Artist Interview: Karin Kraemer

Karin Kramer is a studio potter in Superior, WI. Her majolica-style, earthenware pottery was recently juried into NCC’s sales gallery. As a “welcome to the gallery,” Sales Gallery Manager Karen McPherson contacted Karin to discuss her work and her history. 

KM: Can you introduce us to your pots?

KK: I don’t get fancy with form; I just want basic forms you use every day, ones that don’t break very easily and that can provide a nice canvas. Open forms are best for painting. All the motifs have to do with whatever is going on with my day — working in the garden or cooking food. Some images are bigger than that; sometimes I include a species that is having a hard time that would ignite a conversation — bees, for example. Lantern fish or anglerfish—they are the “McDonald’s cheeseburgers” of the sea — all the other sea animals eat these little guys. You put some crazy bowl in someone’s hands; it’s a way to start talking to people about a particular issue. Then there are days when the objects in the design are less important …. yeah it’s a “tomato bowl,” but it’s not so important that it’s a tomato, it’s just a way to put the colors together. I am a colorist.

KM: You grew up in Minneapolis and got your BFA in glass at St. Cloud State University. Your aesthetic and practice in clay is completely opposite of the tradition of high temperature atmospheric firing in this particular region. How did you end up working in majolica? 

KK: I started working in clay in college, and wandered into the glassblowing classes.  I finished in glass as an undergrad and worked in it for about 8 years altogether.  But, I didn’t have money to get a studio going, or access to glass blowing equipment, so I started taking clay classes at Pigeon Lake Field Station in Northern Wisconsin. When I moved to Carbondale, Illinois, I worked in the craft shop there and somehow ended up running the clay studio. I decided to try for grad school in clay. I started grad school working in porcelain and stoneware, really trying to just learn and explore.  

KM: So, what was the trigger to transition to majolica?

KK: One day, my instructor at SIU-Carbondale, Harris Deller, told me I was going to teach a course in ceramic painting technique for my assistantship. I had no idea what he was talking about. I reached out to Andrea Gill and Linda Arbuckle; I called Linda and she gave me some basic tips. I fell in love with it. I missed the color of being a glassblower, so clear and jewel-like.  Majolica was an easy love; it re-introduced the rich color again.  It also added the new dimension of surface design and brushwork.

KM: Is NOT making brown pots anadvantage?  

KK: It is now. It didn’t used to be. There is so much neat, new work happening in our industry; it’s so exciting. It feels like right now there is a change in general. I am speaking from the corner of “Nowhereville” — but I do get out there!  Obviously, there has been a general change in surface work. An “interesting surface” used to mean subtle variations in high-fire glaze tones … clay has finally caught up to the post-modern era! 

KM: There are some great potters in the Duluth area. Do you feel supported well by the city and the people along the North Shore?

KK: Good support and it’s growing!  There are events all the time; all these little galleries popping up; the people are buying; there are younger artists coming and staying, which is great!  The local PBS station recently produced a one-hour feature on my work  — they visited shops that sell my work and came out to the Crossing Borders sale last fall when I was guest artist. 

KM: Where are you finding success in meeting your audience?

KK: I sell work at my studio and shop, in galleries in Duluth and other places, and do a few fine art fairs. I really enjoy directly interacting with folks and knowing they will use the work.  I mean for the work to be functional, not “pedestal” pieces. I make a lot of wholesale things for restaurants. The Duluth Grill buys at least 100 cups a month from me and resells them in the restaurant; it’s a cool, locavore place. 

KM: How did this partnership come about?

KK: A few years ago, they walked in during my Christmas sale. They proposed having my mugs there to drink out of and to see if they could sell them. I brought them 30 mugs and they sold them that same day. I said, “No, you are supposed to serve coffee in those!” Then I brought them another 100 and it has escalated from there. It is stressful to try to keep up with them! It’s cool to know that customers are taking the cups home and drinking coffee out of them. 

KM: How has this partnership changed your way of making or of “being in business”?  

KK: Since they started selling my mugs, they’ve been sending people to my studio, which has doubled my income!  Hey, you know any production potters that I can hire for a month?

KM: (Laughing)  … Well, I’m sure we can put the word out!

KK: It’s so exciting!  What a great job!  You learn everything when you work for another artist — all that stuff you didn’t learn in school: business … and discipline. If you want to be a successful artist or potter, you have to work every day. Hopefully, you get efficient so you don’t have to work 12 hours a day. And if you don’t know what to do some days, just go in and clean the studio. I do the thing I don’t want to first thing in the morning — clean the sink trap. 

KM: Are you today where you thought you would be in your career?

KK: I have been doing this stuff for years. Even 5 years ago, I thought, “what the hell am I doing?  God, am I going to do art fairs forever?”  But sometimes you have to. Then, things just started changing around. Things have gotten better; both the economy and my work. I used to open a kiln and think, “ahhh, 10% of these pots are OK.”  Now, it’s much better. Hopefully, it will keep getting better and better!  

Photos from top to bottom: Karin Kraemer, Pear Plate, 2013; Two examples of Kraemer’s jug form; at left, atmospheric fired; at right, majolica decorated; Kraemer mugs for Duluth Grill.