Kelsey Koens: Balancing Traditional Craft and the Modern Art World
Kelsey Koens is a 20 year old potter and ceramicist based in Eugene, OR. Her work has primarily been as a production potter, though her sculptural art has explored topics ranging from femininity to personal connection. She currently attends the University of Oregon.
When did you first start working with clay?
I started my freshman year in high school, when I was 14. My teacher, Rosemary Raburn, definitely opened the door for me.
What draws you to the practice of pottery specifically?
It’s meditative. It’s a craft that you’re always trying to get better at, and [you] can learn something new every time you do it. It’s something very personal.
What sorts of concepts inform your ceramic work?
As cliché as it is, intimacy is something I think about when I’m working and producing.
How does it feel to work with ceramics as opposed to other media?
Ceramics––throwing specifically––is a very personal, intimate experience. You are just with the clay; there’s not anything else you’re focusing on. You’re using your fingers, eyes, and senses to diagnose everything that’s happening. It’s a very in-the-moment experience.
How do potters work differently from other artists?
In the studio, when you’re a production potter, pottery is your life. You throw, then you’ve gotta flip your bowls, you’ve gotta make sure they’re drying out correctly so your clay doesn’t crack, you’re turning them at the right hardness… You have to be very precise. Being a potter, you have to be very attentive and put in a lot of time. If there’s not an option to make something and let it hang out for a few days or a week and then revisit it, it’s gone.
I know you’ve worked in painting and sculpture in the past––have your education and projects in those media changed the way you work with or think about pottery?
Definitely. Whenever I’m learning new concepts or ideas about other arts, it changes my perspective.
What other life practices have helped you in pottery?
Working has definitely helped me. As a working student, you’re learning how to balance a lot of things. Pottery needs a lot of attention and balance; it’s kind of a parallel that you don’t expect.
What is important for people to understand about you or your work?
My style is very clean and craft-like as opposed to some styles that are more “artistic”. I go into my work with the approach of perfecting the craft; I put a lot of craftsperson-ship into it instead of more conceptual-based thinking. That’s what makes it a little different from other arts too, for me at least.
Where do you get your drive from?
Sheer love for the craft. I follow a lot of potters on Instagram and other social media; seeing their new ideas, how productive they’re being, and the different methods they’re using to mass-produce inspire me to try different things and to really get my craft down so I can start mass-producing in ways that are more feasible.
Why should an art student take a ceramics class?
Other than just to have a basic understanding of the medium and how to use different tools to apply to the medium, it’s like, “Why should anyone take drawing?” It’s a hurdle I think. In most institutions, you need to take drawing, painting, and beginning clay, because these are all skills [they] think you should have going into your artistic career. Sometimes it’s for people, sometimes it’s not.
It’s something really new [to many students], and it’s a totally different type of skill that you’re gaining. It’s very tangible when you’re throwing or working with your hands. It’s different than using a middleman like a paintbrush or a pen to produce something; you’re being very direct.
Do you feel more encouraged or discouraged by artistic institutions to work in traditional craft like pottery?
I feel very discouraged. I’ve only had an opportunity to be in the situation at Southern Oregon University, but it was not pro-pottery; it was just something you sought out on your own, and they didn’t really encourage it. They didn’t offer classes, and it wasn’t competitive at all.
We live in a pretty “new media” world at this point, especially the arts world. Do you think people take you as seriously since you work with a more traditional craft than with something in more of a new media?
With the past two years at Southern, I wasn’t able to spend as much time in the studio as I would have liked. It wasn’t my main focus there, because I had other classes I needed to focus on that needed my full attention. Pottery was on the back burner. In a space where I am allowed to have pottery be most important, I think people take me more seriously.
What do you want to see out of artistic institutions? How do you think they should change to support potters?
It comes down to having professors that have obviously practiced the craft of pottery, not just hand-building and sculpture. They’re great things to know, and it’s another interesting facet of ceramics, but pottery specifically is a craft that you have to master; that sets it aside from the other kinds of arts that are more conceptually-based. I think professors that come in with an arts degree have an understanding of what it means to be a painter or drawer and can mix-and-match between the different mediums, but you can’t be a painting professor and also be like, “I could teach pottery too,” unless you have actually done it. It’s specific.
Is there any kind of personal affirmation you’re working on this year?
I’m going into a new studio and new situation [with] new people; I want to show them what I’ve got and see how I stand up to my peers. I want to play it by ear and see how the situation is. If things are going really well, I intend to dive in full-force, but I don’t know what it’s going to be like. I don’t know if I’m going to have that opportunity or if it’s going to be like Southern, where pottery is not something I’m able to put all my attention into.
Why is pottery important?
Historically speaking, it’s old. Reviving a craft that’s so old and has such a specific purpose is important, but also the opportunity it brings people, and the learning; all these new things that come from being a potter, a new potter, are so important for students. Someone might stay in school because they love the craft. That’s something I’ve seen before.
via Zach Whitworth (@zachwhitworth), a 20 year old artist and student based in Ashland, OR.