May 16th  2016 RISD Hot Seat X

David Katz

is the Interim Head of the Department in Ceramics. He joined the RISD ceramics department in 2014. Prior to this he worked as a ceramics technician and faculty member at Bennington College in Vermont. His completed residencies include Greenwich House Pottery in New York City (2006-08), Guldagergaard International Ceramics Research Center in Denmark (2011), Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts in Gatlinburg, TN (2012–13), and Watershed Center for Ceramics in Newcastle, ME (2014). His work is exhibited throughout the US, Europe and Asia.


          I studied anthropology in college before I accidentally walked into an art class. What it came down to was that I needed to do something for me. I loved anthropology but along with the degree requirements at the school I was at I was required to take extra classes on topics I didn't foresee actually using. Second semester calculus killed me, I was doing what I no longer felt I needed to do or that I would have ever utilize in my career. I was okay with it, I kept taking the class but I needed to do something for me. I needed to do something that was expression, that was for me, to be a human versus a machine going through this system of the blind pursuit of goals and success. To rally against this, I enrolled in a drawing class. Within a few weeks I pulled my first all nighter and not because I had too, but because I had this thing I really wanted to do. I didn’t know that I could draw, but I realized that if I work really hard I could create something that had never existed before. I could convey ideas, and develop technical skills. I found myself putting off my work in other areas and staying up all night working on drawings. This motivation made me feel that maybe there is something to this. I’m 20 years old and idealistic and decided to pursue art, and everyone started doubting me. No one had doubted me before, which gave me further motivation to prove myself.

          I don’t regret my decisions. Every artist knows that it’s a profession filled with fear and anxiety on what comes next. It’s a healthy process. If you get too comfortable with what you are doing you aren’t growing. It’s continually trying to reach something new that you don’t understand that keeps you going, keeps you making, and confused and angsty at times as to what you will do next.


          I’ve been thinking about material as language and what the material itself represents. I’ve been working with unfired clay for years, which allows me to not be confined by the limitations of a kiln. Clay has a life span and inherently is about the element of time. It dries, changes, cracks, and goes through transitions from when I start to create a piece until it’s complete. It goes through changes in the gallery space. Focused on what that symbolically represents as material language, it represents time, impermanence, passage, and loss. If I simplify and pair it down to just the raw material itself, it’s what is imbued historically in our understanding of material. It is earth, the raw organic stuff of nature that contains the building blocks of everything, it is tactility and touch, and it is time. So much of it for me has come down to the idea of time and impermanence and how can I use that as the primary jumping off point for meaning.

          I don’t think it’s possible to make work that’s meaningless. I think that anything that somebody generates comes from somewhere. Especially when you take a ball of clay, it's nothing but potential. It's a ball of clay initially and you can squeeze and change it and make it into anything. Whatever you make is just one of the infinite possibilities of what could have happened. That uniquely comes from you as the creature, maker, so that says something about you and your impulses, about what you are driven to do and interested in. In a really deep fundamental way it is you the maker that created that thing so then it is the responsibility of the maker to then take a step back if you don’t know what to do next and look at it, question it, and try to understand where it came from. What does it represent? What can I draw out of it? How do I respond to this thing that I made and then go back into the thinking and conceptual development of what’s working and what’s not? What comes to mind? Where does this happen historically? in art? Ceramics? Society? How can I understand this impulse? What info can be drawn out of it and then let this drive the work forward?

          Conceptually the things I’m trying to work through in my head often times are rooted in my own fascination and confusion with human culture. The way people live, it's a real thing to stew on. It’s easy to just accept the order of things, to accept the physical and cultural world that we live in as just what life is. Symbolically I think I develop my own visual language where I use the soft to represent the animal, the flesh, the root of human stuff. The gooeyness, the squishiness of us. I think about biology, cell division, mitosis, this soft, organic, growing amorphous body. I use the rigid and rectilinear to refer to a fabricated output of what the gooeyness creates. How those things interact and what it means to have a symbiosis between the gooeyness and the rigid stuff that the gooey creates. This forms a sort of feedback loop of support and possibility, but also of constraint and restriction.  


          Question from Laura Briggs “What have you learned through the interaction with the design discipline in architecture? How are you influencing what we are doing in architecture?”

          The class I’m teaching with architecture is fantastic. We all think and approach things differently from the fine arts background versus an architectural one: the way of developing, researching, and thinking about what is successful and how you go through the creative process itself as well as how you approach material.

          Often when talking about or generating work the first question is how does it make you feel. What content might be imbedded in the representation of this thing. I’ve never built a piece and thought about the angle of the sun in the summer versus the winter and how I position a piece in relation to the cast shadows. Those are the sort of things that architects question that ceramics doesn’t usually consider as we come from a background of producing objects. Even the idea of performance of the material, when we work with clay we are taking it and molding it. It’s this plastic stuff we can transform into anything. We often times are focused on the responsiveness to touch as we try to take advantage of the possibilities this presents. We consider temperature ranges and create clay bodies that will respond the way we want, or glaze that will give the effects that are visually appealing, as far as surface, light refraction, the color we want. Before this class, I didn’t speak about these aspects in terms of performance. How can we take advantage of the performative qualities of the material. I gather from the students and my co professor from architecture, Olga Mesa, that they talk about performance like it is a regular part of the conversation, while in ceramics when we talk about the representation of the material rather than the performance of it. Performing to the end game in ceramics is usually that it performs in service of expression, in service of what the piece communicates to a viewer rather than our physical relationship to how it will block the sun, how it will insulate, how it will structurally support what's above it. We need it to support itself so it can last, communicate, and be expressive.

