ARTIST/ARTIST: Amy Casey & Kristen Cliffel
coordinated by Rebecca Cross
Amy Casey interviews Kristen Cliffel
Amy Casey: There are so many moving parts in making ceramics…
Kristen Cliffel: You see how trapped I am by the scale of the work. I’ve [decided] to make everything smaller for the next six months…limiting scale to be a little more free. The grass piece here? This is the intended surface, which is delicious. But there’s some defect in the barium glaze, so I’ll make the piece again.
AC: So, dealing with these extreme technicalities…
KC: Every single flower is made, modified, and glazed a few times. But because the work is so emotional, I need that time to process and then let it go. And in the completion, I find such solace.
The process saves me, but it also kills me, in the same moment. And I could not do anything else, because I need that sort of investment in pain, to move through my life, I think. That was even the way I knew I had to have my baby with no anesthesia, because I would not have been as invested in the life force, because I felt so robbed by the pregnancy, and the lack of freedom that I was going to have, and all of this conflict.
AC: Your whole life is a strange maze of freedom. Trapped by your work but needing space to work and store it. But when I see your work in the gallery, it’s like, “boom!”
KC: Hopefully that’s where mastery comes in, elevating the object beyond the process. But the process is what keeps me connected. Like parenting: much of the work is about the shmushing of the air in the space around your heart, when you’re loving somebody. I feel overwhelmed until it’s out.
The big bird took almost a year. Otherwise all I did was make earrings to pay my rent, and make one big piece.
AC: Also, you see time differently when you work on a project that spans so much time. So you spent this year making earrings and this one piece, but I’m thinking, “Wow, look at that amazing one piece she made!” And it’s an amazing piece to have in the world.
KC: We have to think about time differently as artists, because we’re not compensated for our time. Everyone else in the world is like, “Oh, I’m off Friday,” and I’m like, “Oh, I’m never off. When am I off? Oh, never is good for me!” One of the first things I ask an artist when I go into a show is, “How much time does this represent for you?” Because that means something to me. I feel the investment.
AC: Like the difference between making prints and paintings, creating a way for people to engage with you, even in a literally small way.
KC: I actually love that way to connect with others. We figured that out a long time ago. (I say “we,” because my husband Bob is my partner in crime, my muse and my facilitator.) Take this, have a part of me that’s small. It has a relationship to the work. It’s not contrived.
AC: Especially if you’re making something that takes a year. It makes me happy to have a little bit of Kristen.
KC: Which allows me the freedom to do larger-scale work. I still teach to support myself.
AC: Being a self-employed painter, I admire people who have so much to do. And you’re still kicking ass!
KC: Thank you. I definitely could think, “I’m not good enough. I’m not worthy of what I’ve been given with my hands, and my heart.” And sometimes it’s too close to the bone. Heavier Than I Thought was a really hard piece to make. And I feel so free, now that it’s over. Some pieces, like Foundation, are a beautiful celebration of the good things in my life.
AC: Your work has a friendly feel, but it’s like a honeytrap. When you’re looking at it, you think, “hmm.” And suddenly you can see the anxiety, even if it’s a cute little bird. Your work makes anxieties approachable.
KC: We have a lot in common. In your work, I’m drawn in by the detail, the familiarity of the object, and the juiciness of the composition. And then—“Oh, this is not good, this is terrifying, and we need to take a look at what is going on here.”
AC: A sense of humor is a good way to pull people in, right?
KC: For certain. Humor and beauty are a catch. And certainly, you’ve gotta keep your best side out. My dad was in Vietnam, and people were dying all around him, and he was doing surgery on the front lines, and my mom had two kids at home. And so there was always dark. But more reason to keep your best side out. “You have a broken leg? Awesome, your other leg feels good? Great. Keep your best side out.”
AC: In the meantime, you’re still limping around on a broken leg.
KC: Oh god, yeah. Totally. I want to be showing things that deeply affect and matter to me.
AC: You have so many more logistical terrors than I do.
KC: The process is drawn out with clay. Having this dry enough to drill into was ten days. And then these have to get fired, and then glazed, but a part of the process I’m entranced with.
AC: You have to fully embrace the whole thing. That blows my mind.
KC: And I have sketchbooks everywhere.
And these tiles worked out beautifully, part of a series of tools to keep your life safe. To build a life, you need a hammer. Second, a boat and a paddle, for the journey. And the last thing that’s so important to have in your life is a ladder: a way into something, and a way out of something. I’ll use those tools over and over, like grass, and birds, as visual language. And keep saying to myself: “I’m not having to deal with it, I’m getting to deal with it.”
