Andrea Piller is a ceramist working in Prince Edward County. She welcomed us into her home and studio and shared with us her journey as a ceramic artist. Andrea spoke with us about her transition from art school, how the space an individual has effects the work they make and what they buy and who inspires her.
We'll just dive right in! We saw from your website that you moved to the county in 2012, is that right? You were living in Toronto before. Can you speak to us about your decision to leave the city, and why for this county in particular?
AP: I think I've always coveted space. When I first started studying at OCA I was interested in environmental design, how we live, and how we use space. But having a teeny weeny space all the time, because that’s what I could afford, I looked at the county as a memory place, of space. And I wondered how far my real estate money could go. So I investigated, mapped that money. My kids had grown, I was cramped, working in a garage, and I was tired of it. I looked at maybe eight properties and I came into this home. I looked at Tony, my realtor, and said this is out of my league! He said, oh let’s just see. I fell in love with the property. It’s very casual in terms of its landscape, and when I'm back here I could be anywhere. I'm transplanted into some sort of imaginative place. It has a lot to do with being past 50 as well, leaving something behind, a marriage, grown children, and I think, oh, I could be 14 again? It’s a transition to a different kind of age of being a woman, being mid-life, not concerned with a lot of prior things. There was an imagination spark that happened here for me.
EP: That must have been so freeing and exciting.
AP: Yeah and I was lucky to inherit someone else's really smart design sense. I walked into this space and said uh oh, this could be my home. And now five years later I'm thinking about sustainability, how do I look after the roof, how do I look after the paint. Worst case scenario, I find something really dilapidated and live out the next 20 years in squalor. I think about that too, going from rich abundance to some rags.
Did you find a difference in the art you created when you moved from the city to the county?
AP: It certainly amplified things that were concerning me. There's a certain maturity that happens with experience of looking at the natural world, even when I was in the city, turning to it as an escape. Seeing a more pristine landscape that is suddenly constantly there. It does permeate your being in a big way. Now, when I go back to the city, it’s a little assaulting because I’m a little more sheltered here, with the trees and the grass. It can almost be taken for granted watching a coyote and then three deer. If that’s part of my week, that’s really important to me. I don't need to be in the thick of people life as much is what I’m trying to say.
EP: That sounds wonderful!
AP: I'm quite surprised, there's more and more young people exiting the city too, because we have a different sense of life. I think young people are much more scrutinizing than when I was in my 20's.
NF: There's a certain amount of pressure to be young and go for it in the city, but it's really not for everyone.
AP: There's a high amount of competition in the city as well, it’s a bit over saturated. It's very much about your possessions and the tiny space you have to put them. And that’s also changed the market for what I do, because I do notice it takes a long time for people to make a decision about an art purchase, because A) it's not going to be cheap and B) they need to ask how it fits into their life.
EP: When we only have so many square feet every bit needs to count. I've never thought about that.
AP: It's changed how I'm able to actually sell my work too, which worries me because I try to stay with a young eye in my head about how it's happening. And there are things to consider, things like Etsy for the handmade, and shipping, ordering, how am I going to do all that? A part of me is very rebellious, and I'm at a point where I need a strong package of a website, I'm finding my website is telling a story but I'm not sure it’s the one I need. The market is teeny in Prince Edward County. So I can be a maker here and my market is elsewhere. I'm realizing that my website could really be the way to market what I need. Even having just six images. I heard CBC talking about the "brutalist" website, you almost hand type the whole website, five images, that’s it. And it prompts people to investigate.
NF: It’s a hard thing to decide to do, because what are those five images that represent you.
AP: And it changes, one year to the next.
EP: I've never thought about having to negotiate the making space and the marketing space, when they are almost in two different worlds.
So what drew you to ceramics in the first place?
AP: When I was at OCA I did the usual foundation year, the set required year. And then in the second year you start to diverge a little bit into your own choices. I was very interested in environments and what makes human life, inside homes, places, and objects. I really liked beautiful things and started to play with clay! I actually have kept a piece, from an epiphany moment I had, where I realized I could make a 3D painting!
