Conducted by Beatrice Thornton on October 14, 2014 and November 7, 2014 at Jennifer Poueymirou's studio and apartment, Brooklyn, New York
Born in Westwood, New Jersey in 1972, Poueymirou received her BA from Alfred University in Alfred, New York in 1996 where she studied ceramics, and glass, among other media.
After attending Alfred, Poueymirou's work and studies took her throughout the United States. Immediately after college, she moved to New York City where she worked as a studio assistant to Barbara Nessim, organizing and digitizing her sketchbooks. At that time she also worked as a glass educator at UrbanGlass and as an educator and studio manager at the Educational Alliance on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Then, a position at Pewabic Pottery took her to Detroit from 2001 to 2003, after which she moved to Kansas City to take classes at the Kansas City Art Institute with George Timock, where she also took courses in architecture. Poueymirou moved to Louisiana where she received her MFA in studio art from Louisiana State University in 2007.
After various teaching positions around the country Poueymirou returned to New York, where she became an instructor at Greenwich House Pottery and an adjunct professor at New York University. There she taught her first course, which concerns senses and the body centered around digital production using machines located in NYU’s Fab Lab, which boast CNC printers, laser cutters, among other digital making tools.
Although Poueymirou works most frequently in clay, she values all materials equally. The same goes for size, as she produces both small objects and large installation pieces. Recently, she has been most interested in digital techniques for object making, particularly 3D printing technologies. She is aiming to build her own 3D printer after she finishes several courses in mechanical engineering.
Poueymirou has participated in numerous exhibitions and collaborative projects throughout her career including replicating Grueby Tile glazes for a Gustav Stickley room recreation in the Victoria and Albert Museum’s International Arts and Crafts exhibition in 2005. She also printed a series of designs of porcelain ceramics as part of a team working with Belgian design firm Unfold, which was part of the New Museum’s exhibition Adhocracy in 2013. A self-described alchemist-scientist, Poueymirou utilizes the periodic table when producing work, especially when adding to her growing collection of glazes. Nature and repetition are central themes in her work.
[This interview took place in two sessions, the first on October 14, 2014, and the second on November 7, 2014.]
Beatrice Thornton (BT): This is Beatrice Thornton. I’m sitting here with Jen Poueymirou and we’re going to talk about her work. We’re in her studio in Bushwick, Brooklyn. Jen, the first thing I wanted to ask you is if you could pick some of your recent work to talk about. Could you pick something that’s here in your studio and talk about your process and a bit about the piece?
Jen Poueymirou (JP): Yeah. Well. I usually have a tendency to work in multiples and in that process I am sort of investigating various paths of thought that merge congruently into each other in a way. So this one is the most recent in terms of what I have shown.
BT: Could you describe the materials first?
Jennifer Poueymirou, Mouse piece, 2014. Rice paper,wood, nails, thread, ink; 25 x 38.75 x 2 in. Courtesy of Jennifer Poueymirou."
JP: Yes. So it’s MDF board or a compressed wood that I’ve hand drilled holes through in the back and then there’s rice paper on top. It was actually a collaboration with a mouse. [laughs.]
BT: [laughs.] Wow!
JP: Because there are mice in the building and one got into one of my flat files. [laughs.]
JP: It wasn’t expected, yes. [laughs.] Little elves. But, so, I discovered that they got into one of the flat files and began to shred this paper that I use for a Chinese ink painting class that actually came from China. They were making a home for the winter. I could see the shreds and when I unfolded the sheets and opened it the edge was so beautiful where they had bitten, I saw a sort of geology and topographic maps and it would be really hard to re-create so I knew I wanted to keep it intact. And for me, geology always makes me think of memory as well, and the layering of time. This gave me a feeling of time captured and memory captured, but also of memory and decay.
BT: Yeah, yeah.
JP: I am not sure why everything goes together the way it does and in some ways I still think this piece can be pushed farther and can continue. I still think there would be some idea of me sewing into it. And I actually started to play a little bit with having some thread and drawings underneath. It doesn’t matter that you actually can’t see it; just like you can’t always see everybody’s memories. But they are still there as a part of it. Another way I see the piece makes me feel like this is a ledger or a chalkboard or something from a school. Sometimes I see pieces in multiple ways. They have multiple lines of thought running through them.
BT: Yeah, it’s almost like those pads of paper that you put on an easel and then you tear one away and the tear isn’t always the same so it leaves that mark at the top. And what—
BT: And what were you planning on doing with the paper when you originally ordered it?
JP: I didn’t order it. I got it in a class for ink drawing and painting. Actually, it was from another person who was taking that class and they didn’t’ enjoy it and they didn’t want to keep the paper, so I took the paper. But I knew I would find something to do with it. I mean I had made other stuff with it like these drawing here [image of geometric drawings]. These are actually somewhat recent too. Just me working with drawing and sort of thinking of it in terms of improvisation because I have never really been connected to drawing. And in some ways that is because the first classes I took were still lives and that didn’t seem really interesting to me, why do I need to copy what’s right there? I didn’t want to just repeat. These pieces let things unfold before my eyes. They keep me present to what I’m and allows me to respond to what’s on the page. They have been a lot of fun.
BT: I am also interested in hearing about these spoons you have over here. And these are relatively new also?
JP: Yeah, well functional work has always been a part of my practice as well. Though it’s not the main focus and it's not something I really show. And I often do it after a really big installation or when I am feeling overwhelmed.
Jennifer Poueymirou, Spoons, cherry wood, 2014. Big: 15" x 3" x 1". Small: 8 3/4 x 1 3/4 x 1 in. Courtesy of Jennifer Poueymirou."
BT: And there’s memory embedded—
JP: And there’s something really wonderful in terms of sharing not only an object but also some sustenance, some food at the same time and what that’s all about. And then also I began to think of these as cooking wands. [laughs.]
BT: Have you used them yourself yet?
JP: No I haven’t used them. They are a project that’s sort of on hold until I move my studio, until I get settled and feel really good.
