Sean O’Connell – Artist Interview
How would you describe yourself?
I would say that I am inquisitive, detail obsessed, and a bit of a control-freak, but also easy-going with most other things . . . and I try as hard as I can to be an engaged, conscientious human-being.
When were you first introduced to ceramics and by whom?
I was in my Junior year at the Kansas City Art Institute in the sculpture program and had decided to enroll in the ceramics elective course taught by an artist named Karl McDade. I recollect barley passing Karl’s class with a low ‘C’, but the feel and process of the material stuck with me. In my Senior year I opted to do an independent study in the Ceramics Dept. with Cary Esser and was supported in my decision by my Sculpture Prof. Jim Leedy. Those events were the beginning of my ceramics career, but the thing that really solidified my continued interest in ceramics was after I’d finished undergrad and had taken up a work-exchange for the KC Clay Guild . . mopping floors in exchange for studio space. I spent a year there working and learning and becoming enamored with making functional pottery. After so many years in school and focusing on conceptual art, I was mentally exhausted and found making pots to be the perfect remedy . . . I believe at the time I thought, “oh . . . this is so much easier than making sculpture.”. Of course, that was a naïve and uninformed perception of pottery at the time, however that led to many years of intense investigation. Over time my interest deepened, the nuances of pottery forms began to take on more meaning and context and I began to recognize the complexities and challenges of making functional pottery.
Who are your ceramic influences?
I look at and study ceramic traditions form all over the world, but some specific examples of historical ceramics include 8th-12thcen. Islamic pottery, as well as Japanese, Korean, and Early American ceramic traditions. I am intensely interested in “Cross-Road” cultures . . those that have been at the intersections of great empires’ trade routes and conflicts.
There are also so many wonderful modern & contemporary ceramic artists that I find influential: Jun Kaneko, Ron Nagle, Akio Takamori, Julia Galloway, Robert Turner, Linda Christianson, Bruce Cochran, Rosanjin Kitaoji, to name a few, but also my peers . . . the people I work with and whose work I experience daily.
Who are your personal mentors?
I would consider Julia Galloway to be a personal mentor. She was my professor during Graduate School and really took me under her wing. Julia opened a lot of doors for me over the years too; either through her direct advocacy or through the many lessons I learned in her presence. To this day, Julia and I stay in touch and see each other fairly frequently. I continue to rely on her as someone who I can bounce ideas off of, get professional advice, or just lean on a little when things aren’t so great in my life.
I would also like to mention Rick Hirsch, he was one of my other graduate professors and really opened my eyes to the importance of having a personal philosophy to guide ones’ decisions as an artist. He believes in standards and an uncompromising commitment to making . . . this lesson has taken longer to sink-in, but I think its been one of the more important lessons I’ve learned over time.
What does “being creative” mean to you?
‘Diligence’ I suppose . . . I don’t have a lot of faith in the idea that creativity is the product of inherent talent as much as I believe one’s creativity, like anything else is learned and strengthened through use . . . the 10,000 hour rule definitely applies! So ‘being creative’ for me is about flexing those muscles by going and working in my studio day after day. It can be a very slow uphill battle sometimes, and other times it flows freely.
Can you describe the time when you first realized that creating was something you absolutely had to do?
I don’t think I frame it in terms of “have to do” . . at least not strictly in terms of being a ceramic artist. As I was growing up in my late teens and into adult-hood I felt like I brushed past numerous potential creative professional career paths. I’ve had a long-time interest in culinary arts as well as music. In all honesty, I went to art school as an undergrad cause I didn’t know what else to do and a good friend of mine was going to the Kansas City Art Institute. It turned out to be a good choice, but I’m not convinced it was the only choice I could’ve made.
What kind of creative patterns, routine or rituals do you have?
I’m not one for ritual, but I definitely have a rhythm to my studio practice. It is largely a result of the tension between my desire for downtime and the necessities of deadlines. I will make work furiously for a month or two, exhaust myself and then take too much time off before the next deadline and have to scramble all over again. I don’t think its laziness or lack of motivation on my part, its just that I really cherish my free-time and like to do a lot of things outside of the studio . . . Knitting, hiking, painting, creative research, etc. this is in addition to all of the other normal day-to-day things that can get pushed aside until they pile up and need to be dealt with . . . paying bills, responding to emails, updating my website, house-hold chores, taking care of my health, etc.
