Briefly describe the work you do.
I am a sculptor with a particular interest in making work that deals with scale, repetition and creates a physical environment for itself within the gallery. Conceptually, my work deals with the idea of palimpsest, mortality, longing, desire and human interaction with landscape. Organic and natural elements are almost always present in my work.
Tell us a little about your background and how that influences you as an artist.
I grew up in Maine, spent much of my childhood outside and was always collecting things and altering them. I am a perpetual schemer and have an insatiable interest in non-human ecosystems. The act of collecting is still a big part of my practice. I rarely go for a walk without coming back with something. In some ways, this act of taking something and holding onto it is both a source of joy and despair—I often feel a sense of guilt in the act of collecting things that I use for my work because the act interrupts the natural cycle. For example, the flowers that I use are all made from dipping real daisies in porcelain and firing them. The organic matter burns out and we are left with a fragile shell. Prepping these flowers to be dipped is an intense process. They have to be cut, washed, rinsed, dried to a certain point, etc., and in the end, I spend all that time just to eliminate the actual objects in favor of a memory of them. My studio practice is riddled with questions of sustainability, mortality and the fine line between destruction and desire.
The concept of the “artist studio” has a broad range of meanings, especially in contemporary practice. The idea of the artist toiling away alone in a room may not necessarily reflect what many artists do from day to day anymore. Describe your studio practice and how it differs from (or is the same as) traditional notions of “being in the studio.”
Again, a lot of my work is conceived outside of the studio. Right now I am primarily working out of my home. I have a secondary space in a local art center that I use more for teaching privately and doing office work (grading, writing, editing images). As someone who uses clay, I feel a little more bound to the traditional studio than other artists might because there are a lot of necessary tools and space issues that I deal with when I work. I can never have enough table space at the beginning of a project and because most of my work hangs, I can never have enough wall space either. I am lucky in that I also teach college ceramics and that gives me access to some extra resources that I would not have on my own. I occasionally make work at the school, although finding a moment of peace in the school studio is quite rare.
I do, however, consider teaching to be part of my practice. I love interacting with students and problem solving. I feel like I run into a lot of technical problems in my work and often those answers come to me when I am in the middle of solving another conundrum with my students.
Being in the studio is important for me because it is often one of the only times in my day when I am alone and can physically work out the things I have been visualizing and scheming up in my head. The timeline for conception is all over the place for me. Some days I think of something and make it immediately, other times I will consider a project or piece for years at a time before starting it. That interplay between acting intuitively and being meticulous and calculated with the work is a very important (and sometimes frustrating) part of my time in the studio.
What unique roles do you see yourself as the artist playing that you may not have envisioned yourself in when you first started making art?
I think the biggest surprise for me was that I ended up doing it at all. I had no intention of being an artist until I spent four months on crutches due to foot surgery. My high school art teacher lent me a potter’s wheel while I recovered and after I had run through my reading list of books, I spent all of my time teaching myself to throw. I decided to continue taking art in college and had the distinct luck of meeting Barry Bartlett, who finally convinced me to go to art school. I went to one of his openings this past spring. I don’t think I ever understood the power of connections, community and how important it is for all of us to keep that in mind at all stages of our careers—lending a helping hand and encouraging others even in the smallest ways can really make a difference.
When do you find is the best time of day to make art? Do you have time set aside every day, every week or do you just work whenever you can?
It really changes every day for me. I have noticed that if I have too much on my mind, I am not nearly as productive in the studio. I often make lists and try to distribute my time productively. I teach at two to three different schools in any given semester and being in the mindset to make work is something that I took for granted when I was a student. Sometimes I have to go for a walk first and clear my head. Other days I can walk down to the studio and start ten things in ten minutes. If I have a totally open day, I like to start working in the morning, run errands and workout in the afternoon, then work before and after dinner in the studio.
How has your work changed in the last five years? How is it the same?
Five years ago I was tirelessly working with found images and translating them into porcelain. My work was very focused on a specific story and experience and that quest lasted for nearly two full years. Within that body of work were quite a few other ideas and some themes that are still present in my work: particularly the human relationship to mortal time, materiality and making my practice a place for reflection.
These images aren’t completely lost in my present practice, although my focus has shifted and the spectrum of possibilities within the work has expanded. Over the past five years I have had the opportunity to gain a lot of artistic skills, knowledge and the time to experiment. This has allowed me to understand my work in a different way (the language of clay, although vast, at times felt limiting as a student). I am constantly playing with new ideas and really love the challenge of reinterpreting objects and installations to accommodate new situations (both intellectually and physically).
Are there people such as family, friends, writers, philosophers or even pop icons that have had an impact on the work you do?
Oh, most definitely. Writers mostly: Wallace Stegner, Wendell Barry, Milan Kundera, Susan Sontag and Gaston Bachelard to name a few. Great music keeps me in the studio; and traveling, teaching and meeting new people keep me invigorated. I also strongly believe in the power of spending time alone with my thoughts.
If you had an occupation outside of being an artist, what would that be and why?
Well, I love to teach and I am very intent on continuing to do that. If all pragmatism and limitations were lifted, I would work for the Boston Celtics. I love basketball and I could watch it all day.
Whittier received her BFA from KCAI in ceramics and her MFA from the University of Colorado at Boulder. She currently teaches at Johnson County Community College, Park University and Kansas City Art Institute and works in her home studio in Overland Park. Her work has been exhibited nationally and she is currently preparing for two solo exhibitions. In addition to teaching college art and running community workshops, she enjoys spending her time scheming, reading, hanging out in bookstores with her fiancé, and playing with her dogs.
All images copyright of the artist and used with their permission.