about the artist //
Discovering Ellen Cline was an unexpected treat. My wife and I were eating supper at Ellen’s oldest sister’s home and I made a comment about their stunning handmade plates, with a cityscape wrapped around the edge. I was amazed to learn that her younger sister had made them. Really, I was surprised to learn that her younger sister, Ellen, was still a student at Union University in Jackson, Tennessee because these plates didn’t look like a student made them.
Ellen’s story is untraditional and fascinating. Ellen grew up in Uzbekistan and then Turkey before returning to the states for college. One of four uniquely gifted and intelligent sisters, Ellen works tirelessly on her craft in a way that’s most uncommon for someone just out of school. Having recently moved to Houston, Texas to be closer to her newborn niece, she undoubtedly has her work cut out for her as she sets out to make a new city her home. But she doesn’t seem to mind—just so long as she can keep getting her hands dirty.
I want to start the interview with the description on your website. You write: "Some days I make installation art and try to wrap my arms around ideas as big as granite blocks. Other days I throw clay and pull cups and bowls off the wheel. And some days I'm taking pictures at a wedding and we probably shouldn't even get into whether or not that qualifies as ‘artwork’. I am content with the thought that the arts could simply help us keep and work our tiny sections of this planet, as a devotional response to the beauty and terror of the world."
How would you classify yourself as an artist? Or don't you?
I think classifying myself into a medium has been one of the biggest challenges in this journey for me, simply because the work I've done does vary from season to season of my life. At the end of the day, I've settled into, or am trying to settle into, the idea that I am an artist. Period. And I use whatever medium I need to make the work that's calling me at a particular time. Of course, there are certain things I'm not trained in or not interested in—like digital animation, for example—but it's less about saying "I'm a potter," or "I'm a photographer" and more about being open to the work at hand.
It's really tempting to get caught up in craft vs. art debates, especially when I'm most interested in two big categories: installation/process art and ceramics. I think that's why I evade the question in that website description.
BC // But you are certainly a potter. A good one at that. And a photographer. And an installation artist. All of these mediums you explore and share with others. Does one stand out more than the others in your mind? Do you feel most comfortable with one or another?
I definitely think photography is subservient to the other mediums (installation and ceramics). I do it mostly to serve my other work and present it well, and sometimes to help other people out—a wedding here or there, pictures for events, things like that. It's not something I am pursuing with the same amount of intensity as the others.
I think ceramics and installation are on such completely different planes for me that it's hard to choose one. Making pots is a way to keep my hands dirty and my brain active. I love making pots and I've had to be pretty creative to get to a place where I can do that now, after school.
But when I think about all the things I've made and what's most meaningful to me, I guess installation pieces come to mind. There's a different level of dedication with those pieces, because they don't have the same immediately practical reason to be. You have to make a place for them in the world, whereas a mug or a bowl kind of earn their own place.
That being said, making pots could have easily fallen to the side when I graduated, but I had this drive to find a way to keep making them. And while I've had ideas and plans for different installation pieces, the pottery is what has materialized. So probably that is what I'm most comfortable with.
BC // I've been fortunate enough to see and hold and use some of your pottery and, I have to say, it's incredible.
EC // Ah! So cool. Thank you. That's a sweet thing about pots. They go out into the wide world and have their own little lives that I don't know about.
BC // So can you briefly share with us your story? Where you're from and when and how you started making art?
Sure. I was born in Connecticut, but grew up mostly in Uzbekistan and Turkey, with frequent trips back to the US and other countries in between. But some days I feel most like I'm from Tennessee, where I went to college.
I was always interested in art, I think, but not in a conscious way. I did school at home because of living overseas, so I wasn't exposed to art classes with different media or anything. But growing up the way I did I think we had to be pretty inventive. We'd use mulberries from the trees across the street to paint our faces or rocks and stuff with, and I definitely remember making a ridiculous amount of very complex mud pies as a little girl. I always loved to draw, but I wasn't very good. I wrote off the idea of studying art because it seemed impractical and I definitely wasn't talented enough. It wasn't until the end of my freshman year that I changed my mind. I had started out studying nursing, because I wanted to help people, and I wasn't scared of blood, and I liked the idea of rescuing people and binding up their injuries and such. But the whole time I was wandering the outskirts of the art department kind of longingly!