AP: I have a good friend in Kingston, a painter, Lori Richards, and throughout that first year of school we were together because of our last names initials, R and P. Her love of painting moved her into that media and I moved more into drawing and understanding my world through drawing and then reinterpreting it in clay, in a 3D way. I have always used my hands and if I were a painter, my hands would be in the paint. I remember taking glass blowing and being very upset that I couldn’t touch the object that was being formed. You are much more reliant on a design eye since you can’t really touch it.
Can you tell us about your time at OCA?
AP: It was pretty liberating when I think back. It was 79'-83' and OCA was transitioning from the 60's and 70's abstract expressionism and there was a new thing happening. Memphis design started to infiltrate, where it was cleaner lines in design objects. I guess I witnessed that whole globalization starting to emerge as well as new technology. It was exciting and the whole punk movement was very much a part of it, warehouse parties and spaces, those were very much still the days of lots of reckless warehouse living and cheap rent. You could live in Toronto marginally. But I also was in a marriage that sort of bound me to something much more conservative at the time.
EP: And what was your initial path after you graduated?
AP: It was a patchwork of things. I chose to stay at home with my children in those early years and found I was like a lot of people now, I was very critical of our education system so I worked really hard to make sure my children were getting the kind of education that I thought they deserved but at the same time trying to be an artist. Lots of juggling as lots of women will tell you.
EP: Of course!
AP: There was a day job working with flowers, which was exciting, and making my own work, submitting to galleries. The 80’s and 90’s were really wonderful years to have work at lots of places because there seemed to be a cheque all the time and the appreciation for the arts was very high. There's since been a shift in how people want to put things in their homes. I think as well the availability of goods at places like Homesense has really hurt the market. I can’t tell you the amount of times I've heard on my studio tours, "Oh I could get that at Homesense." So get it at Homesense! I try to not make objects that are that. I'm very careful of what I'm making. It better be artistic.
EP: It better be you!
AP: Yes, that’s how I feel because I can't compete with the ten dollar mug, I just can't.
NF: And it’s not worth it for you to try.
AP: The Globe and Mail had an article about ceramics being the new "hot thing" right now and we are all excited about ceramics. And then I started to dig into the article, it was showcasing American work, which I thought was odd. It wasn’t everyone, but I would say about 90% of the artists were American and then when we invited the Globe and Mail to a show at Wychward Barns that was pretty important, The Fusion Clay and Glass Show and we received no response! So this is indicative of how quickly media will move on, "we've done that article, we are not coming to that show!"
EP: The trending moment is over!
AP: Yes and it could be only two weeks later! It's very volatile, and it again reminds me to stay the course, do your own truth and megaphone it to something. You can’t be everywhere. So being in Prince Edward County, I can hide a little bit. I've experienced the Arts on Main collective gallery in Picton, and currently wholesale and/or consign to KOKITO, in Bloomfield, a beautiful little store. They have a sister store across the street called Sand and Sumac. They have been very supportive and interested in what I'm making which is nice. It's that moment that is curated. And then there is a gallery in Toronto that still represents me.
NF: I grew up in Belleville and I spent a lot of my childhood going to Sandbanks and knowing that there's this community of artists in the county. When we found out we were able to come to Spark Box for the week it was exciting to us to have this amount of time together to explore the area.
EP: Its like a spotlight on the area!
NF: Yeah and it has really inspired us to want to do it in more places!
AP: A Governor General Visual Arts Award was awarded to a friend of mine who lives in this small little town outside of Bancroft and just quietly is doing his work! This inspires me. And yeah you are going to see the big noise in Toronto for sure but there are so many next hits!
Have there been any significant shifts in subject matter or the ways you create your work throughout your career?
AP: The process at times stays the same, I build very much the same way that I built many years ago, mostly coiled, occasionally I do shift to working with slabs. When I came to the County, I started thinking about slabs of clay because of the way the land looks, it's made up of slabs that join together. I think if I pick up the object that I made 30 years ago and compare you would see constancy. I use certain shapes all the time, sometimes decoratively on the pots, like circles, and lots of texture. I suppose the thing that changes the most is knowledge. So you have a technique that allows you to get to the concept faster because you know that you have to do it in a certain way. Which isn't to say participating in a good work shop here and there isn't a bad idea. And so much can be learned from the internet! Being an artist now I think has less to do with acquiring technique, I think it has more to do with passion, and if you have the stamina to be here 30 years from now. I'm sure you know Paterson Ewen, a Canadian painter. I remember listening to him speak, and one of the students asked, what's your secret to success? And he said just keep doing it because everyone else is going to stop.
