So in an attempt to get me inspired, today I am going to post an excerpt fromCeramics Monthly’s Studio Visit series. I love visiting the studios of other artists. In person is the most fun, of course, but CM’s studio visits are the next best thing. In this studio visit, Simon van der Ven gives us a peek into his dreamy Lincolnville, Maine, studio. – Jennifer Harnetty, editor.
Mostly porcelain (Miller #15, #550, and Matt and Dave’s), some stoneware, and porcelaneous stoneware
Primary forming method
Wheel-thrown with carving, drilling, brushing, abrading, and polishing
Favorite surface treatment
Primary firing method
Electric oxidation—plus the privilege to put pots in Jody Johnstone’s anagama firing twice a year
I love all of my tools and refuse to play favorites.
My studio is a piece of heaven tucked into the middle of a small town in Maine. The studio takes up half of the first floor of a 22×32-foot building designed for efficiency and light. It has clerestory windows on three sides, 7½-foot barn doors, 10-foot ceilings, and radiant-floor heat. This space also serves as my wood shop. The rest of the floor houses a full bath as well as my wife’s studio and office. The basement is used for storage and a painting studio. The upstairs houses children (future additional studio space—just be patient). I love how well all the systems function; natural and artificial light, temperature control, air quality, plumbing, work and material storage, tools, work surfaces, and task flow. Most often, I feel I work with my studio, not just in it. It’s such a joy to be in that space—to sweat and grind away at a piece or to just sit still and contemplate the work. The studio stands twenty steps away from my bedroom. Most of the time, this is a marvelous blessing, but sometimes (2am, for instance) this particular blessing too easily allows for obsession.
paying dues (and bills)
I find it hard to think of something that isn’t part of my ceramic training, especially if I don’t separate ceramic training from art training. My undergraduate degree is in printmaking. After college I sailed professionally, worked as a goldsmith, and as a carpenter building houses. I taught high school art for 17 years. In 1994, I took a weekend workshop at Haystack Mountain School of Craft with Paulus Berensohn. That experience went in very deep. I went on to earn an MFA in ceramics, graduating in 2001, and have kept clay as the central focus of my art ever since. I’ve yet to find another medium that has so much to teach.
I spend between 30 and 60 hours per week in the studio. I average about five hours a week on business details and correspondence. This, and taking care of my house and family, is what I do.
I play hockey during the cold months and bike during the warm ones. I do acupuncture a couple of times a year and am currently working with a sports massage therapist to increase my flexibility and elasticity.
My family and I have major medical coverage with a $10,000 deductible. It’s very expensive and not at all adequate. There’s not enough room here to talk about health care in this country.
The magazines I read regularly include CM, Ceramics: Art and Perception, The New Yorker, The Week, The Utne Reader, and Wooden Boat. My wife, Kate Braestrup, is a writer. I often read what she is working on as well as maintaining a steady diet of contemporary fiction and non-fiction. Lately, I’ve been enjoying the Stieg Larsson books and Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell.
My family, my home, my community, and my work sustain me. When my relationships are in balance, when my attention flows from one to another, I can just roll. However, if I allow separation and discord between the elements of my life, through lack of either attention or gratitude, my energy drains away.
When I work all day in the studio; when I wedge, and throw, trim, and carve, and the work seems to just pass through me, then step into the kitchen and put together something beautiful and nutritious for my family; when it all feels like the same effort, that’s a good day. My work saps me when it’s separate from my life, when I fight or ignore the flow and rhythm of practice and attention.
As a teacher, I recall insisting that criticism was vital to an artist’s success. Imagine, it turns out to be true. The criticism that most helps my work occurs in three distinct ways. I count the comments, reactions, and suggestions of buyers and admirers at galleries and shows as useful and well worth considering. Of course, not all opinions are created equal. It’s a true joy, however, when a stranger is willing to ask not just how I did something but why. We can then delve into a discussion of motivation and experience that opens both of us to new perspectives and possibilities. This is a spontaneous and unexpected gift. The rest of the critical picture gets filled out in a more deliberate, disciplined way. I am very fortunate to live in a close and open community full of highly accomplished, practicing artists, many of whom I greatly respect and admire. I have asked some of these people into my studio, and our exchange is invaluable. A couple of them serve as mentors, providing standards to reach toward. The last level, and frankly, one that I hadn’t anticipated in its importance, is the exchange with a very small group of close friends. These are friends who are in my studio regularly, who know my work intimately, and whose work and studios I know as well. These are friends who bear their challenges, suggestions, and questions on a foundation of mutual respect, support, and love. For me, as a working artist, these few people are a rare, treasured, and phenomenally important blessing.
I make a broad selection of work and sell to a corresponding cross-section of people. I sell cups for $30 as well as vases and sculptures for thousands. Maine has a thriving, creative economy, and I feel well represented in my community. Each year I also do two retail shows, one with the Maine Crafts Guild and a holiday show with three other local artists. I have two open studios annually, one privately promoted and one as part of an arts tour (www.artisanstour.org).
I doubt there is anything unique about my marketing strategy. I suspect there are plenty of other artists who share my level of incompetence and distinct preference for making the work over marketing it. I admit I enjoy having my work find its way into local homes and collections. However, any local market has limitations. I make work that functions on several levels, and is understood and appreciated correspondingly. As my work grows and evolves, so must my audience. I am seeking representation outside of Maine. Applying to some national shows could be worth the effort.
Spontaneous encouragement from artists in far away places can be counted among my online successes. I’m also very proud to be linked on the website of the beloved French artists from Atelier Buffile (www.buffile-ceramiste.com). My website serves as a terrific communication tool, but so far, has not proved to be a particularly effective sales platform.
most valuable lesson
There are so many lessons I have to learn over and over again. The one that crops up most often I believe to be a Buddhist adage: “We suffer because of the conflict between our expectations and what is.” This seems to cover a multitude of sins. How many times have I lost focus as I fantasize about how a piece is going to come out, instead of giving my full attention to what is actually occurring as I work? How many times have I opened up a kiln, anticipating specific results, and been forced to waste energy getting past those expectations before I can even see what I’ve got? How many times has the piece I liked least in a show of my work received the most attention? It’s not that I shouldn’t have high expectations; the trouble comes when I’m so attached to these that they blind me to what is. If I allow the clay to form me as I form it, we get along fine. I don’t expect or even desire to do anything new. I’d rather work to join and continue the great traditions of art and clay than try to separate myself from them.