Through a variety of conversations, some inquiry classes, and mostly just seeing that the art kids worked hard, I was convinced that I too could work hard enough to make it. I didn't have to have magic talent to be an art student. That's why you study. And I also had to realize there is more than one way to help people and save the world. That's a noble ambition, but people are souls + bodies. Maybe I didn't have to be a nurse to be worthwhile. So I started taking art classes, which is really when I started consciously making pieces for the first time.
BC // What were the first pieces you made? Pottery or installation?
EC // The first class where I really made pieces was a 3D Design course, so installation-type pieces. We focused on the elements of design—space, color, light, texture, etc.—and had to find ways to get others to experience those elements. Phenomenal class. The project was "Space" and we had to try to get our viewers to think about space differently. For every square inch of human skin, there's 20 feet of blood vessels. So much space compacted into a tiny square. That was my starting point; I ended up getting synthetic human skin from the Bio department and displaying square inches of it alongside the 20 feet of some plastic tubing. Looking back now it was pretty awful aesthetically, but I was on top of the world!
BC // That's incredible.
EC // We were encouraged to cultivate gratitude for elements of design in the world as they were. For instance, line—the way that, without lines, the idea of them, the reality of them, you and I wouldn't be able to communicate right now. Or light. Or color. So we all made pieces to go with each element. Best class ever. Helped me realize I didn't have to be able to draw to be an artist!
BC // Do you still draw on those classes even now after you have finished school and left the classroom?
EC // (Laughs) Can you tell? Yeah, no I definitely think I do. That one professor, especially. He's the reason I started learning clay in the first place. There are lots of questions and doubt that come up trying to keep making work now that I'm out of school, and I think I draw on stuff he used to say more than I realize. For instance: What is art? Art is a word. Every day you wake up and make work you're an artist. And definitely when I make pots, I can hear his critiques in the back of my head. I wonder if that goes away!
BC // I think you're touching on something really fascinating and complicated for younger, aspiring artists who study at a university. In that university setting, you are learning from experienced artists and getting all of this history and information and perspective, and by the very nature of being a student and studying art, you are creating work pretty consistently. But when you graduate and you are no longer in the classroom or school studio, being an artist and creating art begins to take on a whole new meaning. You don't have that immediate feedback from someone with years of experience. You don't have anyone giving you assignments, telling you what to work on next. Has that change been difficult for you?
Yes (more laughter), but it's also been really rewarding. So many art students leave and kind of drop out of the “making world”. The statistics about it—I don't know them, but we were told a whole lot that the chances we'd actually keep making work were pretty low. And it is a completely different world. In school, you have all these resources available to you: a fully equipped studio, a dining hall, and most of all, other people who are doing what you're doing and actually care about what you're making. You have people who are paid to help you get better. So it's obviously a wonderful opportunity, but it's not real life. So being able to graduate and still be making work feels like an accomplishment in itself.
It's not easy to make space in my life to keep making, and I don't have that dedicated community anymore. And that's when I realize: yeah, I really need to do this. Because even without those crutches, I know I have to keep making. Having had that environment and now to be out of it and still be active—maybe it's different for artists who never had that environment, but for me, it's been hard and really good at the same time.
I think it helps me be more practical too. A good friend who is a poet and much wiser than I am talks about evaluating her creative production yearly, not monthly or weekly (like I did in school). You start making some breathing room for yourself. You sleep, because if you don't, you won't be able to go to work the next morning. And so the creative pace is really different. And you make more pots than installations, because you have to make what makes sense for you in the moment, and you're not being asked to make work so you don't force work that isn't coming naturally at the time. But I also have to set myself deadlines, and work hours because they're not being set for me.
BC // I've spoken to other artists who have said that one of the biggest challenges they face as an aspiring artist is the lack of community. Is that true for you? As an artist, what are the biggest challenges that prevent you from creating work?
Yeah, lack of community can be hard. I'm thankful for the Internet, and things like Instagram! I can send pictures of what I make to friends who get it. But I do miss having studio mates who are constantly producing work.
I think the biggest challenges...(there are) probably two. Time is always hard. I work full-time and have other responsibilities just like everybody else. The second is that mental question of is this worth it. With pottery, for example, there's so much work that goes into making one piece, from buying or making clay, to throwing it, to drying, cleaning, waxing, glazing, and firing it twice, to then photographing it, uploading it, and getting it to an audience. And for me, in Houston, since I'm pretty new here and still figuring out systems, there's a 30-minute drive from the place where I throw the pot to the place where I fire it. So mustering up the fortitude to say yes this is worth it to just make some dang tableware can be hard, and especially when people just make assumptions about you sitting on your backside when they hear you work a shift job with days off.
