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Part 5 | Artist Chris Staley and The Family of Things

Part 5 | Artist Chris Staley and The Family of Things

With Ideas on Craft and the Craft School Experience from Stuart Kestenbaum, Former Executive Director, Haystack Mountain School of Crafts

“What is craft?” I bluntly asked Stuart Kestenbaum. His response was perfect: “This must be a trick question…Craft is a process. Craft is an understanding of materials and traditions. Craft is a way of thinking sympathetically about materials. Craft is about the hand and its tacit and intuitive knowledge.” And it with this that I begin part 5 of this engaging series on craft and the artists and schools that make it so very special.

When I asked Kestenbaum to identify ideas or topics that he felt are the most important for the advancement of craft education right now, his first response was “the importance of promoting making through crafts to creative people who might not be aware of the possibilities of our disciplines and ensuring involvement of a broad range of people in the craft world.” Ironically, I believe these are two things that Haystack does impeccably well. With a focus on intensive immersion in the creative process associated with traditional craft media with little to no limitations or constraints (particularly time as the studios are accessible twenty-four hours a day), artists who make the time and the journey will be rewarded twofold (if not more). And while Haystack has many similarities with other programs, it has made a specific effort to involve makers and thinkers from other creative disciplines (music, dance, physics, poetry) to interpret and re-interpret craft in light of other disciplines.

I asked Kestenbaum to delve a bit deeper into what he felt was one of the major topics most relevant specifically to the field of craft at large right now, and he said, “promoting craft without feeling inferior.” After several months of research and in-depth conversations about this very topic just this summer (and several years as part of the dialogue at SOFA fairs), it is a common thread. I still find it disappointing that this tremendous field would be considered any less worthy, less important, or less anything really. I often find more aesthetically, conceptually, and technically worth considering in these mediums than any other. Perhaps Kestenbaum is correct when he states that “craft is intuitive,” it just applies to both maker and viewer simultaneously.

So, it is precisely and appropriately with that same poetic candor with which Kestenbaum talks about craft that I find the tender and thoughtful words of renowned artist and celebrated professor Chris Staley when speaking of his own work, the revelations he found through the act of making, and the need for trust in all things – artistic and otherwise. I can instantly see why Kestenbaum suggested I speak with him. In all honesty, it is one of the most inspiring and beautiful conversations I’ve had in some time. I am left feeling a philosophical kinship on so many of very things I too think of critically as a writer, and more importantly as a maker. When he notes that the poet Mary Oliver is one of his inspirations (among a slew of my favorites), I could not help but think of her celebrated poem “Wild Geese” that I have taped to the inside of my own sketchbook (I hope you will indulge me):

You do not have to be good. You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting. You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves. Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine. Meanwhile the world goes on. Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain are moving across the landscapes, over the prairies and the deep trees, the mountains and the rivers. Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air, are heading home again. Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, the world offers itself to your imagination, calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting -- over and over announcing your place in the family of things.

In looking at Staley’s work and reading his considered responses to my lengthy questions, it is obvious that he doing what he loves and in ceramics, he has found a home. It is obvious that he has found his place in the family of things. And, it is obvious that there is unbridled sincerity here. A quiet and splendid sincerity that proves it is not the volume of his voice, but what he says that really matters. I challenge you to read our bewitching conversation and not feel completely and utterly changed:

Q: If you had to describe your work in three words what would they be and why?

A: Bold- trying to ascribe to “less is more”

B: Sensitive- enchanted with subtly nuance

C: Tactile – touch as meaning because the way we touch can be infinite

Q: Who do you draw inspiration from: artistically speaking (artists, philosophers, writers, musicians, etc…)

A: German artist Rosemary Trockel, poet Mary Oliver, writer/artist Paulus Berenson, potter Robert Turner, Photographer Nicholas Nixon, sculptor Cy Twombly, writer Alan Watts, writer Louise Glueck, writer & teacher Parker Palmer, and writer David Foster Wallace.

Q: You’ve been credited with saying, “Clay doesn’t lie.” What does this mean to you? How did you come to work with this material, what is it that drew you in and continues to provoke your interest?

