The potter’s condition: In conversation with Gustav Hamilton

Gustav Hamilton found his way to ceramics after being dropped from the school choir. By way of pottery, he has found a home for himself in this elemental and fickle medium. His work, which can most simply be described as ceramics about ceramics, is whimsical, thoughtful and introspective. Vases, book ends, teapots, jugs and mosaic tiles are recurrent subject matter in his work, giving a nod to clay’s utilitarian roots and a playful jab at ceramics as a sculptural medium. These functional items are meticulously painted in glazes onto the surface of flat ceramic slabs, creating a mind-boggling interplay between two and three dimensional surface and object. “In my work there is a lot of implied dimension butting up against real dimension, paintings inside paintings and windows to nowhere,” Gustav explains, “in some ways the image shows what it is but also what it is not.” A small gathering of meaningful objects (on a white table) depicts exactly what the title implies—a Swiss Army knife, a studio advertisement note written on yellow paper, a pencil and two drawings—but these are not three-dimensional objects but flat renderings painted on a slab of clay pretending to be a canvas.

Gustav’s work depicts the life of the artist through the ordinary objects that surround him. The pots, books and miscellaneous items are a visual shorthand that narrate fragments of encounters and fictitious scenes. Like an unreliable narrator, Gustav flits between the roles of author and actor, artist and subject, playing with the borders between real and imaginary.

Born and raised in the Midwest, Gustav lives and works in New York. In addition to his own art practice, he is a studio manager at BKLYN CLAY where he is currently co-developing a dinnerware range. In this interview Gustav tells us about learning to love country music and shares some of his highs and lows of working with clay.

portrait by Emilie Goldfinger

AMM: Hi Gustav! To start us off—can you remember the first time you handled clay? What was your response? What did you make?

GH: I remember it and I still have the piece! I think I was in 3rd grade and it was in the basement of a local public school. I made a sculpture of a dog holding a bone standing next to a bowl of dog food. I was trying to make it a Dalmatian but it looks more like a stegosaurus with cow patterns on it. I remember being really confused about how to handle the clay. I saw the teacher make his thing and then I could see the dog I wanted to make so clearly in my head but it just wasn’t doing what it was supposed to.

It wasn’t until my sophomore year of high school that I got into working with clay regularly. I had been in choir with my friends for years and then, because I have a horrible voice and ear, all of my friends made the show choir but I didn’t. So I dropped the class. I still needed an art credit so I went to the office and said I wanted to take something else and ceramics was at the same time so I went for it. I had some great teachers and some really good friends in my class and it was perfect. By that point I also had slightly better motor skills and it just made sense. Throwing didn’t go as easy for me but hand building I just seemed to understand.

AMM: Can you share with us a little about your interest in the materiality of clay, and how this might translate thematically in your work?

GH: I came to art through clay, really through pottery. Clay has been my go-to material for a long time and I think it has to do with its ability to be so many things. Lately my work has been more focused on the ceramic paintings but there is also an ongoing series of sculptures, mostly side tables and bookends. Although clay can do and appear to be so many different things it excels at being utilitarian. There is something either about the material or about me starting out as a potter that makes it seem like ceramics is happiest when it has a function or a job.

Ceramics is really the greatest pretender, at least of materials that I know. When I was in school I was interested in using materials that pretended to be something that they were not but clay does it better than anything else. In my work there is a lot of implied dimension butting up against real dimension, paintings inside paintings and windows to nowhere. It feels natural to do this on clay pretending to be canvas.

AMM: Tell us more about the ways you play with depth and perspective—with two and three dimensionality—in your work and to what effect?

GH: When I first started making paintings on ceramic tiles something about it just felt strange. The material that I was using, clay, was something that I had always used for making sculpture. Using it to make primarily flat work felt like I was giving up what clay did best. But once I started adding implied depth and perspective to the pieces something really exciting happened. The implied depth to the work in some instances can be confused with actual depth and it started to scratch the same itch that the Magritte Human Condition paintings do for me. In some ways the image shows what it is but also what it is not.

‘This is not my place’, glazed ceramic, 18 × 14 ¾ × 1 ¾ inches

AMM: While your practice is very much rooted in ceramics, painting features prominently. Did you ever feel torn between these two mediums? Please tell us more about how they live together and interact in your practice?

GH: It used to be about once every other year that I would try to be a painter. Each time I would get my painting materials and I would immediately remember how hard it is to paint! I used to say that painters were so lucky because their paintings don’t ever explode in a kiln or crack while drying but man is it hard to paint (colored pencils may be even harder but I can use them while I sit on my couch so I’m giving them a real honest shot).

