The pandemic has certainly seen us stretch our imaginations when it comes to alternate uses for everyday objects. That Zac Efron blow-up doll / Vegas bachelorette party favor? A wonderful stand-in on those interminable Zoom conferences while you’re enjoying an Ayurvedic steam shower (provided Zac sports a sizable sun hat). Pots and pans? A veritable band stand! That cute little succulent gifted you by Scottsdale-dwelling Uncle Ernie? Turns out it makes a great nap waker-upper for roommates not carrying their load. And don’t get me started on vegenaise…
We live in a world where analog objects are increasingly scaled, deconstructed, and repurposed into the digital stratosphere. And while our recent experience—isolation, stress, awakening, whatever—seemed to accelerate the digital world’s proliferation into our lives, a simultaneous, renewed appreciation for certain tactile objects has enjoyed its own reawakening. But which objects? I’m not talking hand bags or Hondas. I think those unfortunately witnessed a sort of diminished lust and purpose appeal. No, I’m talking about craft, one-of-a-kind, artistic. Objects that tell stories, or inspire us. See, the worlds of interior design, home audio, contemporary art—spaces that beg for personalization and impart a kind of comfort (in the absence or presence of a lover; whatever you fancy)… they’re owning the new now!
Now consider the bong. Object art at its finest, but in the ethos of BKLYN CLAY, a state-of-the-art ceramics studio in Brooklyn’s Prospect Heights—the bong, on its days off, might best be suited as a lovely flower vase. You see where I’m going with this? Object arts are what you make of them. And if you’re BKLYN CLAY, what you make is never replicated, always unique, and always imbued with you.
Founded by Jennifer Waverek, a thirty year NYC resident who hails from the great state of Montana, BKLYN CLAY was a response to the entrepreneur’s various NYC ceramics studio experiences—their limited hours and often gloomy environments. Instead, Waverek brought to life a clean and modern space, which features numerous classes, workshops, parties, private lessons, and presumably the occasional enjoyment and display of plants, medicinal and otherwise!
Flaunt was fortunate enough to get its paws on a limited edition bong designed by ceramicist Anders Hamilton, a contributor to BKLYN CLAY’s recent artist collaboration, Bong/Vase Project, which features specialty pieces with signatures, decals, hand painting and underglaze on the classic slip cast vase/bong. Other participating artists include Christian Moses, Michelle Im, Gustav Hamilton, Sarah Allwine and Dean Roper.
Here, a quick and uplifting conversation with Waverek, whose background as a partner in a boutique creative agency paved the way for her journey into BKLYN CLAY, where she shares on the special collaboration, the therapeutic potential of the potter’s wheel, and the increasingly subversive nature of doing what serves you… offline. Enjoy, and don’t forget to refresh the water!
Many have turned or returned to the art of ceramics as a healing art in recent years, most notably during the pandemic. What about the act of ceramics is healing from your perspective?
Having a computer in your pocket 24/7 has simplified life and connected people all over the world. However, I think that it has also interrupted the connection to ourselves and the immediate world around us. Working with clay pulls you back into yourself, dirty hands can’t touch a phone. Also, you are literally working with earth, which is grounding, messy, and primal. On the pottery wheel one of the steps is ‘centering the clay’ so the object maintains an even shape. Something about that act is very satisfying, and slightly meditative. Making ceramic work parallels a lot of simple life lessons, it can be creative and imaginative, and there are processes for making just about anything. But things take time, it’s been thousands of years and there is still no ceramic microwave, you still have to let yourself go along with the process, giving clay time to dry and fire. There is also failure and things beyond your control, so you end up having to let go a little. So I think working with clay is the antidote to digital disconnection, both because of the immediate feelings and experiences in the practice, as well as the realities of the process itself.
How have you managed to stay motivated to push BKLYN CLAY forward during this challenging period?
The studio had such a brilliant momentum going when things shut down—and we didn’t want to lose that, so we tried to stay engaged as a team and with the community by holding zoom artist talks from ceramic artists all over the place. One of our teachers is a bingo caller so we held an online bingo fundraiser and raffle for our teachers who are not full-time employees. Jon Glazer and Mary Lynn Rajskub hosted—it was fun, hilarious, and really brought the mood up when we had no idea what was happening with the pandemic. We also began working on a series of online classes, and supported that with a clay delivery service. Before most stores could do regular deliveries, we could because we have a beer and wine license (which is an essential service). This allowed us to deliver beer and wine… along with some clay and materials so people could hand build and take classes at home. When we could work in the studio the BC team began working on our dinnerware, and other ceramic goods and projects—this is when we slipcast a bunch of bongs for the Bong/Vase Project. We just did whatever it took to get on the other side of this pandemic.
