Apartment Visit: Helen Levi
April 12th, 2013 | Home, In Stock, New Arrivals
We recently visited photographer and ceramicist Helen Levi at her apartment in Williamsburg. Helen made us tea while we talked about her pottery (which you may recognize from photos of our studio visit with Amy Merrick or if you’ve visited our Home Shop), her dog, Billy, and her participation in the New York Times’ Portfolio Review this weekend.
What was it like growing up in the East Village?
I didn’t really understand how big the city was until high school, when I began venturing out on my own. As a little kid my routine was so small, walking to school, walking to the playground, and so on, so it felt like a little town. Big trips at the time were taking the subway to my grandparents’ house in Queens. I thought Queens was so far away.
You’re a photographer. How did you get into pottery, and when did you become serious about it?
Pottery had always been a hobby growing up, and in college I taught a class at my school’s pottery co-op. After graduating, I kept teaching part time as a way to support my photo projects. I got serious about it when my childhood pottery teacher asked me to cover all her classes when she went on maternity leave. Doing it full time, with free access to all the materials and being in charge of all the firings, I had total freedom to experiment and redo things when they weren’t quite right.
How do you feel your photography background has influenced the way you think about your work?
That’s a question I’ve been thinking about a lot; photography is my total passion, but there’s a different type of satisfaction I get from making something that I can use every day. I love having a huge cup of tea every morning, and it’s my routine now to reach for that same giant mug I made each day. It’s utilitarian in a very straightforward way. In photo, no one uses the end product that way.
Can you tell us a bit about your process?
I sketch before I sit down at the wheel, to come up with the silhouette and eventual glaze pattern. But the ceramic process is very humbling, even when you think you’ve done it all right, there are so many steps where something could go wrong. So there is a lot of trial and error. I once met an artist, a designer, who said he thinks all ceramicists are masochists, because there is so much loss for each finished piece.
We’re drawn to the smooth, organic shapes and earthy tones of your tableware, and the glazes are really beautiful. What inspired the look and feel of the tabletop pieces?
I’m inspired by old dishes I see, and by what I feel is missing from my own kitchen. I remember my grandmother used to wash berries and then lay them out flat on a dinner plate in the kitchen, and you’d walk by and pick one off. So I was thinking about that with the colander. I’m also working on some new pieces inspired by old enamelware camping dishes – I like making dishes out of clay that I’ve seen made out of other materials.
For materials, I like using a few different clay bodies: the brown clay for me is the most traditional and old school, clay that I usually associate with very natural looking and earthy glazes. So I like using the white clay glaze to try to contrast that earthiness with a more modern, clean look, while still showing the material as it is. The only colors I use are custom mixed underglaze that I hand-paint on. I like mixing small batches of color and knowing I’ll never be able to recreate it exactly because I don’t keep measurements. I also use porcelain clay because I love the feel of throwing with it on the wheel, so smooth and fine in contrast to the brown clay. My childhood teacher compared it to cream cheese.
We saw some photos you took in Mike Tyson’s old abandoned mansion in Ohio and have to ask – how did you come across it and what was it like?
I went to school in Ohio and heard about it when trying to find out about spooky haunted houses and places to shoot. Mike Tyson used to live there before moving to Vegas, and the Ohio house has since been repossessed. I visited it twice while it was sitting empty, involved in some sort of litigation; it was huge, gaudy, with animal print, chandeliers, indoor ice cream sundae bar, and so on. There were animal cages outside and a basketball court. One of my favorite images is the one of a family of black swans who lived in the pond in front of his house. They really fit the somber mood of all this opulence sitting in decay.
Tell us about your dog!
My favorite question! Billy is almost two. He’s a true blend of breeds, a Heinz 57 varieties. I photograph him a lot because I think he’s so handsome. He’s got a real hangdog look, which I think must be from having some hound in him. It makes his face look very expressive.
What are some of your favorite spots in the neighborhood?
I haven’t lived in this neighborhood long, so I’m still finding my key spots. I love Mogador because I used to eat at their other location in the East Village. Also Oslo because they carry my favorite muffins from Blue Sky bakery.
Many thanks to Helen and Billy for having us over! You can find her work at our Home Shop and Westport store.This entry was posted on Friday, April 12th, 2013 at 4:15 pm and is filed under Home, In Stock, New Arrivals. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.
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