Helen Otterson is a professional artist and teacher. Exhibited throughout the United States and Internationally, her ceramic and glass sculptures are part of the permanent collections at the Museum of Contemporary Craft, Nicolaysen Art Museum, and the Plains Art Museum. Her work has been published in Lark Book’s 500 series: 500 Sculptures, and 500 Figures.
Helen holds a Master of Fine Arts from the University of Miami and has been an Artist in Residence at the International Ceramic Studio in Kecskemét, Hungary, A.I.R. Vallauris, France, Contemporary Craft Museum, and Anderson Ranch Arts Center. Currently, Helen teaches ceramics and sculpture at North Dakota State University.
My interest in biomorphic form originates from my experience with the human encounter with disease, which led me to observe organic growth and changes in cells. The extraordinary changes, the multiple forms and textures inspire tactile creations that reference the relationship between health and disease and explore the organic process of growth and replication.
As I turned to growth and change in plant life, I was drawn to the succulents of my native California landscape. Life is composed of the same basic elements and the same goals i.e. the survival of life. Both of my inspirational sources live in harsh environments. Disease creates a harsh environment in which the survival of healthy cells is precarious. The cells must split and transform to survive. Succulents live in dry, hot environments, and must generate leaves and tendrils that adapt for survival. Each struggle to live, and each creates in its humble way beautiful forms. These combinations of botanical forms and biologic imagery reflect the cohesive integration of form and function found in the natural world. My work is a hybrid of these cells and plant forms that share the drive to survive.
Both in art and nature, a single element repeat itself many times. Many plants follow simple recursive formulas in generating their branching shapes and leaf patterns. One form may find itself nestled inside the same form, but in diminishing size, resulting in striking shapes.
Capitalizing on nature’s fractal patterns, I create organic forms that repeat, yet change and are similar, yet distinctive from nature.
Inspired by the mysteries of nature, my ambiguous hybrids of cellular and organic forms celebrate life. Creating forms with fluid movement, I combine materials such as clay, glass or bronze, to capture the beauty of nature’s organic form. These materials are ideal mediums to showcase the rich surfaces and curvilinear components found in nature. The bright color palette draws on aspects in natural world and reflects the celebration of the pursuit of life and beauty of the natural world.
Q&A with Helen Otterson
By Emily Burns
Can you describe your working routine? Do you have a daily studio practice? What is the most important part of maintaining a successful studio practice?
Planning is the most important part of my studio practice. I teach full time at a university, so I take advantage of weekends and holidays when I have solid blocks of uninterrupted time in the studio to create. During the week I take advantage of time in between classes or at the end of the day to work in the studio moving pieces forward. My goals during the semester versus the summer are very different. Summer time allows me a daily studio practice and focused time to create. I tend to work in cycles starting with producing a number of ceramic pieces, firing them then moving to wax to produce either the bronze or glass elements.
Can you give us some insight into your process? How do you begin? Do you keep a sketchbook/does drawing play a part in your work?
I collect ideas, patterns, and forms in my sketchbook for reference and inspiration. Having developed a habit of drawing on loose-leaf paper to help resolve ideas, I have a studio filled with bits of paper that have pieces waiting to come to life. I also collect reference material on Pinterest. Using Pinterest is great because no matter where I am, I can collect images that provoke an idea. Some pieces begin with a drawing other pieces develop from what I am working on in the studio.
Do you ever experience the equivalent to “writers block” for artists? If so, how do you get in the creative mindset and flow?
Occasionally, I experience an artistic block. I get thru them by doing the finishing work on bronze or cold working the glass. Accomplishing a task in the studio makes me feel like I’m not falling behind and allows my mind to wander. If that doesn’t work I look at my sketchbook or Pinterest boards to come up with ideas.
How does your artist statement function for you? Do you think it is an important element in the practice of being an artist?
My artist statement helps me to create a coherent articulation of all the different thoughts that go thru my mind while making art. It is useful and important in terms of talking about my work. My thoughts seem to be random at times. Sitting down to write a statement clarifies the important points that I am interested in conveying.
Are there a few artists that you are looking at currently?
My interests definitely lean towards artists working sculpturally. I admire the work of Cal Lane, Tashima Etsuk, Sibylle Peretti, and Tanabe Shochiku, and Barbara Hepworth. I appreciate their work for its sense of design, use of form, material and texture.
The combination of ceramic and glass gives your work an eerie, biomorphic alien quality (that we love!) Can you tell us more about your process with the glass elements in your work? How and when did you begin working in this way?
I learned to cast in graduate school. It wasn’t until I did a residency at the Contemporary Museum of Craft in Portland, Oregon that I began to combine glass and clay. While I was in Florida, I began incorporating bronze. Using multiple materials is challenging but I feel that it works well for my forms. Glass and porcelain are ideal together. Porcelain’s white luminescence showcases rich surfaces and curvilinear components. The translucence of the glass illuminates the precious balance of life and the beauty of the natural world
There is a sexual (sex toy) reference happening with the nature of the color and appearance of the glass elements in your work, which gives them an ultra-contemporary feel and critical edge—is this intentional?
The sexual reference is not intentional. Considering that my forms are based on reproducing cells, plant life and flowers, it exists.
What do you listen to while you work? Is boredom something you have to contend with in the studio?
I listen to Pandora, Spotify, podcasts and audio books. Music is a part of my practice when I draw, cultivate ideas and make. Music keeps me motivated and energized. When I am coiling, casting or carving, I listen to podcasts such as Radiolab, Snap Judgement, Reply All, Freakonomics. I admit; I am an NPR junkie. I don’t get bored in the studio. Time flies by when I am working. It’s easy for me to lose track of time when working in the studio.
Do you have any shows coming up? Anything else you would like to share?
Currently, I have a solo show at Valley City State University and work in shows at Baltimore Clayworks and the Katherine Kilbourne Burgum Center for Creativity. In March, I am participating in the exhibit Role Models at the Belger Arts Center in Kansas City, MO.
Thank you for taking the time to share your work and talk with us!
To find out more about Helen and her work, check out her website!