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The Talent: Artist Olen Hsu

by David Mitchell on June 4, 2011

 

David and I went to the Smithsonian Craft show a couple weeks ago. We saw many fabulous artists. We always make our initial loop quickly looking at everything and scoping out what we are really interested in. We go to find items for our clients (and ourselves), unusual accessory pieces, and anything new and exciting. We were blown away, highly impressed and just overwhelmed with the creativity displayed. We walked away a little lighter in the pockets. We instantly became fans of artist Olen Hsu. His booth was striking and very eye catching. There was something pure and simple about it which is also reflected in his work.┬áIt was hard to walk away from this show and not say “yes” to every piece.

 

Where did you get your training for wheel thrown porcelain?

I started very early with clay, around 5 or 6 years old. Handbuilding, which was playing with the clay, of course. With stonewares — greys, browns. I remember I never liked red clays as a kid. I grew up in Boise, Idaho, and one of my favorite spots was on the mountainside highway to Lucky Peak, a lake park outside of the city, where tremendous basalt cliffs would rise overhead as you sped past them in the car on the way to the lake. These slightly frightening, black/brown/grey, looming vertical stacks were tremendous to me — as kid, anyway; maybe if I would visit them now they wouldn’t be that big. I didn’t know what these cliffs were, and I thought they were clay, and I loved dark clays, and I loved the way clay smelled when I worked with it in my hands, and I spent really a lot of time as a kid and into my early teens making coiled vessels out of dark clays that I would pinch round and round — smooth, globular, symmetrical forms that started with a small base and finished with a small opening at the top. I don’t remember whether I was daydreaming during all those hours and hours of coiling, or really just not thinking about anything at all, but I absolutely loved it.

And I also absolutely loved that these coiled forms were so slow to make. I loved the quiet repetition, and the turning of the piece around and around to pinch the walls as evenly as I could. This was years before I started throwing at the wheel. I’d just roll out coils, stack them, rub them joined, pinch them into walls, and on it would go. Later, I would blow into like a balloon at the end to “inflate” them a bit. Typically they were about 15 to 20 inches tall, and about as wide, sometimes with cantilevered bellies. I liked things that looked like they were holding their breath, filled with air, and hovering a bit, only touching the ground just enough, even though they were actually quite heavy, too.

I could make these at home on a table. I could even make them when I wasn’t home. They didn’t require any tools to make, really. An old toothbrush to roughen the edge of a coil so it would stick when joined; a cup of water; my thumb. If I would go to California to visit my father for a several weeks in the summer, I would bring a bag of stoneware with me (heavy!), and make a pot or two there. I once made a quite large coiled pot on one of these trips, and was determined to get it back home to Boise. I was 13 or 14 and at that time airline travel was so casual that it wasn’t a big deal to ask the pilot directly if my coiled pot could ride in the cockpit with him, seatbelted to the fold-down seat behind him, wrapped in an old white sheet. I got the pot home that way — just dried, unfired clay — without a crack.