I really learned how to paint, and outside of one painting class I took in undergrad, the only time I’ve truly painted (houses not included (I was a house painter at one point)) is on ceramics. I think part of it is maybe the intimidation of working with new processes and having to find a new workflow and routine (in ceramics you don’t have to clean your brushes really, it’s pretty nice). I am pretty dead set on starting some paintings soon, and I think this time it’ll take. I have plans to work a little larger with painting and wood burning/carving combined with ceramics. There is something really comfortable about working in a material that has a lot of limitations but I think it will be freeing to step outside of it for a bit.

AMM: In your artist statement you describe your artworks as “auto-fictitious objects where real life events merge with fictional narrative”. Can you tell us more about what you mean by this?

GH: Yeah absolutely. When I first added that to my statement I was thinking a lot about how my work can be viewed similarly to the show Seinfeld. When I was a kid it was really the only thing my parents watched other than the nightly news and I remember being so confused by it. I knew that Jerry Seinfeld was a real person that was a comedian living in New York and that was the story of the show but I didn’t understand what else was real and what was made up. I want my work to act in some ways like that, like a diary where not everything needs to be explained because there is an assumption that the reader of the diary is also the author and therefore already has an understanding of the backstory. But instead of it being accurate I let myself become an unreliable narrator and depict or imply stories that aren’t necessarily true.

AMM: In what ways is your practice located within and in relation to art history? How does your work interact with art history?

GH: Ceramics in school, or at least in my schools, focused really heavily on post WW2 American and British ceramics. I tend to think about this period more than really any other even though it’s so short. The narrative of the ceramic artists that made it to the fine art world like Ken Price, Ron Nagle, John Mason, and Betty Woodman was something I totally loved. When I was a young student working with clay they were beacons of light for me to aim towards. Because they were so important to me during a really formative time I still think about them and their work a lot. I tend to pull bits from artists that I like. I’ve been using a blue sky with cloud motif for a while that comes from Magritte (I keep a book of his paintings at my studio). I started using it just to fill some space but as I’ve used it more and more I think it gives a glimmer of hope to the scene.

I think I also look at historical examples as a way to give myself permission to do things. I am so often surprised by how many funny pieces there are at the Met, especially when it comes to ceramics.

‘Could this be my swan song’, glazed ceramic, 17 ½ x 14 x 2 inches

AMM: Archways and birds are favourite motifs in many of your artworks. What do these and other recurring symbols in your visual language represent?

GH: When I first started painting birds I began with ones from where I grew up in North Dakota. I wanted something to enter into the space, that at the time was filled with books and art objects, that could be a stand in for me or at least a part of me. This has had a slow shift and slightly more recently I’ve been looking to pair the birds from home with porcelain bird figurines made by the German company Meissen. I like having multiple versions of them in a similar way to how the characters in Spaceballs have multiple versions of themselves when they rent the movie Spaceballs and watch it. More recently I’ve, at least in some ways, replaced this stand in for a person with depictions of gloved hands. Like the birds this also gives the viewer an understanding that the scene isn’t a depiction of something concrete.

A big part of my work deals with the separation of interior and exterior space. The archways became a really nice way to have that split, they generally act as windows. I think I started using it regularly after seeing the 1935 version of The Human Condition by Magritte where he uses an arched doorway. I think I try to use it in a similar way where what is seen through the window is often considered separate or more real than the other pieces, especially when it transitions from exterior to the interior, but it is in fact the same.

AMM: Ceramics often feature as subject matter in your works (vessels, mosaics, tiles, etc.) Can you tell us more about this metatextuality?

GH: Yeah, along with ceramics being really good at pretending to be other things it is amazing at being ceramics! I haven’t really thought much about it but it does seem fitting.

AMM: What role does humour play in your work?

GH: I hope that the humor present acts as a bridge for people to get into my work. I’ve always made work that was somewhat tongue in cheek, not really “haha funny” and not mean spirited jokes but more like the casual jokes you might make with a family member or close friend. With the bookends there was something a little absurd about them but also totally understandable. In general my work tends to be a little navel gazey and presenting it with some humor hopefully softens it up a bit so it isn’t all about my own ego. I’m not sure how it reads to a viewer that doesn’t know me but I’ve tried to give my work the same tone that my grandparents or my parents have, something that is slightly self-deprecating but in general used to move information or a conversation along. My family, especially my dad, uses jokes to talk about almost anything. In general I wouldn’t say we are an exceptionally funny family, but we put a lot of stock in humor.

