Meet the Artist: Richard Aerni
Meet the artist: Richard Aerni
featured in River Gallery's September-October 2021 exhibit
Tell us a bit about the process.
My work is predominantly wheel thrown, and I am at heart a functional potter. I have over the years created a number of bisque clay and plaster forms which mount on the wheel and enable me to make larger pieces with more extreme shapes than one can typically make on the wheel. I use these forms as I throw and once the clay piece is formed, I often use wet clay called slip, which has a thickness between ketchup and yogurt to cover the piece, allowing me to create textures and color variations that will interact with the glazes. At this point in my career, glaze development and glaze work are integral to my conception and realization of the finished work, and I spend a LOT of time experimenting with the effects that layering glazes can have on the finished piece. I spray all of my glazes onto the work, so I can in effect create a glaze painting. Most of my work over the years has been fired in one of the large gas kilns that I have designed and built, which fire to 2380 degrees and which create a reduction atmosphere resulting in deep, complex colors. However, lately I have been firing more and more pieces in the electric kilns, in an oxidation atmosphere and at lower temperatures. This process generally results in a livelier and brighter color palette. The challenge for me is to make the glazes as interesting and complex as those I get from my gas kiln. An extra benefit from firing electric is that I am able now and in the future to create and fire my work using 100% renewable energy, which is extremely important to me as I look forward to a viable future for our planet.
What does creativity mean to you and what fuels it in your life and work?
Such difficult questions! Creativity, to my mind and with my work, is the ability to examine a situation or problem, determine the many pathways to an outcome, and then devise ways to end up with a solution that is pleasing both aesthetically and practically. Functional potters such as myself inhabit a world that is based upon utility. Our challenge is how to provide that utility with products that also have visual interest, aka artistic merit. This requires a mind that can analyze form and function, and marry it with an engineer’s or scientist’s ability to problem solve all aspects of the process, from forming methods to the chemistry know how to realize a durable and pleasing surface. I have never imagined myself as an “artist,” per se. I know artists who find it impossible ever to create the same piece twice, who are always looking in every piece for a different take on whatever their vision may be. I’m a cross between a scientist, an engineer, a cook, a gardener, and a hopeless romantic. So I can make pieces repetitively (which to a functional potter is an absolute must), but also (hopefully) devise processes and systems which allow for infinite variation within these processes. In some ways, that is what I believe is the most creative part of me. I take the formed product (of which I am always tweaking various parts) and glaze in a way that allows me to experiment continually, ultimately ending up with finished work that over time shows change and development but also is recognizable as coming from my hands.
Tell us about a time where you felt discouraged or full of self-doubt and how you moved past it.
Laughing…OK, which of those times would you like to hear about? First off, I come to the art world as a stranger…I have long called myself an artistic mutt. No pedigree. I went to Jesuit high school in the 1960s which valued intellectualism and felt that artistic bents were for those who could not handle more rigorous mental exercise. My college studies were in the sciences, and upon leaving school, I went into the restaurant world, starting a vegetarian restaurant with a group, and ultimately helping to run an organic food co-op, before I took my one and only ceramic course, an eight week Tuesday night throwing course at a local pottery. So, I come into the art world with a handicap. The steep learning curve was a huge and exciting challenge, but once I had developed the rudimentary skills to make pieces, I had to figure out a way to make them my own. To develop a design aesthetic, and then acquire the necessary skills to find a way to clothe the pots I made with surfaces that seemed to be “me.” Those are huge challenges, and I had to face them outside of the academic environment where aspiring artists have the time and the resources to deal with these issues. My solution, in a lucky way, was to attach myself to the best potters I could find…to watch them work, pepper them with questions, shadow them as they did all of the necessary things, from mixing clays and glazes, to loading and firing the kiln. My good luck was that these wonderful people tolerated me and allowed me into their world, so that over time I was able to come up with my own toolbox that gave me the means to develop those skills. But it was a long process and discouragement was a constant companion. Wondering if I would ever find “my look,” would ever be able to make enough good work to make this my livelihood. That was eight years of highs and lows. In the end, I think what got me through it was my stubborn, hard headed persistent ways, and the fact that I had no Plan B. I had to make it work. And the answer that those around me always had when I was so discouraged was just to keep making lots of pots, and the answer would come. My foremost mentor, Michael Frasca (one of the country’s absolute best potters) had this saying, paraphrasing Nietzsche…”if it don’t kill ya, you’ll be a better man for it.”