My first mentor was a wheel-throwing potter named John Takehara. He ran the ceramics department at the local university in Boise, where my parents had taught in the music department, and so as a young kid I had access to him and could ‘drop in’ for a visit when I was on campus. I could just bring over whatever I’d made at home, and he would fire them alongside the other student work and his own work in the university kilns — and he lent me books from his library, on painting, on architecture, on sculpture, on the history of pots. I looked at pictures of everything, not so much interested in reading about them as looking and looking and looking. His office was quite small, with his steel bookshelf stacked floor to ceiling, draped with large, heavy plastic flaps to protect the books from all the studio dust, and his desk against the front of that shelf, and then behind him and to the side an L-shaped, glass-fronted locking cabinet with heavy, sliding doors, housing his private collection of pots. That’s where I saw great pots up close for the first time. Again, I was just a kid, dropping in now and then when I could build up the courage (I was actually quite terrified of him because he said so little — he spoke carefully with a broken English that commanded complete attention). This went on from the age of 6 or 7 up until the time I left for college at 18. It was the foundation of my education in clay. Out of these glass-fronted cabinets, the doors rattling and sliding with great difficulty from their weight on their thin aluminum tracks, he’d hand me a bowl by Lucie Rie. Or a cup and pitcher and tray by Anne Hirondelle. Geoffrey Swindell, Gwyn Hanssen Pigott, David Leach, Hamada, Voulkos, Rudy Autio, Ruth Duckworth — they were all there, among many others. And several earlier Japanese or Chinese or Korean pieces — teabowls, covered tea caddies, Oribe wares. He’d hand them to me so that I might feel their weight, and I would turn them upside down to look at their feet, and he wouldn’t say a word. But I knew how special they were, all of them, and that was sort of wonderful and terrifying, too. I would always leave with my palms sweating, intensely relieved that I just didn’t drop anything. Sometimes he would take a particular Lucie Rie bowl and hold it upright by its foot, and then trace the repeated parallel lines incised into the manganese slip with the index finger of his other hand, as though he were carving those lines right then, exhaling with each line to emphasize it, and I would understand that in this pot was a connection of hand and heart.

What I’ve come to realize, fairly recently, is that John Takehara was the single greatest teacher I ever had. And precisely because he hardly said anything at all. I think I’ve had too much school since then, and now as I’ve been settling into my own studio, and working quietly on my own, especially in the past four years, I’ve been returning to those earliest days. Particularly to those moments where pieces from his collection would be handed to me — there was nothing to say! They were there to be picked up and felt, and looked at, and turned in the hand, and understood that way, absorbed. There was no heirarchy of things — nothing was pointed out as being correct or incorrect or better than what. Just felt for exactly what it was. There was great diversity in his collection, and there was something to be learned from everything. I was allowed to take from these examples, by seeing and feeling these pots for brief moments at a time, whatever it was I needed to learn from them, on my own. That was a wonderful gift, that profound kind of permission. And I’ve only very recently really started to understand what that was all about, giving myself that kind of permission now, in my own studio, and recognizing that the feeling now is much the same as it was then: when I look at sources — recently books on early Vietnamese alms bowls, or Tang monochromes — I just look, and really just enjoy feeling their mood, that’s all. Not a why or how, just a taking in, and then returning to my work with that feeling in mind.

Can you tell me a little bit about the process of throwing a piece and how a piece is created?

A large part of throwing a piece, for me, happens before and after the actual throwing. Sitting at the wheel, especially with porcelain, there’s very little time to work: too wet, and it slumps. Too many pulls, and you’ve pulled the life out of it and can only start again with a new lump of clay. It’s so wonderful that way, that it has such a particular life of its own. That’s one reason why I love porcelain so much. I was teaching an introduction to wheel-throwing last year, and doing a throwing demonstration with stoneware, which I hadn’t thrown with in about ten years. It was a demonstration to a group of students who had never touched clay before, let alone thrown clay at a wheel. And it was wonderful, because they would toss out questions as I sat there: “What if you want to make a bowl? What if you want to make a plate? What if you want to make a tall skinny vase?” I just showed how one might make each thing, as it was called out, but continuing with the same piece of clay that was already on the wheel. It was amazing to be reminded of how completely different stoneware and porcelain are: with stoneware, which is so forgiving, you can go from a cylinder, to a bowl, back down to a lump of clay, to a tall vase, to a bottle, back to a bowl — all with the same piece of clay continuing to spin over the course of a long time. Porcelain is quite the opposite — not submissive or forgiving in that kind of a way. There’s a much smaller window of time that you have to do with it whatever it is you are going to do. So, if I sit to throw a particular form with porcelain, a lot of the thinking about what I’m about to do happens much before sitting there.

