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Interview: Jason L. Starin

Objectified Moment - White. Ceramics, cone six glaze. 18”L x 18”W x 23”H. 2010

1) Could you introduce yourself? Where did you study art? When did you first see yourself as an artist?

I first saw myself as an artist around the age of ten. My family and I had just moved that summer of 1986 to another part of the state of Michigan. Starting over, without any new friends yet, I began drawing to keep myself company during school, creating cartoon characters of my own design. I wanted to be a cartoonist at the time, a common entry point for many young visual artists. When I started Middle school one year later, I began taking my first ceramic classes, bringing my characters into three-dimensional figurations. I took drawing and ceramic classes all through High School and right into Undergrad. I majored in Ceramics with a BFA in 1999 from Grand Valley State University in Allendale, MI. Later, in 2011 I earned my MFA from the Oregon College of Art and Craft + Pacific Northwest College of Art with a major in Applied Craft and Design, a joint program, at the time, between the two art schools in Portland, OR. After Graduate school I became an Artist in Residence at The Clay Studio in Philadelphia from 2015 - 2019. My name is Jason Lee Starin and I currently live in Grand Rapids, MI.

Goblin - Urban Terrain. Ceramics, low fire glaze and underglaze, varying sizes. 2014.

2) What is geomythology? Who coined the term? How did you acquire interest in geomythology, and what relevance does it have to your work?

Dorothy B. Vitaliano coined the term geomythology in 1968 as a geologist at Indiana University and later expanded on this term in her book Legends of the Earth, published in 1973. It is “the study of oral and written traditions created by pre-scientific cultures to account for, often in poetic or mythological imagery, geological events and phenomena such as earthquakes, volcanoes, floods, tsunamis, land formation, fossils, and natural features of the landscape.”

Geomythology has helped to explain some of the more bizarre landforms our earth has created. It is human nature to want to apply a meaning to a phenomenal landscape or peculiar land formations. The myths and stories passed down from generation to generation of the surrounding landscape can provide real information about the natural occurrences people called home. Often these stories are intertwined with spiritual meanings and lessons of survival.

As a ceramic sculptor, a large aspect of my practice is derived from working hands-on with a medium directly from the earth. When I have mixed all the different substances of a clay body recipe together in the clay mixer to the proper consistency, or have opened up a fresh block of commercial clay, I am offered a new opportunity to re-interpret that raw material into any shape I’d like with little limitation. Clay’s potential in form is its most intriguing quality to me and one I like to utilize as much as possible in my work.

I love myths and fantasy. Much like a studio based practice, working alone, fantasy allows me to escape. Sometimes I need that. Done to excess though, escapism can be detrimental. Soon I am avoiding social responsibilities. Spending too much time in escapist fantasy, alone in my studio sheltered from real and imagined anxieties, are privileges that are worth acknowledging.

Geomythology, like ceramics, helps to apply explanation to the myriad forms the earth can take, whether shaped through eons of geologic time or in the hand and force petrified in a kiln in a matter of hours. My entry point into geomythology started with my interest in creation myths, how the land and its various inhabitants, both mythological and real, were first formed and the meanings applied to those creations.

False Prophet. (Detail). Stoneware ceramics, iron oxide. 44” H., approx. 2016.

3) Why do some of your art objects have tunnel-like cavities in them? Is the concept of a cave or a tunnel important to your work?

By process alone, all ceramics, including pottery and sculpture, must be a container. Clay has certain rules if you desire for your forms to be metamorphosed into ceramic through the kiln firing process. All ceramic work has to be hollow. Meaning ceramic objects are made of walls and hollow cavities; they are not solid. No clay object can be any thicker than an inch or so, or it will blow up during the firing process, generally speaking. Each enclosed piece also needs an air hole passing through the inside and outside of the object so the interior pressure can escape during the extremely hot temperatures made by the kiln needed to transform clay into ceramics. When working with wet clay I always have to consider the process of the kiln and the hard fragile ceramic object that will come out of it after the wares cool enough to be safely handled again. The practice of ceramics can get a little confusing as I am constantly in consideration of the clay form I am working on in a future state of being. Furthermore, ceramic artists must consider the interior of their works just as much as they are concerned with the look of the outside. The interior must be made technically well, so the piece does not crack during the firing. Furthermore, before the clay becomes too dry to be able to be worked, the exterior aesthetic must be considered simultaneously. Ceramic artists often have to think about two or more things at once while in the process of making with wet clay.