Kristen interviews Amy
KC: The tasks you’re doing are so focused…
AC: It’s super labor intensive. At times, I have to kind of trick myself to focus a little bit.
KC: So you work on a ton of stuff at once?
AC: If I have deadlines coming up, I work serially, one piece at a time. But these drawings from photographs, I call the “interesting projects.” A lot of nature comes in from when I was on residency in Finland.
AC: You get into a hamster wheel of working, and deadlines. You don’t always remember to step back and think, “Where is all this going?”
KC: I see an affinity to the structural work in the same sort of obsessive nature. I love seeing this different subject matter. To me it feels like the dichotomy of housing.
AC: Right. My work is almost making ghost towns now, because a lot of the buildings that I paint are gone.
KC: This used to be a home for somebody, a place for life to thrive, and now it’s completely different. The potential’s changed.
AC: I realize it’s still a reflection of my anxieties and how I feel about chopped-off things, things cut off at the knees…I feel really lost.
KC: Exactly. The only way to find your way and continue, is to admit that, [otherwise] how is the process going nourish you?
AC: My life is all about trying to be comfortable with uncomfortability.
KC: So what’s your favorite part of your process?
AC: Different things at different times. For years I’ve been making drawings that sometimes turn into paintings. But that’s a different feeling than—
KC: —spending a month and a half drawing?
AC: Right. When you’re just making doorknobs and windows.
I used to love hand quilting, the very, very slow process of making something out of tiny little gestures.
KC: There’s a big idea, or object that’s going to be made, and then you see 7,000 hours of making grass blades, or the doorknobs and the windows. That, for me, is just the work.
AC: I enjoy that part, but it’s also exhausting.
KC: That’s the process. You know what to do, your body knows what to do, and then you’re thinking through it and feeling through it.
AC: I get kind of lost in it, which is…a good feeling. Sometimes being lost is frightening, and sometimes it’s comforting.
KC: Especially now, with the climate of the universe, right? You can get lost in the news, or you can get lost in your own creation.
AC: All these anxiety dreams, which probably also help drive making work to escape all that, are maybe not mentally healthy to think too much about. Especially if there’s nothing you can do immediately.
KC: I think you’re doing it, don’t you? You’re being productive with the energy you have and it really shows.
AC: I was trying to finish a group show in Portland, and the time was collapsing. But I had an idea and could see it so clearly, and I made it…so satisfying.
I was on a roll, you know? You’re on the roll, you’re on the train, you’re moving forward and then— I fell off. Now the train’s gone by and I’m not sure what the hell happened, or what’s happening next, but working hard to get back on the train.
KC: You’re trying to get comfortable with that uncomfortableness.
AC: I used to have little creatures in the work, and I was trying to protect the little creatures in my head, so I gave them places to go. And then eventually the buildings became creatures to me…they became protagonists. Over the past years, I became almost minimal, which does sound crazy considering how maximal the details are. But the idea of paring down to the least possible: How can you make this city or community with buildings, then buildings on buildings, then buildings creating their own ground.
I’m not dismissing that work, [but] it became like an extreme growth, or cancer. At what point does extreme growth turn into something that’s not necessarily good?
When I moved in, this house was empty. You know, people would sneak in the basement and do drugs, and then three years later there are pretty blonde girls with those metal reflectors outside, getting sun in the backyard, and you’re just like, “What happened?”
KC: They’re growing houses over there.
AC: Right there, that green house? Boom! It was there. I left for two months to Alaska, and I came back and there was a house there. Of course that ends up in the work. I’ve been struggling so much with printmaking over the past couple years, but I’m not really a printmaker. I’m a painter. It’s funny because printmaking is a world of control freakiness, but I’m in a different control freaking plane.
KC: In allowing your work to be in a different medium, there’s a lack of control. Sometimes that can be delicious and things can happen.
I love the looseness in these pieces. Watercolor?
AC: No, I bought an airbrush.
KC: Oh, cool!
AC: It seemed extremely like, “Hello, left field, nice to meet you.”
KC: Well, disruption, right?
AC: Exactly. I started to learn how to swim around the time I turned 40, and I was terrible. But I kept at it. It seriously took me almost a year…so humbling, you know? But maybe it will change the way I think about painting.
KC: I think that’s genius…you’re amazing.
AC: Oh, shucks.
KC: I know you’re feeling like you got off the train, but it looks like you’re on to me.
KC: Sure. It’s beautiful, inspirational. I think you’re brave.
AC: It’s good to…to not be yourself all the time.
KC: Right, be courageous. That’s a good instinct, to say, “I need to do this.”
AC: It’s such a fine line between courageous and flailing.