Kelcy Chase Folsom
Kelcy Chase Folsom received his MFA in Ceramics from University of Colorado Boulder and his BFA from Georgia State University. He has been a resident artist at numerous residencies including the Center for Ceramics in Berlin, Germany, The Hambidge Center in Rabun Gap, Georgia, and The Clay Studio in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. His work has been shown in over forty exhibitions nationwide. He has taught at The George Washington University, The Corcoran College of Art and Design, Maryland Institute College of Art, University of the Arts, and New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University as the Robert C. Turner Teaching Fellow. He is currently Visiting Assistant Professor in Craft/Material Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia.
My romantic life, at once tender and desperate, is the substance of my work. More specifically, I am interested in the ways that I project and receive desire (as Roland Barthes said, “I am devoured by desire, the impulse to be happy”), and negotiate my own relative experiences within it. This endless exchange between lovers—the absences, the expectations, the gravities, the intimacies, the small catastrophes—is the realm into which I want to invite viewers.
Interview with Kelcy Chase Folsom
Questions by Beatrice Helman
Hi Kelcy! Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us. I want to get into talking about your work and particularly your relationships with working across different mediums, but first I would love to just get a little bit of background as to where you’re from, what kind of a child you were, and if you have a first memory of creating, or an early memory of making something.
I was born in Atlanta, Georgia and raised with my twin sister about 45 minutes North of the city in Canton, Georgia. As a child, I loved race cars and cars in general and could tell you the make, model, and year of most cars on the road—I did not care much for the motor or how they worked, just aesthetics. I looked at fashion magazines or any magazine with a quiz—usually titles like ‘how to be a better woman’—in my mother’s Cosmopolitan Magazine. My sister and I were obsessed with Pretty Woman and Steel Magnolias— watching both at least 200 times and still quote them from time to time. One of my fondest memories of making things was with my father in his woodshop in the basement. Science projects and social science projects were a favorite of mine and would dream up the most elaborate ideas—like making a model of an earthquake proof house—and my dad would wholeheartedly assist me throughout the entire project. Insistent with precision and frustrated when it was anything less.
Have you always been drawn to working with your hands? I’m really fascinated by hands in general, and particularly mediums that are a direct result of hands.
Growing up, I would watch and assist my Mom in the kitchen who is without a doubt one of the best Southern cooks—recipes did not exist on paper—it was just eyeballing measurements (dashes, splashes, and mounds). I think that, combined with my Dad who is an expert piddler who taught me how to sew, it was unavoidable. Regardless of material, my hands, legs, and/or body need to move and facilitate thinking. Like many folks, I took ceramics in high school, but no one ever told me that being an artist was a viable career path. However, my dad is the eternal optimist and continues to tell me, ‘if you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life.’ This is kind of a lie, but a good one at that. My parents never went to college so after high school, it was new to all of us. I think I really enjoy seeing the fruit of labor and pottery is a perfect connection to seeing what I can do, what I did do, and endless possibility after it comes off the wheel. There is a guarantee for evolution and learning as a maker—even if you try to make something the exact same way, you develop a more efficient and critical eye as you make. I just read The Thinking Hand by Juhani Pallasmaa with my Figure in Clay course in Craft/Material Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University. His writing and perspective felt holistic in it’s approach to understanding the human hand. We often separate the mind and hand when we talk about making—as if one turns off while the other turns on. I think what is most beautiful and at times tragic, is when the mind remembers how the hands once moved.
Oddly though, most of my work is made with a mold and the result being the absence of the hand in the final product. I love for things to seem effortless and molds provide precision and simultaneously are pragmatic as I am able to endlessly rehearse and refine until there is harmony.
You’re a few years out of graduate school. How did that experience change— or not change— your actual practice or way of thinking about your work? Did it have a significant impact? Have you seen this influence on your post-school creative self?
Graduate school was a treasure chest for me, and I meet some of the brightest and most influential people. There are infinite angles to our lives and the stories we choose to tell. That was a big learning curve in graduate school and it is has been irritatingly complicated since then…
It is essential to live life; otherwise the content can become dull very quickly. I love to go out drinking and dancing, read all afternoon, or just make a massive meal over the course of six plus hours without feeling guilty or feeling like I’m neglecting my studio. Jeanne Quinn gave me this permission in graduate school—the permission to live—she told me to take breaks when they are given to you—and that completely changed the way I think about time and activities—understanding that it all is part of the practice. The studio can be anywhere at any time. I enjoy cooking and often think about how and when the decisions I am making in the kitchen affect my studio and vice versa. Unfamiliar experimental space is best part of it all and excited to taste it, even if it is bad.
