I admit it. I completely lack the patience (and, since I am being honest here, I might as well just say it: skill!) to do detailed drawn decoration on my pots, so I am really awed when I see other potters pulling off intricate imagery. Such was the case when I saw Terri Kern’s work in the November 2010 issue of Ceramics Monthly.
Terri painstakingly creates her beautiful surfaces by building up layers and layers of underglaze colors, skillfully blending colors to add shading and detail. A self-proclaimed workaholic, Kern says she tries to put one thousand brush strokes into every piece. Now that is patience. Today, I am sharing that recent Ceramics Monthly article so that you can all share my awe.. - Jennifer Harnetty, editor.
Every now and then I run into work that hits me hard. When I was recently in Terri Kern’s studio in the Pendelton area of downtown Cincinnati, Ohio, I was struck by the force of some images of her recent pieces hanging on her wall. The combination of form and surface on this work was unlike anything I have run across in recent years and very different in palette from her previous work. I became intrigued and decided to spend some time picking her brain. Kern describes herself as a workaholic, spending long hours in the studio and many hours on each piece, striving to put a thousand brush strokes onto each one. She has been making a living selling her work for over seventeen years.
She is pragmatic, learning early the forms and designs that could sell well in a retail environment but like many artists wishing for a connection and dialogue with the public beyond the sales. The story she tells on each piece is important to Kern and something she wants the public to engage with and understand as well as buy.
Kern’s playful use of narration is the key to her creativity. Stories unlock the part of her brain that designs her work and she says that she has to construct the story first, and then design and complete the piece. For her, working in the studio is a constant narrative of story after story, leading to corresponding pieces where the story is illustrated through form and surface decoration.
Kern has a unique approach in her studio, centered around narration that springs from both a depiction of personal stories and her study of drawing and poetry. She does not spend time viewing contemporary work, rather she speaks of her enjoyment of 14th century illuminated drawings and the poetry of Richard Haig, which she has illustrated in the past, and which influenced some of her recent drawings. Other influences she credits to the painter Frida Kahlo. Kern spends a lot of time drawing, recently participating in an international drawing/montage collaboration with artists in China and Europe. Her drawings help her formulate narratives.
Working form a personal narrative is a common methodology in art and at some level everyone’s work is about themselves. An approach such as this is all too often offered as a value judgement, as if the means justify the end or the mere existence of the means affect the quality of the end product. In Kern’s work, the means are a vehicle to superior work, much less common when working from a personal narrative, an expression of personal emotion and experience.
In Kern’s case she suffered through a perfect storm of technical difficulty, grief, and deadline. A year ago her mentor, Joyce Clancy, died while Kern was the middle of preparing for a show in the Canton Ohio Museum of Art. Facing a deadline and grappling with technical problems with her clay and glaze, Kern could not afford the luxury of time for grieving over the loss of someone very close to her. She grieved onto her pieces instead. The result is her usual striking iconography, etched in sgraffito or brushed on using clay engobes, but executed with new clay, new forms, and a new palette, full of deep saturated purples, blacks and reds that worked well with the stories of mourning she wanted to create.
This body of work, which was on view at Funke Fired Arts in Cincinnati, Ohio, represents new vision brought on by assimilating the loss of a loved one. This was a different kind of story for Kern but the result was new work that speaks with color, line, form, and the integration and expression of human emotion. The exhibition of this work was titled “After” because for Kern this work came after life changing events.
The Soul Catchers is an example of the work from this time period. In this piece, her use of surface and form draws the viewer into birds moving through growing roots and plants. The simplicity of the painting belies the use of depth and detail, for once the viewer examines the piece, the form can be seen to reflect the shape of one bird and small, intimate details give information that this scene is about much more than two birds. Time Heals is similar. The form of this piece has a stronger visual lift and the integration of bird forms into the rim is much more subtle.
Here were pots exquisitely made, with a richness of surface, with a palette to complement. Whole stories were here to be read. When was the last time your salt and pepper shaker prompted you to pick them up and study them in detail? Everywhere in the show there were pieces that begged to be handled, turned, and read from start to finish. Her show in Funke’s gallery also contained drawings on paper and tiles. She speaks of tiles as unencumbering.
Throughout the work Kern has exhibited, there are themes of flight, of birds, of waves, and of motion. Looking through the portfolio of pieces, the viewer can clearly see that this work is about a journey, movement in a simple direct sense. At some level every artist’s work is about their own personal journey. The process of sitting down in the studio and creating work that directly, visually and tactily speaks of a specific life journey is difficult to do without turning the whole portfolio into a cliché. In Kern’s new work she brought together her personal narrative with strong forms, rich surface and iconography so that everyone can share in her story.
To view Terri Kern’s work is to understand the power of narration and story in a pot. Beyond this simple step, viewing her work is to believe that integration of form and surface can transport an audience, that superior work can speak to everyone.
Terri Kern received her MFA in ceramics from Ohio University, and lives and works in Cincinnati, Ohio. For further information, see www.terrikern.com.
the author Gil Stengel is a potter and ceramics instructor in Burlington, Kentucky.
Monthly Methods by Terri Kern