The earthy smell of clay, campfire smoke and thick Georgia humidity… it will overcome you as you enter Julia’s studio space at Callanwolde Fine Arts Center, in Atlanta Georgia. Julia teaches classes on Friday nights, demonstrating the foundational techniques to the art of ceramic sculpture. I recently stopped by to talk to her about her work and watch her fire some raku pieces.
Julia carefully watched the clock, the flame, the finish of the glaze, and listened to the sound as she fueled the fire. Pulling the glowing red sculpture out with giant metal tongs, and placing it upon a “nest” of shredded newspaper, she added sawdust and fanned the flames until we were surrounded by mini bonfires. She then smothered the flames, producing a thick smoke that would ultimately produce the dark cracks you see in certain raku glazed pieces. It’s an art of unpredictability, generated by high temperatures and atmospheric changes, but the firing process is only half the battle… it all begins with a wedge of clay.
“I fell in love with clay as a primary medium for the endless possibilities the material can offer.”
Unlike many 2-D works of art, clay requires the artist to manipulate the work physically, shaping it in 3 dimensions until it comes alive. And in Julia’s case, it becomes alive with physical emotions. Emotions that you can clearly see in an animal, but perhaps not so clearly see in Julia, which is why she uses these figures as an outlet for her state of mind.
“Everyone will react a little differently through their own lens of experience, and I use the animals as a catalyst for understanding the complexity of human nature.”
Julia sculpts horses, bears, rabbits, and even sea creatures.
“After sculpting horses for the majority of the time I’ve worked with clay, I have currently moved on to sculpting rabbits. They are a much smaller animal, so the scale I’m working on is more realistic. The rabbit’s ears are such a large focal point and they can tell you so much about what the animal is feeling or what they are focused on. I humanized different emotions or feelings with the rabbits.”
When did you begin sculpting with clay? And was this your first choice of medium or did you begin somewhere else?
As a very young child I always enjoyed playing outside and digging in the red Georgia clay. With my parents both being artists, they always had art projects going on in the house. Instead of going to Toys R Us as a child, my mom would take me to Michael’s or other art stores. When I discovered Sculpey Clay ( the colorful clay you bake in the oven to harden), I went to town and made many families of horses. In high school my art teacher was into comic book art, which was something I didn’t have much interest in. He did eventually do a ceramic project with the class and for the rest of the school year I begged him to let us do more. I was interested in painting, advertising design, and sculpture but not until I took my first ceramic class at SCAD in Savannah, GA, did I realize clay was the medium that I would fall in love with. I spent every evening and weekend working in the ceramic studio.
Clay is my medium of choice for many reasons… I spent every day growing up around horses and when I moved away to college I did not have them around anymore. So I started sculpting horses. With clay being a very tactile medium, I was able to find a similar comfort that I had when brushing the horses. Clay has a memory of every compression which directly captures my energy and feeling.
How has your work evolved over the years?
Over the past 9 years I’ve learned many technicalities about working with this medium. Sculpting a piece and learning how to work with the clay is only half of it. Figuring out how to finish with glaze is the other half. There are many different firing techniques, with endless possibilities. Over the years I feel that my work has evolved from a larger scale with a contemporary and controlled finish, to a smaller scale of work with a less controlled finish. Now I’m working with more atmospheric kilns. Which means what is happening in the atmosphere of the kiln affects each piece differently [ex: the raku fire in the video below].
Who would you say is the biggest influence to your work?
In elementary and middle school we did not have an art program. My mom would volunteer and come do different art projects with my class. Both of my parents have been a huge influence in my life. They both work very hard at what they do and have become successful artists. Although my mom is a painter and I do sculptural work, I see a direct influence within our subject matter and the way we capture movement and energy.
I’ve had so many people tell me that art is just a hobby and you can’t survive as an artist, so without my parents setting great examples I would not be where I am today.
Deborah Butterfield is another artist whose work has inspired me over the years. She uses the horse image as a metaphorical substitute for herself. Also, Beth Cavener, who inspires me with her technique and the way she attributes human characteristics to animals.
Written and photographed by Monica Farber for Paprika Southern; video by Monica Farber