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This month's feature......
Potter and Educator
Like many young girls, Jen Allen was intrigued by her mother’s sewing skills. She was an eager young student, cutting and stitching by her mother’s side, creating rudimentary articles of clothing for her Barbie dolls. Later, as a teen, she worked part-time at a JoAnn fabric store. Even as a graduate ceramics student, she was emulating the contestants on TV’s Project Runway, designing and sewing clothes. “I was always fascinated by how something flat can become three-dimensional,” she says. Allen discovered clay during her college years at the University of Alaska in Anchorage and naturally took to the manipulation of this new material, molding and transforming it into shapes inspired by the natural beauty around her. “I was originally an Elementary Education major and was taking an elective course in painting,” she relates. “Throughout my childhood I was interested in painting and drawing, taking after school courses from a Russian master who taught me in a very classical way. That interest led me to the painting elective. When I ventured down the hallway one day, I saw how much fun they were having in the ceramics room so I registered for a hand building class the next semester. From then, I was hooked. I changed my major and never looked back.” The artistic journey that brought Allen to her current position as part-time instructor in West Virginia University’s Ceramics Program in the School of Art and Design and full-time potter has circled back to her origins, drawing inspiration and technique from her earliest experiences of the manipulation of matter to create beauty, and moves forward into new experiences, re-anchoring the artistic life within the new digital horizon.
Allen earned her BFA in ceramics and took a position as a studio resident at Rochester Institute of Technology’s School for American Crafts and later, received a scholarship for a summer residency at the Archie Bray Foundation. She then earned her MFA at Indiana University Bloomington. As an undergrad, she worked as a potter’s apprentice. “This experience taught me so much about how to make a living being a potter, something that is often missing in the university arts curriculum,” she explains. She is a member of “Objective Clay,” an online consortium of clay artists. She offers her “Potter of the Month” series on her website, bringing the material studio to the virtual world increasingly inhabited by young people today.
Allen’s work employs a technique based on clothing construction. She explains, “As an undergrad, I started experimenting with ‘darting’ technique, which uses cuts in the leather-hard clay to create form.” In the same way that a flat piece of fabric can be made to conform to the shape of the body, the clay is cut and “sewn” to create form. Other sewing techniques, such as folds, seams, darts, pleats, tufts and ruffles allow her to re-shape thrown pots into new three-dimensional forms. This mechanical technique is the basis of what has become the signature quality of her work. She explains, “Artists are always striving for their work to be honest, to fully encompass who they are. As I continued to develop this technique after grad school, it became a necessary part of my work – the very thing that connects my work to me, that makes my work honest.”
Allen works in porcelain, creating a variety of tableware. Her preference for functional pieces, like her technique, harkens back to her childhood. Her father worked for the US Fish and Wildlife Service, relocating the family all over the country in several moves. “We didn’t have family in close proximity. The extended family was scattered across the country, but on holidays they would all gather at my grandmother’s house,” she remembers. “The table would be set with the fancy dishes. There would be candles, flowers, a centerpiece. I loved the ritual quality of these meals and I strive to evoke that sense of beauty and joy in my ceramic tableware.”
Everything about Jen Allen is rooted in the real world. Her medium is clay from the earth; her lived history animates her work; the natural world is reflected in her pieces. Yet, over the past few years, Allen has undergone an awakening of sorts. “I was a panel member at a conference out west a couple years ago,” she relates. “The panelists were all the same age as me, yet it seemed that many of them were more in tune with current technological advances than I was. They had embraced social media marketing methods, while I was still unaware of their full potential. I realized that I needed to catch up. I gave myself an ultimatum: 1. Buy an IPhone. 2. Post on my own website at least once a month. 3. Start to buy other artists’ works online.” What Allen and the other panelists discussed was that the business world of art is already taking place online and that the other aspects of the life of an artist have a place online, too. Allen rues aspects of this reality: “The whole essence of pottery is sensual – touching and feeling the dimensional reality of the piece. I didn’t come from the digital mindset. But, if I am selling pieces online, I felt I should buy pieces online. And the fact of the matter is, 99% of what I have subsequently bought online, I have loved.”
The artists at the conference took action after their discussion and created “Objective Clay,” with the mission to “craft a hybrid space for sharing ideas and new work.” The group of fourteen banded together to create a website that features their work, arranges collective exhibitions, and maintains a blog for sharing. The idea, in fact, is not new. Artists have always created cooperative organizations, usually by geographical regions. Objective Clay expands that geography to the digital world. The affiliation enables the artists to share resources, expand markets, and inspire each other. For example, they recently set up their first "brick and mortar" event as part of the Gallery Expo at the annual NCECA conference in Milwaukee, WI. A portion of the online sales supports the operational expenses of the group.
In her role as educator, Allen seeks ways to address the digital mindset of her students. “Historically, teachers had all the answers. Now, students have access to a world of information online,” she explains. “The role of teacher has shifted from an all-knowing expert to a facilitator.” Realizing that this new reality is not going to go away, Allen sees no alternative but to embrace it. She uses her own site to share instructional material about her own work. Her “Potter of the Month” series is designed to convey the real life of real potters making a real living in the arts. For a woman who envisioned herself as a “potter in the woods,” this wealth of information so readily available has transformed what it means to be an artist today. Allen says, “I still like the idea of becoming a potter in the woods. Maybe when I grow up, that will be a reality. But for now, I still feel unsettled. And, being a potter in the woods today would not be so isolating, with the Internet and social media outlets so readily available, allowing you to be connected to your friends from afar.”
In spite of Allen’s reluctant capitulation to the online world, her primary mode of instruction remains personal. She maintains an active schedule of workshops and demonstrations. For example, this November, Allen will be on hand at in Lodi, New Jersey at Ceramic Supply Inc.’s Annual Open House. She has planned a full day of demonstrations. She will begin with some quick pieces on the wheel that she will then “alter,” using her sewing techniques of darting and pleating. In the afternoon, she will demonstrate finishing techniques, such as handles, and share her current glazing techniques. “I am experimenting in a monochromatic series that involves carving and slip trailing,” she says. “The glazes pool into the carvings and break over the slip trailing.” She plans to bring several examples for display. Visit her website at www.jenniferallenceramics.com to view her work, learn more about her technique and find out about upcoming learning opportunities with this talented potter.