Sanam Emami is a year-round gallery artist represented by Northern Clay Center’s Sales Gallery. She is an Iranian-born American who is currently a professor at Colorado State University. I spoke with Sanam to satisfy our curiosity about how she creates her surfaces. The interview, however, went well beyond talk of process to include the history of decorative crafts, storytelling, and the tension between the making of labor-intensive work and the marketplace for such pottery.
About the Work
KM: Describe some of the major influences for your work.
SE: History is an influence—the way different cultures record stories and events, especially in art and architecture. Islamic art deals with representation and abstraction and rationalizes or interprets the world through ornament and pattern. I am interested in the way something so vast and seemingly chaotic, like nature, can be pared down into a geometric system. To me, this is both visually compelling and pleasurable. This is a way of storytelling—taking the experience apart and building it back up again—putting an experience through your own filter, interpreting it, and re-creating it.
KM: What stories are you interested in understanding or telling?
SE: The Silk Road—trading routes from Europe, to the Middle East, to China during the sixth to ninth centuries—may have been one of the first recorded global exchanges. The trading of goods and ideas had profound effects on production and demand— especially in the pottery made in China and Iran. That time has an interesting correlation to what is happening now. I like to fantasize about those cultural exchanges and imagine how the exchange of goods and ideas was translated into art objects.
KM: Your undergraduate degree is in history and you studied the Middle East, women in art, and architecture. Then you took a few years off to find your way to clay through residencies and apprenticeships with potters. Did your academic studies stay with you during those years, or were you more concerned with making bowls and production pottery?
SE: The academics definitely stuck with me, but I was very concerned with making something functional. My entry into making pots was tied to their accessibility and intimacy, but also to the complex set of criteria required to make a functional pot. Because of the Middle Eastern influence, though, I wanted to make work that was also very personal. In the mid- to late-90s, the landscape of pots was very different. Not a lot of people were interested in decoration. Decoration didn’t seem as ubiquitous. I wanted to take the pot, and my interest in patterns and building surface, and put them together.
KM: Why do you think decoration and pattern making may have gone out of style or become less ubiquitous?
SE: Decoration, pattern making, and ornament have always been a part of visual culture. Fashion trends change, and ornament and decoration are affected by the style of the times. I do think there are historical examples where the attempt to eradicate ornament has been more forceful. In the early 20th century, with the rise of Modernism, writers like Adolf Loos portray ornament as uncivilized and criminal.
KM: What do you think accounts for the (relatively recent) rise in decorative work?
SE: Contemporary pottery is just more diverse today. Yes, there is more decorative work, but there is also a wider range of production modes (slip casting and 3d modeling in addition to press molding and wheel throwing). The field is more inclusive, and the desire to bring beauty and decoration back into the discourse and the visual culture is part of that diversity.
KM: So, are you a potter or a decorative artist?
SE: I would say both categories describe my work. The functional pot is the framework for the decoration. I could be doing this on a canvas—and sometimes the clay feels more like a three-dimensional canvas, especially when I am making tiles— but the malleability of clay allows me to shape the canvas and record all the marks in a physical material and in three-dimensional space. My work is rooted in the craft and concept of function, and the forms are rooted in historical archetypes. The starting point in the studio is to reference an object such as a cup or bowl that has been made thousands of times. I can then decide all the details— the mode of production, the subtle details in the form, and the visual ideas of the relationship between form and surface.
About the Process
KM: Briefly describe your process—what are the major steps taken in order to have a final piece? It seems like there must be 17 steps!?
SE: I throw, hand-build, and slip-cast. The designs—or stencils—are usually found images that I play with in Photoshop. I make silk screens out of them and screen commercial underglazes on to newsprint. When I am ready to use them, I cut them out, wet them with water, and press them on the leatherhard piece. Using silk screens and commercial underglaze allows me to utilize a range of colors. My decoration often happens in the green state. Silkscreen prints on newsprint are great because they go on green. When I put the cutout silkscreened image from the newsprint on to the pot, it is a positive image, but it is also a negative because I brushing slip over the cutout. Then I put more transfers on top, so they start to camouflage or overlap. When I peel all the transfers away, you start to see layers of slip and transfer decoration. Then it gets stamped. I make my own stamps. Mostly made out of clay and bisque. Some are wood. Then I fire the piece.
KM: And when you get to glazing…?
SE: Glazing is another layer of information—it allows me to bring back some idea of a grid. The stamping originated from a grid system, and the stencils break up the grid, usually moving in a curved way around the form. The glazing can draw attention to the curvature of the form, or to the grid of the stamping.
KM: What clay are you using?
SE: I tested white clay with colorants. I ended up trying to create a clay body that is reminiscent of the Meissen (German ceramic factory) brown porcelain. It is a combination of a brown Mason stain and Albany or Alberta clay that I wet mix. I love the way the white slip looks over the chocolate brown clay. The slip-cast pieces are cast porcelain—I recently started using black Mason stain in my porcelain casting slip. I glaze fire to cone 6.
KM: How could the time it takes you to make each piece possibly allow you to compete in the pottery marketplace?
SE: That is a great question and something I think about often. The Bernard Leach and the Yanagi model of the unknown craftsman seems less influential today, but there is marketplace pressure to keep prices at a point that both encourages sales and prevents the pot from sitting on a shelf and never being used. There is a lot of time spent designing and researching my work. Part of my job as a professor in a research university is to push the research component of the work and not only focus on production. Calculating the time spent researching ideas and designs, manufacturing prototypes in clay and in the computer, making molds, stamps, silk-screens are all part of the design research. Then I begin to make the work in clay and experiment with bringing all the parts together to create a cohesive whole. Calculating the cost of all of this is complex and challenging and your comment about design versus execution seems relevant here. How do we value the skill and experience that a potter or artist develops over time relative to the time spent making each object? Perhaps as a society, we are still questioning the connection and value of thinking versus making. How do I compete in the marketplace? I make a limited number of pieces and continue to push the research and development of the work, and I make work that can sell at different price points. The cups, bowls, and plates (no matter how time consuming and complex) stay at a lower price point. The vases and other large objects are priced higher and produced in a much more limited number.