Annabeth Rosen: With clay you can go back. Ceramics is never finished. You can continually fire. You reglaze, resurface, repaint. I break a lot of work and build pieces from the broken parts. It’s never over. There’s this ceramics process dictated through history and one of my interests in the material has always been to undermine or tinker with the process. Anything in here, unfortunately, is up for grabs. I harvest parts from other pieces. Sometimes you just commit to something and you love it. Sometimes not. I made a glaze called bleach glaze that is intensely fluid and bleaches all the color out, and I can start over.
Sarah Granett: So you smash these things? I’m trying to picture that.
AR: I use a hammer. Things break where they are vulnerable when they are formed. And after a while if you make a lot of the same things and break a lot of the same things, you have a sense about how the thing is going to break. I am kind of brutal—not delicate, no finesse.
SG: We are sitting in your studio on the campus of the University of California at Davis. I’m looking around; the studio is full. You work a lot in here.
AR: I do. I am really working. It’s one of the things I love about ceramics — the demand of the material. The clay always needs something. You have to be present. I realize I’ve set it up this way. I wrap demand into the work I make. It takes so much energy to make things in ceramics and every bit is valuable, useful. Even when it’s broken. Sometimes it’s better broken. I love the shard, the potential, the promise, and how elusive the things are that excite. Sometimes the shard is a more potent indicator than the thing itself. What you imagine is better than what you see.
SG: Thinking about energy — it’s bodily energy, and also it’s the kiln — running the kiln is massive.
AR: And people have mystical alchemical imaginings about the nature of ceramics. The kiln, the fiyah. When you do ceramics all the time, you know what’s happening — you understand the chemistry, combustion of fuel, BTUs, balance of flux… in a way it is — it IS a wondrous thing. And the wonder of alchemy is not just in ceramics — it’s all art. You work, and after a while, you have this thing, but it’s like you punched a hole in the wall — it’s a world of something else. If it’s good you’re transported, it’s believable.
Ceramics carries with it a false sense of familiarity. Everyone makes ceramics in kindergarten or camp. But you know, all art is a mix of educated and intuitive knowledge, of the familiar and the reinvented. I teach this class on clay and glaze, and the students need learn how to alter color, temperature, texture, but it’s not for the sake of the chemistry — as interesting as that is — it’s for the sake of the work. I want them to get a basic understanding of the materials and then reinvent.
SG: There’s a wonderful artist mini-documentary about you and your work. In it you say something about balance in life, and that balance is impossible. Like nobody really has balance, everyone is screwed up. I wanted to ask you how you feel about work/life balance.
AR: The work is my life. As much as anything is anyone’s life. I’ve always been lucky. I never planned; I never decided I was going to be an artist; I just never stopped working. I wanted to do it. I was compelled by the material and by what I could or couldn’t do with it.
SG: Earlier you were talking about coming in here each morning with a lot of energy, ready to work. Have you always worked every day?
AR: Pretty much! I have a very unwholesome relationship with this building. But I also travel. I was just in New York, and it was a working trip. Earlier in my career there were many days when I couldn’t work because of jobs that didn’t allow the time. But mostly I’ve worked steadily and lived frugally. I still live pretty frugally, I mean now I live like a princess but…
SG: You’ve earned it!
AR: I don’t believe in “earned”. You know how it is. You work very hard and things don’t go your way, and sometimes there are rewards that don’t seem equitable. It’s a bigger picture. The more aware you are of things, the more tools you have – whether it’s your work, your life, or your relationships — to work things out, to tip things in your favor, even by small percentages. But you’re getting me on a good day. I’ve had some difficult lessons about professional life as an artist. We think that there’s going to be an altruistic force. Because artists actually give a great gift. Their work is generous. I used to think it was a selfish act — that was a misunderstanding. It’s one of the most unselfish things. What you learn through your work connects you to other people and connects ideas all the way back through history, to all the other artists before you, and into the future. You never know what kind of opportunities and possibilities will come from any one conversation. And you know — money.
SG: Hello money! [laughter]
AR: I don’t know money so well, but it’s huge. And it’s irresistible. When you’re younger it’s about an emotional relationship, but the work develops and after a while you realize your work may be a commodity too — and the value is decidedly complicated, although it rests on a few key things. I learned very slowly in a difficult way. I am not a very good advocate. Someone will come in here and say, let’s do a show, and I will say “I have nothing, I need two years.”
SG: And clearly there’s a lot of work in here —
AR: Yes. I just did that this morning. I called someone and I said I need more time… It’s the hardest and best thing a person can do because you’re in charge. You have the opportunity to do this work. And you get to tell us what it is. You get to show us this thing. And if you don’t make it, we’ll never know.
SG: Are your investigative work and activities as an artist, the studio practice, let’s say, distinct from the demands of a career?
AR: You’re very lucky if you’re able to work consistently with a gallery. You have to be willing to embrace professional demands and you have to be able to withstand the pressure — all the time, not just some of the time. It helps if some of the time you can be comfortable and confident with yourself. There are so many quotients to satisfy. My dealer, she’s now doing other things, but she worked as hard and as thoroughly, and as imaginatively, deeply, creatively and enthusiastically on her part, on connecting ideas and beginning conversations and finding opportunities, as I am in here making the work.
SG: Some artists make work but don’t find markets to sell, so the professional role seems inaccessible. And many artists struggle simply to show their work.
AR: Well, you don’t have to sell it, but you may have to in some way show the work. I didn’t show for a long time. I wanted to enter the world with something that was worth saying. I was very tentative, and I’m still tentative sometimes. But you want to be part of the conversation.