A: Because clay is so responsive to touch, it reveals a story about the maker…How the infinite nuances of the ways clay can be touched captures everything from vulnerabilities to strengths. Like many, I was drawn to clay because of its plasticity and immediacy. Clay is just so responsive. Also something about the material seems so humbling, coming from the earth, humus from the earth. With the passage of time I have become intrigued with how touching clay can slow time down – as if being aware of when we touch something the awareness itself slows time down. Like the monk who pays attention to their breathing as they meditate.

Q: You talk about something called “the sludge of clay.” What does this mean and why is it so critical to your practice and, seemingly, your overall day-to-day existence?

A: I just used the phrase “the Sludge of Clay” because it reminds me of the sludge of life. That life itself is messy. We all shit, cry, laugh, age, and then die. I love grabbing a handful of very moist formless clay – it is like grabbing a handful of potential. A handful of clay is like our very lives we can do anything we want with it.

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 all honesty when I was young, clay was a life-saver. There was a lot of pressure growing up to be successful and I was not a particularly strong student. This was a cause for concern. I was very athletic but wasn’t good enough to make a living as a professional athlete. I always liked drawing and painting and making stuff, but it was the physicality of clay that captured my attention. I have always been intrigued with ideas around spirituality and our capacity to be better human beings. Increasingly, I have become intrigued with the subjective nature of the arts and its potential to help humanize education.

Q: I’ve read that you like for your work to look “like it is still becoming.” Can you elaborate on what this means? Is it in reference to concept or physical in form or a combination of the two?

A: Few things excite me as much as a compelling question. The power of art is its power to ask questions. I am particularly drawn to art that doesn’t look like art. It is something that is hard to place or contextualize. It might look unfinished or happen to be a random occurrence. Milan Kundera said, “Chance and chance alone has a message for us. Everything that is expected, planned or repeated is mute. Only chance speaks and we read its messages the way gypsies read the images of coffee grounds at the bottom of a cup.” As an artist, metaphorically, I am interested in those coffee grounds.

Q: You once said, “How do you take your thoughts and feelings and add something to, in my case, this 10,000-year-old tradition of making pots? How can you add to that tradition where there’s some sort of poignant personal expression taking place that’s of quality? For any artist, that’s a hard thing to do. There’s a lot of mediocrity out there.” How would you describe your own experience in making works that are functional and then leading into richly conceptual ceramic sculptures? Is there a delineation between the two for you?

A: To create compelling pots one has to dig deep with in yourself. You have to notice what you notice in the world around you. Notice what moves you. It's a question of making your thoughts and feelings real. It can be so easy to fall back on some conventional tropes. In the end, as cliché as it may sound, the artist has to follow their muses. As Robert Frost said “No surprise for the writer no surprise for the reader” so goes for the artist: “No surprise for the artist no surprise for the viewer.” One of the things I most love when working in the studio is when I suddenly try something with no intention of keeping what I am making. It is incredibly liberating to presume that it will not be kept. And then sometimes because of the absence of the ego something magical takes place.

In the spirit of following muses I will follow what I feel compelled to make. Sometimes a functional cup, or sometimes writing a poem, or sometimes a sculpture. There really is no delineation between pots or sculpture

for me.

Q: You speak about pots as if they are beings, life sources. What is it specifically about pots, functional pots, that evokes such a visceral drive for you to create them and the soulful response in their use?

A: Hand made pots have the potential to slow time down. When I use a handmade cup I feel like I am holding a story, or better yet holding the hand of the person who is telling the story. Increasingly, we live in a world that feels more frenetic and isolating. I remember returning home from Bob Turner’s Quaker memorial service and longing to feel closer to his spirit in some way. I remembered there was a bisque pot of his in my studio and I looked for his fingerprints on this bisque pot. When I found them I put my fingers on the finger prints he had left on the clay. In this small gesture, I felt closer to him.

There is something powerful about hugging a person you care about. When my daughters Tori and Rowan left for college and I hugged them goodbye part of me wanted to hold onto them forever. They both asked if they could take a cup I made to college with them. In many ways, functional pots are like a hug they can be talismans that connect us to deeper thoughts and reflections. Or they can just be a pleasure to use.

Q: Many of your pieces, for me, find that unique balance between the ancient and the modern. For example, Cubist Covered Jar reminisces of traditional hand-built jars from Korea or Japan, but with your additional of sculptural elements added in the most unexpected manners – the work becomes something different altogether. Can you talk a little bit about how you craft this delicate balance bridging the vast history of the material?

A: I am a big believer in the butterfly theory where everything is interrelated and connected in someway. So when I look at a Mimbres bowl or a Franz Kline painting they are related. The positive and negative space exists in both works of art. In our culture, we often want to categorize or compartmentalize everything. More often than not I am interested in the spaces between things.

Q: Many of your works involve the use of the jar or box, such as Sliced Black Apple Covered Jar, once described as “an aura of blunt strength”. Can you speak to the importance of the vessel for you: what it relates for you personally as well as how that correlates to the over-reaching notions of such an iconic form?

A: I like this question. Much of my interest around the vessel is the mystery of what is inside. This interest is particularly evident when it comes to covered jars. The box is particularly compelling because we can read it as a solid block. For me, pots are about breathing. The way the potter forms a pot can express the process of inhaling and exhaling, or said another way: expanding or contracting. This expansion and contraction can express life or death or growth or entropy. Like a person we first met sometimes we are really compelled to want to know more about them. This can depend on a whole myriad of observations. The same is true for how enigmatic a pot is.

Q: In that same vein, Black Memory Box, builds on these ideas but relates distinctly to your personal memories and how these are contained, retained, and revisited. When working with such intensely personal notions, how do you decide how much of your story to give to the viewer? Is it an all or nothing exercise, or more of giving just enough to tease out a response? How do you decide how much to share?

A: Another good question. How much personal information do we share with strangers? For me, it depends a lot on the situation. When it come to art work I will share what I feel will be helpful for people trying to understand the work, in other words: if they ask. And then I will share what I am comfortable sharing while trying to be cognizant of what is appropriate. I have to say I am fascinated by issues of trust. Once one of my students said love cannot exist without trust. I think this is very true. This is a subject that could be talked about a long time and paradoxically trust is something that is earned over time. (Sorry to go off on this tangent.)

Q: I was doing some research about you and in many instances, there is mention of some of the best work of your career including a series of spectacular black pieces with decadent, industrial qualities made in early 90’s. This is also when you began using black clay, and when I see a wonderful combination of the delicate and sensitive with demonstrative aggression. Can you talk about this explosive period of creativity for you and how it influenced your practice then and how it continues to, if it does?

A: Talk about the personal. This black period of work emerged out of some difficult times. This work was done at the Bray when I had left a tenure–track position because it had become untenable. Also a couple years earlier I went though a painful divorce that also coincided with my youngest brother contracting the HIV Aids Virus. The work that occurred during this time confirmed my belief that art making can be a form of catharsis. What was particularly interesting is while I was creating this work I was sort of unaware of what I was doing. As Abraham Maslow has sighted, I was in that unconscious competence state of making. Speaking candidly, I was also under an intense deadline to get work to the Garth Clark Gallery for a one person show. There are pros and cons to deadlines. One of the positives is deadlines can get you out of your comfort zone and sometimes this can be good for creativity.

Going back to your question. The work produced during this time made me a true believer that art is the manifestation of our thoughts and feelings. And in a profound way what we do with our lives is a work of art all onto itself.

Q: I particularly enjoy Four Corners Roughed Up, it's a wonderful contrast in the power of dualities: rough delicate edges vs. the bulk of the slabs that construct the form, the dense shape vs. the fragile material, hard shapes vs. organic / haphazard application. Can you speak a bit about how much you work with the idea of duality in your work, whether intentional or accidental?

A: Duality is important in my work. Often I have felt of two worlds. In both high school and college, I played football and I can well remember the macho world of the locker room. There was a different spirit in the art studio when trying to observe subtle nuances between line and edge. Perhaps having a younger brother who is gay and a father who is particularly sensitive and empathic I have always wondered about stereotypes and gender related issues. The world seems full of duality, life-death, night–day, hard–soft, male–female, kindness–meanness. And yet I believe in the circle in that everything is connected and in a sense one is needed to define the other.

With pots there is always the issue of making tight or loose pots. I make both and sometimes something in between. Four Corners was made and then roughed up. Like the difference between a new born baby and an 80-year-old person, life leaves its marks.

Q: I also really like Black Chunk and Bowl (pictured below) and Black Chunk and Splash (pictured left) which combine the best of both worlds: functional and sculptural. Can you speak about these two works and what they represent for you?

