27 Dec “It is really important for a ceramicist to learn how to just let things go. Because in ceramics there are no guarantees.”
He says he is not good at writing and that once he starts writing about the things he loves, he can go on and on, filling in many pages. Too many for an interview. We think having such passionate people at our studio is what enriches our everyday experience.
He is Evan Powell, one of our talented teachers and collaborators, who was kind enough to share with us some thoughts on design, ceramics, on how it feels to teach people a totally new skill and how creativity can make our life better.
Evan, you are a looong way from Denver, Colorado, your home. When did you come to Barcelona and what made you stay?
I moved here just over a year ago, primarily because my wife is from here and, after spending the last 6-7 years with me in the States, she got homesick. So we decided to come to Barcelona and give life a try here. So far, I love it. I´ve been to Spain two times before moving and I enjoyed it a lot.
You are a product designer and industrial designer. How come you chose industrial design?
I´ve been an artist my whole life, since I was 12 or 13 years old when I started getting into sketching, painting, and sculpting. Then in high school I started teaching myself 3d modelling; playing around with computer software such as Maya and Zbrush. Later I took some glass blowing and fusing/slumping classes in college. I have worked in sign making shops, woodworking shops, and a ceramic factory. So when I found the industrial design program at Metro State University of Denver which uses all these different fields I fell in love.
When did the shift towards ceramic production happen?
It actually hasn’t been a switch at all. I was doing ceramics before I even knew industrial design was a… thing. My mother was the one who got me into ceramics in 2010, as she joined a pottery studio. One time I went and joined her at the studio and I fell in love with it.
The studio was in a ceramic production factory, and within a few months after that visit, I started working for them, doing factory work for ceramic products. From there I bought my own potter’s wheel and I started setting up my own studio. I was having tons of ideas and it was kind of a magical thing for me to be able to take this mud and create products.
So the passion for ceramics was before the design. But industrial design has greatly influenced my work. Before I was making one off pieces, just creating and having fun being an artist and discovering the material. After going to design school I really started looking at it from a material science perspective for designing products vs an artist perspective. I also started to implement more advanced technologies and industrial processes in to my work flow, such as using CAD software and 3D printing. I also started using silicone and urethane rubbers to create plaster molds for slip casting.
In your Instagram account you have a lot of pictures of mugs and bowls you created. Why mugs?
I think all potters have a bit of a love affair with coffee mugs for some reason. As soon as you get into creating ceramics the first things that anybody thinks of is cups, bowls, plates…. tableware. Even though ceramics can be used for so many things, it is really hard to transition out of the functional kitchenware and home decor category.
I think what I love about mugs is, that if you look in people´s kitchens, you look in the cupboards, they have a set of plates, a set of cups or different things, but if you look at the coffee mugs, people often have a treasure-trove. Mugs they got as gifts, some they can be souvenirs that they got from a travel, and some purchased from a handmade market, so it is not the typical set. It is something more intimate… Plus I LOVE coffee!
Is it what you mostly like to design?
I wouldn’t say that I love designing cups more than other things, but I do love tableware, and I am currently developing my own product line of ceramic tableware and homegoods. As an industrial designer and ceramicist, I want to find the middle ground between fine art and mass production, and for there to be a social shift and a return of supporting locally made product made in small batches with a focus on craftsmanship. Products that people will keep and cherish for a long time. It’s sad that we no longer make things that will become antiques and passed down to future generations. Rather things are inexpensive and cheaply made, however those inexpensive items come with a hidden cost. Factory workers are exploited, landfills swell and the earth striped and poisoned.
As far as designing goes, the things I like designing most are things that connect people with nature, as my passions in life are nature, travelling, design, and art. One of my newest designs that I´m working on now is a hanging grow system that can be part of a ceiling garden as most people in cities are a bit detached from nature and live in small spaces without much space or time for growing plants, but they often still have unused space above their heads. This grow system will help reconnect people with nature by bringing a bit of nature into urban homes. The grow system is self watering and equipped with full spectrum grow LED lights and a retractable reel hanger.
If you were to redesign anything in nature, what would that be?
It is really hard to answer because if you want to redesign something, you have to go through a certain design process. A process that is kind of the same no matter what you want to design.
First, you have to ask yourself what are we trying to solve by redesigning something, what is the problem? This would be the number one thing that we are looking at. Next, we might also start to think about aesthetics, but aesthetics should usually follow function. So what are the functions that this certain thing has or needs? What would we add? We are listing all these things, grab which ones are most important and try to make it as simple as possible.
You know, when you are designing things, it is really easy to fall in love with every single idea and you want to have them all applied. If you do that, the product is overly designed, overly complex and a bit hideous sometimes. However, simplicity is not always best. Look at the architecture in Barcelona, look at Gaudi´s work! It is not simple by any mean, but it is beautiful. So sometimes it is good to be simple, sometimes it is not, but when it comes to solving a problem, the simplest way to solve it is often going to lead to the best and most intuitive design.