‘For what it’s worth’, glazed ceramic, 16 ¼ × 13 ¼ × 2 inches

AMM: Clay is a very temperamental medium. Do you have any horror/pleasant surprise stories to share? How has working with this medium influenced your approach to making art generally?

GH: My college ceramics professor, Beth Lo, used to make these really great shirts that said “I hate ceramics” and the clay club would sell them. I think everyone that has worked with clay has probably had their heart broken at one point or another. I once blew up an entire kiln’s worth of work (like a huge car kiln) that was the work for my midterm critique. That was really shocking, one little mistake turning the gas up and it was over. But the mistake that I think about the most is when I was almost done with grad school and I had just started making paintings with glaze on big tiles. I opened the kiln while it was really hot, like 600 degrees, because I just couldn’t wait any longer to see how this piece looked. It was bigger than anything I had made in years and it was this new process, I had no idea what it was going to look like. I opened the door and rolled the work out and it was so much better than I had imagined, I was really surprised and almost stunned by what I was seeing. And I was just so giddy, I couldn’t wait to show someone what I did. So I went wandering around and found my friend Kiyoshi and said “You gotta see this thing, it is just nuts.” We walked back to the kiln and the piece had cracked in half from the shock of cooling so rapidly. That is my least favorite way to lose a piece, after all the work and time that went into it to have it break because I didn’t have any patience to let it cool. I tried to remake it a few times but I never got it right.

Issues like pieces warping or cracking or exploding have pushed me to be really careful and almost obsessive about the making, drying and firing processes of my work. It has become a highly choreographed ritual and each thing needs to happen in its time or I will be too nervous to move forward. Now it is really rare for a piece to crack or warp beyond a reasonable amount and it makes it easier to invest more time into each piece. When I started this work 1 out of 4 or 5 would crack or warp really badly and my studio was just full of constant losses.

AMM: What are the hardest things for you to get ‘right’ in your art?

GH: Lately it has been color. I recently changed to a slightly lower firing temperature (around 2000 degrees Fahrenheit) and it has helped to reduce cracking and warping in the firing but after working at a higher temperature for so long my understanding of what the glazes will look like isn’t as sharp. The colors sometimes change a bit and other times they change drastically so when I’m working I often have test samples of colors around or I’m looking at older work but lately my understanding has been off. I really love what glaze is capable of but working with something that changes so drastically can be difficult and I think it encourages me to play it safe and do things I know will work. Sometimes I can go back and reglaze or grind areas but in general if it comes out and it isn’t good, it’s kinda over. It’s the worst when everything is right except you have one part that just looks like junk.

AMM: In your development as an artist, what have been some of the pivotal experiences or mentors that have had a profound impact on you? What lessons did you learn?

GH: I have worked with a lot of people that had a profound impact on me but some of the ones that I think about the most were past professors. Beth Lo and Trey Hill were two of the professors I worked with the most in undergrad and it was while I was working with them that I stopped making pots and began making sculpture. Beth and Trey both had such an understandable way of talking about art that removed what had been so intimidating about it. They both had a really strong grasp on the material and pushed me to try new ways of working.

After I left Montana I went to Kansas and did a post bacc program at Kansas State University. My professors there were Amy Santoferraro and Kyle Triplett. Because we were in the middle of Kansas and there wasn’t a huge art scene or many artists to hang out with we would just hang out together. I got to see really in depth what a life in the arts could look like, they were both open about the positive and negatives of going into this versus a more stable job. Seeing it first-hand made me know I was up for it and could in some ways prepare for the future.
The last person I want to talk about is my brother Anders. He has been a major factor in most of my decisions and always knows when I need some serious feedback and when I need encouragement. I talk through ideas about new pieces with him, go to him for advice relating to what to show, if I should move studios, if I should buy a kiln, pretty much everything. I think if it wasn’t for him I probably wouldn’t have had the drive to leave Montana. I know I certainly wouldn’t have moved to New York.

‘And the stronger you will be’, glazed ceramic, 24 ½ × 13 × 13 inches

AMM: What ideas or themes are you currently exploring in your work?