BT: Nice. Well, thank you so much for talking with me about those. So, I wanted to ask you also about the different media that you work in. Are you most comfortable working in clay? Or would you say there’s another medium you enjoy equally?
JP: As far as mediums go, I have never been in one material. Even when I was in college they tried to have you pick one material, and I wiggled my way out of that. So even in my senior year, I was in ceramics, glass, and metal, and actually digital. I do feel more comfortable in 3D, in expressing myself. But I still do 2D, too, and papermaking is something that I really delved into in grad school. Printmaking has been a part of my practice for quite some time. Drawing and painting not so much but I am working on those. But materials, the materials I choose to work with often come about through concept for a piece that I am trying to make. And so the quality of the material and what it can convey is the most important thing. So sometimes I use found objects, or natural objects that I collect. Like one of the pieces that you’ve seen has charcoal from a burned down house.
BT: Which piece is that?
JP: This one here, this part. And this is pampas grass seeds. I spent probably six months collecting them. There are over 350 different stalks of pampas grass seeds. And so I had to collect them over time and sometimes I don’t know why I am collecting them, I just trust in the process that there will be a reason. Or it will come about why it’s supposed to be there. So there’s a lot of trust in the process that I do. Even in terms of testing with materials. What I would say about materials is that I get to know them very well. I get into the chemistry of them. I get into the science behind them. With ceramics, when you get to know the material really well, you are working with molecular formulae, and you are using the periodic table to make color surface and texture, and so, the clays I develop, I made up these clays to do very specific things such as to stay very white even in a reduction or oxidation firing. There’s a lot of technical stuff that I learn so I can really stretch the material as much as I want; to look like different things. And that’s true with glass, that’s true with paper. I am constantly looking for the range and within those ranges there’s very particular things that materials can say. Clay I often work with a lot because it has tremendous range. It can have so many different likenesses and offer so many different feels. So that is a material that I do often use because of its range.
BT: Yeah, I totally understand that, yeah. Well, I am also interested in hearing things about your life in general and also if you could talk about your education and where you grew up. What kind of influence that has or has had on your work. And I am also curious about hearing about your experiences at Alfred University and then in grad school. And I can remind you of these questions of course.
JP: [laughs.] Okay. Well I grew up in a bigger family. There were five kids in the family and I was fourth. So, the really positive things of being in a family such as ours was that during holidays and when we would sit down to dinner, we never talked about one thing. My parents, neither of them had college degrees, but they were really curious and always learning new things. And the conversation especially during holidays would range from politics to science, to nature to whatever was on people’s minds. So ideas were a really big thing that was encouraged. My father worked a lot. So we didn’t get to see him much. He would come home at eight at night and he would wake up at two, three o’clock in the morning and go to work. And he worked Monday through Saturday. So Sundays were really the day that we saw him. And he was often sleeping a lot.
BT: Yeah. So, did you mention where you grew up?
JP: [laughs.] I grew up partly in New Jersey and partly upstate [New York]. North of Albany, closer to Saratoga Springs. We always had places outside to play. I spent a lot of time out in nature. In New Jersey we had a wooded area on our property where scallions would grow and wild strawberries. And we had an easement in the back, which is like a meadow so I could always pick wildflowers and just run around.
BT: That's really nice. That actually reminds me of where I grew up in California, we had this giant hill in the back of our house that we called the "deer hill" and I would just run off on all the little paths and pretend I lived in the forest. [laughs.]
JP: Yeah, well we did quite a bit of that. My father worked all the time and my mom pretty much stayed to herself. Mostly I interacted with my siblings. We had a basement, so we would play in the basement and things like that. But we never came home and someone would ask you “what did you do today in school?” There were never any conversations like that. We were pretty much in a lot of ways on our own. We moved upstate when I was in middle school and I was outside a lot there too because we had woods there too and then upstate there’s not much to do. So most of the parties in high school were around campfires or we would go hiking. I have a really good group of friends from high school that are still my friends and my family in many ways. I ended up living with my friends during the summers between college and we would travel together going cross-country and things. The first time I went cross-country was with friends from high school. We camped a lot and I was able to see so much of the United States’ landscape. When I graduated from high school I took a year off before I went to college because my mom wanted me to go to New Paltz and I didn’t want to go to New Paltz. And I was like “I don’t want to go to New Paltz," and she was like, "if you don’t go there we’re not going to pay for it." And I said “Okay, then don’t pay for it.” And I don’t know where that confidence came from. It was kinda scary to watch my friends go to college and just stay back and work for a year. But I am so glad that I did because I moved out of my parents’ house and I got an apartment and I worked three jobs. I worked almost forty hours in a weekend. I worked over eighty hours a week. For the summer before school, because I was really cramming to make as much money as I could because the first year I didn’t qualify for any loans because you have to be independent for at least two years or a year or something like that I forget but it must have been a year. And then the following year I decided to go.
BT: So why did you choose Alfred then?
JP: Alfred I chose, well, the big criteria was that I wanted to go to a school that had glass and I never worked with glass before.
BT: So what interested you in glass?
JP: I don’t know. I don’t know that I can really say. Maybe its ability to work with light.
BT: Fair enough.
JP: I think that probably is it at a foundational level. Actually when I went out to Alfred it was a cloudy day. In the wintertime and in the spring it’s cloudy almost all the time out there and I didn’t get a really great feel for it, but it was the cheapest and it had what I wanted. So with those two criteria it was the only school I ended up applying for. There was University of the Arts, which I really liked and I looked at RIT [Rochester Institute of Technology] because other friends were there and things like that. But Alfred was the one place that I applied too. And I am so glad I did because I couldn’t have gone to a better school. I am still so thankful that I did go there because I got such a strong foundation of a practice. There would be more people in the studio at night than there would be in town. People took their work seriously. And for me in the beginning I had never been necessarily a good student. Which is kind of funny because in some ways I thought I can’t wait to go to college, I had spent a year and didn’t want to work waitressing anymore and I wanted to do philosophy and all the other stuff.
BT: So you appreciated it a lot more.