I was a frantic maker before graduate school and rarely looked at work after making it. Reflection is essential for me now. Drawing was a significant part of my practice in graduate school and would make the identical object that was in my drawing. I still draw, but now it can be a finished work, not grounds for creating a blueprint for what can be, as that within itself is an idea too. There is a willingness and openness that allows for an organic evolution in my practice and propels the making. Flexibility is imperative and I am still learning that.
What is your work process like, from inception to execution? How long does a project usually take from start to finish? Has the way you approach a new project evolved over time?
It is never the same from one idea to the next. I avoid making the same thing or even the same aesthetic over and over. Hany Armanious, Charles Ray, Robert Gober, Cathy Wilkes, Bruce Nauman and Charles Long are some of my favorite artists who do this very kind of practice. I try to avoid making things that are iconically ‘Chase’. Is that possible? Often it is the content that is similar, and process/experimentation/material that is the infinite variation.
Ideas are like cheeses, and I will let some of them literally sit in the corner and ferment for quite a while—it can just be a paper mache blob and that is perfectly fine. I find it very important to see these sitting in my studio or in my spaces (at home too) day after day and they will tell me what they need. However, I am not afraid to start something and finish it immediately—sometimes the idea matured quickly or has been ready for a while—I just needed space, time, or money (rarely do we get all three). Again, I am very flexible with ideas. If I have a solo exhibition coming up, I will just make until a few months before and see what surfaces. The work will tell you what you need to know.
Is there any way you can describe, for those of us who aren’t as familiar with it, what your personal ceramic practice is? Are you working with clay or a different medium, and what are some of the benefits or drawbacks of your chosen material?
Garth Johnson once said that I was promiscuous with clay, and that is a pretty accurate statement. Of course clay is malleable and fragile—a number of obvious characteristics, but I think the reason I use it is its versatility and language. I can make anything out of clay and then make a mold and use that with any material—it has options and for the most part, extremely inexpensive. Ceramics is so distinctive because it is forever. I love thinking about forever—it seems impossible, beautiful, painful, desperate, and exhausting. Ceramics is a sentimental sandwich. The alchemical transition from clay to ceramic is finite. It will never be the same again. This is poetic and is part of the material language that is ceramics; that is why I use it in my work.
I don’t see any drawbacks in using clay or ceramics. It continually challenges my ability to use my hands—its pretty spectacular indeed. The only drawback is the environmental impact and well that is another interview all together….
What makes up the cultural landscape that you look to when you feel stuck?
Water. I need bodies of water to look at and walk around and be inside of. A shower can relieve many blocks or just a hike around a lake. When I was teaching at Alfred, I would hike with my dog Felix almost everyday around Foster Lake. It is one of the most precious places I’ve ever had the pleasure of living. That lake carries with it my fondest memories and ideas that come and go when I should have written them down. I find myself longing to be back at that lake with Sam and Felix. Sometimes I try to close my eyes and remember the hike or laying on the dock watching things float, life underneath, and the stillness during the winter.
Right now I am reading Truman Capote and Jeanette Winterson. Just finished Other Voices, Other Rooms. Reading is another endless escape. It just depends on if I need to move or be still.
Can you talk about the progression from installation work to ceramic work and the relationship between the two? How did you shift to making objects?
It actually is the other way around. I wanted to be a potter in the mountains with a partner who was also a potter much like the life of Will Ruggles and Douglass Rankin aka Rock Creek Pottery. I still think about them and their pots—some of the best pots I’ve ever held. I own one of their seconds and treat it like gold. A career as a potter just felt right for much of my early twenties. However, I felt constrained with pots and making sculpture and installation pushed me to think further than utilitarian function—beyond the domestic and into an invented, immersive, and diverse material experience. As I mentioned before, it too was the promise of labor. Illya Kabakov, Jessica Stockholder, Jason Rhodes, Ann Hamilton, Cathy Wilkes, Karla Black, and Felix Gonzales Torres, to name a few, were heavily influential on my desire to make installation.
Upon entering graduate school I was still making installation. However to fully flush out an idea, the work constantly needed space that I wasn’t convinced was necessary. The inherently abstract quality of installation allowed me to be distant, non-specific and consequently, speak without saying exactly what I intended to say—vague—this was not good. Representation took hold in my studio, and I started to task my objects to say more with their material, title, scale, etc., which was a huge turning point for me. I wanted to make objects that fit into people’s lives—to live in the spaces that we live in. In hindsight, this is not shocking coming from my background as a potter. This is still how I operate. Making independent objects that can be just as potent on their own as they are collectively together—hashtag children.