It's hard to believe in making work when the world is the way that it is. For me, personally, that's tough. How do I justify taking my limited time on arranging dirt into aesthetically pleasing piles or throwing a couple mugs when I could be, I don’t know, volunteering at a local homeless shelter? It goes back to that question of the value of art and beauty. I'm always re-convincing myself that if I've been given the ability and opportunity to make, it's not wasteful to make. It's wasteful not to make.
BC // As a writer myself, I struggle with that too. Because, at least for me, there is no immediate reward or pay off. All of the work I do right now isn't going to be read by anyone, but it's work that I need to put in to one day be able to publish my work. But when I have an hour and a half and I can either do some more freelance work or work on my own writing, it's hard to turn down the money.
EC // Man, true that. That’s another reason why I make so many more pots than installations. People buy pots.
BC // I'm glad you brought up using Instagram, because you do use social media and the web to your advantage. Can you talk a little bit about how that's been an important part of introducing your work to new people and getting your stuff out there?
Yeah. I think getting better at using my website, Instagram, etc. happened by accident because I moved, and I missed my friends, and I wanted them to see what I made. It's also pretty much true that when you're just beginning, the people who look at your work and buy your work are your friends, and your parents, and your friends' friends and parents' friends (if you're lucky to get that far). Honestly, and this is kind of sad, but it helps me feel like what I make is reaching somebody if I can put a picture of it on Instagram and it gets some feedback. And on my part, my feed is full of artists I admire, so I'm constantly being fed images of work to make me push harder and be better.
Also, people are tied down, and if they can buy a pot from a website instead of driving from Tennessee to Texas to see it and pick it up (because nobody is going to do that), why not make a way for that to happen? But maintaining a website is plenty of work on its own.
BC // It is. Is it hard for you to be both businesswoman and artist, then?
EC // (Laughs) Oh man, I am such a baby businesswoman. That part is really hard.
BC // I think it is for most artists, especially when you're starting out.
EC // But it's a learnable skill. There are people out there willing to help, which is awesome. Artists U is a great resource. When I moved here, I sought out the artist who does our chalkboards at the coffee shop where I work and pestered him with questions about how to charge people, and taxes, and all that. I think it'll get much easier as I go along.
BC // So what do you have going on now? You're working at a coffee shop. You're actively creating new work. You share videos like 119 (Diffuse) on Vimeo. What are you excited for as you look ahead in 2015?
So many things! Blacksmith has been an incredible community and resource. The kiln I use to fire I found through a regular who comes there, and I'm currently working on a commission for our sister shop, Greenway. They've been incredibly supportive.
I'm both excited and nervous about 2015. Right now, I am working almost exclusively on commissions. I have pieces in process for a local chef that I'm thrilled about, and I have a pop up shop coming up in June as well! It's all super duper new for me. And very, very scary. But also very exciting. I'm also taking a class at the Glassell School of Art here, to keep my hands in and get some kiln access. I'll be at Northern Clay Center in Minneapolis this summer to teach a kids’ class! So there's a lot coming up. Most of it is kind of next-level for me: first time things I'll be jumping into with only half an idea how to execute. I know I can do it, I just haven't done it yet. I have some personal goals too— spaces around Houston that have caught my eye and I'm hoping to make some installation work for. I don't really know where it's all leading yet. Just trying to follow each opportunity as it arises and take deep breaths whenever possible.
I should definitely make more time for taking deep breaths.
BC // You have a lot going on, that's amazing!
EC // So scary! Once I get the first commission done I'll feel more stable, I think. Right now, I feel a little precarious, like I'm just pretending to be able to do this stuff.
BC // But that's so much about being a young artist—tromping into the unknown, only sure of your desire to create more work...new work.
EC // So true. You're always working a little bit blind. Keeps things exciting.
And that's why we love following you. You're always exploring and trying to new things. You seem unafraid of exploring new techniques or different ways to share your work.
So how can readers find your work or buy your plates, mugs, and other pottery?
EC // Well, I'm at Blacksmith a lot. But if they're not in Houston, my website is the next best bet: ellen-cline.squarespace.com. I have a sale happening right now full of items from a test run I did in my first Houston kiln firing, as well as images of a lot of previous work. And my Instagram (lilellencline) has more current images, process stuff and, of course the occasional picture of my niece.
We’re here to support artists. And we’re guessing you’re here to do the same thing. So support Ellen. You can go to her online shop and purchase her tableware right now. And you can show your support by liking and following her on Instagram and sharing this interview with others.