So, all ceramics are hollow in form, which for me, has a lot of formal, conceptual and relational potential. Given that clay is an earth material, cave and tunnel like forms are natural references that I like to incorporate into my work that fit with the process needs of kiln fired ceramics. I often find the interior of something more interesting than its exterior. Openings in my sculptures allow for the viewer to enter the work, figuratively and literally. Caves and tunnels are contemplative spaces that invite the viewer to peer into, and in some cases with my larger works, imagine themselves being in.

Mounds. Stoneware ceramics, iron oxide. Each, 36” - 44” H., approx. 2016

4) What do some of your art objects (such as your "Mounds" and "False Prophets" series) that resemble tombstones or monuments symbolize? What relevance do they have with our contemporary world?

At the time I was making both of these works, I was studying a lot of Nordic mythology, preparing for a trip to research the geomythology of Iceland for the following summer. I was reading the Sagas as well as learning more about the extreme volcanic and glacial geology of the country, looking up the many spectacular land formations that Iceland has to offer that I wanted to visit and be inspired by.

How big I can make a ceramic sculpture is dependent on the size of the kiln I have access to at the time. Both Mounds and False Prophets, 2016, were my first attempts at making ceramic sculpture larger than 24 inches tall. The individual pieces in each set of works range from 36 to 45 inches in height. Mounds consist of three enclosed individual pieces reminiscent of piles of earthen material sitting in proximity to one another directly on the gallery floor. A pair of relatively similar forms, False Prophets differentiate themselves by having long slender holes indicative of Nordic-like rune characters slit into the faces of the pile-like forms, albeit these characters have no inherent literal meaning, as I made up their designs. I made both sets of works at the same time, one iteration’s contemplations feeding the other, while I was adding coil layer upon coil layer over the period of a few weeks, building up each sculpture a few inches taller each day to the maximum height that the kiln could accommodate.

The form of the mound has a lot of geometric strength. Given enough interior space, I could hypothetically make a ceramic sculpture as large as any kiln could provide. I wanted to stay true to the natural qualities of malleable clay and chose to add lumps and bumps protruding in and out of the mound form, challenging the structural integrity of typically symmetrical mounds. The finished simple forms take up space in the most unassuming manner. Each mound is reminiscent of clumps of earth piled together, but are ironic in that they are one form, not a singular amassed pile, although the coil-building process would not suggest the finished forms' final pronunciation. Furthermore, knowing that the works are made of ceramic makes them seem fragile, although the viewer cannot verify that fact by touch. The surface of iron oxide is a dark metallic matte, drawing in the viewer. They seem to suck in the air around them. They are voids to be stepped around cautiously. I consider Mounds to be non-objects.

In making Mounds, I wanted to push this unease a little more. I wanted to draw in the viewer with something familiar but ultimately leave them feeling confused or let down. The runic-like symbols cut out of the faces of the two False Prophets are made-up; they have no meaning. They have no place in any written history. They suggest meaning and urge inquiry but ultimately have nothing to offer. The symbols are cut into the walls of the works, exposing the hollowness of their interiors; their presence is empty. I think of False Prophets as one might see through the arrogance of the self-proclaimed. Yet due to their petrification, a form of passive resilience or merely a lazy lack of self acknowledgment, and for some unfathomably archaic justification, are still considered worthy of acknowledgement. False Prophets comment on the patriarchy prevalent in many of our past and current political and social systems. From an existential point of view, this work may also suggest that every idea is just made up and therefore has no real meaning at all. The fact that two False Prophets have been made, one seemingly important enough to have made another, is this work’s only inherent conceptual accreditation.

Goblin - Head. Ceramics, low fire glaze and underglaze, varying sizes. 2014.

5) What is your series titled, "Goblin - Heads," about? Do they represent the other that has been demonized, ostracized, and pushed to extinction by us humans (also known as homo sapiens) over the many millennia of our existence? Who is the real demon here?