JP: And then again there was a part of me that wanted to do it in a closet. I didn’t like actually working in classrooms where other people were. [laughs.]
BT: Now you do that all the time! [laughs.]
JP: Well I teach that. When I make things it’s a really personal process. I mean I have gone to so many different facilities and things like that and I have done workshops at lots of different places but I still feel best when it’s just me in a space because I get distracted easily, and when I am making things I like to be tremendously focused and really feel what it is I am making. Once I finally begin to make something it’s not a cognitive process anymore; it’s very much an embodied process. It’s not that the concept and the things aren’t there, they’ve already been developed in a lot of ways. But I am trying to connect with something really specific. It’s more of an emotion than an articulated concept, if that makes any sense. And so doing that in a group environment is more challenging for me.
BT: So then do you think it feels kind of forced?
JP: Well I think it’s that I feel guilty if I am not paying attention to other people. Maybe that’s a part of it. Even at Alfred I would always pick a corner studio where I wouldn’t have to look at anyone or feel like I would have to interact, you know? [laughs.] Because I like people and I like to interact and that is almost not good because I will do that instead of doing my work.
BT: [laughs.] Well, I definitely know from working with you at the Jan Yoors studio how that can be. Could you tell me about when you studied architecture after college briefly. And I’d like to hear about how you think that impacted your work when you went on to do your MFA.
JP: Well I studied architecture in grad school; I studied it a little bit before too. So after I left Alfred, I moved to New York City and I worked for five or six years. I worked in bookstores, a lithography studio, I worked for Barbara Nessim. I taught glass and ceramics. I worked in a design firm. I still had three jobs most of the time. And then I lived in Detroit, then I went to Kansas City where I studied at the Kansas City Art Institute for a year just to learn mold making with George Timock, who’s a master moldmaker in ceramics. And while I was there I also took architecture classes. Because I was always interested in installation and public art. I have always been interested in space and creating spaces. So architecture just came about naturally as being a part of it because a lot of times when I make work I will figure out what the space is first and then I begin making the work for that space. So, whether it was my final showing at Alfred, or whether it is in a gallery setting or somewhere like that, I’ll go and visit the space and look at what I am going to be working with, and then I make the work based on that space. Now, all the work I make is still modular, so I can usually show it again in a different space, but it’s never the same iteration. So architecture came about because I am really interested in public art and public space, and so I wanted to be able to do both. But in grad school I actually started doing a dual masters in architecture and fine art. But I didn’t finish the architecture because it was a lot to do. I was doing very well grade-wise. In grad school I did better than I did in any other schooling. It’s like every time I go back to school I do so much better. But I wouldn’t have been able to do either to the caliber that I would have wanted to. It didn’t matter what the grade was. I don’t go to school for the piece of paper that says this is your degree; I go to school because I really want to spend the time and learn the things. So I eventually dropped the architecture aspect but I took historical architecture and the art history classes and architectural history classes. I almost always took eighteen credits. In Alfred I had three jobs and I took eighteen credits and I would audit philosophy classes too. You know, I guess I was always a little maxed out in terms of all the things I am trying to take in. But I have a really wide range of interests.
BT: It definitely seems like it. So, next I wanted to ask you about your teaching experience. It seems you have a fair amount of teaching experience, including your current position at the Fab Lab at NYU and also Greenwich House Pottery. So I am wondering what brought you to teaching.
JP: Well I started teaching after Alfred actually. I probably taught a year or two later. My first teaching was at the Educational Alliance, which is this old studio. It’s been around for over a hundred years on the Lower East Side. Different famous people have gone through there. It was part of the settlement project. And it was a way for people to learn different artistic techniques. And they had welding and stone carving clay sculpture and all these different things. Basically what happened was that I saw an ad for an exchange where you would be a studio tech and you would get studio time in exchange for running the studio. It wasn’t really a paid thing. But it’s funny because I remember they hired somebody, but I knew more about the material than they did and then they eventually hired me instead of the other person to teach the class. And that’s kind of what happened. I had such a good education from Alfred that I knew more than most people learn even if they had been working with the material longer than me. And I think at the end of Alfred I was tremendously focused. I would spend most of my time in the studio almost everyday. I even stayed the last summer after I graduated and just worked the whole summer throwing pots and doing other things just to have time to make. So teaching for me is just a wonderful way of sharing my love of the materials. But I am kind of a stickler for people knowing the techniques. It’s not even—and I’ll say that in a very general way because it’s not even necessarily that I am teaching them something they have to do very particularly in a very specific way. I am teaching them a foundation so that they can move fluidly through different techniques actually. So that they can move in the material more fluidly so they don’t get stuck. I don’t know how to make sense without working with the material with you. [laughs.] But yeah, it is interesting because even as I am preparing for the class at NYU. I am going to be co-teaching this class at NYU that combines lots of different techniques and materials with electronics, technology.
BT: And you’re teaching a class there right now?
JP: No, I am more of a technician in the Fab Lab. I am helping students use the machinery.
BT: Could you explain what the Fab Lab is?
JP: The Fab Lab is an area at NYU where they have laser cutters and 3D printers; it’s a lab where people can solder and work with micro-controllers. They just opened it last year. So it’s pretty new in the building. There are more people starting to use the space. And it is a space where there are usually people in there doing stuff, which is kind of cool. We just got, well we finally just got it working actually. They have an eight-foot-by-four-foot CNC router, which we just experimented with this past week and there’s so much potential with it in terms of printmaking and other things. So my role varies there where I kinda do grunt work too. Where I go around and update computers and stuff like that. But the class in the spring I will be teaching and that class is amazing to me because I am kind of creating it so that it covers foundations to translate and that is kind of the word that is staying with me in terms of this class, in terms of translating 2D to 3D, digital to physical. Or physical to digital.
BT: And what kinds of projects do you have in mind for the students to create?