But “thinking” about it isn’t really the right thing to say: it’s establishing a particular feeling that I might like the piece to have. That feeling might come across, or something else might happen instead, which could be wonderful, too, or not. By “thinking” I mean remembering the particular mood of a particular silhouette of a bowl fired in the last kiln, that I feel has an emotive quality that I want to revisit. Or remembering the slightest turn of the lip of a cup I saw in a book the night before. More and more, though, throwing is an intensely emotional experience for me — not an intellectual one. I’ve been making that shift gradually over the past few years, and that’s what I meant before about the “permission” that I had from my first teacher that I’m rediscovering for myself in the studio, to work from an emotional rather than intellectual base now that I’m unlearning much of how I learned to “think” from many years in school.

That said, I do feel extremely lucky to have had the schooling I’ve had — and I do find a great value in this kind of transition that I’m finding myself in now, from the intellectual to the emotional in the process of making my work. There’s something to be said for returning to something that one had chosen to leave behind: there’s a different kind of commitment in the return. At one point, I left clay entirely, for about eight years, to work in other media. But then about five years ago or so, returned. Ultimately, I returned to doing what I loved to do as a kid. In a sort of roundabout way, that’s how I can best describe my approach to throwing. You come back to your same seat, in front of your wheel, and what you do next is something between picking up where you left off, and starting completely anew. And at the same time, you can’t exactly predict what will happen, in terms of the particular subtleties of the character of that piece. You’re sitting there partly waiting for the surprise of what’s about to happen next, at the same time that you’re sitting there with all of your history, too.

This is also why I am committed to wheel-throwing, by the way. I’ve done quite a bit of slipcasting, in previous work — and my return to wheel-throwing has much to do with the particular playfulness of sitting at the wheel, looking at this lump of clay that looks exactly the same as it did the first time you ever sat at the wheel, and yet. . . . what will it do today? Not the same thing as a year ago, and not the same thing as thirty years from now. This is very different than casting multiples from a mold, even if they are altered with each cast — which is a different kind of pleasure. It’s a lovely satisfaction to see how work slowly evolves on its own, over time, when you wheel throw each piece, one by one. There’s an inevitable, gradual evolution: as you change, yourself, from year to year, the way you touch the clay changes, too. The wheel-thrown pot expresses that in a very particular way.

How do you come up with your shapes and designs?

The feeling of making work at the wheel, for me, is a lot like sitting at a musical instrument to practice. Or, to perform a piece for oneself, in complete privacy. It’s sitting with an instrument, or your own voice, and playing something that you enjoy, without an audience at that moment. It’s a particularly intimate, solitary time, and wonderful in that. You can rehearse a passage in a piece that you know well, and try it with an inflection this way, or that, and play with the subtle changes in mood that arise as a result. And on different days, depending on what else is happening in your life, you might discover something in the music (or in a particular gesture of throwing a cup) that is different from the way you have played it before, which maybe you like more, or don’t like as much. In the case of a bowl, the gestures of the throwing are essentially the same each time you “play” a bowl — the centering on the wheel, opening the form, beginning to form the wall, throwing the wall, and so on. Actually, the fundamentals of preparing almost any form on the wheel are essentially the same gestures, just in different proportion, or with different emphasis. The changes that make one bowl sing, and one bowl dull, are so very subtle, just as one’s interpretation of the same musical phrase can convey a feeling slightly differently each time it’s played, with the smallest change of inflection here or there. As with music, the smallest fractions of a change are the difference between a great performance, and one that doesn’t speak.

I’m drawn to very pared-down forms in my thrown work, and to minimal gestures, and quietness of line. I always make a series of a particular form, and from piece to piece, there are changes in the way the form feels: this one more generous, this one more taut, this one more languid. To me, each piece is quite different in mood, though within a particular, quiet range. So the repetition inherent in throwing, for me, is a process not about ‘designing’ shapes so much as rehearsing a visual and tactile phrase, with slight variations each time. Of course, the variation I like the most is always the one I haven’t made yet, the one I’m about to try to do. That’s what always brings me back to the wheel, what keeps me interested.

