At the age of two and a half, on the occasion of his sister’s birth, potter Brett Kern was given a gift that would foreshadow his ultimate life ethos: an inflatable, vinyl dinosaur. His utter fascination with the toy is one of his earliest memories. Today, the thirty-something artist has a wide following of admirers and collectors of his popular clay dinosaur series, along with other “inflatables” and fantasy figures. His development as a potter has led him to an understanding of clay as what he calls “a metaphor of the permanence of memory.” Kern is planning a move to the Pittsburgh area within the next year, to establish a studio where he will pursue his artistic exploration of memory on a full-time basis.
Raised in Erie, Pennsylvania, Kern pursued an education in the arts at California University of Pennsylvania, earning a B.F.A. in Ceramics in 2007. His graduate studies at West Virginia University were put on hold when he had the opportunity to study at the school’s joint institute with the Jingdezhen Ceramics Institute in China, in the autumn of 2007. Kern says, “This came at a great time. I flew to China, having never been out of the United States. It made me realize how small my place is in the world, but also how important it is for me to tell my story. It gave me motivation to do my work the way I had been doing it – not to apologize for using commercial glazes and slip – because I was getting the results I wanted. I saw these expert Chinese potters using commercial glazes, so that was validating for me.” Kern return to the U.S. and went on to earn his M.F.A. at W.V.U. in 2010. From there, he spent a year at the Red Lodge Clay Center in Montana before returning to West Virginia for a faculty position at Davis and Elkins College. He is currently an Assistant Professor of Art there.
Kern admits that he is in some way “holding on to my childhood,” through his focus on popular subjects in his work. He speaks of the contrast between the “throw-away” nature of childhood toys and the lasting impact these items make on the psyche of a developing human. By recreating them in a solid medium, he gives them a physical permanence that comments on both their original transitory physical nature and their lasting reminiscent nature. He says, “Because I use molds, the process is really like fossilization. It preserves the object – or an image of it – in a rock-like representation.” He is careful to make his representations exact, duplicating the creases and seams of an inflatable toy. His dinosaur series range from small to large in size. “It is difficult,” he says, “to find large inflatable toys. I tried to sculpt them, but it was very problematic. So, I learned to make my own from vinyl.” He cuts the material and glues together the pieces, then deconstructs the toy to make the various parts of his molds, dividing them where the seams already are and pressing clay into the legs and arms to maintain the shape during the mold-making process. He says, “The cast comes out very smooth. I clean it up with a sponge. For glazing, I use a sprayer because dipping creates too many uneven surfaces.”
Kern’s pieces are very popular, creating a rare problem among artists – his work sells, causing him to completely re-make almost everything for a new show. A few years ago, he began work on a series of classical Hellenistic figures that are larger pieces and therefore do not sell as quickly. “I identified with mythological characters as I was growing up,” he explains, “so these, too, are giving permanence to memories.” He sees them as self-portraits, of sorts, that give a nod to art in the museum space. Whereas his toy series employ a low-brow humor, the Hellenistic series is slightly more high-brow in its comedic elements. “I do consider myself a pop artist,” he says, “but one whose work has a more personal, rather than social, commentary.”
Over the last year, Kern says he has been preparing to take the big step to being a full-time working artist. “I’ve been saving my money and looking for a house in the Pittsburgh area where I can live and work. I have all the equipment I need. I’m looking forward to having just one full-time job, instead of two!” Kern says he enjoys teaching at Davis and Elkins College, but is ready to experience a larger community with the stimulation of a vibrant art scene. He plans to offer workshops in building and mold-making and envisions mentoring assistants and interns in his studio. Kern’s artistry will be a welcome addition to the Pittsburgh ceramics scene, as we see what new memories he will solidify and share.
To learn more about Brett Kern, visit www.brettkernart.com.