JP: It’s basically like taking drawings or digital files and being able to translate those into digital materials. And what I realized this past week is that so many art schools and making programs, separate. They separate all the time. They separate 2D and 3D. They separate mediums. And really my whole education I have been figuring out ways to not have that happen for myself. I wiggle around it all, you know. So it’s kind of exciting for me to make a course that breaks already those boundaries and also teaches people the foundations of how to combine them because I have never been in a program that has done that actually.
BT: So you are essentially giving your students what you would have liked to have in some ways?
JP: Well, I am giving them skills that are hard to find, you know. Or hard to come by. And that’s me piecing together classes I’ve taken even at the Fashion Institute of Technology. You know, I have been piecing these things together for years.
BT: And did you tell me once that the class you will be teaching has to do with senses?
JP: Well, the conceptual basis is the idea of the body, the idea of the body image, so how do you convey your presence, or how can you manipulate your presence? How do you communicate that to other people? And that is a whole other aspect to the course. And the course is like, oh my god, it’s going to be intense! But it’s going to be awesome. [laughs.]
BT: So next I’d like to ask you about the exhibitions you’ve participated in. I know you participated in 2013 in Art in Clay at the Brooklyn Waterfront Artist’s Coalition that was curated by the Museum of Arts and Design’s David McFadden and in which you won a prize. Could you talk about the exhibition in some way, or the piece, if you have it here?
Jennifer Poueymirou, Precarious Footing leaf tiles (detail), 2007. Porcelain, 3.5 in. x 12 x 7 ft.. Courtesy of Jennifer Poueymirou.
BT: So the premise for the show was art in clay, but could you talk more about the description of the show.
JP: I don’t know if I would be the best person for that because I don’t separate art from clay to begin with, so I think they were just trying to focus on that material within the art realm, which I know there can be a lot of dialogue about what that is and the properness of all of that, blah blah blah. But I don’t really focus on that in my own making. I don’t think about it. Maybe I should, but I don’t. Because I move around between materials so much. For me it’s always the piece that ends up mattering most.
BT: I agree about not having separation and just letting things be what they are.
JP: Though it was a small installation I probably had about 250 to 300 tiles I installed, and, even though they are small, I had to create a platform for them, get all the measurements right, box them in a way so it was still efficient for me to unload them, put them in, and do that all within a day. And get them all there. And then be able to de-install all of that. And so it still was quite a process, but I was really pleased that people responded to the work.
Jennifer Poueymirou, Precarious Footing leaf tiles (full-size), 2007. Porcelain, 3.5 in. x 12 x 7 ft. Courtesy of Jennifer Poueymirou.
BT: Could you talk about the process for making those tiles?
JP: Well these tiles, the original piece was called Precarious Footing. So this was an installation for [noise, turns on lights] my thesis.
BT: It was for your MFA?
JP: Yeah, my thesis was an installation and they were both fairly large rooms, and that installation had probably over 1,000 parts. So, in thinking of the tiles for the show, or for the creation of this, I knew I wanted to create a feel of something being like walking on eggshells all the time. And the thesis was primarily my experience with living next door to people living in a relationship that had domestic violence, and knowing those people. I knew them prior to going to grad school there. So, that was always a really tenuous experience going through grad school. For me, even going home was like walking on eggshells, or even walking around the studio because one of the people was in my studio department with me. So there was sometimes a constant feel of uneasiness. So this piece came about for that reason of walking on eggshells, and it took a bit of testing to figure out how to create it.
BT: So instead of eggshells you’ve used leaves and twigs and acorns?
JP: Right, so I have leaves and twigs from a yard. It’s a Louisiana fall landscape but I’ve petrified them into porcelain. I have turned them into, transformed them into, another material that would be more equivalent to eggshells in a lot of ways. Because if you did step on these they would get crushed. Whereas leaves and twigs would bounce back. So the process of making this was really trying different ways of working with ceramic materials and sending things through various types of firings to get a result that I was happy with. And that took probably about two and a half to three months to just narrow down the process of the different materials to work with, the range of firings to work with, so not all the tiles were the same.
BT: And that’s why some of them are a little bit darker. It almost looks like you can see what’s underneath the porcelain, for example in this one.
JP: Yes, because all trees take in elements from the earth that are particular to them, and when you fire them, those elements can affect the material. So people who do wood firing, let’s say as an example. Some people will use very specific wood because of the type of ash it will leave. It will leave a particular color. And so with the materials I have chosen for these and the types of firing I do, sometimes they interact more with the materials from the trees and bring that out, and it kind of bleeds through. Sometimes, like this one, this one doesn’t do that. It’s really white. It doesn’t work with the elements from the material/leaves. On other tiles you get a range of these deeper blue-purples, or the subtle hue of those ranges. And then you get the warmer yellows as well. And so I wanted to work between and within all of those.
BT: I was wondering if you could also tell me about another project, the tiles you helped create for the Craftsman Room based on Gustav Stickley’s design, it was in the Victoria and Albert Museum’s International Arts and Crafts exhibition in 2005?
JP: Yeah, that ended up basically being a commission in a lot of ways, where I worked with this couple out of Chicago Jo Hormuth and John Phillips. They had come to Pewabic Pottery in Detroit, where I had been working, for a public commission that they did for the Shedd Aquarium [Chicago]. And someone had tried to produce their designs and failed because it’s somewhat common for people to get over their heads in the ceramics. [laughs.] Jo was in a very difficult place because they had to meet the deadline or else they could be sued. So they came to Pewabic and we figured out how to do it. We had a great team there. So I figured out how to do the glazing and the tile person figured out how to do the tiles. And we were able to meet the deadline and get everything done for the Shedd Aquarium. So, within that time, I built a relationship with them and they just had a feeling because my main role was testing glazes and testing materials at Pewabic that I would be able to figure out the Grueby glaze used for the Stickley room.
BT: Now, could you just explain what Pewabic is? What is the facility?