I grew up with two musicians as parents, who started me at the piano when I was 3, and up until the age of 8 I thought I wanted to be a concert pianist. The problem was that I absolutely hated performing in front of an audience. I loved music so much, and loved playing the piano so much, but unfortunately the training taught me to hate playing on stage more than anything else. So I quit. I went into visual arts partly as a rebellion, I think. It was something I could take for myself. But I continued to play the piano secretly, when no one was home. By the time I got to college, I actually spent more time playing the piano, and rediscovering that love, than anything else academically. I really learned to love music again, but on my own terms: I still hated performing, but in college had a teacher who didn’t force it. It was alright just to play for the love of playing, and that again was a tremendous gift — that permission to meet the music as I chose to. My first year I only wanted to play Chopin — etudes, nocturnes, preludes, mazurkas, the Barcarolle. So I came back wholeheartedly to playing the piano, and listening to all the great pianists, combing through the record library and attending every concert I could. Over the next three years, I studied Ravel, Debussy, Bartok. Ravel’s “Gaspard de la Nuit” is pure fantasy, and “Miroirs” opened up entirely new ideas about tonal color and texture for me.

For years after that, I didn’t really think that all that time studying music would have anything to do with anything I would ever do later on. But recently, as I’ve settled into my own studio, working with porcelain at the wheel, I’ve begun to realize that the the most important training I had, for my life now as a potter, were those years in college when I studied music — and the piano in particular — so intensely. My process of thinking about form, and glaze, and lightness or weight — the way I feel through these qualities in making my work, and think about line, and mood, and the miniscule shifts of inflection that can make the difference between something speaking to the heart, or not — absolutely come from the same place that I developed through playing the piano. Whether throwing at the wheel, or sitting at the piano, the process of rendering a particular emotive experience through a technique of the fingers and shoulders and back and stomach and legs are actually very, very similar in so many ways. Even the “intellectual” component of thinking about music is similar to thinking about throwing: both are particular events that unfold in time, structures in a sequence, and the technique is perfected so that it can be forgotten, because ultimately everything — mechanically, conceptually, structurally — is at the service of one thing in the end: the richness of emotional experience.

I understand that you have a BA in History of Art and Architecture from Yale University. I personally can see and experience a sense of architecture in your work with the shapes and clean lines and how you have described your work as having ‘weighlessness’. Do you feel you are inspired by architecture in your porcelain pieces?

I was very fortunate, in college, to have gotten a grant that supported two years of study that included extensive summer travel. My focus was on the history and theory of architecture, and the grant enabled me to travel for two of the summers that I was in school, gathering research toward my thesis. The first summer, I spent three months visiting some 150 Romanesque sites in France and Spain, concentrating on Cistercian monasteries — Senanque and Le Thoronet, especially — drawing and photographing and soaking everything in. I was able to stay at Senanque for two weeks, in the guest quarters, taking meals in silence with the monastic community there, which was enough time to start to feel the rhythm of the architecture over the course of the day, where light played such an integral part of the emotive quality of the space. Particularly in the cloister, with its sharply carved arches, and deep walls, and austere ornamentation — I sat and drew and watched the light, shifting through the day, in silence, day after day. The architecture began and ended in darkness; the first mass was around 5 am, before or just around sunrise, and I drew until there wasn’t light anymore to see with. I did the same at Le Thoronet. It was wonderful. I hitchhiked my way across France, and covered a lot of it, and sometimes rented bicycles to ride past vast fields of sunflowers in bloom, to reach the smallest one-room Romanesque churches in the countryside.

The second summer of the grant let me travel to Japan, China, India, Pakistan and Turkey — again, studying a great variety of early religious sites. My thesis became about the use of natural light in early sacred architecture. And all of that is part of how I process my wheel-thrown work, and work with the translucency of the porcelain, and feel about the potential of austerity to have great emotional power. Somewhere in my mind, my experiences of the cloisters at Senanque and Le Thoronet, and monuments at Ahmedabad and Agra — incredible honey-toned marble mosques — are linked with the pale celadon bowls that I make. But those experiences are still unfolding for me — there’s a lot still to uncover, a lot that will come into my work later, from those places I visited long ago. It’s quite slow and indirect how that all happens, and not deliberate. I’m still just at the very start.

When did you start creating your porcelain pieces?

