By Regina Connell.
Dynamic. Bold. Pop. Fun.
Not words I usually associate with ceramics (lovely, but earthy, grounded, substantial…it’s clay after all). And yet here in front of me were ceramics that cartwheeled and cavorted across a wall, defying gravity, defying convention.
Then I walked around a corner and saw a very different body of work: still, cerebral, emotional.
But not a bit less moving or compelling.
James Aarons was clearly a guy we needed to interview. But where? Some of the press said that he was Bay Area-based, but that’s if you’re really stretching the boundaries of what you’d call the Bay Area. Mokelumne Hill, where James has lived for the last few years, is in California’s Gold County, a couple of hours from the Bay Area, the kind of small town (population in the 600s) that has an official Turkey in a Barrel day in November. Nice.
So tell me about your roots. I was in Pittsburgh PA for my formative years. Still go home a lot? I go about once a year. It’s not cosmopolitan, doesn’t have great food. (Yup, but it’s improving.) But back in the old days what we lacked in terms of first class food, we made up for in deeply resonant ethnic food. I love Pittsburgh, though, and it will always feel like home.
When did you get the creative bug? I’ve been creative all my life. I started making pottery as a teenager, mostly to get out of the house! I was actually pretty interested in all things craft, and it was that time when craft was cool. I tried lots of things, I even made macrame plant hangers. I’ve always loved seeing raw material transformed into a vision. It’s interesting and magical. That’s what is so great about us as human beings…that we can make things! What was it about ceramics? I had this curiosity about pottery. It may have been the time: in the late sixties and through the seventies when it was “cool” to be a potter.
Now at some point, you used to be a dancer. Yeah. I danced professionally and did some choreography for about 15 years. Ballet? Definitely modern. I loved it. I toured with several different companies in New York City including Nikolais Dance Theatre and Erick Hawkins Dance Company. In 1989 I moved to San Francisco to work with Margaret Jenkins and performed with her company in the Soviet Union (as it was known in those days.) It was exciting.
But you kept doing ceramics along the way. Yeah. How do they connect? I didn’t understand it then and but now I can see the connection between ceramics and dance…it’s all about gesture and lines and positive and negative space. With dance, it’s motion in the present, fleeting, the gesture is gone the moment it arrives. Clay can capture these moments of motion and retain them. I love that I can express many different ideas about lines and gestures in clay.
I’m also a perfectionist, I often ask how much I can push myself to make the most refined gestures I can make. I hope that comes across in the pieces I make.
I definitely see a Mid Century influence in some of your work. Absolutely, it’s there. I visited Falling Water early in my childhood and was inspired by the idea of cantilevered space. I also really loved the abstract expressionists. They infected me in a good way.
What I love is that your work–while being of the hand–is also so…I don’t know what else to call it…perfect in terms of color and finish, though your drawings are what shows the work of the hand. I erase the finger marks on everything I do so that what remains is only the markings I intend.
What’s driving you these days? My latest adventure: clay tablets. I’m playing with the idea of 3 ring notebook forms. It’s funny everyone’s talking about tablets today with the advent of the iPad and its cousins, but the idea behind them is also so old. My newest work references the idea of stone tablets…which with me turned into porcelain tablets. And I want to make a book out of them.
How do you sell your work? I have been doing high end craft shows for 20 years. I work with galleries and also enjoy working directly with consumers. The market’s definitely shifting, though, and as my gallery accounts have dwindled, my work with the design industry has increased. While the internet is great, the challenge for work like mine is that you have to see and touch it. But I do sell on line through Artful Home. They know how to balance contemporary design with more traditional craft and they work very hard on behalf of their artists, both contemporary and traditional, to place work in homes and collections.
Mmm. There’s definitely a blurring of lines (which we love) but it’s hard because people don’t know where or how to promote their work. Where do you think your work lives? Art? Craft? Design? That’s a tough question. I’ve lost my sense of exactly where I fit in the craft world, and I’m not really part of the art world. And I’m not a designer. Why don’t you consider yourself a designer? Because I spend so much time making the work!! But I do think about aesthetic principles a lot. (You’re not alone in the not fitting. But you do fit.)
Your work has a lot of humor and joy to it. Where’d your sense of humor come from? I’ve always loved good humor and levity. Who wants to be dour all the time?
What’s your favorite part of your work? Oh definitely experiencing the evolution of an idea. It takes a long time. It’s funny, I used to work with a gallery near Palm Springs, and the owner asked me how long a piece took to make. I think she thought I would say a few days or week…but I said several years. There’s so much behind the work I do. How do I choreograph the way markings fall…how do I balance the color…I love being able to stand back after a long period of time and see that I’ve gotten somewhere.
So tell me about a transcendent moment. One happened last Wednesday. I was driving home from the Sedona Arts Festival and I thought I would take the highest pass over the Sierras, up at 9600 feet. When I got to the top, it just moved me. The rock and the trees and the hawks and the wind and white tailed deer and the snow…it shocked me, it was so beautiful. I hope that I never lose the memory of that sensation.
It’s like being a performer on a good night. It’s very much like that. You’re at one with the people you perform with and the audience is predisposed to liking what you do. You’re completely in the moment. If you’re not completely there, you’re missing it. (Amen.)
What’s the best gift you’ve ever given or been given? Oh it’s got to be support–mutual support. My partner has spent the last 3 years in grad school. We both just feel like we’ve come out the other side. We give that to each other, we remind each other constantly that it’s OK. (We’re both creative people.)
Who would play you in the movie of your life? River Phoenix. The movie could be a sequel to the Science of Sleep. I love that movie. It’s courageous and outrageous and warm.
What are you reading? I’m reading a great book called Seven Days in the Art World. (One of our faves.) It’s great. It’s mindblowing to read the language. In particular, I love the way Sarah Thornton described Takashi Murakami…his process, how he hands people ideas and things and has them perfect his vision. Murakami is such a meticulous and driving visionary.
What do you listen to as you make your work? I listen to NPR and to music. Depends on what I’m doing. If it’s drawings, then I’m listening to classical music. If i’m doing something less tedious, more active, then it’s Siouxsie and Banshees, Marianne Faithful, the McGarrigles, Neko Case. (Oh, I’ve just given you a list of women, didn’t realize that.) But I’ve even learned to like rap. Some. But I’m not good at remembering who the artists are.
And what 5 things define you?
Pie (home-made, all butter pastry, of course)
All images courtesy of James Aarons, unless otherwise attributed