JP: Pewabic Pottery is a historic pottery in Detroit that has been around for over a hundred years, but they didn’t really make pots, they actually did a lot of public commissions, so they have done a lot of tile installations for the older buildings in Detroit. And they continue to do installations for private homes in different parts of the country as well as larger commissions for airports and other things like that. So being there actually taught me the power of color. The range of say the color green could have and its impact. The range of tonalities that you can get through glaze and how they can create a mood. They had a great glaze library. Tremendous, just hundreds of glazes that we could pull out and work with as a palette. It gave me an appreciation and love for having a range of color. It influenced the work I created when I went from there to Kansas City and I did these tiles these sort of paintings.
Jennifer Poueymirou, Discerning Lines of Demarcation, 2007. Porcelain, pampas grass seeds, charcoal from a burned down house, wood, steel, 3.5 x 38 x 38 ft. Courtesy of Jennifer Poueymirou.
BT: And how long were you there at Pewabic?
JP: About two years.
BT: And what years?
JP: It would have been 2001 to 2003. And so going back to the V&A, basically what happened is that they were trying to recreate these Grueby Tiles, which are these historic Arts and Crafts tiles that did this sort of unique pooling or crawling, but which also had this beautiful translucency to the depth of the glaze.
BT: I was looking at the catalogue for the exhibition and so I saw the room and was looking for the tiles and saw them around the fireplace.
JP: Yea, pretty much just the fireplace. But they have used, well there is a collector who Jo worked with out of Chicago, and I don’t know his name, but he loves textiles, he’s a very large collector of textiles and they basically took these old barns and turned them into Arts and Crafts homes.
JP: He had a huge collection. There were Mackintosh chairs, and so I’ve actually visited that place and I’ve gotten to see the real Grueby Tiles and things like that. And so that’s what I did. Jo Hormuth is her name. She basically recreated the room. My part of the commission was just helping them get the right mix for the tiles.
BT: Okay, thank you. So I guess going along with collaborative projects. I wanted to ask about your residency at the Museum of Arts and Design and then also your involvement in Adhocracy at the New Museum. I guess the Museum of Arts and Design was first?
JP: Right. Okay, so with the residency, they let you decide, or choose a project, that you will do in the museum and it lasts a few months. You are there only one day a week and you don’t really get to work in the studio outside of that. So it’s not a traditional residency in terms of necessarily getting a studio space or something like that. It’s very educational for the museum visitors, which is part of the reason why I liked that opportunity, because you get to interact with people. And I was on a Saturday, so there were a lot of people that would come through on a Saturday. So the project I developed took advantage of that and I worked with the museumgoers, visitors, where they could participate in the piece. I worked with different tiles and they could work on the tiles themselves to create an image or to carve into them, or do different things to the tiles. And then that was collected to create a larger piece later. So it was a collaborative piece with the museumgoers.
BT: So did the piece go into the museum’s collection?
JP: No. It’s still here in my studio. Actually, I didn’t really get a chance to finish firing it during the residency.
BT: And they had a kiln there that you could use?
JP: Yeah, I was able to bisque everything there. But I would basically make tiles throughout the week, get them ready to bring to the museum, and leave them there to get fired and then make new ones and bring them there. It was intense in terms of the amount of tiles I was trying to make. To be able to make a bigger piece. But it was really rewarding as well just to see how much people enjoyed participating and it was a great project.
BT: Very nice. With Adhocracy at the New Museum I remember I didn’t get to visit or see you actually there. But I remember you telling me that you were going to be there. So you made 3D printed ceramics in a show curated by Joseph Grima at the New Museum. And it was a manufacturing unit. I was just reading a little about the firm Unfold and their “manufacturing units.” And I am wondering if you can talk about Unfold and how you got to know who they are and then actually working as part of the exhibition on their project and what you created, too.
JP: Well that project, basically, I learned about Unfold through Pinterest. [laughs.] Because I saw some of their 3D printed ceramics and I was amazed with the geometries and different things they could get with the material. And having studied architecture and having a love for Persian and Islamic architecture it was totally up my alley. And also loving to work with the materials that I often do in new ways, I reached out to them and was like “Hey, I like what you are doing.” And what continued the dialogue was that they were interested in working with people who knew more about ceramics and they saw that I had gone to Alfred and things like that, and so they knew I had a good technical background from that information. And so we started talking and I actually tried to get a Fulbright to go there to work with them for several months.
Jennifer Poueymirou, Ceramic Tiles, 2004.. small: 5 13/16 x 5 3/4 x 7/8 in. Large: 9.5 x 7.5 x 7/8 in. Courtesy of Jennifer Poueymirou.
BT: In Belgium?
JP: In Belgium. But I made it to the last round. It was approved here but didn’t get approved in Belgium. Which was really good for the application process. But I didn’t get that. But then they ended up coming to the New Museum to participate in Adhocracy. So they reached back to me being like “hey, we’re gonna do this,” and I got other people that I knew within the community that might be interested in working with the machine. Because basically that is what it is. It’s a 3D printer that prints ceramics. And we ended up working in the museum printing vases and other things. We only were able to print their designs. And so after that experience I wanted to continue to learn more, which is actually why I am studying mechanical engineering right now. So I can actually build my own machines to be able to work with various materials, not just ceramics, but other stuff, too. Because it ended up being something similar to doing the MAD [Museum of Arts and Design] residency. It was something very educational within the museum. People would basically ask questions and we would tell them about what we were doing and what the machine was about.
BT: So it was basically a demonstration. You were there for a few hours a day, right?
JP: Or sometimes the whole day the museum was open. We would take shifts or somebody would try to be there most of the day. That’s how we tried to organize it. There were three of us. And I was there quite a bit, but yeah it was more of a demonstration, rather than a learning or broadening experience. But now, I am taking that farther myself.
BT: So it sounds like that was really good for you in terms of being able to see how those machines work.
JP: Yeah, it was a good start. I will definitely take it farther.
BT: Did you get to take any of the objects you made?
JP: Well I took a couple. As a group we chose one set for the New York crew. Because they worked with people in Hungary, they worked with people in different places. So we gave them a New York set. I didn’t keep too much.
BT: And then I am wondering if you could talk about your teaching at Greenwich House Pottery, because that is such an important institution. So how long have you been teaching there? And what kinds of classes, too?
