, providing space and time at the right moment to conceive of an entire new way of approaching my practice. Prior to being and EAiR, I had worked many many positions. I started in the kitchen, meeting icons in the field and serving them food I made with my own hands. I then went on to maintenance: cleaning toilets, taking out the trash and mowing the lawn, learning how to observe great makers, and learn through taking notes, asking questions and soaking up the energy of an artist community. When I was finally a scholarship student – this course single-handedly changed the course of my life. Because of it I decided to go to graduate school, which opened countless doors and improved my concepts, ideas and willingness to take huge chances in my practice.
Q: Just for fun: a major museum is burning and you have to go in and save 3 works — knowing that you may endanger yourself, what works do you rush in to get?
A: Duchamp’s The Bride in Philly, Woodall’s Cameo Plaques in the Chrysler Museum of Art, and a mosaic portrait of a Lady in Corning.
Q: Last question: what’s next?
A: Currently I am working on a few large-scale public art pieces, one which is collaborative. This is a really different direction and I am excited to share the work in a new arena. I’m the co founder of a major light and neon festival in the new arts district of Norfolk which premiers in October, and the artistic director of my sister’s music festival Grand Point North in September.
In the next year, I’m bridging a few bodies of work by making the ashes work more object oriented and connecting it to those who have passed and are still “alive” on Facebook. Finally, I have an idea to bridge armor and the cameo series to make ceremonial armor pieces out of glass cameos.
Charlotte Potter was born March 30, 1981 in Randolph, VT and currently works and resides in Norfolk, VA. For more information about Charlotte Potter and her work, please visit the following:
All images courtesy of the artist unless otherwise noted (from top to bottom): Cameo: Pending (detail), 2014, cameo engraved glass, metal, images courtesy of Facebook, 13 x 30 x 8 feet, courtesy Heller Gallery, New York, NY; Cameo: Message Received (detail), 2015, hand-engraved glass cameos, enamels, custom metal, 72 x 266 inches, Collaboration between Charlotte Potter and Jesse Scaccia, courtesy Heller Gallery, New York, NY; Self + Other: The Opposite of Mitosis, 2010, video, monitor, glass, metal, 35 x 48 x 24 inches; Cameo: Message Received (detail), 2015, hand-engraved glass cameos, enamels, custom metal, 72 x 266 inches, Collaboration between Charlotte Potter and Jesse Scaccia; Remedy: Checking for Vitals, 2009, photography, printed matter, dimensions variable, photography by Adrien Broom; Self + Other: Attempting Synchronized Palpitations, 2010, digital stethoscopes, audio mixer, metal, rubber, 35 x 48 x 24 inches; Armor, 2014, microscope slides, photo decals of the artist’s skin, urethane, sterling silver, 60 x 48 x 14 inches; Hybrid Antler Series, 2008, glass, foam, flocking, paint, glue, resin, fabric, nails, dimensions variable; Cirque De Verre: Performance Glass Troupe Poster, founded in 2007 by Kim Harty, Rika Hawes, and Charlotte Potter; Sister Act (still), 2013, Collaboration with the artist’s sister Grace Potter; Sideways Chandelier, 2009 to present, glass, glue, mirror, metal, wax, fire, 25 x 20 x 6 inches; Self + Other: Proxemic Hyperventilation, 2010, video, proximity sensor, micro-controller, computer, wood, aluminum, 24 x 16 x 20 inches;Cameo: Charlotte’s Web (detail), 2010-2012, hand-engraved glass, images courtesy of Facebook, metal, wax, 144 x 24 x 3 inches; Portrait of the artist
This series is sponsored by the National Craft Schools Initiative – five US craft schools who have teamed up to promote the craft school experience on a national scale. For more information about the national initiative, visit www.craftschools.us
To learn more about Pilchuck Glass School, visit www.pilchuck.org or via telephone: 360.445.3111