Where there's a will there's a way. One of the hardest things to be is a successful artist, ceramicist, Jenny Blumenfield, tells how she balances her passion in ceramics and living in New York City.
What originally brought you to New York?
I’m from LA but went to school in Providence. When I finished I didn’t want to go back, so I moved to New York. It was an easy transition, a lot of the friends I had in Providence also moved here. I studied ceramics at the Rhode Island School of Design.
How did you get into ceramics?
I went to a new school when I was in 7th grade and it was very academic. I never really felt like I found my people until I took a ceramics class there. The teacher took me under her wing, and I would always go there after school and get lost in the studio. She really encouraged me to apply to different programs that I could work towards college credit.
When it came to applying to colleges I ended up only applying to RSCD because I had done some pre-college courses there.
That teacher sounds amazing.
She was great. She would often bring me books to take home from her private collection, and really made my high school experience much more manageable.
It’s never a fun time for anyone! So how did you end up having a career in ceramics?
I assumed that when I moved to New York I wouldn’t pursue clay, because it is so difficult to find studio space and it’s extremely costly. You also really need other people around because it’s so labor intensive. There were a bunch of factors that made me feel like I couldn’t do it.
When I first moved here I began working in the secondary art market. I worked at Christie’s for a little while. It was very corporate, especially coming from an art school in Providence, which was really alternative.
I would have nothing to wear. [Laughs]
I would have holes in my stockings and get in trouble for skirts that were a little bit too short. I was working there to figure out what I wanted to do in the city.
After that I went on to work for a little gallery, and from there I realized that the sides of the job that I loved were when I could work on packaging and presentation for clients.
I reached out to a few ceramicists that I knew were working the in the city and I was put in touch with an artist named Simone Leigh. I started working for her as an assistant, and went on to become her studio manager.
During that time another friend suggested I look into this non-profit ceramic school in Manhattan called Greenwich House Pottery. I applied there and got the job. One thing kind of led to another. The ceramics community is pretty small.
Through working at Greenwich House Pottery I met other ceramicists who actually have full time careers in clay. I kind of went from one assisting job to another. I learned production, sales … all sides of the ceramics world.
And were you creating your own work throughout this time?
There was a two year gap from when I left college and actually started doing my own work again. During that time it was hard for me to feel inspired. The city is so intense, it was hard to feel grounded.
Greenwich House Pottery was a huge part of creating work again for myself. We didn’t receive any health benefits but we did get 24 hour access to the studio, unlimited materials and a firing stipend. It really encouraged me to make work without the pressure of whether I could sell it, or do anything with it.
I would make anything that I wanted, and it really helped to propel me to figure out what I wanted to say out of the objects I was making.
How would you describe your work?
It’s a broad question because of the range of work I make. I have two distinct styles. One is more sculptural, and the other more object/consumer based. They are both based on my personal experience, as well as people’s perception of clay. I guess it’s really about the identity of ceramics. The moment you mention that you’re a ceramicist people assume that you make pots and bowls.
With my object/consumer works, people see them and like them, but they don’t know what they’re for. Because the function isn’t clear it becomes difficult for people to understand what to do with them. Like these trays here, I often recommend that they can be used to hold soap, as a spatular rest, to hold jewelry, a paper weight …
My more sculptural pieces are based on the female form. While they are about challenging and reshaping the identity of ceramics, they are also about the objectivity of clay and women. There have been a lot of comparisons between the silhouettes of vases and women’s bodies. That’s what I’m investigating with those pieces in particular.
Are you still working with other ceramicists? It’s always great to talk about the realities of being an artist, especially in New York.
I do a lot of production work for other businesses. I work a lot for MQuan Studios. The designer makes a lot of ceramics and clay based objects. I build a lot of things for her, and also take on a lot of freelance jobs.
Right now I’m making porcelain lampshades for a company, and also putting together a proposal to help this older, very well established ceramic artist to have a stronger social media presence.
All my side jobs are clay related. It can be challenging because there is a limit to how much you can make from those jobs, and because the community is quite small. It drives me to create and build the consumer side of my work.
You have a great studio space now, I assume you need a lot of equipment?
Yes, you need kilns. We have two here. You also need quite a large space, that has a lot of storage. Clay takes up a lot of space.
Would you say that’s the biggest challenge to being a ceramicist is New York?
Yes, space is the biggest challenge. If you do commercial and production work, you need to be able to create and store the work to sell.
What are your goals for your personal work?
I would love to show my sculptural work more. I want to get my work out there, and obviously be able to work full time on both sides of my work. I get a lot of satisfaction from both.
The sculptural work is so personal to me, it’s nice to have the more commercial/object based pieces to balance them. When I create those I can relax a bit more and not have to worry so much about what I’m trying to say.
Are there any particular people who have helped you along the way?
I’ve met so many kind and generous people. There are definitely artists that I look up to, but I learn the most from working with and seeing more established ceramicists that have been working successfully in New York … people that have figured things out. A lot of them are women who juggle families, a social life, and a career. I’m always really impressed by it, they do it in such a way that I didn’t realize could be done.
The women that I’ve encountered are so level-headed, and allow things to flow. It’s a process, I’m not sure I really understand it yet. Just being in their work space is really helpful.
Your studio is in Bushwick. Where do you live?
Williamsburg. I’ve lived there for a really long time. I have a rent-stablized place and I’ve really seen the neighborhood change in such a rapid way.
I don’t necessarily enjoy Williamsburg that much. Especially over the last few years, it feels like a mini Soho. So many tourists come just to walk around, so it’s kind of lost it’s charm. So much reclaimed wood! There are still some little dive bars around.
I like Bushwick, it feels a bit more un-tapped.
What are some of your favorite places to go?
I’m half-Japanese so I love Japanese comfort food. There is a place called Shabu Tatsu in Williamsburg. It’s a hot-pot place and it’s delicious. Go with another person because there is so much food. You get a big plate of beef, another plate of vegetables and tofu, then a plate of noodles and broth. After that you have ice cream. It’s amazing!
What’s the best piece of advice you could give?
I recently received a great piece of advice; go where the love is. Ever since I heard that everything has made a little more sense. You can always spend time complicating things, and stressing about things but at the end of the day you know very clearly what things make you happy, makes you smile and makes you satisfied.
Where are some of your favorite places to take out-of-towners?
I mainly like taking people around the city by foot. Exploring different boroughs, and walking across the bridges. I love to take people to Flushing and get dumplings. Very low key adventure days!
It’s nice to remind myself of the beauty of New York City when people come to town. If I’m walking around myself, I look up and see the sky and feel immediately better.
Photography by Stephanie Geddes ©