With a clean, graphic look achieved with self-printed original decals that add a decorative layer, ceramic artist Julia Claire Weber has built a career in the art medium she loves. When she transferred to an art school, she “had to” take a ceramics class as part of the required program and was surprised to find her creative niche working with clay. With a distinctive style and enthusiasm for the craft, Julia shares design principles and her methods in a new book, as well as teaching hands-on workshops.
How did you find yourself on an artist’s path?
By chance, really! I was always into arts and crafts as a kid but didn’t really shine until high school. As a freshman we had to choose between art and music as an elective, so I chose art, assuming it would be easier. As the year progressed my art teacher said, “You know you can draw”. Truth was no, I had no idea. Up until that moment no teacher had really noticed. After that I took every art class I could get my hands on. I won a few art awards throughout high school and decided that if my painting placed in the state competition I would go to school for art. It didn’t place so I chose nutrition as my major.
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Halfway into my first semester I realized this was a huge mistake and that losing an award shouldn’t stop me from following my heart. So I transferred to an art school closer to home to pursue art education. As part of the curriculum I had to take a ceramics class. I thought it was ridiculous to be graded on the height of a cylinder until that special moment when it all clicked. Just like that I “got it”. The walls of the clay began to rise, and I called home and said “Mom, I know what I want to do with the rest of my life…CERAMICS!”
What were your early creative influences?
In the field of pottery, Kristen Keiffer, Jennifer Allen and Julia Galloway. When I was a beginner, just throwing a centered pot that made it through to the glaze firing was an accomplishment. So when I was introduced to the work of other women in the field I was blown away. The way they transformed ordinary surfaces and the craftsmanship is what struck me initially. Seeing their work gave me drive. I knew that eventually through developing my skillset, I would be capable of creating the work I had in my head.
What drew me to clay initially was the community. Clay is ALL ABOUT COMMUNITY. Sharing ideas, sharing kilns, sharing meals, sharing knowledge. It’s like an unwritten rule of clay and it made me feel at home. I wanted to be part of it and contribute to the community.
I was ecstatic when I found clay because I knew I could never get bored. It is such a diverse medium. It isn’t a stopping point; it’s just the beginning of what really is possible. Painting, drawing, printmaking, design, all these things I was passionate about could be applied. I also love how many steps there are in the process. Sometimes I don’t want to do the thing I really need to do so I move to another part of the process and still feel like I’m getting somewhere.
What inspires you to create?
Easy, my sheer love for the medium! The feeling I get after I throw a batch of work or after I attach and smooth a handle. I think the never-ending possibilities are what keep me coming back for more day in and day out! Seeing the joy a well-designed, everyday object like a mug brings truly lights my fire of creativity. I think this is the hardest fire to keep lit, though.
It is easy to get lost in the crossfire of making a living. When making starts to feel like a “job” to me, I take a step back to halt production and just play. Sometimes it’s as simple as changing up the colors in a design or working on a new form to get that fire lit again!
How does your formal art education help your work develop? Does it ever get in the way?
Going to art school provided me with an exceptionally well-rounded education. The ability to learn and enhance skills for nearly every art medium was invaluable. A recurring theme in every class was the power of a balanced composition. This really comes into play when working out forms with multiple attachments and drawing new decal designs. Beyond the curriculum, I had exceptional teachers in college. They were incredible at teaching the fundamentals but also successful and well respected in their mediums. It wasn’t hard for me to see back then why craftsmanship, balance, color theory and knowing your art history are all important aspects to being a successful artist.
What do you do differently? What is your signature that makes your work stand out as yours?
I use decals! A lot of artists use decals but I think the way I design them specifically is what makes my work stand out. I have a very graphic, geometric and colorful approach. Bold lines, heavily saturated colors and mountain motifs are my signature!
What is the most important takeaway you want readers to gain from your new book, The Beginner’s Guide to Wheel Throwing?
That there is no singular path to becoming a decent potter! This book is all about building confidence and allowing yourself to learn from mistakes. I think most people forget that when you try something new you typically aren’t good at it right off the bat. Wheel throwing is no exception!
What do you do to develop your skills? How do you get better at what you do?
Take workshops! Especially because I didn’t go back to school to get my graduate degree, I have found that taking workshops with other professionals in my field has enhanced my work exponentially. Any tips and tricks you learn along the way are valuable to expanding your knowledge. Even if the tip or technique doesn’t appeal to your aesthetic initially, somewhere down the road it might. Never say never, I always say. I swear I am still processing information from workshops I assisted 4 years ago!
Additionally, I take time in my studio to play and do exercises to tighten up skills. For example, though I love trimming pots, I realized I was wasting a lot of clay and time. So, I went back to the beginning and spent a few days tightening up my throwing skills. Practicing pulling the clay that gets stuck at the bottom and making the most out of my 1.5 lbs.!
When it comes to creating are you more of a planner or an improvisor?
Both! To make a successful piece with decals, it takes a great deal of planning. The surface underneath the decal must match the aesthetic and often the graphic part of my work needs to be measured to the 1/16th of an inch. However, I am not a fan of testing or making test tiles, although I recommend it for students. Disappointment is all part of the learning process and since my process is so refined, trying new designs and techniques right on my pots offers a level of excitement and surprise!
This is usually how I prototype pieces. By playing until one comes out just right! I recommend testing for students because when you are a beginner the number of successful pots starts out small. You might have 2 perfectly centered bowls out of a batch of 15 pots. If you used your two favorite pots to try something new with surface or glaze you run the risk of them not turning out.