GH: Lately I’ve been thinking more and more about my age. I just turned 30 a month or so ago and I am really happy with what I am doing but at the same time I’m not exactly doing what I thought I’d do. I hadn’t planned on moving so far away from my home and my parents and I think there is a longing for the Midwest that is present in my work. I’ve also been really considering if I want to have kids or not. I mean I haven’t taken any steps towards having kids but because it is pretty common where I grew up to have kids in your 20s it’s starting to feel odd not having them. When I think about not having kids I start to think about how I will be remembered and where my work will end up when I’m older and especially after I’m no longer around. Ceramics is a material that will outlive me by a long, long shot and when I’m working with it I think it’s natural to consider where it will end up. I’ve started to include depictions of works by ceramic artists that I have admired since I got into ceramics. Will the work be saved somewhere like Ken Price or maybe in someone’s basement and they will say “oh yeah, I think my dad’s friend made that”. I can also see it having a second life at a Midwest flea market or pawn shop, and I like that idea.

In general my work functions sort of like a diary and I think you see bits of these things consistently popping up in small ways. Depictions of western/midwestern landscapes, items from my childhood, and older work of mine sitting with work of the artists I idolized as a student. More recently the work has come to depict isolated or bleak spaces. The pandemic has really amplified how isolated I am, and like many people, I’m spending a lot of time dreaming about other places/other times when I could more easily connect with people.

AMM: What are your studio rhythms and routines? Do you work on only one piece at a time or jump between several? Run us through your process of working from research to completion.

GH: There is a really great video of Friedrich Kunath working in the studio. He talks about establishing the usual amateurisms and it shows him playing tennis against the wall and walking around in oversized shoes from an LA prop shop. I try to emulate his approach to a studio practice.

In some ways I treat my studio a lot like a living room. I go most days, usually after work and on weekends. I try to have a few things in process so there is always something to work on, it’s nice if you can have some easy mindless work and something that takes more brain power so that I can pick what I have the energy for. I think my favorite pieces have come from when I’m messing around and working but not working too hard and generally not worried about finishing the piece for something. I have some fun stuff that I keep in my studio if I need a break, right now I have a yo-yo, a harmonica, a dart board made out of drywall (custom made by the great painter and friend Henry Glavin), and some other stuff to mess around with.

When I’m starting new work I generally begin with rough sketches that are often more notes than drawings. A big part of working with clay is doing things in the correct order. I take a lot of pictures and save them in different categories on my phone for reference, these pictures vary, sometimes they are color groupings, shapes, or objects. From start to finish a piece generally takes a few months but that is mostly because ceramics is so slow to begin with and I’m pretty tentative about making the first moves on a new piece.

I don’t have the space in my studio for a large kiln so I make and fire all of my work at BKLYN CLAY. It’s about a 15 minute walk from my studio so it isn’t too bad to move stuff back and forth. I have plans for some pieces that will take longer to construct but lately my work has been pretty quick to build. After I build something I let it dry really slowly over a week or two and then I put it through the first of two (sometimes more) firings, called the bisque firing. When the work comes out of the bisque (aka the biscuit) firing the pieces are much stronger. This is when I move them to my studio to work on the glazing. This is without a doubt the slowest part. I plot a lot of the stuff out with a pencil drawing but lately I’ve been also scratching into the surface of the clay before it is fired to give a general layout. I also use a digital projector sometimes to help me plot sections out. The glaze that I use is mostly commercially available. Mayco Stroke and Coat is my all-time favorite but I also use Amaco underglaze and other odd glazes here and there. Most glazes need 2-3 layers brushed on so I spend a lot of time sitting over each piece applying layers of glaze. Once the piece is glazed I then move it back to BKLYN CLAY and fire it there. I wouldn’t be able to make what I have been making if it wasn’t for that place.

‘This is not only a test’, glazed ceramic, 20 × 11 ¾ × 11 ¾ inches

AMM: When you’re not in studio, what are some of the things you enjoy doing?

GH: Well I work quite a bit, and these days a lot of the usual fun stuff isn’t happening so like everyone I needed to come up with some new things to do. Since the pandemic started I began playing guitar again! It’s the first real true hobby I think I’ve ever had. I keep playing but I’m not really getting any better but it’s okay! I was in a band in high school called Buffalo Alice and we mostly covered Greenday and Blink 182 so I’ve been relearning a lot of that.

My friend Cammi Climaco and I started a podcast called The Ceramics Podcast and although we don’t release episodes super often (or regularly) that takes up some time. It has become such a good excuse to sit down and talk with old friends and people I don’t know. Cammi and I could just talk at each other and make dumb jokes for days.