EP: Interesting! It's very true.
Could you speak about function versus art and how you navigate these two worlds as a ceramist?
AP: Well we can talk about what's even right here on this table. This teapot has replaced a Tony Clenell teapot, one that I loved but it got burned in a grassfire when I first lived here, I lit the whole field up, it was really embarrassing. So this one, I picked up at a thrift store and it was made in England and it pours beautifully. I appreciate that it's white, and nothing, and I don't have to think too hard about it, it's an antithesis to the one that I lost.
NF: And it functions well.
AP: Right! And then this little piece was from a girlfriend who shared a studio with me for a long time, so I care about it. It's washed last, I'm just more thoughtful when using it. This one is more about my heritage because it’s a little Hungarian pot. And then those are thrift store finds. I love going to thrift stores. I look at these little teacups with amazement because they're really well made objects and I criticize my own cups via really well made things. And then there's this fantastic artist John Chalke who was out of Alberta. He did all these salt glazes and beautiful little objects like that. I get a little kick out of things like that. I have a little teacup collection. And then this is my daughter's little interpretation from when she was maybe 5. These all explore this idea of what is an object and why do we care about them so much. In my own making I'll move into explorations. More sculptural non-functional pieces, where, as long as its stable, I get to explore surfaces in a different way. I'm not concerned with the functionality of a glaze, it doesn't matter as much. They are a little bit more forgiving. Every moment out of the kiln brings something completely new.
EP: Do you lean one way or the other?
AP: Nope I’m drawn to both. I realized that potting for me can be marginalized by making things only about functionality, because you get caught into that, and you're not thinking artistically you're thinking design wise. So I can't let go, I still see a little landscape in this mug, I think that’s the blending of artist, experimenter, and potter in me.
NF: I guess they exist with each other.
EP: The dialogue between the two is always going to be there.
AP: And people know that! They'll pair a painting with a beautiful ceramic piece in an exhibition, or you'll see it in their homes, they've curated them that way. Even in the most simple homes, even with not a lot of money there is still something about people putting together their life. There is more concern about that, that capsule wardrobe, or a capsule tiny home.
NF: Owning less but having more important objects.
AP: So maybe it’s a perfect point in my life, because I don't have to make as much because I won't sell as much. And that I was very cautious in my mind about. When I saw the Dale Chihuly show at the AGO I was really reminded of this. His career went on a big trajectory. He's maybe ten years older than myself, and I loved his work and the way he made things, and then the team came and then came this kind of corporate way of making this explosion of his practice. I thought wow, if everybody did that it would be kind of boring. I say to myself, I'm glad that he's doing that, but what you're doing is just as important. Because not everybody can afford a Dale Chihuly. I've had people take a half an hour to choose one little pot and I love it because it creates that communion between people because they've carefully chosen something.
We saw in your studio a sketch of a new piece, so we were wondering about your process of planning a new work.
AP: It can be a surprise. Sometimes you pull the car over because you can't believe what you're seeing, there's a hundred and twenty turkeys in a field. And sometimes it comes from looking at the same thing over and over, it slowly comes. The apple trees here have been inspiring me a fair bit. It sticks in my mind for a little while and that’s usually what it takes, a little walk, some time to think, and then I'll draw. I’m careful to not look on Pinterest. It's a wormhole and there are a lot of objects, especially in the states, that are really overpriced for the technical thing that it is. I get caught between my old painter self and it's sort of interesting coming back to that question about how did I know it was ceramics, is because it's not really ceramics that holds me, it's all of it. It's my painting self, drawing self, artistic self, all into the clay. Grayson Perry, is a British artist who said "Would you ask Damien Hirst if he was a painter or artist? Or would he answer he is a taxidermist?" which struck a chord with me because people are always asking do you call yourself a ceramist or an artist? So he is just pushing the question aside in a way, because does it really matter?
