My favorite part of writing up these interview notes is discussing how I met the artist. I was brought together with each of the artists I interviewed by acts of generosity - sometimes by multiple people - and often by a bit of serendipity. I was constantly awed by the interest strangers took in my project and their willingness to support me in one way or another. My introduction to Janet represents one of the more generous acts by someone. My ceramic artist sister posted my call for artists on her Facebook page where she is followed by many other ceramic artists, one of which is Terry Parker. Terry reached out to me not only to connect me to Janet, but also to offer to house and feed me for 2 days in Tucson. I need to state explicitly that Terry had never even laid eyes on me when I rolled up the driveway of her lovely desert retreat in Tucson. Anytime you are feeling a little disheartened by the world, all you have to do is read in my notes how I met these artists and you will be reminded of how kind, generous, and simply awesome people can be when you open yourself up.

Welcome to Tucson!

After my tour of Tucson's ceramics community (thanks to Terry) it felt like Janet, who was born and raised in Tucson, is queen of clay there. She has been teaching ceramic arts at The Tucson Museum of Art for over 40 years and also founded The Romero House Potters. The Romero House is a playground for clay lovers and has lots of classes and several huge hand-built kilns (something that always impresses me).    

While growing up Janet was exposed to creativity first by her dancing parents and she practiced a variety of performing arts, such as playing the flute and dancing. However, she did not discover the visual arts for herself until she lived in Europe for 6 months while she was in college. Up until that point she had been preparing herself to work in the medical field by majoring in microbiology at the University of Arizona, but Europe’s rich culture and abundant museums lit a creative fire for Janet. When she returned to school after returning from Europe she loaded up her school schedule with drawing and other art classes. She thought maybe she could be a scientific illustrator as a way to put her years towards her science degree to work because she had begun to lose interest in her work in microbiology, but had a hard time letting it go because of all of the work she had put towards it.

The art classes though, along with a series of other events, helped her walk away from a career in the sciences. Her childhood best friend had taken a pottery class and suggested it to Janet. It was love at first sight, so to speak. That one class led her to continue to take classes and to seek out more classes while she was spending the summer working in Cape Cod. This is where she eventually met Harry Holl (founder of Scargo Pottery), who would not only end up being her teacher and mentor, but he would also be one of the most influential people her life. The first time they met they spent the afternoon talking and she walked away knowing that she wanted to create pottery for a career; with Harry she saw a talented man who had been working with clay for over 25 years and still loved it; therefore, she thought she could love it for the rest of her life as well.

A Centered Universe documents the long prolific life and art of sculptor and potter Harry Holl.

This was all on her mind when Janet went back to work in the lab with one of her professors. They were collaborating on tracking some kind of bacteria (the name of which I can neither spell nor pronounce) for a year. They were getting ready to publish a paper on it when the samples they were using became contaminated and thus, unusable. That was it, she said, that was the straw the broke the camel’s back; she now knew she didn’t want to be a doctor or do anything in the health sciences and she was tired of being cooped up in a lab. This incident and the call of clay made it easier to walk away.

Science and the arts

Even though Janet left science for a career in the arts, I have found that it’s not uncommon for artists to either really enjoy the sciences or have a background in math or science. Five of the twenty-two people I interviewed have either a math or science background or shared with me a strong interest in the sciences. This is not the first time I have seen the the arts and sciences at work together. Since working at CalArts I have met a number of students who incorporate math and science into their artistic practice. My first semester teaching at CalArts I had a music composition student in my research methods class. He wanted any classes, books, or general resources related to the sciences he could get his hands on. During the four years he was at CalArts, I did my best to fill his somewhat insatiable desire for anything related to science. I had another student in my research class - interestingly, another music composition student again - who created a composition based on the physics of a tsunami for his final project. His documentation included meticulously hand-crafted charts and graphs (with x and y axis!) and his bibliography included peer-reviewed journal articles with fancy titles. He even read these articles because he came to me often to discuss their contents.

These are just two examples, there are many more. So, I have thought a lot about this relationship between the arts and sciences since being at CalArts. I think prior to working at CalArts and my experiences with these students I would have described the sciences as a something that requires left-brained thinking: logic, linear thinking, calculations; and the arts liking more right-brained thinking: creativity, emotions, and intuition. And I think these are commonly held beliefs. But the more I have seen the science/math-loving students run through CalArts the more similarities that I saw with these two fields and that it’s likely tapping the same parts of the brain. Both require seeing things in a different way or things that simply might not be there, and a keen sense of observation. It’s easy to say artists are “creative,” but math and science also both require a certain amount of creativity and willingness to see the world as an expansive place. Think of the stereotypical image for the scientist and the artist, they aren’t that much different from each other: both are messy and often late for appointments. (Just kidding here...most of the artists I know are always very much on time!)

The apprenticeship model

Throughout his career, Harry Holl regularly took on apprentices. When Janet first met him she had hoped to become one of his students right away. However, because his children were working for him earning money for college, he wouldn’t be able to devote much time to her. Maybe in a couple of years, he told her. Although she was a bit disappointed, she was not discouraged. She went back to Tucson, continued to take pottery classes, and wrote him consistently for 2 years until he finally told her to come on out.

While his apprentice, she worked mostly making clay (which is very hard work) and doing whatever else around his studio he asked her to do. When she wasn’t working for him she could work on her own pieces and work one-on-one with Harry when he would evaluate her work and teach her new techniques. She didn’t pay for it, nor did she make any money for the work she did for him. It was in the true apprenticeship model, it was an exchange of work between master and student.

Hearing Janet’s story about her apprenticeship made me realize that the traditional apprenticeship isn’t really practiced anymore. I recently had a conversation with a CalArts colleague about the decline of the apprenticeship model within the arts and crafts. The lack of apprenticeships (true apprenticeships) leaves a hole for aspiring artist looking for formal or professional education and training. The only place they can look is to art schools - often expensive, private art schools. I don’t know exactly what caused the decline of the apprenticeship, but I think it’s unfortunate and would encourage any artist who enjoys teaching to take on an apprentice or two.

Janet’s work

I have always admired artists who successfully create through more than one medium or technique. Not only does Janet incorporate a wide range of styles and techniques in her ceramics, but she also keeps up a drawing practice and has beautiful figure drawings hung throughout her studio. She fires a lot of her work in a high fire gas kiln, but will do raku and primitive firings as well. She has a lot of functional ware throughout her studio - sugar and creamer sets, plates, bowls, vases, teapots - but also sculpture, face masks, and you can see a raku Volkswagen on her site! I especially enjoyed her repoussé work, which is creating a relief pushing out from the inside. I have seen lots of relief work in metal, but I had never seen the process applied in clay.  On her website she calls them “largely altered,” and I believe that describes them perfectly. Even though some of them are large pieces, there is still a certain delicateness to them. These pieces also look like they are artifacts from another time.

One of the favorite parts of an interview with someone is discussing the forks in the road they experienced in the course of their careers. I like hearing about their decision-making process, things that made them go one way or another. So often many of the directions people took were influenced by intuition. At the time, a “feeling” that we have about something can seem so small and insignificant. The day Janet met Harry she saw a sign (literally, not figuratively) that pointed to his studio. She already knew who he was, and then that day she happen to be going on a picnic with friends and when she saw the sign she didn’t hesitate, she left her friends and sought out Harry. I wish now I would have asked her if she felt the shift - did she have any idea how dramatically her life would be affected by that meeting? I try to take these stories as reminders - reminders to pay attention to things big and small. There are often forces conspiring to make good things happen for us.