Outside of that it’s a lot of watching TV, walking around the city, wasting time on Instagram, trying to find the perfect pair of Birkenstocks for working in the studio (right now I’m all about the super Birki but I had to drill two small holes for ventilation). I’m really looking forward to being able to travel around a bit more. I love going up into the Hudson valley and especially love going to Minnesota and hanging out with my parents. I can’t wait for it to be warm so I can swim in a lake.

AMM: You’re a studio manager at BKLYN CLAY. What does this entail? How does being involved at a busy public studio influence your own creativity and work?

GH: I manage the studio along with my brother Anders. We were both brought on when the current space was opened about two and a half years ago. Since then my job has shifted around quite a bit. I always focused more on material and back room type stuff. Now we have a really good team of people working here and my job is more in project development type territory and resident handyman. We launched a dinnerware line in the fall that Sarah Allwine, the Lead Technician, and I had been working on for a while. I spend so much time looking at pots and I had often wanted to spend more time making them but was too busy. Working with Sarah to design the line was such a great way to work through ideas collaboratively with someone that has a great eye for design and is fun to work with. I’m really, really proud of what we made. We are still working out new surfaces for it and some additional pieces to the line so my days are often consumed with testing glazes for color and durability. We are hoping to have a line of lamps and other design objects soon so there is a lot of sketching and making prototypes for future pieces.

Working at BKLYN CLAY has had a major impact on my work. The most obvious thing is just having access to kilns and materials. NYC is getting better but it is not an easy place to do ceramics. Beyond the basic stuff the biggest influence it has had on me comes from the people that work there. Jennifer Waverek, the Owner and Director, and Laura Vogel, the Operations Director, both dream pretty big and encourage others to do the same. When I started I came on part time and the most enticing part of it was that I would get to work with my brother, but now it has become such an important part of what I do and how I make my work that I’m not sure what I would do without it.

‘Please place this in a beautiful space’, glazed ceramic, 41 × 13 ½ × 13 ½ inches

AMM: What’s happening in the world of ceramics currently that’s exciting you?

GH: I think what I am most excited about is that ceramics keeps getting bigger. I had no idea so many people would be into it. There is so much different work being made right now. I think if I had to name a couple specific things one would be the use of 3D printers in clay. For a long time it seemed like a gimmick to me and I just wasn’t seeing any work made with them that got me excited but Jolie Ngo and Nicolas Touron are two people that seem to have really tapped into something new.

In my work I’m really excited about using ceramic decals! I had dipped my toe in a few times in the past but I was never really into what I was getting. But lately (mostly because I have access to a decal printer) I’ve been playing with how I make the image, what it is applied to, and then how hot it is fired. It took a while to figure it out but I am finally using it for bits in pieces that I’ve thought about for years but wasn’t able to do.

Another thing that isn’t new but seems to be making a new comeback is the use of jigger/jolly machines. They work in a similar fashion to a potter’s wheel but with a mechanical arm to shape the clay that is placed on a plaster mold. I think they were invented in the 1800s and were really popular in industry but now Shimpo makes a version that attaches to your wheel head and you can do it wherever. It works great for making plates and bowls especially and has really opened up how I think about production work.

AMM: What are you reading, watching, listening to right now?

GH: I’m pretty homesick at the moment and I think my brother is too so we have been watching the series Fargo. It isn’t perfect but just seeing the landscape and hearing the accent really goes a long way. When I’m working I listen to a lot of podcasts, some history podcasts, some crime podcasts, way too many political podcasts. I love listening to country music. I’m into older golden country music (Alan Jackson is probably my favorite) but I’m also a huge sucker for late 90’s early 00’s country music. My dad was into country music for a while and I worked for him as a carpenter in the summers from the start of high school until I finished grad school. All day long the radio would be playing and when I started I hated country but eventually it won me over. Kenny Chesney released a live album a year or two ago that I still can’t get enough of. I’m not reading much these days. Most of my reading happened on the subway but I’ve been doing what I can to avoid mass transit and it has really hampered my reading. Right now I’m reading a book called The Secret History but I am not even sure I know what it is about. Each night I try to read before bed but I’ve been so tired lately I just fall asleep two or three pages in. I think I just keep rereading them night after night. I always have something by Dave Hickey kicking around next to my bed that I’m in the middle of and for Christmas my friend Zoe gave me the new Ron Nagle book so I’ve been flipping through that with my morning coffee.

Find more about the artist:

Interview by Layla Leiman for ArtMaze Mag.

‘Mirror to Mirror’, glazed ceramic, 13 × 16 × 2 inches

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