I started to get very drawn to whiteness as I got into my teens. As a teenager, I painted my first bedroom entirely white, and hung the thinnest sheets of large white paper I could find over the windows to diffuse the light, and painted my desk white, and anything else that I could paint white. I wanted to quiet the space but also felt like “white” was so incredibly charged, such a powerful thing, though I didn’t understand why. But I was determined that I didn’t want any color in the room.

Around this time, there must have also been something in the way I so obviously loved Ruth Duckworth’s pieces in Takehara’s collection when I was allowed to handle them — her small, unglazed, burnished porcelains — and how I loved the whiteness and thinness of a particular Lucie Rie bowl. One day as I was leaving Takehara’s office, he handed me a bag of porcelain, and said, in more words or less, “take this home.” That was the start of porcelain, for me. I was 15 or so, I think. That began an all-white time for me in clay, and soon I was throwing eggshell thin bowls, all in unglazed, translucent porcelain that I sanded and burnished after high-firing. These were simple cone shapes that I trimmed and trimmed and trimmed to make as thinly as I could, and that met the ground with a very small turned foot, which unfortunately meant that the bowl would tip over if you tapped the table it stood on. I wanted them to float. I continued to make those for a couple of years, and no longer hand built. And then started to glaze some of the thinly thrown bowls in shino glazes that came out as an ivory-white over the porcelain. And also started to squeeze them into slightly off-round, after they were trimmed and before they started to dry. Many of the roots of my current work are in those early, slightly off-round, unglazed white bowls.

But one thing that has definitely shifted since those is that my emphasis has changed from thinking about “weightlessness” to thinking rather about “weightedness” — which is a very different feeling. I’m very aware, when I’m throwing, of how the form will shift in the kiln as it melts and softens — how the curve I throw will change, in the kiln, with gravity, and express something of the balance between pulling away from the earth and being drawn back down to it. I like work that hovers somewhere in between, where those two opposing forces meet and one hasn’t entirely won over the other. My earliest work was entirely about defying gravity, and now I find that unsettling — I find more power in the groundedness of forms. So when I talk about qualities like “tautness” or “languidness” in my work, those are different ways in which this feeling of balance can be expressed, at that place where weightedness and weightlessness meet. Which is also everything to do with architecture, too. And “weightlessness” in architecture has largely to do with the expression of lightness or darkness within a space, and intervals and rhythms of structure and emptiness. If there’s something architectural about a bowl or a cup, for me, it’s its emptiness, its volume of empty space. Silence as one of the most meaningful components within music.

The glazes that you use seem to simply accent the piece in a very subtle way. It appears you don’t use bold, rich or dramatic glazes. What is your reasoning for this?

My feelings about color are changing. My recent work has been largely in whites (I use about 50 or so white glazes) and the palest celadon blues and palest celadon greens. And I absolutely love playing with the subtleties of those, of colors that are just barely there, and of juxtaposing one white against another to see how richly different they can be. For many years, I avoided color entirely. Celadon blues were already a ‘stretch’ for me. But very recently, just in the past couple of years, I’ve been drawn to quite a new range of color, and am now working with literally hundreds of test glazes — mirror blacks, russets, golden ambers, dark or pale rose glazes, greens ranging from watery to mossy, violet-blacks, and on and on. I feel like a whole new world has suddenly opened up, and I’m looking at greens next to one another with a similar pleasure to how I love to see whites side by side.

As a part of my studies several years ago, I was deeply interested in color photography. This was in a long stretch of time during which I didn’t work with clay at all, but was actually working with white plaster instead. I spent hours and hours printing and developing my own color prints from negatives — this was before I got into digital photography — and the manual color processing of prints took a tremendous amount of time, and testing, and eye straining. But I’m realizing now that all that work did something to help in training to see subtle differences from one color to the next. I had spent a lot of time photographing white rooms with color film, so you might imagine how difficult it was to get a print that expressed subtle shifts in white yet that were overall neither magenta nor green, and neither cyan nor yellow. It’s quite a challenge to dial in the color balance precisely, so that your eye doesn’t perceive an unnatural hue in the white. It was really difficult. So it’s not exactly the same with the colored glazes that I’m using now, but what is similar is a particular pleasure of choosing one glaze over another in a series of tests, and trying to understand if this one particular tint of amber, next to another color, is more powerful than that one beside it. By “powerful,” though, I still mean subtle.