What does it mean for you to be a good ceramicist?
The thing is you don’t have to be a master ceramicist to create beautiful ceramics. You can pick up clay and use it in a creative unique way. Sometimes people with a lot of years of ceramics experience can get quite indoctrinated about the way you have to do things and can become more closed minded. But on the flipside of that you gain more control, more understanding of the material, it becomes more of a science, as you manipulate in control the material. So you can discover things by accident, no doubt, but doing things with intent is really important for me. So, in my opinion, what makes a good ceramicist is intent: to have a plan, to have an idea, and be able to execute it.
There are moments, of course, when I don’t have a plan and I just want to see where a piece of clay takes me, what does this piece of clay want to be. But in general, I really like intention when I work with ceramics.
Another thing that makes a good ceramicist is to have your work/style be recognisable. For example, if I am in a gallery, I might see a piece of ceramics and know who made it, without seeing the name of the artist. I think finding your style is or should be one of the main goals of an artist. When you have a body of work that is you, that almost says something about who you are, becoming a reflection of yourself.
Is there any type of inner traits that one should have to become a good ceramicist? Or any quality that you can train or improve with ceramics?
I think ceramics can teach quite a bit, actually. For example, when you are first entering the ceramics world, you want to keep every piece you make. You cherish it, you love it, it is your baby. However, the more you make, the more it becomes replaceable until you come up with a new design, and then that new design becomes your baby for a little bit until a new idea comes up.
I tell my students that the first pieces they make are not kept. We cut them in half, dissect them, look at how they can be improved. It is really important for a ceramicist to learn how to just let things go. Because in ceramics there are no guarantees. You can spend hours and hours working on a piece, but something can go wrong at any point. Sometimes people really want to fix a crack, to save the piece, but a lot of times it is not worth it. You can either work with your mistakes, learn how to use that mistake to your advantage as part of the design or part of the aesthetic or just make it again better and faster, rather than trying to mend and fix a piece. In conclusion, I think that ceramics can really teach you patience and how to let things go.
In other words, it teaches you to put a bit of a distance between you and the work that you do and allows you to evaluate yourself, to prove yourself you can do different, you can do better…
Exactly, it is an ongoing process, and the more you make, the more time you spend, the more you are willing to let these things go and not get upset when you have to give up a month’s worth of work just because something went wrong and every single piece is ruined.
Things happen in ceramics and although at first it can really get to you, after a while you just laugh about it and shrug it off. It´s a good teacher.
When did you start teaching ceramics?
When I was studying design, I was also the studio assistant in the ceramics department at the university. I wasn’t a teacher, but I was definitely helping students. Then 3 years ago, I opened up my own studio in the Art district of Denver, Colorado, where I was teaching my own classes.
One of the things that I love about teaching is having a big student body and having all these ideas floating around and being able to help and solve problems. I love problem solving so whenever one of the students has an idea, I was trying to figure out the best way to make it happen. This is so fun for me! You get these little moments of Eureka!
What is that you like most about teaching?
The thing that I love most about teaching students is the moment when things start clicking for them. As soon as they get a little bit of control and they learn the basics, you can see something like a switch flipping their mind. They realize they can make things out of nothing. It´s like alchemy. They get really excited about the endless possibilities that exist with ceramics. Because it is a material that you can do anything with.
Clay is so malleable that it can be bent and shaped, it can be straight, it can turn into anything you want. You can also play so much with textures! In my opinion it is the best material for playing with form and surface. Once they get a bit of control over the material, I love to see how the creative side of each student really comes to life. And you want to learn more and more because the more techniques you know, the more tools you have in your toolbox. With every technique you can be even more creative, you can start combining different processes and doing really unique things.
The curiosity and excitement of the new students coming in and exploring the material is what excites me, it keeps my passion alive!
Apart from its versatility, its capacity to shape whatever idea crosses your mind, what is the next thing you like about ceramics?
One of my favourite things is the community that you find within ceramics. It is a very large community of people helping one another out, giving each other support. I think the community is a big thing for people especially you are new to a city or an area, getting plugged in and joining some kind of a group, learning a new skill, it is a lot of fun.
In this era of technology, doubled by social distancing, what does this direct contact with clay bring? How does it make you feel?
Apart from connecting to a community of people, working with the clay is very meditative. For me, at least, and I think my students would agree too, the classes go by so fast. When your hands are working on this idea you have in your head, you enter a state of flow, where time doesn’t exist. I forget to eat sometimes because I am so engulfed in what I´m doing that the world disappears and I´m just creating.
And you can also allow yourself to be wrong, nothing happens.
Exactly, it is just mud.
Thank you, Evan, for being so open and for playing with mud at our studio!
Written by Luisa Leizeriuc