"Porcelain has a memory." Studio visit with ceramicist Heather Bradley.
“I touched each one, and decided each one was worthy,” says Heather Bradley. She’s standing above a canopy of ceramics, clustered on a long table in her studio. The elegant porcelain vessels she’s created represent over a year of her artistic output, and some of the last pieces have just emerged from the kiln. “I think of them as ‘the family,'” she explains. “Today, some of them are meeting the other ones for the first time. It feels complete.”
Bradley is originally from Tennessee, and studied art history at the University of West Florida. She first came to New Mexico on the National Student Exchange, completing an MFA in painting at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces. “I was just going to stay for a semester, and then I stayed for a year, and then I decided to stay here for the rest of my life,” she says. After completing her MFA in Ceramics at NMSU Las Cruces, she moved to Santa Fe and has fostered a prolific career.
Now Heather is part of form & concept’s permanent stable of artists. During our studio visit, she talked about passing her 20th year of making ceramics, engaging with the New Mexico landscape, and confidently defying the expectations of the ceramics community. Read the full interview below, and make sure to browse Heather’s artwork on our Artsy profile.
F&C: You presented a brand new body of work for your first display at form & concept. Tell us about selecting the pieces.
HB: I switched to porcelain about two years ago from stonework. I loved the porcelain so much that I wanted to, for the first time, not make many marks on the surface. But then when I started working with the porcelain, there was lots of cracking and breaking. It’s fragile. For each one that I chose in this body of work, there were probably three or four that didn’t make it. They either broke, or died, or weren’t worthy.
F&C: So this is the culmination of a long-term experiment?
HB: It is. I’ve been hoarding these for a special show. I really wanted to show them together because I think of them as ‘the family.’ Today, some of them are meeting the other ones for the first time. It feels complete. I feel like the colors are talking to each other more now. The porcelain itself is just really new and special for me. I feel like I’m finally able to handle it.
F&C: What are some special considerations that you have to make when you’re working with porcelain, versus other mediums that you’ve worked with in the past?
HB: You have to work faster, for one thing, because the porcelain won’t handle a lot of manhandling. It holds up for a certain time, and then it gets too wet and just flops. I have to go fast when I’m throwing it, but then when it’s drying it has to dry really slowly and carefully. I have to be patient with firing. I’ve had several that I fired too soon, that exploded because there was too much moisture.
I also have to be a bit more sensitive with my fingers. The porcelain has a memory. If I make one little move, if I sneeze or something while I’m touching it, then it remembers that. I just have to be really focused because the porcelain is so sensitive.
F&C: How does it feel when a piece explodes in the kiln? Is that a little tragedy, or is it just another casualty of your work?
HB: I’ve had a lot of time to analyze those feelings. Just the other day, I opened the kiln and the top part of the kiln made me very happy. I was like, ‘Oh, those are beautiful.’ Then I could see shards around the edges. On the bottom part of the kiln, they were all exploded and broken. I felt awful. I don’t know how else to explain it, it’s very disheartening. I guess in a sense after you lose so many of them, the ones that I do have become a bit more precious, because they feel like survivors.
F&C: In your artist statement, you talk about finding these imperfections in the final products that give them their personality or essence. How do you balance that with your desire for perfection?
HB: There’s something imperfect about each one. Maybe there’s a mark that I didn’t intend, or the hole isn’t perfectly circular. At first, I’ll say, ‘Oh, reject pile.’ But then it starts growing on me.
When I’m throwing, I feel like I’m always trying to do a variation on the same form. I try to find some perfection or get close to something that I feel is elegant, but it never quite happens.
I start to relate it to being human. There’s nothing perfect about any aspect of me. I can find an imperfection about every single thing, so I just kind of accept it with the work. I notice that when people interact with it, a lot of times it is the imperfections that they’re drawn to.
F&C: How do you feel when someone notices an imperfection like that, and falls in the love the piece because of it?
HB: I’ve noticed that over the years. A lot of times I’ll show someone something, and I’ll start to apologize. I’ll say, “Oh, I don’t know what I was thinking at this point.” Or “It touched another piece in the kiln.” or “It has this mark on it that I didn’t intend.”
They would usually not really enjoy that apology, because that’s what they were connecting to. I’ve tried to also accept those imperfections, and see them as what makes it human-made rather than machine-made. That’s a good thing.
F&C: You’re originally from Tennessee. How did you end up out here?
HB: I went to school in University of West Florida, and was studying art history. I wrote a paper about Georgia O’Keeffe, and then I came on a national student exchange. I chose New Mexico because of O’Keeffe. I went to New Mexico State in Las Cruces. I was just going to stay for a semester, and then I stayed for a year, and then I decided to stay here for the rest of my life.
F&C: You studied painting before you were in ceramics. How did that transition happen?