And then just to follow up on that question, what does it mean to you to be making an object as opposed to an image? In other words, what weight does the very idea of ‘the object’ have to you personally?
We just have to deal with it. I keep coming back to this relationship—two dimensional verses three dimensional—which goes back to language. Does an idea need to be in space and does it need to be real? (a broad word to reckon with). I can’t help but look at drawings, paintings, and photography as fictitious space when they’re presented on the wall, on a single plain.
Most of my objects revolve around a story or series of stories about vulnerability within our internal and external experiences of romance. So the object is essential for the lived experience because most of the time they are stand-ins for people. Photography is very present in my current work, manifesting as recorded musical theatre stills paired with performance stills of myself.
What are some of the challenges that working with clay presents or what are some of the limitations of the form and/or idea of ceramics?
When you decide to work with material as language or give any material gravity, all materials become somewhat limiting—similar to our use of verbal language—specificity is paramount. The wonderful thing about material is our ability to stretch those boundaries and create new meaning. I recently read Roberta Smith’s review of Sterling Ruby’s work at MAD. She said, “There is no culture in history that has not produced great ceramics.” I think she summed this thought up beautifully with that statement without denying the importance and gravity of the longevity of ceramics. It speaks to a purity that can exists in all mediums within all artists. However, it also speaks to the survival and technology that is inherently ceramics.
I’m really interested in your use of media, and the ways that they interact—for example, I’m thinking of your 2012 piece “What If I Could See My Reflection,” which is made up of porcelain, platinum and steel pins. Can you talk a little bit about that piece and the choice to use those three mediums and what their importance is to the overall work?
That piece was an attempt to sculpt my boyfriend’s testicles from memory. I made about 10 or 12 sets and ended up completing two sets as an edition. At this point I was trying to pack a lot of punch into the work— trying to use as few materials and words as possible. Platinum exists here in Earth’s crust from meteorites millions of years ago and acts as a mirror—which is wild conceptually—thinking about being able to see yourself in something so distant with virtually untraceable roots. They were hung at standing or eye level- slightly seductive and curious, but they were versatile enough to be hung anywhere. Furthermore, I wanted to think about what I looked like in the act of sex through object—a voyeuristic curiosity of self. I remember reading Paul Thek’s list of actions for his class at Cooper Union—one of the assignments was to redesign the human genitalia—hilarious and extremely difficult. If you think too much or deeply about the act of sex, it becomes a natural comedy.
The piece “Unknowing” left me aching, especially as someone who works from an emotional place. Do you work from an emotional place or see/project a feeling onto your work? To what extent (even if none at all) is your work self-reflective or part of a process of self-discovery?
That is my favorite piece from my first solo museum exhibition titled hereafter. In order for us to truly love someone, we must try to un-know them so that they may continue to grow. When people become predictable or we allow ourselves to believe in predicted actions or perhaps how we remember them, disappointment ensues—things like you always do/did this or you never do/did that. The words carved into the hamper are from Sondheim’s musical Sunday in the Park with George—my favorite musical. What happens when a lyric is seen rather than heard? It really questions the ephemeral that is fundamentally theatre. As an object, the piece reminds me of a prop in a movie where the hamper comes alive…kind of dumb. I try to make work that sustains a spectrum of emotional gravity, say dumbness coupled with sentimental desperation and guttural truths.
I am not afraid of sentimentality or the words cliché or contrived. Our experiences with love or relationships are not so different from each other. My work speaks to those collective, vulnerable engagements. In viewing a work of art, you are looking for yourself, so why would I avoid the very things that make us human and connects us? I like talking about love and my experiences of it are perpetually ripe for analyzing and projecting. My dear friend and colleague Joanna Powell said that I love really hard. It is absolutely in the work.
Can you talk about your piece “Dream On,” and the influences and intentions behind it?
That piece simulates a still image of a sunrise or sunset—however you want to see it. It came from a space of longing about a lover and how I really wanted to see him again and the fact that even if I could, our relationship was changed forever. Truly impossible. Time is the only medication for situations such as this. I liked the idea of creating a piece that was so simple, impossible in its pursuit (a flashlight as a stand-in for the Sun), and an object that could be turned off/on similar to our attempts to compartmentalize. It is silly and is jargon we use to describe potential coping mechanisms when really we are just saying, ‘don’t think about it right now.’
Who or what are some of your larger influences? I read that Cathy Wilkes has been extremely influential, which I found fascinating but also made sense, particularly in the relationship between sculpture and installation and expanding the definition of what that can be.
