Artist Spotlight: Kat Wheeler

Kat Wheeler is a potter from Knoxville, Tennessee. In 2008, she received her BFA in Ceramics from the Appalachian Center for Crafts at Tennessee Tech University. While working towards her degree, Wheeler worked part-time for two established studio potters, Peter Rose and Judy Brater. Under their guidance, she helped fire the wood kiln and maintain the studio while learning studio practice and production techniques. 

As part of her coursework, Wheeler completed a semester study abroad at the Australia National University in 2007, where she learned new kiln building and soda firing techniques. After completing her BFA, Kat came to St. Ives in 2009 to work at the Leach Pottery, where she is now the deputy studio manager. Wheeler has recently taken on a workshop space at the Gaolyard Studios in St. Ives where she spends evenings and weekends creating her own range of work. Join us in conversation below to learn more about her practice and her creative journey.

NCC: Tell us about your work
KW: My work is thrown using a dark, groggy stoneware. Born from my years as a production potter, I enjoy the repetition of throwing simple forms. I am interested in the contrasting textures that can be created using thick slips on damp pots. My favorite qualities of the material emerge while the clay is still wet. I try to accentuate those qualities in my treatment of my surfaces in a way that works harmoniously with the form. The work is then glazed and high-fired in a reduction.

NCC: Where do you make your work?
KW: I have a studio in the Gaolyard Studios, established by John Bedding, former apprentice to Bernard Leach. I also work at the Leach Pottery four days a week as deputy studio manager in the production studio, helping our team of seven potters to produce the Leach Pottery’s Standard Ware and studio pieces. I use my studio in the evenings and weekends to produce my own range of work. There are eight ceramic artists and a printmaker working at the Gaolyard. We each have our own studio space and share the kilns. I typically make my work in my studio, then bring it to the Leach Pottery to glaze and fire. It works out better to fire my work at the Leach, where I can keep an eye on it through the day while I work. 

NCC: How long have you been making?
KW: 17 years. I started ceramics classes in high school when I was 15 and never really stopped. I’ve been at the Leach Pottery for nine years and I’ve had my studio in the Gaolyard for about two years. Prior to that I would make my own work at the Leach Pottery as well. 

NCC: What did you do before that?  
KW: I was a fairly active kid growing up in Knoxville, TN. I used to dance, play soccer, and spend as much of the summer in the mountains as I could. 

NCC: What's your background in?
KW: I did my BFA in ceramics at the Appalachian Center for Crafts, in Smithville, TN. I worked for Knoxville potters Peter Rose and Judy Brater during my breaks from school. In 2007, I did a semester study abroad at the Australian National University in Canberra, where I met Jack Doherty, former lead potter at the Leach Pottery. I finished my BFA in 2008 and moved to St. Ives to work at the Leach in 2009. I only meant to be here for a year, but life got in the way. 

NCC: What else do you do for money in addition to making your work?
KW: My practice is fairly diverse. The bulk of my income comes from my production work for the Leach Pottery. I also teach the occasional class and do Japanese kintsugi repairs on broken pots. 

NCC: What do you love most about making your work?
KW: The freedom to be creative and problem solve. As much as I love my work for the Leach and the team that I work with, the nature of production work is to be quick and efficient. I find that when I get to my studio, I really enjoy taking my time and doing forms that demand a little more attention. But it is a balance, I also enjoy the freshness of a pot that has been thrown efficiently and with intent. I love seeing the rows of pots at the end of the day as a testament to how hard I’ve worked. I also love the technical and experimental nature of ceramics. If I had not pursued the arts, I would have liked to have gone into the sciences. But with ceramics, there is quite a lot of both disciplines. It presents you with a chance to be expressive, then work out the technical challenges of formulating glazes and firing it through. I love that the creative process is constantly evolving by putting all of your skill and experience into a body of work, opening the kiln, and responding to it by determining what needs tweaking and adopting the changes in the next series of work.  

NCC: What’s the hardest part?
KW: For me, right now, the biggest challenge is time. It’s difficult to develop new work in the limited time I have after a full-day’s work. However, working production at the Leach in such an intense environment and being surrounded and encouraged by the enthusiasm of our talented workshop team has had a profound impact on me and my work, so I wouldn’t trade it!

NCC: What are your goals for the future of your work?
KW: From May, I’ll be leaving the Leach production workshop and going down to one day a week coordinating our residency program for the Leach Pottery. The rest of the week I will be working on my own work in my studio at the Gaolyard. I’ll be sad to leave the Leach workshop team, but I am excited to dedicate my time to my own work and see how it grows! 

NCC: What do you see as your biggest achievement so far?
KW: I am proud of the work I’ve done for the Leach Pottery, especially seeing how the workshop team has grown through the years. However, in my personal practice, it’s a bit of a toss-up. In 2015, I did a three-month residency in the Hamada workshop in Japan and helped to fire Shoji Hamada’s wood kiln. It was a huge privilege to fire the kiln alongside 100 local potters from Mashiko. Last year, I spent two and a half months working in Jeff Oestreich’s studio to create a body of work for the St. Croix Valley Pottery Tour.

NCC: What else are you excited about in your life?
KW: I’ve got a wonderful, supportive husband. We live in St. Ives, one of the most beautiful places I could imagine, and also a hub of creativity. I love going for walks on the coast path along the cliffs of Cornwall. When I can find the time, I go out rowing in a traditional Cornish boat on the sea. 

NCC: What art do you look at for eye candy?
KW: I’ve always been drawn to printmaking, especially woodcuts, I think because I enjoy the marks and being able to see the process. St. Ives had a well-established artist colony and remains a town steeped in creativity. There is the Tate St. Ives, where I go to be challenged and to see modern art from St. Ives and beyond. There is no shortage of galleries in this town, but perhaps my favorite is St. Ives Ceramics, which hosts a fantastic collection of contemporary makers, as well as work from Leach, Hamada, and many of the apprentices.