We will let all of the subsequent discouragements and times of self-doubt for a later installment…
What drew you to work in (medium) and what continues to bring you back and sustain your ambition?
Hard to know what drew me in to clay. I just stumbled onto it, as a means to try something new when I was looking around for something to do in my spare time. A college friend who was working in a pottery part time told me he thought I might find it of interest, so I signed up for a course. I was terrible, but seeing the finished work all around me of those who’d been doing it for a while inspired me to keep at it, and I was intrigued by the idea of turning simple mud into durable objects of beauty. And I have always been enamored of things involving dirt…no, seriously! As I kid I gardened and sold my produce around the neighborhood. I also staged my own archaeological digs in the cornfields and creek beds around me, which was in the heart of the Mound Building Native American country. My college studies were in geology and related subjects. So dirt is in me…and as for what brings me back to clay, as any potter will tell you, the amount of ground you can cover in a lifetime is infinite. If you love the process, there is no end to the things you can do with it. So I just keep grinding away, plodding on.
Describe to us the feeling of being in your “flow” as an artist.
Getting into my groove, whether it’s at the wheel or in the glazing process, is where you want to be. I am an instinctual potter…I don’t sketch out all my ideas in books (although I have filled many over the years), but keep them in my head and tweak and change them as I am filling ware boards and going through wet clay. It has been my way of working even before coming to clay. In college, when a term paper needed to be written, I didn’t work excruciatingly through draft after draft…I kept the ideas in my head, and they developed and found form as I chewed on them day in and day out. When they were ready, they poured out onto my Smith Corona manual typewriter and basically only needed some shaping and editing. That’s the way it works with my clay work as well…ideas percolate, mellow, and tend to come out in pretty fully formed pieces. It’s also how this “interview” has worked…first time through, a jumble of isolated thoughts and “how can I put anything coherent together” state of mind…and over the days, as I work, as I’m cooking, at night, the concepts flow forward and flesh out, until they spill out onto the computer screen in a rush. That is my way.
What is the best piece of advice you were given early on in your career as an artist?
This is an easy one. Just keep working. Work every day, whether you feel inspired or not.
There is an interesting corollary to this idea in the book “Art and Fear,” in which the writers tell a story about a class one was teaching. The class was divided into two halves…one half was told to spend the term making one piece of art, but to make that piece perfect, to work on making that one piece the best piece they could do. The other half was told to make as much work as they could, not to worry about quality, but to simply produce as much as they could make. At the end of the class, the two halves brought their pieces together and they were compared…guess which approach produced the best work?
Tell us about your most recent work. What was the inspiration behind it?
The inspiration for this work is pretty much the same as the inspiration for my work over the past 45 years…to make objects of beauty and utility, to make them affordable, so they are accessible to a large portion of the population should they want them. At heart, I have always wanted my pieces to be quiet meditations, for the glazes to make an abstract “painting” which refers to the natural world without actually trying to draw the natural world. I try to allow the materials in the clay and glaze come forward, and I utilize their properties, both at room temperature and at the physically altering temperatures in the kiln (which are similar to those in the earth’s mantle where the mixing and cooking of mineral formation happen) to create these paintings. My work is about to undergo a major change in process, as I build a new studio and abandon gas fired reduction cone 10 work, the backbone of my production for my entire career. The climate crisis, my advancing age, and the desire to be able to step out my back door and be at the “office” are all driving this. The new studio will be run 100% with renewable energy, and I will no longer be burning fossil fuels to make my pots. That realization, as I come to the end of a long line of research and experimentation, has made me want to wring every last drop out of gas firing, to make these last few kiln loads of pots a celebration of that process. That has been much in my mind as I have worked these past few months. To push for the new effects I have discovered and which won’t be available in the future, and to celebrate the best of what I have done using this firing technique.
What are you passionate about outside of creating art? How does that passion influence your drive to create?
There are so many things I want to do! I read, I cook, I garden, I am designing and building my own home studio as this is coming together, I want to make the world a better and more just place, I want that world to be sustainable for our children and grandchildren, I want to do as much as I can in the time I am given.
I feel that the drive to educate yourself, to broaden your perspectives, is at the heart of being a creative and productive person.