Studenski Award Winner Learns an Ancient Craft in The Big Apple
I used the Studenski Award to spend two months living on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and studying pottery at the Brickhouse Ceramic Art Center in Long Island City, New York.
Living in New York was a complete change of pace from Pasadena. The city was much busier and more crowded, which took a few weeks to adjust to. It was also much more heterogeneous. Traveling just a few blocks took me to completely different and distinctive neighborhoods. Once I began to learn my way around the city, the subway rides to and from the ceramics studio became a special part of my routine.
Most days of the week, open studio hours started in the afternoon so I spent my mornings thinking about designs and sketching them out. After lunch, I took the 1 train to Times Square, transferred to the E line, and grabbed a cold brew on the walk to the studio. I stayed at the studio for most of the open hours, sometimes until it closed in the evening, giving physical form to the ideas I had brainstormed in the morning. Although I suffered the disappointment of many collapsed forms, I didn’t give up and, more often than not, succeeded in creating the vessels I had set out to make.
At the weekly classes, I asked the instructor to show me how to throw spouts, large bellied forms, and tall vessels. Then, I would spend the rest of the week creating with those techniques, adjusting, and trying again. He and the more experienced potters in the studio taught me new tricks and techniques that remain an integral part of my throwing process.
Another major activity of my summer was attending ceramic workshops. I have always admired the Raku process that I have seen in online videos, but Raku workshops are hard to find and expensive. Being able to attend a Raku workshop in person with my own vessels was a wonderful experience. The process involves glazing a bisqueware piece, heating it in the kiln until it reaches 1600 °F, and placing the piece into a reduction atmosphere (in our case, a metal trash can filled with sawdust) for about 20 minutes. Afterwards, the piece is cooled and the soot gently removed in water. The lingering smell of burning sawdust and the totally unpredictable reveal is a truly magical process.
During my time at the Brickhouse, I met several ceramicists from totally different backgrounds – a graphic designer who, after discovering her passion for ceramics just months ago, was pursuing a career in production pottery; an MFA graduate who now teaches pottery at a high school and work-studies at Brickhouse; and a fine arts graduate who showcases in museums around the world. They gave me insight into the career paths of fine art and production pottery. Although I am still in the process of figuring out exactly what I want to do in this field, these artists helped me refine my future goals.
I am very grateful to the Studenski Fund and the Caltech Y for giving me this opportunity. It was an eye-opening and totally new experience. I was able to work at a studio as much as I wanted and work on projects for my own development. I now know what it’s like to live in a city like New York and take classes at a for-profit studio. I have a much better idea of what it would be like to pursue pottery as a career. It wasn’t easy, but I learned so much about ceramics and my own path, and I made connections with people, mentors with whom I will stay in contact for a long time.
To see more of Jessica’s work, you can follow her on Instagram
- Jessica Cheng, Studenski Awardee 2017, BS ‘18