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clay artist amelia johannsen

An Artist Uncovered

I was recently invited to participate in an online interview to share my experience as a clay artist.

The interview is with ABM Wholesale Indonesia; a new company specializing in one-of-a-kind, handcrafted home decor, kitchen and dining ware.

They asked some very important questions, such as, what is the role of an artist in today's society? And should art be funded publicly?

Here is the interview in full.

An Artist Uncovered: Ceramic Artist, Amelia Johannsen

Who are you and what do you do?

My name is Amelia Johannsen. I’m originally from Portland, Oregon, USA and I have been living and working in Barcelona since 2005. I have been involved in a variety of startup projects and non-profit organizations over the years. I met wonderful people and learned a great deal from those experiences, but was disappointed that I wasn’t using my creativity as often as I wanted to.

In early 2017 I stopped taking new clients in order to dedicate more time to art—especially to ceramics.

Today I work in a small, shared workspace close to the beach called 137° Artistic Studio. I create both functional and decorative ceramics on the wheel as well as sculpture and mosaics. I sell my work online and I’m also developing new projects to support artists in Barcelona.

Why do you do what you do?

Ceramics is the activity that fascinates me most in this world. I love mixing the different elements of earth, water, and fire to make something lasting and beautiful.

I also appreciate all of the learning that comes from working with clay. For me, ceramics is a meditative and creative outlet, but it can also be a very frustrating and disappointing experience. You may spend weeks working on a piece, just to have it break in the kiln. Or the colors might not turn out as expected. There is a lot of trial and error involved in ceramics, and even if you try and try and try again, you may never get the result you’re looking for. Or you may achieve it once, and never manage to get the same conditions to repeat it. You need a lot of patience.

Clay is a great teacher of impermanence and acceptance of what is. I have never found another activity that challenges me, and at the same time, rewards me in so many ways.

How do you like to work?

Inspiration can hit me at different times of the day. I’m very productive and happy when I’m alone at night with a glass of wine, my music on, and my dog sleeping by my side. However, most days I enjoy the company of my colleagues in the studio. There’s no better way to learn and grow than when you’re surrounded by other artists.

What’s your background?

My mom signed me up for a ceramics class when I was 7 years old. It was love at first sight and during my childhood I went to a community center in Portland every Tuesday night to play with clay. It was a very relaxed atmosphere, where I was free to experiment and explore. There was a very kind teacher who was always patient and supportive and he would usually let me do my own thing. Sometimes he made suggestions to improve my methods or help me develop ideas without being pushy or critical.

I never went on to do any formal studies or training in the Arts. For most of my life, ceramics was just a hobby and favorite pastime. Luckily for me, Art is an activity that you can learn and develop skill sets as you go along. There’s no risk involved in a lack of education, perhaps just a lot of ugly artwork.

What’s your strongest memory of your childhood?

My experiences white water rafting had a huge impact on me as a child. Every day on the river is a new adventure, a new stretch of woods, river and rapids to maneuver, and a new campsite to explore.

We wake up a dawn each day to break down the entire campsite after breakfast, pack it all back up on the boats, row all day and then unpack and set it all up over again with tired arms and a sunburnt face. It’s non-stop, hard, exhausting work, but somehow I never grow tired of it. After a week or so on the river, we all crave a hot shower like never before. But when the day comes to pull the boats out of the water, it feels like the sad end of an era. A part of me always wants to continue floating down the river, just a few more days.

What’s integral to the work of an artist?

Determination. I believe many modern societies don’t consider art “real work.” My own experience and the examples I see around me every day tell me differently.

Being an artist requires training, practice, organization, and discipline. It takes courage to make something unique, put it out into the world, hoping others will appreciate it.

It’s not just about making the art. There are many insecurities to overcome and many smaller side-jobs to attend to. If you want to make a living as an artist, you must be very determined.

What role does the artist have in society?

Artists have many roles. For me, the most important are: dreamers, change-makers, and entertainers.  It is the creative people who are able to see the world for what it is and imagine it differently. Creative people see solutions where others see problems.

Artists are sensitive as well as expressive people. If you mix their sensibility with drive and determination, they have the ability to turn their empathy or outrage into something very powerful—a painting, song, or story. Art can be beautiful, calming, entertaining, functional, and decorative. But it can also be thought-provoking and transformative.

What has been a seminal experience?

Moving to Granada, Spain when I was 20, and later to Barcelona, changed my life and my work forever. First, because I took a long break from ceramics to travel, learn, and explore life a bit. When I was ready to pick up clay again I was surrounded by a much more diverse group of people with different working styles. The clay was different. My mindset and confidence were different. In some ways it was like starting over. I’ll never know what kind of artistic experience I would have had, had I stayed in Portland. Some things are better left unknown.

Explain your artistic style in 100 words

Experimental flow. Organic. Curves and textures. Sensations based on nature. Surprising facial expressions.

How has your practice changed over time

The biggest change for me has been turning ceramics from a hobby into my profession.  I have always maintained a very free-spirited way of working. I get an idea or a sensation and I go with it. I don't make plans, sketches, tests or calculations. Either it works or it doesn’t. If I get close and it fails, then I may try again or I’ll just move on to the next project.

What art do you most identify with?

Visual art such as ceramics, photography, and paintings.

What work do you most enjoying doing?

I enjoy the creation phase in ceramics. The part where you get your hands dirty and the clay is still soft and malleable. I am less fond of everything that comes after: trimming, cleaning, glazing, firing, etc. But that’s all just part of the process.

What themes in your artwork do you like to?

By far the biggest influence in my work is Mother Nature. I love to try and replicate her natural beauty with the clay. I’m also very curious about faces. I do a lot of abstract masks. Other common themes for me are the female form, spirituality, and motherhood.

