Ceramics and Something Else

Dustin Yager: A Profile | By Kelly McCafferty

Everyone should occasionally do something that makes them feel like a fool—something they are clumsy or just plain bad at doing.  Being good at things is nice, sure.  But being bad at things, that takes courage. 

I most definitely felt foolish and frustrated when I took Beginning Wheel pottery class at Greenwich House Pottery in Greenwich Village. 

As I signed up for the class, I scrolled through the available faculty and I settled on Dustin Yager.  Dustin Yager is good at pottery—amazingly good.  His gorgeous vessels were scrawled with profanity as a decorative element and a quick assessment of his website confirmed that he indeed was the teacher for me.  It’s as if his scrawled signature sentiment/catchphrase of “fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuck” was right out of my own mouth as my clumsy fat fingers struggled to pinch and lift mud into something/anything.  Our Tuesday night classes were filled with Dustin’s calm patient effortless acts of magic and my frustrated but ultimately satisfying sighs of discontent.

In the end I managed maybe 15 tiny lumpy strange bowl-ish objects that are now scattered around my apartment, holding air plants and serving as cat dishes.

I decided to write a profile on Dustin, when I discovered he has two distinct but similar bodies of work—his functional pottery and his more conceptual vessels.  I was fascinated with that split and the economics/meaning/utility of art vs. craft within his studio practice.  I really connected with both bodies of work visually and conceptually and I saw them as twin halves of him.  Our conversation led me to think about my own work and essentially all work in terms of value and use—the external/societal and the personal.

Our visit began with meeting for coffee at a coffee shop near Dustin’s studio in Bed-Stuy.  Injecting caffeine into an interview is always a good thing.  I couldn’t help but notice a recent tattoo bandage on his leg.  The vulnerability of (covering/healing) integrating a tattoo onto one’s body is such a familiar and tender time.  Dustin opened the bandage to reveal both a fresh tattoo of a beet plant, roots and all, and that he grew up on a sugar beet farm in Wyoming.  We bonded over being rural kids floating in an unforgiving urban space of our own choosing.

As we walked to the studio, Dustin told me the story of his move to NYC in 2016 and the finding of his studio.  He moved here from the Midwest, having spent much time in both Illinois and Minnesota. 

His studio came as a result of initially working at Gasworks NYC (formerly BKLYN Clay) in Park Slope, which offers memberships to use the studio for your own work, as well as taking classes. Dustin became a member when the studio opened in 2016 and began teaching classes that fall.  Through other connections in the Brooklyn ceramics scene he met his studio mate and moved into a shared studio/kiln situation in Bed-Stuy.  I looked around the space, which was divided into the area where the kiln was located and his work/storage space.  Everything was neat and tidy—his shelves of production pots, the table, the wheel and the things that had recently come out of the kiln.  What a strange object this and all kilns are—purely functional and anachronistic ovens that hold magical objects.

In his workspace, Dustin had arranged his art pottery on the table for my examination and his production pottery was neatly organized on shelves by size and type. 

The production pots are of varying sizes from shot glasses to goblets and vases and beyond.  Many of them are painted with a black or dark blue slip in painterly fast brush strokes on porcelain with occasional gold highlights.  His scratched handwritten text on top of the strokes plays with every possible fuck phrase in the English language—from the aforementioned fuuuuuuuuuuuuuck to fuck this, fuck that, fuck yeah, piss off, ad infinitum. 

These pots play with and live in the contrast of sweetness and aggression.  The handwritten text is pure sincerity.  But the content of the text is daring the viewer or hand holding the mug to be offended or turned on or both.  It’s a bit like watching Betty White tell a dirty joke.  And I love it.

It was Dustin’s functional work that brought me to him, but I wasn’t there to talk about the production pottery and I felt that.  It was tucked on the shelves though it’s muffled fuck phrases were reverberating through the space and my thoughts.

I was there to see and discuss the art pottery and Dustin had placed it on the worktable for me to examine.  If the functional pottery is Betty White, then the embodiment of the art pottery for me personally is, Miley Cyrus.  Images of Miley, herself, and Justin Beiber and emojis, etc., are cut out and applied as decals to the surface of the porcelain.  In fact, all of the cut-outs are somehow corralled into the world of emojis—they are distilled into easy bite-sized icons whether they are real people (Hillary Clinton, drag queen superstars,) real bodies (porn stills, images of erect penises) or symbols (pride flags, biohazard symbols.) 

This cacophony of images is layered over the surface of the work, but the cacophony doesn’t end there.  The forms themselves are strange, some directly reference both flaccid and erect penises, others read as ceremonial vases, funerary containers and mysterious vessels of unknown purpose.  In addition to the strangeness of the forms, there are occasionally layers of texture achieved by dipping textiles and trims into slip and applying them to the surface. 

The work is all additive—added images, textures, shapes—it coalesces into something tragic and aggressive and heartfelt and sweet, all at once (hence my Miley Cyrus comparison.)