Much like soft clay, the mythical character of the goblin has no idealized form. Both things are malleable and have been manipulated into many various forms fitting many cultures. Their potentials lend purpose. For instance, clay formed into pottery can help to preserve food. Clay also helps us to ascertain the unexplainable. Through the making of sculpture, humans have been able to comprehend life's more metaphysical questions. Goblins in Germanic cultures have been created as figures embodying misfortune, whether they be natural, mechanical, technical or social. In my art work, I have adopted the goblin character as a way to personify my lack of self-awareness, my ignorance of my privilege, and my irresponsible behavior in my relationships with others. The Goblin - Heads, 2014 series, was the first acknowledgement of the emotional labor and social responsibility I was afraid to admit to myself that needed to be done. Acknowledging and accepting my trauma and privilege has been a necessary challenge in my life. The Goblin - Heads series is very personal to me and the start of a major exploration in my life and art practice. These works represent my first uncomfortable step out of denial and into self-accountability. As with a lot of my work, this series came out of the need to understand a feeling from deep within. Words and explanations always seem to come much later. I am still on this journey. Although I still reference some of the thoughts I initially attributed to the goblin character in some of my current art works, its personification and meaning has morphed from a place of shame to one of acceptance and positive growth.

Objectified Moment - Black. Ceramics, cone six glaze. 24” L x 24” W x 24” H. 2010

6) What is your series of works called "Objectified Moment," about? What do they depict? (They look like the physical representation of the act of distorting an object or a being spatially and materially.)

Considering the technical need for ceramics to be hollow at the same time as trying to execute an intended form out of soft clay can be a hindrance to creativity, expression and spontaneity, the qualities inherent in malleable clay that I am drawn to when I'm working with it. For the works in the Objectified Moment, 2009-2010 series, I intentionally wanted to eliminate that technical hindrance and chose to work with the clay solidly. There was a freedom of expression that allowed for more physical and bodily movement while in the making act, allowing the material to capture the gestures of the hand with more spontaneity. The large mass of the solid clay added a resistance to the shaping of the forms. This enabled me to work more intuitively, allowing each claw, scrape, poke and drag of my fingers to be recorded more distinctly in the medium than if I was trying to make the form hollow with flimsy soft wet clay walls. After the making act was over and the finished piece's exterior had hardened up enough to form a firm shell, I could then cut the solid work in half, scoop out the excess clay in the middle, and then re-attach the form back together, creating the necessary hollow cavity within. Separating the technical requirements of ceramic from my creative intention, I was able to capture and then depict the making moment of the material itself. In a way, the works in this series can be thought of as Process Art.

Narcissist (Covert). Stoneware and cone six glaze. 20” L x 20" W x 35" H. 2019.

7) How is science fiction a source of materials and inspiration for your works?

Science fiction allows me to consider possibilities. Doubt is an important part of my creative process, and sci-fi helps me to constantly question the status-quo. Oftentimes, sci-fi narratives take place in different geographies and landscapes. Such imagery helps me to consider possible different formal qualities in my works. Furthermore, I am drawn to sci-fi that deals with social and cultural issues. Authors such as Octavia E. Butler, N.K. Jemisin, and Knedi Okorafor, have inspired me to be more vulnerable in my work as well as more empathetic to my audiences. Much sci-fi goes beyond the rugged protagonist stereotype and deals with the circumstances of hierarchy, opposition and the consequential nuances of struggle and survival within those paradigms. These types of themes I find more applicable to our current political, social, and cultural conditions..

Narcissist (Toxic). Stoneware and cone six glaze. 20” L x 20" W x 44" H. 2019.

8) How do you perceive the discipline and field of craft in opposition to other artistic disciplines? What are the merits of craft and what are the weaknesses in craft today? How do advances in digital technology and the virtual world diminish our connectedness to and appreciation for craft and its focus on materials and physical processes?

I don't believe craft is in opposition to other artistic disciplines. I believe craft is the genesis of all the arts as well as the sciences. As evidenced in our history museums, the multitudes of ceramics housed in their numerous rooms of ancient cultures, craft is our humanity. Craft comes from a need to solve a social need. Our manipulation of earth's materials, like clay, metal, sand, fiber and wood, lend solutions toward our innate drive to survive and prosper, whether that be in the making of food storage jars which have aided in staving off inevitable starvation or wood and metal weapons to kill for substance and resources. Refined material explorations have led to alchemy and then in turn have led to the hard sciences. Craft also lent itself to lore keeping through the form of visual storytelling inscribed, for instance, on pottery from many past civilizations around the globe. Many craft objects were imbued with dual uses, that of function as well as a passing down of cultural heritage, as only the potential of craft materials can do so, so succinctly.

It seems that art has forgotten its material history. Industrial and conceptual motives removed materials from our hands and then our minds. Progress in technology has exponentially increased the virtualization of things. So although we have less need for and understanding of material, our craft upbringing, anthropologically speaking, taught us how to continue adapting to our current needs. Craft Thinking is our way of thinking through problems, it continues to aid in addressing our social needs. It is a strategy hardwired into each of us for sustained survival.

