“When someone really loves ceramics, they just absolutely give themselves to it.”
Interview with Richmond artist Colleen Garland
Colleen Garland grew up in Richmond and works as a potter and ceramics teacher in the Bay Area. She learned wheel throwing in community college, taking classes at Diablo Valley College and Contra Costa College. Now she rents a studio where she works in clay, and since the covid pandemic she has been making art and teaching ceramics online.
Colleen spoke with Marisa Burman, Richmond Art Center’s Ceramics Manager, on February 9, 2021
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
What are your favorite things about clay and working with ceramics? Why have you chosen this as your primary medium?
I absolutely love clay. I love what clay looks like when it’s fired. I love throwing on the wheel. I love having a purpose. I love serving a purpose.
Coming from a working class background, I think art can be hard to justify as a career. Art is a choice, but you can’t argue with making functional work. And I think that’s something that attracted me to it.
Clay is messy, it’s physical, and there’s infinite variety in what you can do and whatever you do, you can make it absolutely personal.
So, what has it been like for you making art during a pandemic?
I make a lot of wheel thrown work, mostly to fire with Mary Law at her studio in Berkeley. But we had to cancel most of our firings this year because of covid.
So my practice has been a little halted in a way, because I’m not finishing work, but it’s also really opened up what I can make because I’m not limiting myself as much. I’m wheel throwing a lot. Also I’m spending a lot more time on decorating. It’s been a lot of making and not keeping this past year.
Do you consider Mary Law your mentor? She’s a great potter who has been doing ceramics in Berkeley for decades.
This is funny, because I know she’ll read this. I took classes with Mary a lot at Contra Costa College. And I started working with her when I was still a student. I then started doing her website and Facebook and in trade I fire with her. She has taught me about clay, but also so much about life. I would say she’s my friend and my mentor. I have learned a lot from her about how one can live as a potter, about ways of doing this sustainably in terms of taking care of yourself, taking care of your body, and taking care of your finances, so that this can be a viable option.
That makes me feel warm.
She’s very, very important to me.
So you are teaching ceramics online. What has that been like?
At first, in the first few months of the pandemic, when I saw university professors having to instantly switch to teaching, and hearing about how incredibly difficult it was initially, I thought no ceramics class should be online. That’s a ridiculous thing to do. But in time I was offered the opportunity to teach online with Richmond Art Center. I thought it was going to be really hard and it turned out to be really fun. The online classes give me much more room to be creative. I’m able to offer a lot more visual information. Like images of other artists’ work and more historical context. So it’s been a really great experience because I’ve learned how to teach in a new way.
I would keep teaching online, I think even after we go back to in-person, which feels crazy, but it’s been fun.
What are you teaching this session for Richmond Art Center?
I will be teaching ‘Handbuilding: Women in Contemporary Ceramics’ again. Each week we learn from a different woman working in clay in the 20th or 21st century through photos and video, and then we settle on a form to try to recreate. Or students branch out on their own and use inspiration from the artists to make something different. I see that students in this class are excited about learning from other artists. They feel like they are kind of participating in the global ceramics community through engaging with other people’s works, cultures and histories.
I’m also teaching a drawing class, which is called ‘Sketchbooking’. It is a fun drawing class meant to make people feel comfortable with engaging with their sketchbooks. To help people not fear a blank page. It’s all about having fun and trying lots of things so that we can get into the habit of sketchbooking as a daily practice. ‘Sketchbooking’ is an intergenerational class. So anyone is welcome to take it from young children to adults, teenagers. Friends are welcome. Roommates are welcome. Grandparents and grandchildren. Any experience level. Everyone is absolutely welcome!
I see art as a daily practice as a theme in your teaching, as well as your relationship to engaging with art.
I love using pottery. It totally changes the way I interact with the world. I love being surrounded by handmade things. I’ve been a very functional potter and I’m very interested in craft; the way things are made and the way things work.
Just last night in class we learned from artist Marguerite Wildenhain, she ran an informal school in Guerneville, California, in the 1950s. Her philosophy was to teach young craftspeople to have integrity and to have dedication and to really care about what they’re doing. But also to have a reason for what they’re doing too. To engage philosophically with their work instead of just being technicians, who can technically produce something. She wouldn’t let students keep anything. Students would be throwing forms for two months and they would never fire anything! All the clay was reclaimed. She demanded absolute dedication. And if students weren’t absolutely dedicated, they just wouldn’t continue showing up because it was too hard.
It definitely takes dedication.
Wheel throwing is ridiculous. It’s crazy that we all love to do it! I’ve been working with clay for at least eight years and three years seriously. And I still get cracks in my handles which is so frustrating! But that’s just reality. Something Marguerite Wildenhain said was art is not cumulative. Every day you show up as a potter and you’re starting from scratch. And you just have to pull this desire out of yourself to create something. Then through repetition it becomes less challenging, but you’re still starting from nothing each day. Every single potter has to learn from the very, very beginning.
And that makes it really beautiful to teach because it’s like I’m on that journey with my students. When someone really loves ceramics, they just absolutely give themselves to it. And they work through the frustration and they work through the darkness of being in a learning environment. It’s very human. I think it’s so much more human than any other work that I could be doing. So it feels infinitely valuable.
Agreed. I think that’s great.
Follow Colleen Garland on Instagram @colleenandclay
Handbuilding: Women in Contemporary Ceramics
Mondays, 6:00pm – 8:00pm PDT
Apr 19, 2021 – Jun 14, 2021
All Ages Class (5+)
Sundays, 10:00am – 12:00am PDT
Apr 11, 2021 – Jun 6, 2021