A: These two still-lifes came out of my ongoing interest in the alchemy of clay. These read from left to right and the first object is a chunk of black clay and the objects to the right are vessels. In the torn black chunks there are elements of hard and soft. In the vessels the softness is expressed with the curves of the pots. Like photography, clay can freeze a moment in time. In historical paintings of Dutch still-lifes, there was often a theme of “all things must pass.” Because of clay’s 3-deminsional transformative possibilities, it can readily express the metamorphism from order to entropy.

Q: Black Box Still Life seems to bring all the contradictions you play with together into one intriguing work. It is obvious that the material is secondary to your concept, but can you speak about your thought process of working to subordinate the more formal elements of sculpture to pursue a conceptual end? What is this work deeply about for you?

A: The title black box has a tangential reference to the black box recorder kept on planes to record data and flight communication. The box is a metaphor for what we don’t want to share. The closed door. The turned over cylinder reveals the inside. That said, I do not think this through as I make the work. The work is mostly done intuitively with vague impulses to do one thing or another.

Q: Over the course of your practice, a significant amount of your portfolio is almost exclusively black and white. Bold, graphic, but still sensuous – can you speak about your choices in palette?

A: The past 14 years I have gone to Quaker meetings for worship every Sunday. There is something about sitting in silence with other people that heightens contemplation. The absence of color is like silence for me. I have always found black and white photography contemplative. Black and white helps me focus more on pure form and shadows and slows time down.

Q: Works such as True Grit Covered Jar (pictured below), Volcano Grinder, or Last Grinder (pictured left) embrace the same degree of mystery and uncertainty prevalent in some of your other works; however, the surface treatment of these forms yields a unique surface texture that uplifts them conceptually. How important is the use of texture or skin in your work? What is it meant to imply?

A: I often anthropomorphize my pots. So yes the skin of pots tells a story of what the pots have been through. Every morning when I wake up and look in the mirror my face has changed ever so slightly. Most of us have a hard time with aging, yet it is inevitable. That said, we appreciate objects and people who have stood up to the test of time. So I scratch, grind, wash, hit and whatever else I can do to the clay to tell a story of the passage of time. Increasingly, old people intrigue me, because if fate will have it, they are my future. I have always loved the pictures of Georgia O’Keeffe in her old age. There is a quiet dignity in faces of the old among us.

Q: You’ve spoken about how as a young boy you often played outdoors and made things out of dirt and sticks, struggling to sit behind a desk at school, and knowing very early that to survive spiritually I had to keep creating with my hands. How, if at all, do you feel impacted personally and/or artistically with the constant onslaught of technology permeating every aspect of our lives?

A: I will be very candid. I have really struggled with the onslaught of electronic gadgetry. During an average week I spend more time in front of my computer than I spend time in the studio. This question about technology is a very big question you are asking. With texting and Instagram, Twitter and all the rest – the technology is actually changing how we relate to each other and how we relate to the world around us.

The book Quite by Susan Cain is a powerful read about introverts. I am an introvert and I find living in a world of information overload exhausting. I have noticed that increasingly some people just ignore messages and never respond – as this bombardment of messages increases I think people will increasingly hit delete. So as I am getting older I find myself wanting to withdraw. I try to never look at email after dinner because it adversely effects how I sleep.

Q: Ok, so let’s talk larger scope: how would you answer the question: “What is craft?”

A: Craft are the skills and techniques in how something is made by hand.

Craft usually involves tradition that is passed from one generation to the next.

Craft often involves function and utility.

All of the above could also be said about art.

I liked what Ken Price said “A craftsman knows what he/she is going to make and an artist doesn’t know what she/he is going to make. Or what the finished product is going to look like.”

Q: Name 3 ideas / topics that you feel are the most relevant to the field of craft at large right now.

A: EDUCATION – I believe that the subjectivity in art/craft can play a more significant role in humanizing education.

TIME – When students learn hand skills it changes their relationship to time. I think the focus and often solitude it takes to master a skill actually makes students better listeners. When you make with your hands, your hands think for your mind.

ADVOCACY- Crafts people need to be come more articulate and vocal about how the arts and crafts can play a significant role in making the world a better place to live.

Q: Historically, and often critically, there has been a distinct separation between the disciplines of fine art and craft? Do you think there should be separate categories? And if so, what do you think causes this division? Do you identify with one or the other? Both?