JP: There I have been teaching maybe two or three years. It was nice because they saw my work and they contacted me. And they said “Okay, we like your work, would you like to teach here?” And I had heard about Greenwich House since Alfred. They’ve been around for over a hundred years as well. So I was flattered, and it is a wonderful facility. It’s in the West Village, and all the studios have wonderful light that comes into them. They offer a lot of range in terms of what you can do firing-wise, the amount of clays you can use and other things like that. What I teach there is mostly hand building. And I taught one class that was more particular, in porcelain. But yeah, that is what I’ve been doing with that.
BT: Well I guess that’s all I have to ask you right now, unless there’s anything else you would like to discuss, something else in here perhaps?
JP: I guess what would be good is to talk more about the work.
BT: Actually I have a couple questions here that I skipped. One of them is what inspires you? That’s a really broad question, so however you want to address that, please do.
JP: [laughs.] Well, a lot of things inspire me. In here you can see that nature has always been a big part of my inspiration. Natural environments often give me ideas for installations. Not necessarily that I am recreating them, but that I am trying to get a particular feel of a scene or moment that I have experienced. So in here I have jars of just seedpods and, well, mostly a lot of seed pods, actually. But I have a part of a bird’s wing, I have lots of other things that help me understand structure and pattern. And also spacing and composition. So when I am creating things, like with these fence-posts that are here. Even if I use a mold or something like that, I never make them exactly the same. And so I might come up with a way of making something that is a framework, but that framework always has room for movement and change. And so like with the fence-posts, the frame is the post, but what happens with the pressing and the layering of the clay and the porcelain varies for each one.
BT: It seems like you really like porcelain. Did you start working with it in grad school, or at Alfred?
JP: I’ve used it since Alfred.
BT: What do you like about it so much?
JP: Well I do work with a lot of different clays. With this particular work I wanted to be able to show the line quality, and also these are, these are almost like geology, a layering, like a memory, once again. So there are certain themes that keep coming about in different ways within my work. I’ve even been collecting this old growth pine from the wood shops in the building that has a really beautiful grain. Kind of a similar feel to what I was doing here with the fence posts and again that is a layering of time and the seasons. Though the fence post edges, also mimics brains which wasn’t really done consciously, but it happened naturally in the process. It’s another way that the concepts of memory come into the piece.
BT: The way you have the layers and the lines also reminds me of fingerprints and also the fact that those are individual.
JP: Yeah, that’s part of it. So that becomes like the birds I made for that installation. There are about 700 of them I think. Each one of them is unique. Same with the tiles. Each one is unique even though there are multiples of them. What I love about the leaf tiles is that each one is itself beautiful on its own. And when you put them all together it creates a different magnitude. I think another theme that kind of goes through a lot of my work is sort of having three sides: two sides and an interior. And the fence-posts have two different sides, but they also have an interior. The paintings, the tile paintings, they have two sides that people can look at, that people can interact with, as well as an interior. The paper work that I do, even though it is made with two parts, there is an interior that is sort of held up or exposed. So with these actually, there is another aspect that comes through or is exposed.
BT: That’s really beautiful. Are those feathers?
Jennifer Poueymirou, 2d and 3d printed porcelain, 2013. Larger form 3 1/8 diameter x 1 3/4 in. Small translucent: 2 1/8 diameter x 1 13/16 in. Courtesy of Jennifer Poueymirou.
JP: No those are pampas grass seeds, but most people think they are feathers, they’re supposed to think they are feathers. I like that. And these are kind of like bones, but they are not bones either.
BT: And what about the pots you made with the spikes?
Jennifer Poueymirou, Torn, 2005. Handmade abaca/cotton paper, twigs, pampas grass seeds; 35 x 26 in. Courtesy of Jennifer Poueymirou.
Jennifer Poueymirou, untitled, 2003 (exterior.) Stoneware; 8 x 9.5 x 9.5 in. Courtesy of Jennifer Poueymirou.
JP: Those are inspired by my interest in carnivorous plants and succulents. And so looking at how those plants grow and create their appendages.
BT: And why did you choose to render them as “vessels,” as you call them?
JP: Well, the one with interior spikes, that is based on a pitcher plant, which when you look at it—I remember seeing a video when I was in elementary school or middle school—of the interior of a pitcher plant. It had spikes that point down and when the insects look up, they don’t think they can get out and they eventually fall into the plant. And so the pitcher plant is a vessel. And that is kind of what started it. And I just kept moving from there.
BT: And how many of those did you make?
JP: I made about five.
BT: And, for scale, how big are they?
JP: They are less than ten inches in a direction, or less than twelve probably.
BT: Okay. Yeah, well thank you so much.
JP: You’re welcome. With what we were just talking about, or what I wanted to include was to think about how to approach talking about my process because I offer a lot of parameters that offer me a lot of flexibility. And so when I am designing things, I design them with flexibility in mind. I have one rule for myself, which is that everything I make, I have to be able to lift and carry. So in terms of large-scale installations especially, I have to build them modularly a lot of the time because I can’t lift things that are made of one big massive thing. So I make things in parts, I’m thinking about flexibility, movement, multiple outcomes. A lot of things, like this book I was just showing you. I created this sketchbook where I cut the pages but then I can have different patterns that come together.
Jennifer Poueymirou, untitled, 2003 (interior.) Stoneware; 8 x 9.5 x 9.5 in. Courtesy of Jennifer Poueymirou.
BT: Could I see one of the insides of the molds?
JP: That would be a process to get at. [laughs.] But basically the key is that the system is created so other sides can come onto it and you can make different forms that you wouldn’t imagine. So even working with templates or other aspects of creating, there’s always possibility for a range. I am never shooting for one exact thing.
BT: Thank you. Yeah, that was short and sweet.
[End of October 14, 2014 session.]
[Start of November 7, 2014 session.]
BT: So we’re at Jen’s apartment now cooking dinner. It’s November 7th, and I wanted to ask her a few more questions. So Jen, do you consider yourself a craftsman, a designer, or an artist, or perhaps a combination of these?