After my graduate school studies in Applied Craft and Design, I was adamant about how we as a species were literally losing touch with our notion of selves, with the world, with each other due to craft practices disappearing in our schools as well as in our communities and within our families. After some time after grad school though, I considered that humans are adapting all the time, we are always moving forward. Our technologies push for new adaptations. It's natural. Indeed, I think a major paradigm shift is rapidly happening currently in our collective psychologies, but we created virtual technologies intentionally just as we created the first ceramic jars. Craft has shifted from a need / material physical relationship to an need / immaterial virtual relationship. Craft Making has allowed us to become better Craft Thinkers. I still wonder though, what will be left behind once the sun’s solar flares fry our virtual databases, shutting down the power grid and eliminating all existence on this planet? Pottery. Pottery will continue to tell our tale. I'm not sure what tale will be deciphered from the ceramic remnants of our existence, but that's for them to figure out…

SOL 001. Stoneware and cone six glaze. 10.5" L x 10.5" W x 10.5" H. 2020.

9) Could you tell us more about your blog? What does your blog document? What are the hidden gems of your blog, where you posted from 2010 to 2020?

My blog is a diary of sorts, a place of saved quasi-intellectual ponderings, ramblings and questions. Writing helps me get things off my chest and out of my head. Like my art, I think it's the artist's responsibility to share their ideas. Even if it doesn't elicit a response, the vulnerable process of exposing my ideas, written or made, is part of my creative process. An artwork is not complete until it is made public. Ideas don't live if they are not shared. I had to learn that visual artists actually spend a lot of time writing. Writing for applications, writing for school, writing for awareness as well as self-reflection. Visual artists are some of the few creatives who are asked to write statements about their work, which is a weird thing to ask of a non-verbal communicator. Thankfully, I like writing, although I do not consider myself a writer. I would definitely need an editor if any of my writing went any more public than my little Blogger account tucked away quietly in that particular corner of the internet.

SOL 003. Stoneware and cone six glaze. 10.5" L x 10.5" W x 10.5" H., approx. 2020.

10) What are your goals and dreams for the future? Do you have the audacity to hope that your art can change the world for the better?

To have audacity, to be able to take risks in life, is a privilege. Making art is a privilege. Emotionally, as well as financially, I can’t afford to take any risks at this point in my life.

I had dreams. I had goals. I was pursuing dreams, and goals were being achieved. Persistent work was paying off. I was getting residencies, grants, and better teaching positions. I had a ceramic art studio. I lived in a major city. I had a network of peers. Then, Covid hit and was utilized as a catalyst to speed up the shutting down of the Craft and Materials Studies Department at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia where I had worked and taught for over five years. When I was laid off, I effectively lost everything else. I’ve been struggling with identity loss since. I’ve been asking what my self worth is. Who am I now if I can no longer do what used to define my reality, my dreams and goals?

Due to these circumstances, I have been giving a fair amount of thought to the conception of ‘the world’ the past couple years. ‘The world’ has gone through a lot, in the past as well as in the present. I don't think it can be changed with art, especially the visual art that I make. Sure, it helps me to make it, and it may even help someone else when they look at it, but an individual is not ‘the world’. Teaching art, due to its more direct communication, to a group of twenty to thirty people was as close to changing ‘the world’ as I ever got. Even then, I may have only reached one or two students per class.

I used to believe so much that my art had the same meaning to others as it did for me to make it. That belief got me pretty far in life. I had a passion that fueled my drive in my art life which took me across the country twice for art education, opportunities and jobs. I learned a lot and met a number of similar people. I'm grateful for all those experiences and shared memories.

Although I don't have many material attachments myself, people have shared with me that they truly appreciate the art work of mine that they own. It feels nice to hear that, but one person is not the world, I don't think.

Over two years have passed since getting laid off from my last academic position / career. I'm still looking for another teaching job. I’m processing a lot, trying to move forward, waiting to forget the past. The act of carrying on is all I can afford to risk right now. There is no urgency to prove myself though, not like what used to drive me. I still make art, on my kitchen table, in this one bedroom apartment, in this small midwestern city. I still apply for exhibitions, residencies and grants. I’m learning that much of being an artist, living an artist’s life, is continuing on, continuing further.

Goblin - Head. Ceramics, low fire glaze and underglaze, varying sizes. 2014.

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