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Inside Steven Alan

A Visit with BTW Ceramics

  • We recently had the pleasure of visiting Brooke Winfrey, the artist behind BTW Ceramics. While we hung out in her sweltering Greenpoint studio, she talked to us about her process, and we got to see some of the work in various stages, including items we carry in our new Chelsea shop.

    How long have you lived in New York?

    About ten years now. I live two blocks away from the studio, so it’s nice to be able to walk to work. I’m originally from Tulsa, Oklahoma.

    How did you get into ceramics?

    I took a class in college right before I graduated from college, just for the credits. In the first class I was like, “I love this!” I became addicted and just kept going around to studios in Brooklyn and Manhattan. I like getting dirty so it made sense! Over the years, I started to pursue it seriously and started teaching after three.

    It’s definitely hard at first and can take a decent amount of time to get the hang of. I teach on Grand Street, and it’s really fun to see people start and really struggle but then get to a point where they feel like they know what they’re doing. They get so excited. To see people overcome the challenge is cool and inspiring. Sometimes they think of things that I would never have thought of.

    Is there anything or anyone in particular that has influenced your design sensibility or aesthetic?

    One of my favorite artists is Louise Bourgeois. Her work is obviously very, very different and in a different vein, because a lot of the stuff she does is really dark, but the minimalism of her work, and the idea of letting shapes and lines speak, is definitely a direction that inspires me.

    How do you typically start when designing a piece?

    I definitely have ideas going in. Sometimes, due to the nature of the clay medium, it may change  a bit as I go along, but I usually have a decent idea of what I’m going for. I do a combination of hand building and throwing on the wheel. I like everything to have a human touch. They’re all fairly irregular. To get the lines I draw them, paint the underglaze, then scrape it away. I was experimenting, making the shapes of the cups and I always liked the idea of inlay, so I was looking at the shape of the cup and started making lines that followed it, mimicking the form, and kind of went from there. To get the irregular edges, after I throw it, I just kind of tear a piece back and leave it raw. I do the same thing with the cups – I leave it overlapping where it comes together.

    And the lovely rippled texture inside?

    Those are the throwing lines from the wheel that my fingers make. I  used to smooth them out, but now I prefer the way they look, so I leave them.

    What’s a typical day like for you?

    It’s fairly varied. It’s very different every day but usually I try to fire just at night. I put the kiln on at night before I leave, because if you’re in here when it’s on, it gets really, really hot. I have stuff  cooling in there right now. Most of the time I try and make the raw stuff first at the beginning of the day so it has a decent amount of time to dry out. It takes about eight hours. It does depend on the size and thickness of each piece. It’s not completely dry but then you can work on the actual decoration, because you can’t do that when it’s wet. So there are all these different stages in the process with many steps. First it’s raw, and then you make the basic shape and let it dry out. You wait until it reaches a stage called “leather hard” – when the clay is still technically wet but you can pick it up and manipulate it and it won’t lose it’s shape. That’s when I make the lines. Then when it’s really completely dry, you can smooth it and sand it.

    What are some of the challenges of working with the medium?

    The unpredictability. There’s a certain amount of control – you can get rid of cracks and sand it and get it really clean, but once it goes in the kiln there’s definitely a bit of, “we’ll see what happens!” Every once in a while you end up with something you didn’t plan for but actually like. The pieces also shrink when you fire them, and then so you kind of have to plan for that and think bigger in order to get the size you want.It definitely takes a while to get used to it. The bigger you go, the more exaggerated it gets. There are some potters who spend a lot of time figuring out the shrinkage, especially if the vessel is supposed to be something very specific, like a soap dispenser.

    What are you working on next?

    I’m trying to go a little bit more towards different shapes, like vases.

    Many thanks to Brooke for having us over! Come by our Chelsea shop at 144 10th Avenue and check out her work.

    - Photos by Chad Davis

    This entry was posted on Thursday, August 2nd, 2012 at 1:02 am and is filed under Home, New Arrivals, On Location, Photos. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.

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