JP: I do consider myself all three, and I think I always have. I don’t really think there are many strong lines between them. All the work has content and concepts whether I am working in more of a design area. I have applied for one public art project, but I made it to the last round. I think that is something that combines all three of those really well. Because you do a lot of design in terms of having to present the project. There’s a lot of design in terms of troubleshooting how something gets into a space, how something functions in a space. How the mechanics of it work. The project that I proposed was an astronomical clock. But it was made out of lots of media, so there were components that would have been constantly updated hourly to correspond to events physically happening. It was in Maine, so it read the tides, and in that town the tides rose and fell about sixteen feet daily. And so one part of the project was a light box that would go up and down in terms that would be synched with the tides. It was for an elementary school in Falmouth. And the kids could stand next to that and see that, wow, the ocean is rising this high and low everyday. And there isn’t much, at least in my experience in public schools, there wasn’t much experiential learning. And I think that can be a very powerful way to learn.
BT: When you are designing, for example, pieces that come in multiples, do you think about making each of them relatively the same? Do you think of an overall design for something like that?
JP: Well I usually start with the space first for installation, and how many things I make usually depend on the space. But I have a rule that everything I make I have to be able to carry. But that is also where the design comes into effect.
BT: What about craft? How do you consider yourself a craftsperson?
JP: Well, I work with more crafts materials than any other. I am not a painter. I work with ceramics, I work with glass, I work with paper. And so I am always in that realm regardless, and I teach the materials as well. I don’t really see much of a difference between art and craft. But I think it is who is speaking those terms as well, because there is a craft that can be very hobby-like, and I am not as interested in that. But there are many crafts people who have lots of concepts or layers of meaning within the work and it is not just about the material. Even within the craft realm, I think there is quite a range of what that word can be defined as. And so I think it is tricky. I think it is hard when so many people don’t want to use that word anymore.
BT: And why do you think that is?
JP: Well to me, coming out of Alfred, you understood that the people working with those materials were masters. And I was exposed to masters from that time period, so having a mastery of material is not a joke. It takes quite a long time to develop. And I tell this story to my students too, but I read this story when I was in Alfred in the library about Shoji Hamada, who was a famous potter in Japan, he had a compound, and he came from a generation of potters. The way the story goes is that he would never turn anyone away, he would always let anyone come and see what he was doing and be introduced, right. So as a westerner came and watched him throw a pot and do slip work on it, because he was very famous for his slip work, and then put it off to the side, and then it would go for the firing. And the westerner goes, “how can you charge several thousand dollars for that plate that just took you ten to twelve minutes?” And Shoji Hamada replies, “Well this has taken me sixty years.” And there’s so much truth in that statement, because to have the fluidity of knowing the material, of having it be so a part of your body, that takes years to develop. That is mastery. I don’t consider myself a master. I mean, I probably still have another twenty years to go, honestly, even though my students will go, “you have magic hands!” I see people working, and I know there are things that I could improve upon. And I have seen people who work with clay whom I consider to have magic hands. You know? I would like to get to that level. And so I think that is kind of fascinating. I think any material takes quite a bit of time, I always put it analogous to Olympic training. Being an artist is basically training to be an Olympian. You are doing the motions again and again and your are practicing again and again and again so that it becomes so a part of you, as a physical part of you, that you don’t have to think about it anymore. There’s grace and fluidity in the mark making, or when you are touching the material, or what you are doing with it. That is something really special. And now a lot of time people don’t even want to make their work. They want to hire other people to make their work, and that I think is tricky for me.
BT: And who are you referring to, just for context?
JP: Do I have to name names? [laughs.]
BT: No, but. I mean Jeff Koons. And Louise Bourgeois, she had a lot of help.
JP: My friend Rodney actually made some of her prints, and I knew which prints were his actually because I knew his work.
BT: Well, people I worked with there at the studio, they made her prints at Harlan and Weaver before they were working at the studio. And they would say, “Oh yeah I made that one, now it sold at auction, and that’s great because I made it,” but you know its really her work.
JP: For me that makes it tricky. For me so much of what art and making and craft and design are is intertwined in that process. So, I understand that is not the way everybody does it, but I don’t necessarily feel, well I mean even masters had apprentices who ended up making their work, and things like that. So it’s not something that hasn’t been going on for centuries. So I think it is a conversation that has been going on for a long time, and I think what usually happens is that craft gets a bad rap.
BT: Well this is essentially what this project, this interview is about. Elevating ideas about craft and design.
JP: That was the interesting thing too about working with the team from Unfold, because they were trained as architects. And so they didn’t think they needed to pay us. You know they thought what they were offering is what it should be, but there is always this disproportion of what people get, and what people receive, and I think that is awfully unfortunate.
BT: Yeah. Well, you were talking a little about what makes a good craftsman, right? What are your ideas about what might make a good designer?
JP: Well, function is still important to design, so craft and design always have that intertwined. That functionality part.
BT: And your pieces aren’t necessarily functional.
JP: No, but sometimes.
BT: Could you talk about your decision to make more non-functional objects?
JP: Well, I primarily, if I am making artwork, I primarily do installations.
BT: For example this vase here, this “vessel.” This is a vessel and the word vessel kind of implies functionality, but looking at this you could definitely use it, to put flowers in or something. But it’s clearly not meant to be functional. Could you talk about that a little?
JP: Well I think that goes back to concept. Concept is usually the foundation where I move from. So the ideas I am trying to explore are layered. They come from a bunch of different places. The inspiration primarily came from cacti and carnivorous plants. But the feel is more conceptual and deals with tensions and so there are spikes. There are similar symbols in other pieces of my work, but they all deal with the more emotional tensions for things like that. So there are usually many layers to what I am building. And sculptural pieces lend themselves more to those layers than just the function, but I do function, too. And I don’t think anything is wrong with that either. [laughs.]
BT: No, that’s great. And so some of the functional objects are, for example the spoons you were showing me.
JP: Yea, and I’ve made boxes, and I’ve made other ceramic vessels.