Do you have a dedicated space for creating? If so what does it look like?
Absolutely! With clay you don’t really get the option of having a pop-up space. When I was a resident at Odyssey Clayworks, I often brought work home with me to finish at my dining room table, but that proved to be more work with transport, packing, and clean up afterwards. Having a dedicated space allows me to create without abandon. My studio is now in the basement of my home. It is equipped with a wheel, a pugmill for recycling clay, several worktables, a kiln, lots of shelving, an area for photography, shipping, a dog bed for my pup and a play pen to keep my daughter occupied! Since I share my workspace with my dog Basil and my daughter Olive, I have a moral obligation to keep my studio spotless. Clay dust is especially damaging to the lungs, so I never let clay scraps dry or linger.
What are the indispensable tools and materials in your studio? How do they help you improve your work?
The main indispensable tool is my decal printer. It is a very expensive piece of equipment but the best investment I ever made! When I first pursued decals, there weren’t any companies in the US selling ceramic printers. Ordering from Germany was completely unattainable, so I sent out to get my decals printed. They were very pricey, the quality was disappointing and there were toner lines going through the image. This just didn’t seem economical long-term so I went back to screen printing decals which was very toxic. After a year or so of that I started researching again and was elated to find a company in Colorado that was selling the printers I had my eyes on. At last, decal printing at my fingertips! Without this special tool my work wouldn’t be possible.
Do you use a sketchbook our journal? How does that help your work develop?
Yes! I think keeping a sketchbook or sketching out ideas is essential to success in making creative pottery. Sometimes I have ideas in my head for forms and designs, but I always sketch it out first, sometimes to scale, to ensure I have a solid execution plan. I have saved myself a lot of time by sketching first! You find out fast if the idea in your head matches your expectations once you put it to paper!
What plays in the background while you work? Silence? Music, audiobooks, podcasts, movies? If so, What kind?
I rarely work in silence! Background noise helps me get into a nice workflow; it is usually the first thing I do after I turn my lights on. What I am listening to depends on what step I am in the process. When I am wheel throwing, I like to turn familiar movies on. Basically, anything from the 90s, comedy or “classic love stories”. (Almost Famous, Sister Act 2 and Pineapple Express are studio staples.)
If I am sketching or developing an idea, I like to listen to music. Chill electronic, blue grass jam bands and anything with nice bass is my go-to! (Odesza and Stick Figure are groups I love and Sirius XM53 is my favorite channel!) If I am attaching handles or doing something more mundane, I like to listen to true crime podcasts. (Casefile is my favorite!) Getting lost in a story helps me flow through repetition without the feeling of monotony.
When you started making pottery, were you making just for fun, or did you always envision it becoming a business? What is the biggest challenge to being successful in a creative field?
I would say I was making to get better! I think my second semester of clay I threw over 100 pots. Mostly because I finally could, but also because I wanted to get better and hone my newfound skill of throwing. At that time, I couldn’t imagine it becoming a business, but I knew I wanted it to be my career somehow. It amazes me still looking back that through the wonky paper weight pots I made, that I stuck with it! At any time, I could have quit to pursue something “easier”.
I think the biggest challenge to being successful is the ability to wear many hats while keeping them all clean and in rotation! In the field of clay, you need to be a decent artist, photographer, packer, shipper, kiln loader, website designer and social media manager extraordinaire. Keeping on top of all these things so that they work harmoniously is the biggest challenge.
Which artists do you admire? What draws you to their work?
Renee LoPresti, who is featured in my book, is a personal favorite! I admire her work ethic, craftsmanship and surfaces. Her surface decoration is so complex and wonderful! She addresses every aspect of her pot with decoration including the handle and foot, but in such a tasteful way. Deb Schwartzkopf, also featured in my book, is another artist I admire. I had been following her work since college, so when the opportunity arose to assist one of her workshops I was PUMPED. Her hand-building and bisque mold techniques are incendiary. I learned a lot from that workshop! She is just an all-around brilliant artist. As kind as she is talented, but tough as nails. I don’t know how she has time to accomplish all the things she does, but I hope I can be that magnetic someday!
Do you think that creativity comes naturally to people, or do you think creativity is a skill that people can learn?
I am not sure that anyone is qualified to make the end-all decision on creativity, but I tend to lean towards it coming naturally. I do think creativity can be cultivated and refined though. Maybe those that don’t feel creative have never been given the opportunity. Sometimes it just takes a simple change in perspective to think outside the box. I also think that when you are naturally creative the most obvious doesn’t always stand out. Sometimes I am so busy in my head about breaking boundaries that I complicate things. Problem solving is a huge aspect to creativity and that is something I think everyone is born with.
Tell us about your website. What do you hope people will gain by visiting?
Oh gosh! I hope by the time this article is published my website is fixed! I was working on it, then lost my progress and somehow it reverted to work I was making 6 years ago. It’s been a constant pain in the butt and something I put on the backburner after my daughter was born this year. In a perfect world my website will have a photo gallery of current work, a shop tab, a blog, artist statement, resumé and information about myself and my book. I have been dreaming of having a “make your own pot” option. Like build-a-bear but with a mug! You pick the form, the glaze, decal design, and then color scheme. Of course, this is just me dreaming, so now I have to do the work….
Yes! I love teaching, obviously! Lectures, workshops, you name it! I learn just as much from my students as they hopefully learn from me. I was on “maternity” leave the year of 2021, but I am back in full swing and ready to commit for the year 2022 and beyond!
Interview posted January 2022
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