Cathy Wilkes is so damn good. I started looking at her work in 2006? And had never seen her work in person until her retrospective this year at MOMA’s PS1. Her work punches me in the heart—Non-Verbal is my favorite piece. When I saw that work in her TateTalks interview, it clicked, and I immediately purchased the catalog from Milton Keynes Gallery. I understood visual language after seeing that piece. On the floor is a large, square steel pan of water with electronics (cell phone and a laptop) submerged in the pool. Abstract paintings stapled to the heads of mannequins. The insular space that is our digital world and identities relegated to a space that is so vast, all the while separate and distant from our lived realities. Then, the paintings that point to the human condition—as she says, “the unbridgeable gap between human beings.” There is sweetness in its aesthetic delivery, and without a blink you see your mortality. Preciousness is her hinge—it can mean the world and then nothing at all—that is why found objects are imperative components to the work. I love hearing her talk about her work—she’d made me so much more aware of my choices. She is always experimenting, always pushing me to accept her moves/decisions/arrivals. It’s a workout.
My influences are habitual, and while I do look at/read new things, film, and artists, I go back to specific works to see where I am at with them. Paul Thek’s 3 Prunes, is another favorite. I don’t understand it. I wallow in its willingness to be forgotten—it’s ephemeral newspaperness. The thought of caring for it and attempting to sustain its life (very much part of the AIDS crisis), growing old, shitting, being too close to people, making hard decisions, threesomes, limbo lovers, etc. It always means something different. That is very important for me; More than ambiguity, the response changes and makes me feel again.
What’s a typical day like for you?
I don’t have a consistent schedule. Teaching at Virginia Commonwealth University in Craft/Material Studies does have a set schedule semester to semester, but I create space that allows me to listen and act according to my needs—whether that is seeing an exhibition in NYC, LA, Miami, etc or making constantly for seven or eight months straight with little sleep. The pendulum swings drastically, and I do not fight that anymore. Again, flexibility is really important.
Can you discuss a little bit the ways that ceramics, installation, photography, all of these different forms can be both completely separate, can relate to each other, can evolve and build on each other? Do they interact in your present day work, if so how so, whether it be physically or in a more conceptual sense.
As mentioned earlier, photography is part of my current work. I make relics from performances that never happened. The relic is such a fabulous place to create fiction and well, so is photography. It straddles the conundrum of what was once ‘real’. Regardless of the ceramic thing, installation stuff, or medium, I try to think about the experience of the idea I am making and what that would feel like for the viewer—like does it need to be in space? What if it is just sound? What if it was just a quick sketch on the back of a napkin? It is easy to get caught up in what it ‘should’ be and that is when change must happen. It’s too committed and there isn’t room for movement/perpetual thought.
Do you find yourself interacting with social media, and do you find that your work has a relationship to it? How does something so physical interact with something so virtual? Do you see the possibility for any relationship between the two?
I got an Instagram account for Felix (my dog). While I appreciate the massive platform social media offers, the familiarity from those spaces, sometimes ruin the experience of art. It is frustrating to see pictures of work in progress (detailed pictures) and images of exhibitions that are currently up. However, I notice many galleries, museums, and alternative spaces alike do a fabulous job of showing one image or a few exhibition images strategically shot from a distance. Familiarity ruins the experience. I try to keep my current work and images of my work at a distance from the virtual space—especially because most of it is sculpture. On occasion, I will take a pic from a show or share other folk’s work, but most of the time I use it to share my life. I’m strategic in other ways.
Do you find that your physical surroundings, or emotional surroundings, influence your work? You seem to have worked in a variety of stunning but very different locations!
Color is usually the last thing I think about and fitting because most of the work is sculpture and surface, if necessary, is one of the last decisions. It is heavily influenced by the physical space around me. I noticed this when I was in graduate school at Boulder and I looked at my thesis exhibition—all of it black, blue, white, and pale shades of everything in between. It looked liked color blocking from a Patagonia ad.
It’s abundantly clear that I dive deeply into the crevasse that is my romantic life. I am unaware of the environmental impact until after I’ve left that place. Community continues to be the greatest influence on my career thus far and is something that perhaps is overlooked when we say environment. I worked as a studio assistant for Virgil Marti while in Philadelphia. He is such a brilliant thinker and so casual to be around. However, he is extremely pragmatic and taught me the importance of investment in my work. Specifically, money. He is committed to what the idea needs and watching him traverse that space of studio logistics combined with life was a priceless experience. For me, I’ve accepted that some works are expensive and focus on what I am going to do to make it happen. A side hustle is essential.
