By Heather Palmer.
As I walk down Lisa Neimeth’s street, I wonder if I will be able to guess which house is hers without relying on the house numbers.
I see a small San Francisco-style front yard that is verdant and cool with tender plants growing tall. The house is giving off good vibes. This has to be it… It is. After I ring the doorbell, I see the note telling me to go around the side. I start walking towards the back yard on a path that maintains the good vibes.
On the side of the house, there is little pond that looks like it was abducted directly from a Japanese botanical garden—its presence is surprising, yet it fits in perfectly. Walking a bit further, I arrive at the guest cottage that serves as Lisa’s showroom, and past that is the yard. Still beyond that is the infamous chicken coop building that is Lisa’s clay studio.
Lisa comes out and startles me—I’m so enchanted with the space that I don’t notice her arrival. She offers me a chair and we sit in the yard and talk. We talk about work, about striking a balance between wholesale, retail, and self-expression.
Add to the balance the important questions of handmade vs. factory made, small accounts vs. big corporate accounts, then subtract the physical limits of the body, and multiply by self-motivation and you’ve got an epic equation that we hope one day will be solved absolutely. But we don’t solve it this day.
In the lovely back yard, we find our way to talking more specifically about Lisa’s work. It becomes clear that the things that come out of her work are actually the very same things with which she surrounds herself: from objects to experiences to environment, each carefully chosen. And from what I have seen, she makes good choices.
Looking around the studio, it seems like you are a collector of things. Do those objects find their way into the work, either directly or indirectly? I have always been a collector of objects and images and they absolutely find their way into my work. Since my pieces are mini tableaus of what I observe and put together, a lot of that is inspired by the objects that amass in my studio and home. I like seeing the incongruous in things and how one object can bring to mind something very different when paired with something else.
I also use a lot of “collected images” and try and snap those on my camera when I see them—it may be a bird perched in an odd place or nature colliding with detritus that encourages further observation. Once I have banked these images, I often transfer them to a drawing on a plate and often use the very object I have collected and found to impress into the clay.
Can you explain a little about the actual process of making your work? After I have decided on a theme or an image or even just a look I want to achieve, I then begin its transfer to clay. I start out with blocks of dark California clay and pound it and put it through the slab roller to achieve a thickness that I want. I then cut the shapes of the plates and press them into existing forms, or pukis, as the Native American potters refer to them.
Once formed, I sponge [everything] smooth and then start etching, drawing, and pressing into the clay until I get that image I am going for. Plates dry and then I sand them completely and fire once. Then they are glazed using a base glaze first and then going back in to glaze the details. Then [it’s] fired again. Sometimes, a third firing is necessary to achieve the colors that I am going for.
I’ve seen people at shows really interacting with the pieces and putting together their own collections in stacks and groups. I love that. It seems like your work is best in groups or collections. Do you make the work in groups? I think because each piece tells a story or is saturated with a color that [is], as someone once described [it], “off but totally works”—which I just loved—it just invites putting them together. Though, I do not always make them in groups.
So, when people are ordering and they want advice, I always tell them that all the colors go together—you cannot go wrong pairing any of them. Once people get that, they really enjoy mixing and matching and freeing themselves to see things work together in an unconventional way—it is what will always make their own collection unique. And with the multitude of themes and images [used] . . . people [can] read a lot into each plate and I think coming up with their personal narrative is exciting.
How do you decide on the imagery you use? It seems like there is a narrative or a hint at a story line—is there a story? Or is it a little more loose? I use a lot of what I see around me in the natural and urban world as inspiration. The always interesting thing to me about living in a city that is so immersed in nature and living near the beach is the constant juxtaposition of urban exclamations in a natural setting. I love the graffiti out at Ocean Beach and the colors used and the placement of it.
I am always aware of birds, having a parakeet myself who is very dear to me, and so I constantly am taking note of birds perching. I follow two hawks regularly out at Ocean Beach that are always surprising me [with] where they land, as well as the wild parakeets that fly into my yard every afternoon and perch up in our large cypress trees.
I am also inspired by fashion, photojournalist accounts of other cultures, and stories . . . I will conjure the image in my own head and translate that to a plate. So, it is both random and intentional at the same time. But because there are often real figural images on the plates, people will come up with their own stories that resonate with them and that is completely lovely too.
I know you have great love for New Mexico. What are your other favorite spots in the world? Having grown up in New York, it will always hold a soft spot in my nostalgic heart. I also have spent a lot of time traveling through Mexico [and] Central and South America and truly love the cultures and the aesthetic there.
I’m always interested in how people arrive at their primary medium. How did you end up working with clay? I was always drawn to three-dimensional, more tactile art forms, having done a lot of found object collage and fooling around in a primitive sculpture studio that my dad kept in our basement. I was fascinated with all of the materials but clay—the heaviness of it, the smell of it—I was drawn to the most.
So when I got to college, I took a ceramics class and kept taking them and kept clay in my life ever since. I love its forgiving quality and that it is not so delicate in its primitive form and can be manipulated in so many ways. I love the traditions of ceramics that exist all over the world and the way it can be a piece of art, but completely functional. I love that it can last forever.
Your work seems very sort of uninhibited but still refined and intentional. Is it difficult to strike that balance? Well, I think that that is a great way to live one’s life, right? I think if you can use all the random things life sends your way but organize it in a way that makes sense structurally and aesthetically, then you can come out with something really special and unique.
This last answer really lasers in on Lisa’s work. There is a feeling of play and randomness to the imagery she uses but it also has a sound structure and aesthetic sensibility. The outcome is always something really special and unique.