Formed & Fired: Contemporary American Ceramics, which will be on view at the Anderson Collection upon Stanford’s museums’ reopening, presents the work of four groundbreaking contemporary artists who push the boundaries of their medium and explore questions of value, identity, materiality, and the body: Kathy Butterly, Kahlil Robert Irving, Simone Leigh, and Brie Ruais. While distinctly different from each other, they share a reverence for ceramics’ rich and sometimes complicated history, and their practices provide both insight into the past and ideas for the future.

Earlier this year, Irving provided a glimpse into his process and how he’s thinking about the present.


What drew you to clay?

I think the question is, why have I continued to return to clay since I was 12? I think another question is, what prompted my father to take me to the open studio session at the Potters Workshop in Saint Louis, Missouri, in the year 2004? That has been a recurring question that I think about and have built so many stories around: why he took me there. I returned after that initial visit because I made friends, I was mesmerized by the pottery wheel, and the relationships I was able to build there were so intense.

As an adult, and post college and graduate school, my relationship with clay has expanded in so many directions. A professor I had in college shared that clay can be three things: a pot, trompe l’oeil, and clay. So when I am heading into the studio or I am materializing thoughts around what I am desiring to make, the possibilities are endless. There are material constraints, of course, but there are avenues of making today that are so exciting.

Given your work exploring what it means to be an American, how are you thinking about this moment of uncertainty in our nation and the further implications it will have on an ailing democracy and your practice?

The moment of uncertainty and the ailments we are facing are issues we have been facing since the country’s conception. I am thinking about this moment among the centuries of uncertain moments from our past. Right now, it is history and actions repeating themselves with different names and organizations. I think about accountability a lot within my work, and describing the narrative to the perpetrator of the violence, simultaneously desiring to memorialize the joy that Black people are able to create despite the incessant violence we face. I am trying to engage this content with scale and within orientation of the works I am producing.

We know that artists bring new ways of thinking to contemporary issues. As such, do you have advice for scholars or community members who are looking to artists to help make sense of challenging times?

The advice I have to scholars is, if you are not working out the issues of the times and addressing inquiries that we are a part of, retire and make room for people who are actually doing the work of making the world more equal and addressing the past. Step aside and let other people be at the helm. Change your tactics, because obviously what you may have been doing is no longer working.

Learn more about Formed and Fired: Contemporary American Ceramics by visiting the exhibition page.