Interview: Lori Katz

Lori Katz in conversation with Peter Freeby

Lori Katz is supremely collectable. She was a perfect fit and a highlight for the Affordable Art Fair a few weeks ago in New York. Katz’ work is a wonderful collection of little clay objects that are either imbued with brilliant, family-friendly color, or cleanly and crisply layered with black and white. Her sculptures are close to the heart of clay tradition, rarely straying from the strict use of clay, and utilizing simple geometry graphic motifs. In approaching this kind of clay from an artistic perspective, the viewer is happily greeted by the works. While lots of the art world is busy with frenetically stressfulconversation about politics and gallery sales, Katz’ work has the pleasant disposition of quietly documenting her deliberation and curious engagement with her medium. It has a bit of the feel of Renoir, saying, “To my mind, a picture should be something pleasant, cheerful, and pretty, yes pretty! There are too many unpleasant things in life as it is without creating still more of them.”


Peter Freeby: You embraced the medium you work in at an early age; can you tell that story?

Lori Katz: I was a creative kid and I had supportive parents, and I don’t even remember the circumstances for why they bought me a potters wheel. It was a tabletop model. I’m old enough that it wasn’t plastic. It was metal, and it was a substantial piece of machinery. 

My mom was a college professor and she hired some college kid who was in the art department and she came over and gave me a few lessons. Everything I made was pretty awful. I really liked it, but I was just a kid so I was fooling around and I don’t believe I did much with it after that and I don’t think it sparked a passion or anything, but it’s just one of those things that I had.

I think the next time that I really remember picking up clay was at a certain point in college. I took sculpting as elective courses, and that really sealed the deal for me. I felt I had found my material, and my medium.

PF: What was the context for clay sculpture in the art world when you were starting out?

LK: When I was starting out in clay, my experience was functional use. That was my whole experience. It was not art, it was not on the wall, there was not color, it was brown. Chemistry has changed now to the point where color is available without me having to get lead poisoning. So much has changed in the thirty-six years I’ve been working in clay. From the time I started, it’s changed so much. Technology has improved so much in terms of materials to the point where there’s really nothing that I can’t do in clay at this point. I can even 3D print it if I want. 

My intro and my first twenty years working with clay, it was functional-ware. And that was what I was exposed to. There was nobody making a clay sculpture and putting it on the wall. It was bowls and vases and juicers and that’s it. There was nothing really to look at.

PF: You seem to be sticking to a very organic process. Do you feel that temptation to dive into 3D printing or use spray paint or use something else that’s maybe more artistically expressive?

LK: I have been unimpressed with so far what I’ve seen. It’s very cool. I love technology and I love seeing what people are doing with the medium. I think 3D printing is a very cool thing, but it’s becoming almost pedestrian and if you don’t make something great with it, what’s the point? I’m not really tempted to give up my clay, although I did think about it. I think that my work is what it is because of the material. I think it’s material driven and I think, sure, I could paint those images or I could find another way to put those images on the material in some other way. But I don’t think they would be what I want them to be; or at least what I want them to be now.


PF: In your process, are you creating artificial constraints for your work, or do the constraints of your work happen to you?

LK: I work with clay because it’s a familiar material. I started putting my work on the wall about 10-12 years ago and I didn’t really have a vehicle for doing that that I felt some level of expertise in other than clay. And that was my go to.

I think I seek out my constraints. You know, clay has issues. It cracks. It blows up. Some of what I do to my clay right now I do because artists who work in different media fix the problems. I used to just smash everything if it cracked or if junk from the kiln landed on it. One of my friends who’s a painter said “You know, if you were a painter, you would paint over that.” It sparked something immediately. I intentionally work with those kinds of constrains in my work. Traditionally, there’s one thing you do with clay: you glaze it and that’s it. That’s not what I’m doing. 

PF: I saw some of your work that has intentional scratches in it. Do things like Kintsugi or Wabi-sabi inspire these practices in your work?

LK: Kintsugi is that whole thing where you take something broken and fill the cracks with something beautiful–usually gold or silver leaf–but that’s not where the scratches came from for that work. That work, that whole series of scratches to me is an unearthing, and getting at what’s underneath. That whole series of work was inspired by a pedestal in my studio. I had it for years and I’d drag it all over the floor in different locations. I flipped it over to use it horizontally one day and I looked at the bottom of it. It was beautiful. It, at some point in it’s life must have been black, but it was scratched in a way that I wanted to keep it that way and look at it all the time. It was just beautiful. 

That’s what started me on this whole path. I start with a flat slab of clay. The pieces with scratches on it are covered with a liquid form of clay called slip. Once it’s ready I start scratching at it, and pulling stuff up and sometimes adding to it. I think of it as underpainting almost. In underpainting you’re filling a whole canvas with something that isn’t really there when the painting is finished, but it informs the painting. I’m scratching away to what’s underneath that I can see coming through.

PF: With this kind of clay scratching work, you seem to be studying the relationships you have with individual objects in a way that feels a bit like industrial design or architecture. Are you inspired by any specific designers or architects in developing your process?

LK: I’m not. I can’t think of any one specific artist or designer or architect that directly influenced my work. That said, I think I’m influenced by a lifetime of input from the world. I’m a minimalist at heart. Architects as a group love my work. 

It’s very simple work. It’s line and graphic elements. I’m inspired by minimalist design and like every other person who works with clay, I’m inspired by the long tradition of Japanese and Korean clay and ceramics. And British studio ceramics are pretty wonderful. 

PF: How much of your process relies on tools versus crafting by hand or a potters wheel.

LK: These days, my potter’s wheel is just a jumping off point. At my show in the Affordable Art Fair, you may remember some pods that were on the wall. Those actually started on a potter’s wheel. 

They started as closed vessels. I threw them, I cut them in half, I did all sorts of stuff to them. I reconstructed them a different way. That’s how I’m using the wheel these days. For the clay vessels I make, I contort them and change them. They usually come out as these really long pieces. 

I do use tools though. I use something called a slab roller. It sort of looks like a printing press. That’s what I roll out my flat pieces of clay on. My favorite tool is my exacto knife. The only other tools I really use are my kiln and I obviously can’t do without my hands. There are potters–not that I really call myself a potter anymore–who have suitcases full of tools, but I’ve never really had a lot of tools. I do have one more tool that is indispensable. It’s a $6 plastic thing from Home Depot that’s just a little rasp. I shave down clay a lot with that.

PF: Who are you watching?

LK: My first answer is nobody. The truth of it is that I try not to look at other artists work. For a lot of reasons. I look at the sidewalk and I look at texture and when I am in a different city I don’t take a picture of the building, I take pictures of textures and patterns that intrigue me. I certainly try not to look at other artists work. I certainly don’t want to incorporate it unintentionally. But that said, there are things that I look at and take pictures of. 


For more information, visit Lori Katz's website: