Artist Spotlight: Sarah Chenoweth Davis

Sarah Chenoweth Davis has been a welcome addition to past lineups of the American Pottery Festival and NCC is proud to represent her work in our sales gallery. She is part of the 112- year legacy the Oregon College of Art and Craft [OCAC] created. When we look at her body of work and hear her story, one might be drawn to contemplate the significance of aggressively supporting fine craft education and the markets that keep craft alive post-program completion. Davis began her higher education in biology, but like many she was always pulled toward the ceramic studio. She has worked in environmental activism, food service, retail, student services, ceramic production, and nonprofit leadership all while she was building her skills and her studio practice. A commitment to the life of a maker usually means one must cultivate an enviable work ethic and, as Davis says, “The resume of an artist is a long and diverse one.” 

Not that Davis would trade one minute of her experience. In our conversation with her, you will see a woman driven to create her own market. She takes full ownership of the decisions which have led her down her life’s path. She is proud of the work she has accomplished, in particular, she is grateful for the opportunity to do the work. Davis recognizes the value in community and collaboration, “One of the things I am most proud of has nothing to do with ceramics. For the first two weeks of my grad program [at OCAC], my cohort designed and built a bike hub for a low-income community in Portland. It’s run by a cycling advocacy non-profit and was an immediate success, growing each year with services and programs for kids and the community.”

Her goals for the future include bold exploration and market development in equal measure making it easy to see why she was awarded the Entrepreneurial Fellowship by the Applied Craft + Design Program (a collaborative program run by OCAC and the Pacific Northwest College of Art.) “I’d like to dive into work that’s unapologetically rich and luxurious, detailed and celebratory. [I’d also like] to see a product design project realized.” 

More details about what informs and inspires Davis’ practice follow in our Featured Artist Q & A.

NCC: Tell us about your work
SCD: I am a porcelain addict and a potter, through and through. My work begins on the wheel, with the majority altered right off the wheel and finished with soft slabs. They are charmingly pudgy, sometimes voluptuous. The real fun for me is in the decoration - bright, saturated color, high-contrast patterns, a variety of textures, and lots of details. I draw inspiration for decorative motifs from microbiology, city life, and objects close to the skin, like textiles, home goods, and personal care and grooming products. My pots are celebrations of intimacy and foils to technological interconnectivity. I design my work to encourage mindfulness and facilitate meaningful connection. 

NCC: Where do you make your work?
SCD: I rent a studio space in a scrappy, aged, industrial area, not quite on the banks of the Willamette River, not far from downtown Portland, OR. I share this space with three artist friends - two working in clay - Theresa Arrison & Benjamin June, and Emily Pratt who currently works in reclaimed tin and wood. I absolutely treasure my studio-mates - we are a little family of sorts, supporting each other through all things personal and professional, and while we are all doing different things, we’re all professionally-minded and have a really easy time sharing the space.

NCC: How long have you been making?
SCD: Hmmm….I guess always. I’ve loved baking since I was little, and I’ve always had art-making in my life. I remember doing drawing exercises alongside my mom as she read Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain when I was about 7 or 8. I had private art lessons for a spell when my school didn’t offer art, and as a teenager would make little animals out of kids’ molding clay. I caught the clay bug in junior high with my first ceramics class, but didn’t realize it was chronic until after I graduated college. In 2002 I made a promise to myself that no matter what life threw at me I would always have clay in my life.

NCC: Were there other aspirations before or competing with your love for clay?  
SCD: I was a biology major at the College of Wooster, but took as many clay classes as I could, minoring in Studio Art. I studied animal behavior (my senior thesis was on wolf howling - a dream come true project) and contemplated getting a Master’s degree in Conservation Biology. Then, a few years out of school, I realized I was spending every second of free time in the ceramics studio and part of me regretted not going to art school. You can’t get loans to get a second bachelor’s degree, so I decided to figure out how to get an MFA. 10 years later I enrolled as an MFA student. It was a non-traditional route to non-traditional program, and MFA in Applied Craft and Design.

NCC: Do you supplement your income as a potter?
SCD: I’ve always had at least one part-time job, usually taking on one or two temporary gigs each year. I currently work part-time as Gallery Manager at Eutectic Gallery. In the past year or so I’ve also had an adjunct teaching gig (ceramics) and worked as the Ceramics Wrangler (yes, the actual job title) for Gather:Make:Shelter, a collaborative art project engaging and benefiting homeless members of the Portland community.

NCC: What do you love most about making your work?
SCD: Ultimately, it is an energy release, a way to process thoughts and feelings that I can’t put into words and a way to share myself with others, a means of connection. The rare moments when I get to see someone pick up one of my pots and explore it with their hands, giggling or smiling in contentment….those might be the best moments.

NCC: What’s the hardest part?
SCD: Making the time to make the work, as well as making time to explore new ideas. I’m in a situation where I need to make money from my creative practice in order to maintain my studio, so I’m often focused on saleable items and maybe not taking as many chances or experimenting as I’d like. Life is a puzzle...or maybe a collage is a better metaphor, and I’d love to find a new way to fit the pieces together to make a slightly different composition.

NCC: What do you see as your biggest achievement so far?
SCD: Other than getting through grad school (gracious, that was tough!), I don’t feel like I have any big, singular achievements. So many things that I’m proud of were collaborations. I’m quite honored to have been invited (twice) to participate in the American Pottery Festival, where y’all make us feel like royalty. You guys are TREASURE to the clay, craft, and art communities. 
You know, my biggest achievement may be that I’ve held true to that promise I made to myself nearly 20 years ago. I’ve definitely sacrificed to keep my hands in clay - I’ve never had a salaried job, benefits, or a 401k, lived with my parents for a portion of my 20s, and have always worked at least 6 days a week. Sometimes that means sacrificing time with family and friends. But speaking of which, I’m not doing this on my own. I’ve been able to keep that promise to myself because I’ve always had family, friends, and peers that believed in me and the importance of the work. I’ve worked my ass off, but I’ve also been incredibly lucky. As I get older it becomes more and more important to me to recognize those gifts, practice gratitude, and put that same energy back out into the world.

NCC: What else are you excited about in your life?
SCD: I’m having my first solo show at Eutectic in June, and I have a vision...a celebration of indulgences. Last winter I picked up a new hobby - actually, the first hobby I’ve ever had - drumming! My husband and I formed a band called The Sidewalk, and last year we recorded an album, which we’re releasing on February 15th, called Postmodern LIfe. It’s been thrilling to take on a performative practice and has enriched my life in ways I could not imagine. I gotta say, I really have a knack for drumming. It’s funny though, suddenly being not good at something, re-learning the importance of really failing at something, and then working and working, pushing through and finding the solution.

NCC: What art do you look at for eye candy?
SCD: I’m obsessed with snuff bottles right now. They’re the inspiration for my indulgences. Like a lot of people Instagram is a big source for eye candy, and I absolutely love what Kristen Kieffer is doing with @nonclaypots. I do look at a lot of clay, as a porcelain addict would, and also because of my job at Eutectic, but I gravitate toward anything that displays a deep love of craft and respect for material. I’m happiest in the city, and love to explore new places on foot, particularly places with rich history that shows up in architecture and public spaces. I also have a sweet tooth for haute couture fashion, handbags, and really love department store window displays. 

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