BT: Right, I mean you have that whole wall of pots too in your studio.
JP: Did I talk about that?
BT: No you didn’t.
JP: Okay, so what usually happens is that I will spend a long period of time making an installation or something like that. And then after something like that I have a tendency to make functional work for a little while.
BT: Oh you did talk about that a little, but in relation to the spoons, but not the pots.
JP: Okay. And that’s for me when I make something so big, it's nice to make something as intimate and something you can hold in you hand that can speak just as loudly as an installation in a room. And I do think small, functional forms have as strong a voice as a whole room installation, but it’s a different type of voice. And so I like to move back and forth between those, because when something—
BT: Do you think they are therapeutic in a way?
JP: I mean the process of throwing is very meditative. But I don’t necessarily think the final object has to be therapeutic.
BT: But just the release coming out of making a large installation.
JP: Like this here is a cup by Ayumi Horie. She made it at Archie Bray when she was a resident there. She is a potter upstate. She was at Alfred the same time I was. I visited the Bray and saw her, and she gave me this cup and it had fallen on one of the kiln shelves. It is actually not quite functional because you wouldn’t normally want this rough surface to be where your lips would be. It wouldn’t necessarily be desirable to most people. But that is kind of what made this cup special in so many ways. And so that is an example of a cup that bridges function and other things. So, I don’t know, did I answer the question? [laughs.]
BT: Yeah, yeah. You answered pretty much all of them all together.
JP: I know I feel like I am getting off track.
BT: No, it’s great. Would you like to talk about your process more?
JP: Well, yes, but you have to ask me questions.
BT: Okay, well when you begin conceptualizing an installation or something like this vessel, how do you usually start? What is your initial design process?
JP: So there are several ways that I go about it. I rarely do drawings, and I rarely have things decided completely before they, as I am making them. So sometimes they will start with a title. I will just get a title.
BT: Oh, do you need to check on the oven, by the way? Just watching the time.
JP: Oh maybe [checks oven and comes back]. So, sometimes it starts with a title and sometimes it just starts with me collecting something, and I don’t know why I am collecting it, but I just will collect it. Like right now I am collecting old growth pine. Did I show you that in the studio? I think there was one piece.
BT: Oh, yeah, you were talking about the lines, yes, the grain.
JP: Right the grain. So I have been collecting that now for about a year and a half. But now I am at the point with the CNC router and the other things at NYU where I will actually be able to play with ideas I have had for quite some time. And that is the interesting thing with the technology aspect, is that I have had ideas to do pieces for about fifteen years. Since undergrad I’ve had ideas. But I haven’t had the technology that would be able to accomplish them.
BT: Right, you said you were doing some digital work at Alfred?
JP: Well, I had some friends show me [laughs] how to use Photoshop because I knew I was coming to New York. I worked in a design firm for a few years too, and I have worked in architecture firms, so I’ve always been between those three realms of art, design, and craft since Alfred, actually. Even when I worked for Barbara Nessim.
BT: Oh, you worked for Barbara Nessim?
JP: Yeah, do you know her?
BT: Well there’s an exhibition at the Bard Graduate Center right now on her. And one of the girls in my class interviewed her for the Oral History Project.
JP: Are you serious? No way!
BT: Yeah. That’s so funny. So that’s who you worked for, that’s whose work you archived?
JP: Yea, I archived all of her sketchbooks. And I helped her with her website.
BT: Oh my god. I didn’t realize that was her!
JP: And I met Gloria Steinem through her too.
BT: Oh my god, they are going to be talking at the BGC soon. They both are going to be talking on December 4th. You have to be there.
JP: I do have to be there because I haven’t seen her since I used to work for her. She’s a wonderful soul, she’s an amazing woman, she really truly is. Very unique and I am so lucky to have worked for her.
BT: I wonder why you didn’t know about the exhibition.
JP: Well we haven’t been in touch, and I’ve moved a lot. And she isn’t at the Greene Street studio anymore. I heard that she eventually had to leave but I didn’t have a way to get in touch with her. I guess I should have just emailed her. I didn’t think about that. [laughs.] I would love to come to hear her speak. And I think Gloria bought the place they used to live in, and its all golden. It’s an ochre color—very India influenced it seemed to me. But she has a cool presence too, Gloria Steinem. [Walks away and points to a small framed watercolor on the wall.] This is one of hers, this is a birthday card. She used to make birthday cards for us. It was just me, but there was another assistant, but yeah that is one of hers. But that is so funny, she’s come up about three times in the last couple weeks. For some reason I am supposed to obviously see her again. But I do want to see her because I just want to thank her. I never really got to thank her. It was a weird time in my life. When I left New York and then I traveled for a whole summer doing different workshops. I had gotten a bunch of scholarships and stuff. And then I came back the week of September 11th, and that happened, and I found out I got the job in Detroit. I had interviewed for a job in Detroit when I was doing my whirlwind tour and then I got the job and I left New York and I moved. So I didn’t get to see her. I always figured I would see her. I never really got to see her again. It was just really crazy. So that would be awesome, I would love to see her. December 4th, so that’s probably a Thursday.
BT: Yeah, probably, or a Wednesday.
JP: Yeah, but even with that job I got to see a lot of the design aspect of it, too, I got to see how Barbara had done it. And a lot of the stuff. I mean then we were both very inventive people. Barbara was like, her studio was pretty disorganized. But again, tremendously prolific, right? Like the magazines and stuff, and I organized them all. In other ways she was tremendously organized. But yea, I digitized a lot of the sketchbooks. I loved her sketchbooks. Are they in the show? I hope so, I would love to see her recent ones.
BT: Yeah, there’s a catalogue, too.
JP: Oh, there is? She just had another show too, at the Tate, or was it somewhere else? It was pretty big. Someone at the pottery just told me about that. But she’s a tremendous soul. Very generous, very giving, very positive. I was very lucky to have her for a boss.
BT: Wow. The show was at the V&A actually. Well thank you, so I think I am going to stop it here, but what great discoveries!
[End of the interview]