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Excerpt of interview with artist Phyllis Green by Alexandra Pollyea, December 2010
I didn’t set out to be a ceramic artist and I was not a potter, although when I got my start in the seventies as an artist it was a great heyday of crafts and pottery. The wave of feminist art was happening and I was very influenced by that. I started out using craft media in my art – sewing and crocheting. The first work I exhibited was made out of fiber. I got seduced by clay because it was popular at that time and because I wanted to make sculpture. I didn’t have skills with tools and materials and it seemed like something that was very manageable.
When I finally decided to pursue graduate studies, I decided to apply for a ceramics program and come to California because I knew there was a big clay environment here.
It became apparent to me that pursuing the path of craft-based media was not the ticket to art world acceptance. I was undaunted for a number of years. I found in the early 1980s that there was definitely a stigma to working in clay. And so I learned another way of expressing what I wanted to do – working with wood covered with concrete polymer. This was embraced more readily by the mainstream art world. There was an interest in reductive abstraction at that time and the work fit into that mold. So I went down that path. I abandoned clay for about eight years.
I got to the point where I felt my work was getting away from me in ways that I didn’t like. It was getting more reductive. The pieces were too big for me to work on by myself. I needed machines to move and lift them. I needed other people in the studio. I realized that I could make smaller forms instead of struggling with wire and concrete, and making armatures, and I could make them more easily out of clay.
That’s where the Turkish Bath pieces originated. I started making the work out of clay and coating it with the concrete polymer. After I finished that body of work I started making things out of clay with ceramic surfaces. I began to feel that stigma thing again, but I persisted.
When I embraced ceramics again it was particularly to challenge the notion that considers clay and other materials made out of craft as women’s work or second class.
It’s privileged in the art world now where it was not ten years ago and certainly thirty years ago. There’s a lot of interest in clay from students.
It used to be hard to make things that were very finely crafted and reductive. Now with computer printing and modeling that’s pretty easy. The hard thing is to make something that looks spontaneous, and clay certainly lends itself to that.
Clay is still really fun for me to work with. After I finished the Chinese Peruvian animation piece – the animation to that was very complex – I needed a break. So that’s where those Odd Old Things came from. They’re made out of clay and they’re lumpy, and big, and hard to move around, and dirty, and they don’t look new.