What is the relationship between ceramics and storytelling? I’ve always found something like clay to be so fascinating because not only does it change form, it seems to hold emotion, to hold the past within it’s very self.
Pots embody the stories of human civilization—the way we move, what we need, how we need it—utility coupled with opportunity for adornment—ceramics has the richest history because it is forever and the very foundation of malleable material. I think about this when I’m kneading epoxy between my fingers and how that material is an attempt at instantly replicating hardened clay. However, globalization and industry have drastically changed the experience of pottery and functional ceramics.
I am interested in the collective stories of our lives, and I think newspapers are one the most profound objects and currently endangered in terms of access and existence. My work containing the cast pots made of newspapers is tasking the ceramic form with being more vulnerable, the ephemeral promise of what it is to be a mortal human. I’m combining the ceramic vessel and newspaper into an object that relieves object from ego and legacy. It now lies in the space of voice and song, rallying the importance of truth. We are responsible for the history, telling of that history, and future of our lives.
You mentioned that “Irrespective of its relationships to utility and expression, I am drawn to ceramic’s existence because I do not have access to it.” Could you talk a little bit more about that?
I enter into the space of fiction when I say this. I am thinking about post-Earth human existence—thinking about what would life be like without clay or any expression beyond voice and movement? We enter into a realm of nostalgia. My current work is dealing with lines of demarcation and boundaries—influenced by current political discourse regarding immigration. Removing all forms of ‘owned’ space, where being human is what it is about. Not utopic, but stripped empathy where collective survival begins again. Acceptance is not a choice, but a guarantee.
Your piece “Hot Seat” seems to be almost like an ode to nostalgia and preserving this piece from the present, for those in the future, something permanent and cast forever in its own shape. Is there any truth to that, or am I projecting anxiety?
This piece developed over a few years of trying to find the correct object—a toilet. Towards the end of my time in Boulder, my boyfriend and I broke up. I was devastated, and I got on a plane to LA to get away and see a friend. An older woman sat next to me on the plane and after a few minutes into the flight, inquired as to why I was going to LA. I told her and responded with the same question. She said, ‘I’m leaving my husband. Apathy can kill anything.” This has stayed with me since then. I grabbed a New Yorker in the terminal and read Daniel Mendelsohn’s article titled, The American Boy. It was about his pen pal relationship with the lesbian, South African classics writer, Mary Renault. It too was devastating, tragic, and had me pondering the most vulnerable situations in human exchange. We are most vulnerable when we eat, have sex, and defecate. I thought about how Daniel and Mary shared some of the most profound moments of their life together through written words. What would they eat/drink together if there ever was an opportunity—I don’t think either of them would enjoy sex with each other. I made a few paintings on top of the article titled How to Make Prune Juice for Two—seven paintings, each one a step in the process. Then I thought about what it means to truly share who you are with someone—how open and how messy it is, especially after prune juice. The toilet won. I realized I needed make a bench made of wood attempting to be a toilet it could never be, rather a place to ponder and share experience while looking at art. I made two of them for my museum exhibition last year.
In your artist statement, you mention that “My romantic life, at once tender and desperate, is the substance of my work.” Can you talk about that a little bit more specifically?
It is simultaneous—the subtle impact of tenderness and the urgency imbedded in desperation—looking for answers/reason/rationality. The lovers in my life are always present, regardless if our relationship is current or has passed. I don’t think this is different for other people regardless of denial. There is internal gravity when I consciously choose to remember or unconsciously reminded that is a perpetually tender place. Desperation is part of navigating that internal reality. That space can be explored whenever, from wherever I want and that initiates most ideas for my work. From there, I find parallels and intersections where romance seems inconspicuous or absent and expand a connection.
Do you have any projects, shows or residencies coming up?
Yes and happy to share. Veiled, an exhibition I curated for District Clay in Washington, DC closes at the end of the month and following that show is an anti-Trump exhibition I co-juried with Wayne Higby titled LIES. I will be in a group show opening at the New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University in February, crossing my fingers for Spring Break Art Fair in March for an exhibition curated by Michael Barraco titled Popular Science, and a solo exhibition opening in August at Sediment Gallery in Richmond, Virginia. In January, I will collaborate with Jason Wright aka liver_ideas (IG) on a piece for VCU Craft/Material Studies. Residencies were put on hold this year for me, as I just need studio time.
Thanks so much for sharing your work with us!
To find out more about Kelcy Chase Folsom and his work, check him out online.