I’ve only just begun playing with color in glazes — it really is very new in my work, and I’m very excited about it. This shift seems to have a lot to do with moving to a place where I could design and plant a garden for the first time. We have a meadow that we planted, and I think about its shifting colors through the seasons much in the same way that I now think about glazing particular pieces, their interiors and exteriors, and how their color might be different depending on where they are in the kiln. It’s like trying to wrap your head around what will be flowering in May, and how tall the grasses will be around that color then, and then what will follow and bloom or recede, and which grasses will flower in the fall and how the field of color will then shift, and what structures are left in the garden for winter, for the hoarfrost and for the snow. Knautia macedonica’s burgundy pincushion blooms hovering like little spots above the wispy, golden blur of Nasella tenuissima grasses in early summer; Astilbe chinensis ‘Purpurkerze’ as floating clouds of rose-violet above the golden, translucent wheat-like strands of Deschampsia cespitosa in the fall. A literal pink cloud of Muhlenbergia capillaris in the fall, glowing when lit from behind by evening sun, fading to white as the frost approaches, spotted with vibrant purple dots of Verbena bonariensis floating above on long stalks. Gardening, and thinking about structure and color in sequence like this, opened a new world for me in thinking about glazing and color in my work. The garden has taught me that boldness of color can also still be subtle.

Who is your favorite artist? And are you inspired by them in any way?

There are too many to list, and my list is always changing. Veja Celmins and her graphite drawings of the sea. Cornelia Parker’s hovering, evaporating masses, and her steamrolled silverware structures. Annette Messager’s taxidermied birds tended with knitted sweaters. All of these have such a mysterious sense of quiet, tender power. Tremendously forceful quiet that is actually almost disturbing. The great pianist Walter Gieseking’s recordings of Debussy and Ravel are among the most fantastic washes of tonal color I’ve heard — great sweeping masses of color. Like the Dutch garden designer Piet Oudolf’s landscapes, neither entirely wild nor entirely controlled, vast sweeps of color and texture. I first encountered Oudolf’s books on garden design about three years ago, when I started to work on a garden of my own for the first time, which as I said was also at the same time that I really started to explore glazes and color in my work in a very different way. And always, of course, the countless great pots of the past, in museums and books. Korean whitewares, Northern and Southern Song pots and Ding wares from China, medieval English jugs — but these are nearly every potter’s sources, aren’t they? I was in Germany last summer, and encountered white Northern Song Dynasty bowl at the Museum of Arts and Crafts in Hamburg. It is the single most powerful bowl that I have ever seen, in its sheer emotional power through absolute quiet, tenderness and strength. I spent nearly an hour with it alone before I could move on to see anything else. Something like that, is anything but “just” a bowl. It’s a universe of its own, something not to be understood.

Where can people find you? Website, Blog etc? Are you shown in any galleries or boutiques?

Recent work can be visited on my website at www.olenhsu.com. I send postcards with images of new work and invitations to upcoming events through my snail-mail and email lists, which can be joined by writing to mailinglist@olenhsu.com. Retail shows coming up include the Philadelphia Art Museum Craft Show, in November 2011. I’m also preparing work for my first solo show overseas, at Beaux-Arts Bath in the U.K., which will take place in the spring of 2012.

 

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Catherine Orrantia September 20, 2011 at 11:42 pm

nice forms! My son's piano teacher, Robyn Riggers, forward this link to me. I'm a potter out in tucson so she thought I'd enjoy seeing your work…she was right. I wish you success!!

Catherine Guibert-Orrantia http://www.catherineorrantia.com

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Rohan Maple May 2, 2012 at 10:32 pm

I really like and appreciate your blog article. Cool.

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