On the more positive and proactive side of things, I suppose I have a few patterns that exist to help my work grow and change over time. In every round of studio work I make new pieces with new patterns, these don’t always make it out to the world, but they fuel change and new ideas. I also have a longer-term pattern of making some major changes to my work every 5+ years or so . . I’m currently on the cusp of one of these changes. They generally include a switch in clay body, firing temp and atmosphere, as well as decorative motifs. However there is a sensibility that runs through each body of work, connecting it to the whole over a period of time.
Which other creative medium would you like to pursue?
As I mentioned I have a lot of interest in Culinary art and music. However, I prefer that they remain non-professional endeavors. I think that way they are a creative refuge and don’t become stressful or tedious the way my day-to-day ceramics job can. I also do a decent amount of painting and drawing . . . though the amount of time I have to commit to 2-D work fluctuates a lot during the year. I think the painting has some very direct correlations to my surface work on pottery, and of course, cooking goes hand-in-hand with pots and tableware.
How do you know when you have found the appropriate way to express, investigate or explore a specific narrative?
I follow my nose . . . meaning my intuition. This can be re-enforced with feedback from peers about ‘what is’, or, ‘is not’ working in a piece, but as the authors of our own work, we are responsible for that final edit, or that final addition. Trial and error is the simultaneous enemy and ally of the artist. I don’t know of any other way of arriving at a conclusion than failing multiple times to reach that conclusion and refine the approach, or idea, or the process needed to get there. And ‘there’ is different for everyone . . . there’s no universal formula or recipe for a successful piece of art. A good analogy is the image of a horizon . . . the edge of the horizon is the desired artistic/aesthetic/creative solution. Of course . . as you approach, it always recedes . . so a final answer or solution is an illusion, but there’s a lot to discover between you and the horizon.
What informs your work?
As mentioned earlier I look at a lot of historical ceramic work, but I also find its useful to look outside of the field and find sources that can inform your work without becoming self-referential (as in the case of making pots and only looking at pots to make those pots) Fiber art is a huge source of inspiration for me, specifically Japanese, African, and central Asian fiber traditions. I also look at architecture and its relationship to table-top forms as well as natural phenomena like mountains, valleys, and how can these concepts all interweave or inform one another. Listening to music gives me a sense of emotional content to what I make . . for instance, I ask myself the question, “what does that song look like if it were solid?” “How would be come form?” These questions are not meant to necessarily bring about a concrete facsimile in any of my pots, but simply to understand what the content of an object is beyond its superficial appearances.
What’s the best advice you ever had about how to be creative?
Originality is only a by-product of long hours of copying, digesting, and investigating the links between what we love and what we make.
What do you hope to impart to other emerging or “pre-emerging” artists?
Don’t be in a rush to achieve notoriety. I think its ok to have that as one of your goals, but if its is a focus too early in your career you can easily get stuck in a career rut where you will be reluctant to take risks or step away from formulaic solutions.
What do you listen to while you work?
Music: Pretty eclectic . .. indie, world music, blues, jazz, just about anything . . also podcasts. . particularly History podcasts (I particularly like Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History)
How do you know when a piece you are working on is “done”?
mmmm . . . sometimes I have a really clear agenda, as in the case of making multiples with a pattern/deco that I’m familiar with . .. other times when I’m working in less-explored territory I suppose I have a developed sense of intuitive reflexes . . for instance .. ‘it looks right” is a common thing I will tell myself to indicate its done. Or, sometimes I’m wrong and I go too far or not far enough. That’s not always evident at the time either . .. that assessment can come after a day out of the studio, after a firing, or even years later!
Tell us something about yourself that most people do not already know
I began my art/craft career as an apprenticed silversmith. I worked in jewelry and metals for three years prior to starting my BFA in sculpture.