 After my tour of the space and time to take in the work, we settled into his workspace and began our back and forth.  Dustin filled me in on his history after leaving Wyoming.  He went to SAIC and pursued Visual Studies, seeking both the intellectual and physical in his own work and research.  Visual Studies was a field in which he could pursue his own questions about the meaning of design and have a skill set/language to understand why we choose and how we evaluate the objects we surround ourselves with in our lives.  Dustin described his philosophy that we collectively use objects to tell stories about our identities—who we are and what we value.  I couldn’t agree more.

He also worked at Lillstreet Art Center in Chicago.  He volunteered and then  assisted and ultimately began teaching classes there.  He described the contrasts of SAIC and Lillstreet.  I know both places well—I did a Post-Bacc at SAIC and I took a lot of jewelry classes at Lillstreet.  Dustin described the energy that seems to exist in all craft schools and workshops—a lack of contemporary context and an anarchonistic and hard to shake connection to 1960s style retro “brown pots.”  I’ve encountered that energy, those students and that mentality in my forays into the craft world.  I know it well. 

I ask him questions about teaching and he describes the places he has taught in and what he has gotten out of it all.  He says that teaching forces him to make things he wouldn’t normally make, for the purposes of demonstration.  And somehow that process opens up his language of forms.  Teaching forces him to experiment in order to explain.  He also tells me that teaching allows him to directly see different students’ thought processes and it brings him different pieces of the world that he wouldn’t otherwise find on his own.  An example of that he gives me is a student who was constantly telling him about a basket show at the MET—and he went to see the show and it really informed his thinking. 

I ask him if it bothers him that clay is so hot in the art world right now.  And he tells me that he doesn’t have a problem with it.  The clay community can be territorial, but he doesn’t feel that way personally.  He thinks anyone can and should use clay if they feel drawn to it.  But he does mention that in LA and Brooklyn, the clay work being produced—what he describes as “lumpy pots”—has a very different audience than the traditional studio pottery audience.  He is constantly trying to navigate these intersecting worlds of design, craft, tradition, experimentation and art. 

He’s struggled with his art pottery since school—trying to find the right venue and context for it.  We talk about the art and craft contexts—the idea of the same artist making a sculpture priced at $6000 and making functional pottery priced under $50.  How do we make sense of those two economies?  I don’t have an answer. 

The subject of jokes comes up a few times in the work.  A lot of the techniques and choices that he makes in both the functional and conceptual work are about the ceramics community.  Maybe visual jokes are how he makes sense of these two economies and systems of worth?

He tells me about how he came to the current artwork.  For an exhibition in 2015, he settled on the form of the garden stool based on both traditional Chinese garden stools and their contemporary bastardization versions available at Target in bright orange or aquamarine.  He wanted to queer his work and queer this form in particular, the garden stool.  And so he asked himself, how can he make this object queer?  Instead of subdued symbols, he chose to blanket the surface with historical images and symbols that reference the 1980s of his childhood, the HIV crisis and the politics of gay marriage and trans rights.  His use of decals began then.  Layering images, improvisation—they became visually busy as he combined slip, inlaid words, decals, texture and color.  He has refined the work since then—using the same elements, but editing them in each piece. 

Some of the work out on the table seems to bridge the divide between the art and functional work.  It has visual elements in common with the artwork but the functionality of being vases, mugs, vessels of understandable function.

His thinking of these pieces between the two bodies of work is that they are souvenirs of the art pieces—they are priced to be collectable and obtainable.  They are something anyone can take away from the big vessels.  They exist in a middle zone.

I ask him how he comes up with the images—what the images mean to him?  He said the art objects are structured like the thoughts in his head.  There is a stream of conscious flowing between the forms, the images and the techniques.  They are how his brain works; from Care Bear to Drag Queen and back again.  These are the things that have a personal resonance. 

Being in Minnesota for college and again after grad school, it was easy to feel stifled by the pervasiveness of traditional pottery techniques.  He wanted to make objects that weren’t just these quiet passive things.  Vessels and ceramics are of the domestic world and are meant to sit on shelves, but why can’t they reflect contemporary issues at the same time?  Traditional pottery reflects the values of its time he tells me, be it royal French or 1970s crunchy granola pots.  And he wants his work to reflect his values, his time.

He is always testing pottery like a toddler tests the boundaries of parental control or new lovers play mind games.  He tells me the troubled part of him was like, “fuck you Ceramics!  Is Ceramics big enough to contain this work?”  His fuuuuuuuuuuuuck functionals, his dick plates, his visually overwhelming artworks—can ceramics deal?  Ceramics was “like—yeah—no big deal.”

He tells me the world is broad right now and you never know what anyone is into.  He tells me about older women holding up his work in adoration and surprising him with their acceptance of it.  And he says if people aren’t interested in the work, they simply don’t look at it. 

He says his work isn’t for everyone.  But would anyone want work that is for everyone?  My feeling is a definitive no. 

For additional information about Dustin visit his website or Instagram