          We came to build modular aggregate wall sections out of ceramics selecting a performative quality of the ceramics as the foundation for the finished product. Whether that's evaporative cooling, or direct channeling of water and air. Either absorbing sound or amplifying it. How do you develop a wall section in a modular way that is both aesthetically pleasing but responsive to that performative quality? I think through the process both the clay students and the architecture folks are learning to think about the material of clay and fired ceramic in different terms. I think everybody is expanding and learning from the class, myself included.

          I think its importance as a maker, especially as an architect, building spaces that people will occupy, you need to make it a practical space that people will occupy. People will exist in this space so the way you consider every angle, every volume, everything about the physicality, materiality, the aesthetics and the expressiveness of the space will impact people’s real everyday experience. In the fine arts people might make something that will end up in a gallery or museum, visitors come and experience that for a bit. But architecture is creating space that is consuming people's experience. It's a spectacular opportunity to really embrace the expressive quality of the space. It has to be a balance. As a visual artist the main thing I’m trying to orchestrate is people's experience through the expressive quality of the temporary presence of this thing I’m creating, but I don't have to be practical at all. I can try to make a space that's as dense and as impractical for people to move through. That becomes the content of the work. Whatever I‘m presenting visually comes along with the idea of constriction, of the world closing in on you, tightness. As an architect you’re not going to create a space intentionally that will make someone claustrophobic, I don’t think.


          Ceramics is being embraced in the art world which is exciting and upsetting to some ceramic artists because there have been people producing spectacular work consistently for decades or centuries and in recent years really pushing the envelope of what is done with clay. People who are establish in the art world with no clay background start to squish around some clay and those pieces are what becomes significant. That's what’s frustrating for some but those frustrated folks should also get past it and seize the opportunity that there is a spotlight right now of people who are responding to the disconnect we have from physicality and touch. So much is expressed by the tactility and softness of clay. Ceramics is so often about the tactile and physicality of making.

          There is a hunger in our society that reflects our physicality in our more and more disconnected lives. So much in our lives are understood through a digital interface, everything is in the web, virtual space. I personally think it's why ceramics is being embraced. It’s this sculptural medium that responds to the immediacy of expression. I hope it stays in the main streams and becomes more and more common in the fold. I hope more people with ceramic backgrounds can get into that fold. People in ceramics do get upset about being outsiders but I think they kind of like the comfort of the ceramics community also. There is a unique culture in the ceramic world. I don’t know if people truly want to break down those barriers. I’m not sure where it will be in 5 years, but i hope ceramics becomes more and more common. There isn’t any reason for it not to. If art is judged by the aesthetic and conceptual impacts of what is present then there is no reason that it can’t have a serious place. It’s always amazed me that you can sculpt something out of clay, make a mold, cast it in bronze and it’s sculpture, but if you make the same thing and don’t make a mold to cast, it’s a craft material. That’s a narrow minded approach. I hope this openness that’s happening creates more opportunities to get work out to a broader audience.


          Advice. Seize every opportunity, open as many doors as possible and don’t feel limited. Think bigger than what people think is realistic. If you aim high and expect a lot of yourself then you can accomplish what you want to. That's the biggest thing. I’ve opened up some doors by creating opportunities that were unrealistic to actually execute. You make it happen. Immediately out of grad schools I had awesome exhibitions lined up that were a long way away that had no funding and frankly was a large investment financially for me to execute. I’ve paid to execute and exhibit my work with the hope that it would open doors and accepted some of those opportunities knowing that my only means of making it happen would be to pull out my credit card and go into debt. Somehow every time I’ve accepted an opportunity that I didn't know how to execute financially, and how to execute it literally in the space it always comes together in the end. My other advice is connections. Being a good person goes a long way. It's a little ridiculous to declare oneself a good person but I don’t want to come across as arrogant in that sense but I do for others. Taking time out of your day to help somebody else comes around. You can put it as karma or rules of reciprocity. Eventually if you are good to people they look out for you in the future. Sometimes that’s what gets work done in the end. I’ve had plenty of things that I have agreed to do not knowing how I was going to get it done and it got done because good people have wanted to come and help me make my vision happen. Help people out when you can. It’s the right thing to do and it comes around. Open as many doors as you can.

Hosted and Edited by Yu Cao & Rebecca Buglio



          This edition concludes RISD Hot Seat for the 2016 school year. We would like to thank all of our readers. It is your strong support that motivates us to work on RISD Hot Seat each week and share these dialogues. We would like to thank the professors who took time out from their busy schedules to sit down and talk with us, which enabled us to open the conversation of forming a stronger understanding of each other to better our community. Lastly, thank you to all who have helped us bring RISD Hot Seat this far.

          RISD Hot Seat project is an invaluable adventure for both of us. Getting to know the individuals in our community has made us LOVE RISD even more! We hope RISD Hot Seat will be continued in the Fall with the new members of GSA, but until then have a great a summer!

Yu Cao MArch ’17 & Rebecca Buglio MFA Ceramics '16


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RISD Hot Seat is a new, student-led interview getting to know individuals at RISD found by Yu Cao and Rebecca Buglio in Graduate Student Alliance.

Through understanding the unique perspectives and interests each individual contributes, and asking about the ins and outs of different programs, our goal is to bridge conversations between graduate students, faculty, and staff to build a stronger, interdisciplinary graduate community in RISD.