A: Once a painting major said to a ceramic major: “Why would you want to just make bowls?” The question is a very revealing one. The painting major is not aware of the potential of a bowl to express the ideas and thoughts of the maker of the bowl. Here in lies the issue where we as makers and craftspeople have to be teachers and articulate all that is possible to express within the context of a bowl. Like the Mimbres bowls that so eloquently tells a story about these native American lives 1,200 years ago. Or the beautiful Sung Dynasty bowl that speaks about the beauty of a simple flower. And in addition to their expressive qualities, you can touch and truly integrate bowls into our daily lives.

In the end Erinn, I identify with both fine art and craft. I consider myself an artist who makes pots. It is really about intention. I have worked with production potters who seemed more interested in production than self expression. Personally I am more interested in expressing thoughts and feelings than production. Although there have been rare times when I was interested in just producing.

Q: If different, name 3 ideas / topics that you feel are the most relevant to the field of ceramics at large right now.

A: Pedagogically we need to better understand the implications of clay plasticity in learning.

The white elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about is the burning of fossil fuels and how the firing of ceramics impacts climate change. Can we use ceramics to create more empathy and awareness in the world?

How can the ceramic artist play a more significant role in cultivating community?

Q: How would you describe a craft school experience? And how do you think it is different from other forms of arts education?

A: A craft school experience includes learning technical skills. Fine arts deal more with creativity and self expression. I have always tried to teach both with equal enthusiasm.

Q: How would you describe your personal experience(s) at Haystack Mountain School of Crafts? How has your time there influenced your artistic pursuits, your personal pursuits, etc..?

A: Haystack has been my Black Mountain College. It has encouraged me to think more about what I don’t know than what I know. I have no doubt, the time I spent at Haystack has made me a better teacher, artist and human being. There is a long list of people I have met at Haystack that have been inspirational. I would be remiss if I didn’t say how much Stu Kestenbaum leadership at Haystack helped create an amazing nurturing community. Speaking candidly, much could be learned at Haystack about education. Haystack is an environment that fosters cooperation. To often universities foster environments based on competition. When is comes to learning: cooperation trumps competition every time.

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: I might rush in to save a Turner pot, or a Johannes Vermeer painting, or a Vija Celmins drawing. But maybe not its just stuff, more likely to try and run in if a person was trapped inside.

Q: Last question: what’s next?

A: I am not sure. Writing does not come easy for me. That said I have been slowly working on a book titled The Dirt on Teaching: A Potters Search for Meaning. I hope to continue teaching in one form or another. As has been said the best way to learn is to teach. It makes sense because I am continually amazed by what I learn from students.

Q: Anything else you’d like to add that we haven’t discussed?

A: Only that I appreciated your interest in what I am doing. Thank you for your time.

Chris Staley was born July 8, 1954 in Boston, MA and currently works and resides in University Park, PA. For more information about Chris Staley and his work, please visit the following:


Gallery Representation - Santa Fe Clay:

Other (PSU):

Images courtesy of the artist (from top to bottom): Portrait, 2012, 26 x 19 inches, photo taken by Laura MacLean; Still –Life Thumb Triangle, 2015, porcelain, 6 x 8 x 4 inches; Gravity, 2015, black clay, 31 x 22 x 22 inches; Wet Snow at Night, 2010, stoneware, 16 x 14 inches; Four Cups, 2012, porcelain, 12 x 14 x 5 inches; Cubist Covered Jar, 2009, black stoneware, 14 x 8 x 8 inches; Sliced Black Apple Covered Jar, 2009, black stoneware, 10 x 10 x 6 inches; Black Memory Box, 2013, black stoneware; Four Corners Roughed Up, 2009, black stoneware, 13 x 10 x 10 inches; Black Chunk and Splash, 2007, black clay, stoneware, and wood, 15 x 19 x 9 inches; Black Box Still Life, 2009, black stoneware, 7 x 19 x 19 inches; Last Grinder, stoneware, 25 x 19 x 19 inches; Snowfall at Night, 2009, stoneware, 16 x 15 x 15 inches; Black Chunk and Bowl, 2007, black clay & stoneware, 14 x 20 x 9 inches; True Grit, 2009, stoneware, 24 x 18 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

To learn more about Haystack Mountain School of Crafts, visit or via email or via telephone: (207) 348-2306

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