Of course, we wouldn’t have been in a position to do all of this without the continued support of our members. About 85% of our members continued to pay for membership during the 4 months that we were closed. We were offering contact-free clay pickups and firing services, along with the online events, but it was their energy that kept us going. We could not have sustained ourselves without our members, it meant that they wanted the studio to survive, so we were all committed to making that happen. It showed—we were a community of people who were coming together around a shared interest, and we are so grateful for that support.
What do you feel is a common misconception about the ceramic arts?
Even though ceramic work is at an incredible place right now, and has undergone a huge shift in the past few years, I think the conception of it is sometimes a little stuck in 70s earthy sub-culture, and is often reduced to twee ’craft’. I think it might be in the same place photography was about 25 years ago. It’s such a rich, diverse medium and while you can make beautiful functional wares, or a chunky ashtray for your dad — I’m seeing artist’s make extraordinary work with it, and blending it into their practice. I’ve also heard the ‘Ghost’ reference a million times.
What, if anything, about ceramic arts feels like counterculture or subversive to you?
I think that doing anything offline feels pretty subversive right now. Anything that isn’t actually on a phone, computer, or documented with an instagram post feels counterculture—I mean I’m not running out and buying a tent, but non-digital experiences are pretty freeing.
Describe a recent high point with advancing some of the digital workshops and offerings of BKLYN CLAY?
Our Lead-Technician Sarah Allwine who is hilarious and the Kate Moss of BKLYN CLAY taught a painting with underglaze class during the pandemic dressed as Bob Ross. We Amazon-ed her a Bob Ross wig and she wrangled up some wire frame glasses and it was pretty perfect. Making online classes fun and different is crucial. After we did that pretty early on in the pandemic we spread out to online hand building classes and people who had joined us for Bob Ross gave that a try—then when we reopened in July some of those people came to the studio in person for the first time. So we saw people go from the online classes to in-person as things began to open up.
How did you determine this particular set of artists for this collaboration? What was unifying in their grouping? How about aspects with which they stood apart from one another?
This was originally going to be an in-studio decal/bong workshop with Dean Roper (@superchillandcool420) for 4/20 last year. Then, as the pandemic set in and wore on, we shifted to making editions, instead. Dean has made several bongs using the decals and iconography that run throughout his work. Then, Anders Hamilton made the joke to add a Kohler logo (it really does look like plumbing) and it caught on and got more serious. We then selected some other studio artists who use interesting surface decoration techniques and have a sensibility that we thought would mesh nicely with the bong/vase concept in some way. Everyone is pretty different and played with the form in unique ways, so that really worked, as well.
What was the creative process like? Was it in-person?
A lot of this was actually in person. We were closed for four months and opened in July of 2020 (wearing masks is easy and actually beneficial in ceramics). So part of it was casting bongs and then walking around the studio, seeing what artists were doing, and then asking them if they’d like to apply that to a bong/vase using whatever process they were using on their other work.
Who is one of your favorite ceramicists from past or present and what is unique to you about their work?
A nice example that shows the ongoing conversation between the past and the present is that of early nineteenth century potter George Ohr’s and contemporary ceramic artist Kathy Butterfly. Often art is a response to what has gone before, and these cues though, likely unconscious inform current works in new and innovative ways.
What sort of artworks tend to inform your practice or those of the studio? Music? Paintings? Can you describe a particular artwork that gave way to a piece you or one of your studio participants created?
I think I really look to the artists around me in the studio, those that I’ve already mentioned. I’m really lucky to be inspired by the people working with me—by the work they do in the studio and the work they’re doing on their own. We’re really lucky to have the team that we do.
When you're not at the studio, where do you go for inspiration?
The city is normally a big inspiration, from people to galleries and museums, restaurants. That’s what made last year so hard, being separated from the city and unable to really be in it.
When do you personally feel the most invincible?
I’m not sure I ever feel entirely invincible, but after we re-opened and I realized we were going to make it I felt pretty good. It was great seeing everyone again and working with the team in person, I’m really proud of how we pulled together and got through this. Getting to see the members coming back, some slowly but many pretty immediately, that was pretty great. Right now our biggest problem is that we can’t fit enough people in the space — it’s a good problem to have. I feel really lucky most of the time—that’s not invincible, but it’s close.
What are you most looking forward to and why?
I’m looking forward to seeing what happens with people's work as we all have the ability to interact more again. So much of the work that’s been happening has been happening in isolation - I’m excited to see what people have been up to this year, I think that the shows are going to be really interesting. I’m also excited to see what happens now that we’re in a cultural moment where diversity is being celebrated more and there’s a real movement to be more inclusive in the arts. I’m excited by our Residency, to see who applies and what work we will have the opportunity to foster. I’m excited to build out the business and grow our dinnerware line, start new projects and partnership—seeing where we can go. And I can’t wait to not wear a mask.