Studio Visit: Ceramicist Jen Dwyer

Rococo decadence from the artist on the ground floor at the Wassaic Project

In a former corner office on the 10th floor of 625 Madison Avenue, artist Jen Dwyer and curator Lauren Hirshfield transported guests of this year’s SPRING/BREAK Art Show into a decadent Rococo dreamland. The installation, appropriately entitled “Dreamer’s Delight” supported dozen of Dwyer’s ceramic art pieces: anthropomorphic teapots, tarot cards and curling fingers, among them. Less than a week after the art fair closed, we wound our way two hours north of NYC to the town of Wassaic. There, one of the most adventurous and engaging art experiences upstate, the Wassaic Project, houses Dwyer’s studio.

After she graduated from the University of Notre Dame with an MFA at the end of May, Dwyer began to apply for residencies. “I was accepted to this one shortly after the summer and I almost didn’t come,” she tells us, sat beside a sketchpad she’d been working in moments before. “I thought I needed to set up life in the Bay Area [where she’s from] but a good friend told me that I needed to come. That it was the best residency she’s ever done. I got here and I fell in love.” Dwyer transitioned that residency into a fellowship. With 13 years of experience working with ceramics under her belt, she now guides Wassaic Project’s program and helps residents if they want to get into clay.

On the wall of her studio, on the ground level of Wassaic Project, Dwyer’s composed a mood board of her own story, which features everything from Old Masters paintings to Beauty and the Beast references. “I grew up loving clay,” she says. “It’s a very tactile medium and it’s a soothing process as well.” Dwyer began to inform that love with discoveries ranging from the texture and the emotion of photographer Alex Prager’s work to academic research on the history of porcelain—specifically the 17th and 18th centuries in Europe where “it was like a fetish almost, and porcelain was considered white gold. I’m interested in this idea of obsession.”

Her latest works incorporate her interest in gender studies, feminist literature and the idea of rewriting fairytales. “The age-old tropes found in fairytales can perpetuate a patriarchal structure but, if the author is changed, you can use it in a subvert message and rewrite the narrative. That’s where my practice is now.” It’s no small feat translating these ideas into ceramic sculptures but Dwyer approaches an entire body of work with the ideas she intends to infuse, then using each piece as a component of the greater concept.

“It’s such a process-heavy medium,” she continues. “Most of my work is fired at least five times. I will build the piece, then put an under-glaze coat on it. I’ll bisque fire it. Then, I will put a glaze coat on it. I will then glaze fire it. I will usually glaze fire it again. Then I will put a luster coat on it and fire that.” All of these steps lead to her magnificent texture and tones.

“I think that’s another thing I love about clay,” Dwyer says. “I sculpt forms. I throw forms. I slip-cast some forms. Then I’ll dip lace into liquid clay, slip, then I’ll put it on the piece and it burns out. The possibilities are endless.” These variations are visible in her studio, where works lay across shelves, desks and tables. Even more work hangs on the wall. Dwyer surrounds herself with carefully arranged work. Part of her studio is reminiscent of the tea party installation from SPRING/BREAK, too—with shimmering pastels placed about.

Dwyer didn’t only conceive the pieces for “Dreamer’s Delight,” she also envisioned the concept. “I drew up a sketch and drafted a proposal and made a pin-board and sent it to Lauren Hirschfield and she was on board. The whole installation, putting it all together, was really collaborative. I never thought we’d actually nail my idea but it came out exactly as I wanted: I wanted people to walk into this alternative utopian fantasy and feel at ease.” She achieved that; the results dripping in decadence.

In back of the Wassaic Project, Dwyer makes use of the kiln shed. As she guides us through the facility, she emphasizes the importance of ceramics as an art form today. “It’s really an exciting time where boundaries are being fused,” she says. “Fine art, design, and craft, these hierarchies are all blurring together.” Her work is the perfect example. When Dwyer’s fellowship ends in May, she’ll pursue studio space in Brooklyn, where she hopes to acquire her own kiln.

Images by David Graver