How closely do you stick with a plan? Say you have a sketch or a plan in your head, is it important for you to follow through with it and have it look the way you had imagined?
AP: There are hits and misses for sure. I didn’t quite imagine that piece, I thought of it differently and I didn’t quite get there. It was about roses and when they finish their bloom, but they ended up being too much like teeth. So yeah there are disappointments and then there are successes like the piece that I call “Milkweed”. I did those two pieces at the same time and I think that one was more successful. You have to give it up to the kiln as well, because there is little control, not like when creating a painting where blue is blue. The layers of glazes react differently each time.
I think there are close to about 20 potters in the county, and about twice a year we try to get together and meet up and form some sort of guild but we are so different all of us, that I don’t know if it's possible. It will be interesting to see what happens over the next ten years with the collection of artists that are here.
NF: I'm sure its only going to grow with the increasing appeal of the county.
AP: I think so.
Here is a fun question: If you could collaborate with any artist, alive or dead, who would it be?
AP: I would love to meet Patti Smith and take her words and her experience. That would be one absolutely. I think I would like to have a conversation with Landon Mackenzie too, a West coast Canadian painter, and as far as potters go I guess Hans Coper, he is dead but I love his work. I would like to know more about the politics of Anselm Keifer’s paintings, they are so grand and exuberant, gutsy. And I'd maybe have Eddy Vedder for dinner.
Do you have a studio routine?
AP: I tend to sort of junk out on my emails and social networking for about 20 or 30 mins first thing and then close the laptop, head to the studio. I find my body and shoulders can get very kinked up working 4 or 5 hours so I stop after that. So I go for a walk, get the mail, that’s if I'm home. There are other times I have to be in Toronto, I've got two days of teaching at a school board in Toronto so I’ll get up at 5 am, get on the road by 6, and be in the classroom by 8:30. So there are certain routines. I have an auto-feeder for the cats, I try to not be gone for more than two days at a time. If I'm gone for longer, then I get someone to help me out. For example, I've got a possibility of a residency coming up! I had an old associate call me last September and ask if I would be interested in being a part of a residency group. The project is called "Muscle Memory" and it’s in Hungary, which I couldn’t believe!
AP: I've always wanted to go to Hungary and here was the impetus. It is in May! That could be a sort of shift in my working. They have incredible facilities and technicians that will help you towards your goal. So I've been thinking a lot about primitive outdoor firing, and smoke firing. I have an old kiln and if I could rig that to be my outdoor kiln for smoke firings and reduction firing because you need combustible material and there is a lot of smoke. I won’t have any more grass fires (laughs). So I'm looking forward to that kind of shift where I'm less reliant on hydro and making work that still is mine but with less glazing, sort of skipping a step and digging holes, forming work outside. I always look forward to having the doors open in the summer.
NF: It kind of makes sense for you to take that route, going outside more with your practice because nature is such a large influence on you.
AP: Yeah! And gaining confidence in an expertise there. You could spend months just experimenting and making a lot of messes so I thought if the residency gave me that knowledge how I would just come back here with the knowledge how and jump right in! I'm looking forward to that and making work about all the cells of being a woman. I'm now 56 and thinking what's coming next, I have hopefully a good 20 years of making still, and I've been setting up certain heroes to look at. There's Beatrices Wood, a potter who kept going until she was like 104.
One more question perhaps! Is there a book, video or movie you have seen recently that you would recommend to people who might be reading this? It doesn’t have to be about pottery, it can just be something that you enjoyed!
AP: Well, I keep thinking about the movie La La Land since I saw it! It's a bit outlandish, I'm not a musical aficionado, I don’t go see a lot of musical theatre, and its two unlikely actors that I didn’t expect. But there are some soliloquies that really spoke to me about having a dream, going forward with it, and not giving up. I'm realizing, I didn’t give up and it's still ok. It's good, it was pretty inspiring.
What a lovely conversation! Andrea is currently in Hungary on her residency and we can't wait to see what she makes there! You can find her work at andreapiller.com.