You have to be brave because it’s really hard to make yourself so vulnerable as to have a show. I’m always really terrified. There have been shows where I vomited the whole night before, and been really sick due to nerves.
SG: Even now?
AR: Yes. Even now. It’s terrible. I feel—oh my god, I’m going to be humiliated. Then it’s all your friends and families, like a wedding. They come. And artists and curators you’ve dreamt about meeting walk in the door. And say, wow this is so exciting, I’m so pleased I came. And you could almost just stop there. Being afraid is hard, but you want to do it. You want to see the work out amidst all the other things, art and otherwise in the world—as a measure, a foil. You want to feel what you’ve done is meaningful. You want someone to talk to, to other artists and to all kinds of people so you can be part of this bigger dialogue. It’s complicated. I’m not good out in the world. As soon as I walk through the door in here, or any studio I’m working in, I’m better. And I’m pretty good at just getting into the work when I’m here. I can be simpleminded and focused—once I leave you, you disappear.
SG: I wonder about continuing the work over time, and how that has been for you, how the work or the process has evolved. Do you ever feel amazement or surprise or strangeness at where the work has carried you?
AR: It’s this thing of it’s magic/it’s not magic. You stood there every day. You made this thing. It took three weeks, or three years. You know what’s happened. But then it’s like, Oh my god, what actually happened? Even though you lived through and witnessed, and were thoughtfully working the whole time. These [pieces] are new for me.
SG: What’s new about them? Is it the lumpiness of them? The meltiness of them?
AR: It’s the materials I’m using. The work was more bits, parts put together before. You could identify the parts. If I made sticky, goopy work before, the work was dismissed because it was thought that I didn’t know what I was doing. It’s deliberate. I meant to make it like that! Otherwise I would have learned to make the work in a different way or hired someone to make it for me. One thing about my work—in generalities—my work has always been really coarse and kind of raw. And you know in ceramics, finesse, skill was the highest standard in the land. Now other ways of working are becoming more acceptable and not so unfamiliar.
I don’t know if you can write this, or if I really feel this, but in a way I love them and I hate them and I just don’t care. I think they are incredibly beautiful. But at the same time, I’m detached because they are so unfamiliar. This brings a great feeling of freedom. I can make these things, and I make them because I want to know about this threshold of if it’s found or formed. Where’d that come from? What is it? I’m very interested in natural phenomenon that you see in the world. When Yves Klein said, the sky, that’s my piece. Walking down the street… the wind is blowing… the piles of leaves are incredible… you wish you could make something that ordinary and fantastic. We all see these things a hundred times a day. They are all around us, if you just have the awareness to recognize them. They are fuel. And so I want the work to be in that kind of place. And I want it to be convincing. I don’t want anyone to see the pieces that I feel don’t achieve a threshold of wonder. I don’t want to break the idea of possibilities—the enigmatic, or ambiguousness of the work, which I’ve really come to appreciate and love. Ambiguity. Not only in my work, but in other artists’ work. I find that’s what I really am drawn to. In that way, it’s new and changed. I’m different than I was when I started working. For a little while I was lost. I just didn’t believe in my own fiction anymore. I had to reassess and re-evaluate many things. It doesn’t happen very often, but it did. It was difficult. And then I started making this new work.
SG: Would you say this work came out of that reassessment?
AR: Well, it wasn’t linear. I couldn’t just make a diagram of what happened. I’ve always done ceramics. But I work with other materials too—plaster, paper—I made a lot of sculpture out of paper. I have always been interested in a certain pedestrian ordinariness, remnants and insignificance. It makes you pay attention to the world in a way that is useful.
SG: What do you think about the word “practice”?
AR: You know, I was thinking about it. I was thinking, musicians, ballet dancers—they all practice. And then doctors have practices. It’s a noun as well as a verb. But you know its use is new. When I was a student we didn’t use the word. I’m not sure I care that much about the semantics of it to argue either way. I think there’s more interesting language involved with the arts.
SG: Like what?
AR: Like how conscious you are of what you’re making when you’re making it or after. You said, something about longevity—or working for a long time. That’s hard. That’s one of the critical things about being an artist. Not always can you make good work—although it’s great when it happens. But the fact that you keep working. It’s this evolution of ideas and paying attention. It’s easy to make a masterpiece once, but it’s hard to keep up the momentum, the energy to ask questions, make changes and keep working. The art I love the best doesn’t have much to do with taste or style. It mostly has to do with the art I know the best, the artists whose work I’ve known for 25, 30 years. There’s an intimacy and such an excitement when you see the evolution of an idea, the next and then the next. And you learn what’s possible in the world for you.
SG: My interest in the concept of an artist’s practice comes as a response to a project-oriented view of what artists do. Project, meaning there’s a set itinerary and you execute it, and you’re done, maybe you get paid even. Whereas from the studio side, you’re never done.
AR: You know, in regards to balance, one of the best things is the occasion that you make something you love and then someone gives you money for it, such a beautiful equity. I once heard Terry Gross interview Frank Stella. He was saying: people think I can just do this, they come into the studio and think I can just make one. This has come back to me many times. Art is not a thing first. Art is a process. In the end you have this object, or this poem, this film, image, performance, whatever—this story. But you learn through the process: the energy, the level of anxiety that ensues, the attentiveness it demands. And the more things you know about, the more you have to pay attention to, the more opportunities you have to use them. Time. Everything takes more time. You are more aware; you have to consider more; you need more time.
Annabeth Rosen received her MFA from Cranbrook Academy of Art and holds the Robert Arneson Endowed Chair at the University of California, Davis. She is represented by Anglim Gilbert Gallery of San Francisco.