What’s your favorite artwork?

I’m very moved by the work of Alberto Bustos, Sebastião Salgado, Dale Chihuly, Vincent Van Gogh and Georgia O'Keeffe, to name a few. 

Describe a real-life situation that inspired you?

Global warming inspires me to be more conscientious, to make big lifestyle changes, and inspire others to take action as well. I am always looking for ways to connect this inspiration to my work. For example, there are some potters sharing ideas and inspiration via social media to encourage people to use traditional materials and ‘break free from plastic.‘

I made a piece last year depicting the ocean waves filled with plastic. I’d like to develop more projects with the goal of raising awareness.

What’s your most embarrassing moment?

I had lots of them when I was learning Spanish. I would accidentally mispronounce or misuse words, making inappropriate comments. People would either crack up laughing or look at me like I was an alien. Less often, they would make fun of me. Needless to say, it was always embarrassing.

What jobs have you done other than being an artist?

When I was young I worked in small shops and as a waitress. As an adult in Barcelona, I was in real estate for many years before I become a freelancer working in translation, editing, design, and publishing.

Why art?

Someone once told me that in an ideal world we could all be doing something useful for our community, and that same thing would bring us personal and professional happiness. (Think of the things you would continue to do even if nobody was paying you.) That idea struck a chord with me and I decided to make it one of my goals.

The ‘useful’ activities I love to do are making art, cooking, caring for animals, and gardening. Art is the activity that pushes my limits more than the others (I’ve always liked a good challenge.) It also makes the most sense while living in the city. Maybe I’ll grow tired of challenges and I’ll move to the countryside to pursue my other interests one day... I hope so.

What is an artistic outlook on life?

I think an artistic outlook is an open-minded outlook. Artists must be curious first and foremost, which leads them to new experiences. If someone is curious and closed-minded, they’re probably just looking for trouble. On the other hand, an open-minded outlook allows a person to explore and share their impressions through creativity and imagination.

What memorable responses have you had to your work?

People have had a very good reaction to the sculptures I’ve made in the last couple of years. Previously I only made pieces that were small enough to fit in your hand. I feel encouraged by the responses to my bigger sculptures and I’ll keep moving in that direction.

What food, drink, song inspires you?

Food: Creative vegetarian meals that are not trying to imitate meat.

Drink: Wine.

Song: This is hard. Can I pick an album instead? New Blues by Third World Love

Do you find the artistic life lonely or lively? If so, do you do anything to counteract it?

I find it quite lively. After working from home as a freelancer for 10 years, I’m enjoying working next to people in the studio again. Plus, in the art world there’s always exhibitions and events to attend. 

What do you dislike about the art world?

Pretentiousness and competition.

What do you dislike about your work?

It’s not my work I dislike. It’s my attitude about my work and how I nitpick at everything. I examine every detail that I would do differently if I could do it over. I do the same thing with my cooking. I need to tell myself enough already! It’s done. So sit down and enjoy it!

What do you like about your work?

That it’s unrestricted and that each project is unique. Clay allows for such a huge array of options when it comes to working methods and styles. Ceramics can be a very structured craft resulting in functional pieces. It can also be very experimental and provide a unique offering in the world of fine art. I like exploring and experimenting in different realms and I appreciate my flexibility to change it up constantly.

Should art be funded publicly? 

Yes, without a doubt. I think we should start with more creative opportunities in our public schools. Funding the arts means supporting culture, creative thinking, collaboration, enjoyment, and well-being. Call me crazy if these aren’t the fundamental building blocks of a healthy society.

What role does arts funding have? 

Funding the arts ensures that we have a healthy balance in our society. We need creative minds to develop and contribute their ideas in whatever means possible. We all have different ways of expressing ourselves and to smother and marginalize the arts is to miss out on all of the ideas and innovations that could arise from their exploration.

Humankind will completely destroy itself in its pursuit of mechanization, industrialization, and profit. Funding the arts means the opposite. It means investing in the advancement of humanity. 

What makes you angry?

Large corporations’ ruthless destruction of the earth for monetary profit and the everyday people’s apathetic attitude and unwillingness to change. 

What research to you do?

I’m starting to do research on how to make my own glazes. (Something I had previously avoided. I never did enjoy Chemistry class). I’m also learning more about the history of ceramics.

What superpower would you have and why?

Definitely flying; to save time and energy on transport. Don’t tell my bicycle though—she’ll get jealous.

Name something you love, and why.

My friends. With the help of their love and support I find my own peace of mind, happiness and courage.

Name something you don’t love, and why.

Talking on the phone. Even though it’s essential sometimes (especially to keep up with friends and family on the other side of the world), I have never been a fan.

What is your dream project?

One day I’d like to co-create a large ceramic mural/mosaic in a public space with an impactful message.

Name three artists you’d like to be compared to.

I don’t think I want to be compared to anyone.

Favorite or most inspirational place?

Old growth forests.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?

Do what you love. And you will never work a day in your life.

Professionally, what’s your goal?

My goal is to be able to sustain myself financially and maintain the freedom to arrange my own schedule, while still enjoying the process of making and selling my work. I could care less about artistic fame and riches. I just want to make a living doing what I love.

What piece of advice would you give to a young artist starting out?

Believe in yourself. If that’s hard in the beginning, find people who believe in you and listen to their words of encouragement. Once that’s accomplished, market yourself, not just your work. If that’s hard to do in the beginning, bite your lip and get over it. Or pay someone to do it for you.

What wouldn’t you do without in life?

Since I’ve already mentioned my love and adoration of friends, family and nature… I’d have to say music.

Lastly, Coffee or Tea?

Both, it depends.

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