This week our Pop-Up Shop features tea bowls and vases made by Venezuelan-born potter José Sierra, whose forms and surface decorations are informed by the many colors, textures, and lines of his homeland. In his artist statement he names coffee mills, the geometry of the Catalina and Andes Mountains, pre-Colombian art, architecture, and ritual objects as inspirational forces.
Above Image: José Sierra, Tea Bowl, 2016, stoneware, photo courtesy of the artist
“By altering wheel-thrown porcelain and stoneware,” he explains, “my work fuses organic and geometrical forms, in which I express both the fluidity and abruptness of the shapes and lines in the landscapes and architecture that surrounds me.” This rings true especially considering his thin, topographical wheel-thrown and altered forms paired with surface decor that recalls architectural blueprints and urban planning.
Since his relocation to the United States in 2000, he has called home Iowa, Arizona, and currently Oregon. The artist has an interesting perspective on the differences between ceramics communities in these states and regions, which you can read more about in our conversation below.
Cfile: Hello José! Thanks for answering my questions. My first question is about your voyage with clay. Did you make work in other mediums before you settled on clay?
José Sierra: In reality, I became interested in clay when I was about 14. I was in a class called “Educación Artistica” – Artistic Education. I was assigned to make an artistic representation of some element of our folkloric history of the region, and I chose to represent Juan Felix Sánchez: a farmer who became a self-taught sculptor and architect, and is well-known in Mérida for the two chapels that he built and the wooden icons he created to adorn it.
I chose clay because I knew of a clay bed near my neighborhood where I could find a material. So, I dug the clay myself and I made a sculpture of one of Juan Felix Sanchez’s figures/icons.
I was also inspired by architecture and maquette design. Architecture has always be present in my life, from technical drawing in secondary school and then my own work creating architectural models. One of my part-time jobs was creating the architectural models for students of architecture; many times I was doing their homework for them. This work taught me about the design and function that we experience in our everyday lives. So, architectural design has always been a strong influence in my work.
Initially, I was interested in sculpture, and the University focused primarily on utilitarian pottery, about which I was not fully passionate, because I had been sculpting. But after I engaged with the wheel, everything changed. Upon having my first contact with the wheel, it was like initiating an addition; it was like the clay got into my blood and I started to form an obsession with this tool or machine, with which I now spend the majority of my time in the studio.
At the same time, I was curious about pre-Colombian Mesoamerican ceramics. In particular, in the sculptural objects and the ritual uses of utilitarian pieces. For example, in the vessels for fermenting chicha, and those that form part of the narrative of special occasions and ceremonies.
C: Do you favor form or function when you are formulating a new pottery design?
J: I think both are important, but I think form leads. I start by designing the forms in sketches. Form is the starting point; it all really starts on the wheel. Some forms are premeditated and others come spontaneously. My pieces are not really “functional”, apart from my tea bowls. But I’m also not just doing it for aesthetics because there is a fine line between form, expression and decoration. Some of my forms, are based on pre-Hispanic design principals: I deconstruct the pre-Hispanic designs down to their essentials in order to explore them.
C: Did you relocate from Venezuela to Iowa to make art?
J: No. My wife is from Iowa. But I set up a studio soon after arriving. In my last few years in Venezuela, I was working more as sculptor, in part, out of necessity, because I couldn’t afford a full studio. I sculpted at home and fired at a former classmate’s house.
In Iowa, I bought a new wheel from Continental Clay in Minnesota and a couple used kilns from older ladies, and away I went. At one point, I wanted to dig my own clay, but I heard from potter Bob Andersen it was illegal, so, I continued to stick with my clay from Continental!
C: What have you found are the differences in the pottery communities in Iowa, Arizona, and Oregon?
J: In the Mid-West, there are really good utilitarian potters, they are based more in the tradition and rituals of wood firing. I used to do art shows in the mid-west, and I enjoyed the camaraderie of the mid-western potters like George Lowe.
Arizona has a pre-Hispanic heritage and the University of Arizona has one of the best collections of Native American pre-Hispanic ceramics in the Southwest; I’m like a kid in a candy store when I visit this collection. In Arizona and the Southwest, ceramics is valued as part of the broader culture. Arizona also has some very well established contemporary ceramics artists and the Ceramics Research Center at ASU. Ceramics is strongly embraced Arizona and I appreciate this.
Although I am in Oregon, I still feel more connected with the ceramics world of the Southwest and I still draw inspiration from the Southwestern landscape.
C: List some contemporary potters that inspire you? What inspires you about them?
J: My overall inspirations and influences go beyond ceramics, as my work is informed by pre-Hispanic art and architecture as well as contemporary architecture. Nonetheless, some of my inspirations include Japanese and Korean potters, some of this inspiration seems almost unconscious. For example, Wada Morihiro, he was inspired by pre-Hispanic designs. So, sometimes I’m not sure if it is inspiration or rather, I feel that I am connected with certain artists, like we’re in dialog with one another, or rather, we are having similar conversations with the forms and clay. Others include Tatsusuke Kuriki, Jun Kaneko and Robert Turner.
Even though Kuriki, in 1992, was uncomfortable with what Richard Wilson calls the “conventional wisdom of Japanese ceramics”, there is still something about this concept that speaks to me. As Kuriki commented: “The myth of Japanese ceramics centers around a material formed through a process of surrendering. The potter bends to the will of clay, glaze and kiln. The result is a divine gift. But I cannot abide by this notion.”
I think I share a similar position with Kuriki. But, I feel that working with clay is both a process of surrender, and exerting my will on the clay. But I don’t come from the Japanese tradition. Nonetheless, the idea that the piece is formed through a process of surrender and that I bend to the will of the materials resonates with me. This may be because of my initial wish to reject the control that the rules of utilitarian pottery exerted on me at the University. The clay, or mud, never forgets where it comes from, it always shows its soul, its nature, to the potter. As the potter, I want the natural essence of the materials to come through. However, at the same time, I identify with that idea of control, or my certain fascination with the idea of precision in my craft, which is an optical illusion, because in the end, my forms are organic and my lines are done by hand, I don’t use any measuring devices, like lasers or rulers.
I love Robert Turner’s glazes and forms. His history and trajectory as a potter was inspiring and impressive. When I lived in Iowa and was just starting to work full-time as studio potter, he was one the artists I read about, in “Shaping Silence: A Life in Clay.”
I appreciate the volume of Jun Kaneko’s work and the use of a massive piece as a canvas.
I am also influenced by modern Venezuelan artists, not ceramicists, like Jesús Soto, Alejandro Otero, Carlos Cruz Diez and Gego, in particular their modern designs and their contribution to modern art. I grew up surrounded by these art forms. For example, on the Avenida Urdaneta in my hometown of Mérida, Venezuela, we have 3 massive Cruz Diez pieces. On the road to Tovar, there is beautiful Jesús Soto piece.
C: That’s it for now. Thanks for answering my questions, José!
J: You’re welcome.
Don’t miss the opportunity to own a Sierra teabowl or vase. Our Pop-Up Shops clean out fast!