HB: I was studying painting and I was also studying ceramics. One day I brought my ceramics to my painting critique, and it was a completely different response. Everyone in the room was like, “You should be doing this. You can keep [painting] but we don’t really care, but you should be doing this.”
It was a relief, because that’s where I really wanted to be. Painting felt more like labor, and ceramics was what I could do when I was finally finished painting. I took it as a sign, and started focusing more on ceramics. I got my BFA in painting, and my MFA in ceramics.
F&C: New Mexico seems like such a perfect place for a potter, because you can pick up the earth and shape it into something. The structures around us are made from the earth. Could you talk about connecting with this landscape, and the initial feeling of making pottery here?
HB: In Las Cruces, I was definitely blown away by the landscape. It’s so different from Tennessee because you can really see the earth. There are a lot of ceramics going on down there too, so I was inspired by other potters. Being in Santa Fe, I spend a lot of time in the mountains. I went up Santa Fe Baldy a lot this summer. I feel a lot of connection with the sky, too. Some of the surfaces and colors of my ceramics are inspired by that connection with the sky. Sunset and sunrises.
Something about having your hands in the clay makes you feel more connected to the earth. With the porcelain, it feels so refined. It’s expensive clay, and you have to go to a particular store to buy it. Sometimes it doesn’t just feel like I have my hands in the mud, it feels like I have my hands in expensive, refined, imported materials.
F&C: Could you talk about your current thoughts on color, and how you chose the palette for this body of work?
HB: I made some pieces before this that were all black and white. I worked in black and white for quite a while before I started adding the color. At first I felt a little bit afraid to use pastel colors, because there are a lot of cultural associations with pastels. I was worried that people were going to have a connection to pink in a different way than I saw it. But I just went with it, because there are a lot of these colors in nature.
There’s something about the subtlety of them that spoke to femininity for me. There’s a softness, but also the gradation of color reminds me of nature and things that happen on the ocean, and in the sky, and on rocks. I’ve always loved what copper can do, so there’s a lot of coppery colors. I feel like it’s a pretty broad palette. It kind of does cover the spectrum, but for me I needed them all to speak to each other. They needed to be balanced. It’s really nice to finally see them all together today.
F&C: They do feel like organic forms, perhaps eggs or seed pods. Was that part of the intention?
HB: I can relate to the seed pod part. I’m definitely inspired by Native American ceramics, and the pots that have the tiny holes that they used for seed pots. I’ve always been drawn to close the top of the pot. I’ve spent so many hours of my life in pottery classes, where they were teaching me to make bowls and teapots and cups and plates. My teachers can’t make me keep the form open. I just can’t do it. I want to close the form, I think it creates a more sensual look to me.
Sometimes it reminds of the top of cathedral spires, or they have these beautiful Buddhist stupas that they use in graveyards that have this spirally top as well that inspire me. I don’t really think of things growing out of them, necessarily.
F&C: The work is just at the edge of being fully functional. You could put a flower in them, but you couldn’t fit a whole bouquet. Are you referencing functional pottery?
HB: Yes, sometimes I’ll be really inspired by amphoras or different water vessels in Africa, or things that people use. I think there’s sort of a rebellion in me that’s like, “Try to use it. I don’t know, put a stick of incense into it.” I really just want them to be art.
F&C: You mentioned the “memory” of the pots earlier. Could you talk about your tactile memory when you’re making work, and also the memory that the pot itself preserves afterwards?
HB: It’s interesting, because I’ve been noticing how long I’ve been doing this lately. I just turned 40, and I started doing it when I was 19. I’ve always closed the form, and all my teachers have tried to make me not close the form. A lot of time when I’ve been throwing the long necks, people will ask me how I do that, and I can’t really seem to put it in words. But my hands know, and I like that. I can take a break from the pottery, and it’s like riding a bike in a way. I’ll think maybe I’ve forgotten, but my fingers remember how to close the form
I think for each piece I make, it does sort of encapsulate a moment in time or a day. I can remember which ones I made when I first went to the studio, and what was happening in my life. The clay is so sensitive, and I can remember taking the needle tool and making that mark, and feeling like I have that freedom to mark the clay.
F&C: So, for you, the work really chronicles all sorts of moments in your life?
HB: I do feel like that. It is almost a diary ,in a way. I have no idea if that’s conveyed to the audience or not, in any way. But this is a year and a half of my life. That’s how I feel.
What would you call that era in your life, if you had to label it?
I guess “40.” Turning 40 was like, “Whoa, good job me.” I stuck with it. I remember, when I first started when I was 19, walking back from pottery classes and feeling so defeated. It was something I wanted to be so good at, but my hands were incompetent, and I was so aware that I was incompetent. But I had to keep doing it. This year, I realized that I don’t feel that way anymore. That was nice.