Artist Interview: Laurie Shaman

One of the great joys in my work as the Sales Gallery Manager is having the opportunity to get to know the great clay makers we represent in the gallery. There are several artists from outside of Minneapolis with whom I have a steady, professional relationship, but really don’t know too much about. Laurie Shaman is one such artist. She will be featured in the sales gallery this summer, so it was clearly time to have a good, old-fashioned afternoon chat and get to know this (new) old friend. I am pleased to share much of our conversation with you.

—Karen McPherson

KM: How long have you been represented in the NCC sales gallery?
LS: Since the mid- to late 90s. I was working in earthenware then, but had a similar palette. NCC’s director at the time saw my pots at Lillstreet and thought they would be a nice addition to the gallery.

KM: What were you doing at Lillstreet?
LS: I was the director, overseeing the gallery and educational programs for 12 years, and I was a studio member. Lillstreet started in 1975; I was there from 1988 – 2000, when it was in its former building.

Bruce Robbins, Founder & CEO of Lillstreet, said this about Shaman, “Laurie was an important part of the growth of Lillstreet. She was a very creative gallery director, putting together some of the best shows in our history. She was also instrumental in the development of our education programs. Laurie did all this work while remaining a full-time artist at Lillstreet.”

KM: And where do you make pots now?
LS: For the last 10 years, I have had a studio on my own in Ravenswood, a former industrial area on Chicago’s north side, a few blocks from Lillstreet.

KM: Are you a full-time potter?
LS: Yes, it was my focus in college, and continued to be for 10 years when I was a studio potter in Mineral Point, WI. During those years, I concentrated on wheel thrown, mostly ash-glazed tableware. When I relocated to Chicago, I became more interested in handbuilding, and eventually merged vessel making with drawing and painting.

KM: Tell us about the visual imagery on your pots.
LS: Animals, bird life, the figure, landscape, elements of architecture… they are all common subjects for painters. I use a variety of these subjects, or might have a run on one image for a while. I keep a collection of books, clippings, photos, and postcards, around from travels to the UK, Italy, and other favorite places, for ideas and reference.

KM: You mentioned Italy, is that were the inspiration for your landscapes comes from?
LS: We haven’t been to Italy for some time now, but it does leave a lasting impression! When I draw towns I am not usually looking at a particular place, but working from my imagination. I do like medieval European villages and am interested in older architecture. I have had the fortune of traveling to England each year for the last 9 years. My husband teaches painting at a college in the Lake District of England, a mountainous region in Northwest England on the border with Scotland. It is a beautiful place with a heritage of artists and poets such as Beatrix Potter, Wordsworth, and Coleridge. Each year I do quite a bit of walking the hills and summits. That landscape means a lot to me; I think about it every day.

KM: I am familiar with many makers who express a connection to land through form and surface, but your work makes me wonder if you’ve had training as a painter.
LS: I took many drawing and painting courses at Webster College from Phil Sultz. His wife, Jan, was my ceramics professor. In Phil’s courses, we did a lot of gesture drawing with charcoal, and used the eraser as a drawing tool, re-working the surface and creating drawing on top of drawing. Keeping the gesture alive in my work—both in creating vessel forms and drawing the surface imagery—is really important to me. When I apply underglazes on bisqueware, I begin by building layers of color and wiping with a scouring sponge. Then I add the slip trailing. I then go over this with a paintbrush dipped in water to make the lines inky. This process gives the work depth and makes it go beyond mere illustration. Even if the image is say, a perched bird, I hope its environment conveys some little drama, some snapshot of a larger scene.

KM: Your hand is evident in the forms, and is well matched with your surfaces.
LS: I generally just cut pieces of clay out freehand. I make very deliberate choices about the “worn away” quality of the seams, edges, handles, and the lips. What interests me is some hint of classicism inspired by vessels, objects, and architectural fragments. I see my work as having a combination of classical and contemporary elements. I would love to visit Greece, Turkey, and parts of the Middle East some day.

KM: Your walks in the English countryside, your diligence at maintaining a studio practice after a full time job… I wonder how much you are interested in invention? Or is the peaceful practice you have in your studio why you make and what you want to achieve?
LS: I do treasure the solitude of the studio. But, I believe any good artist is always in the process of reinvention and experimentation. In each cycle, I will make 50 – 60 things, then bisque. When those pots are sitting on the table and they are all white, I think… What have I done? How can I do this to myself? I am forced to take a dive. I always have the challenge of trying to make each batch better. I keep a 3 x 4 foot sized paper on a wall so I can loosen up and get a flow going. With each cycle of work, I am striving to make the painting better. I know the looser the drawings get, and the more animated the forms, the better. The biggest challenge of making better work is to let go with confidence.

You may get a shipment and say, “Oh, here is another robin. That’s great, we sold the last robin.” But in my mind’s eye, they are all so different and there is so much to learn. You can repeat the subject matter, but if you feel interested on the inside, it is worth continuing.

Your question about invention is interesting. I know I am doing something that works for me, but I am also open to transformation. Potters are blessed with many opportunities to have their work change and be influenced; maybe that will happen for me, too. Even as you get older, you can still go on residencies and travel. I hope very much for that.

KM: Thank you, Laurie. NCC is so pleased to have you in the gallery!
LS: Minnesota is so well known for the span of potters, and the variety, integrity… and the roster of makers is terrific. I have forged a lot of enduring pottery friendships!