Laith Karmo moves through the world with a profound sense of wonder and a relentless desire to make sense of it. He has a lot of questions and from a young age, art became a means to examine those questions and give his ideas about the world space to stretch. The summer between high school and college, an art teacher prophetically lent him a wheel and a block of clay. The clay, he found, held answers to some of his most burning questions. A dialogue began between the two. Connections were made, stories intersected and Karmo quickly realized he was part of something bigger. By manipulating this material into something new, he was participating in one of the oldest traditions known to man, and within this medium, he found his place. Each piece Karmo creates is a direct reflection of where he is at a given moment in time — physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. Karmo earned a BFA from the College for Creative Studies in Detroit, Michigan and an MFA in Ceramics from Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. He’s participated in several national group shows and has had solo exhibitions at Paul Kotula Projects and The Butchers Daughter in Metro Detroit. He was awarded a Kresge Artist Fellowship in 2011 and maintains a studio in Pontiac, Michigan. Karmo has taught ceramics at Wayne State University, Oakland Community College and College for Creative Studies. Even after two decades of practice, clay is medium he rediscovers daily.
Earth. Water. Hands. Heat. Since the dawn of mankind, individuals around the world have used these most basic elements to craft objects that at once, fulfilled a need and helped shaped their social identity. Vessels formed from clay for eating and drinking, storing and preserving, became a way of sharing who you are and distinguishing yourself from another. From utilitarian beginnings, an art form was born, and every time I walk in my studio, I have the privilege of participating in a long and beautiful human tradition.
My connection with clay as a medium was immediate and instinctual. The more I listened, the more it revealed. The more I pushed, folded and pinched, the more it molded my own view of the world and helped me find my place in it. As I evolve, as my practice evolves, the clay reacts and continues to address my existential queries with grace and gumption, like any great teacher.
My work celebrates the duality of the medium itself, and the duality of those peoples who, throughout time, have found that by manipulating the earth, they could discover a truth about themselves. Use, value and spirituality oscillate thematically in each piece I create. Embedded with historical content, functional context and sacred ritual, my work also records my own narrative with relation to space and time.
Clay is home to me. More than any other medium, it’s where I feel a sense of belonging and responsibility. Respect and gratitude. Vulnerability and freedom. It is my lifework to preserve and contribute to its legacy.
Interview with Laith Karmo
Written by Andreana Donahue
Hi Laith! How did growing up in the Detroit area support your desire to become an artist?
Metro Detroit, like other cities around the world have drawn people in for all sorts of reasons. This diversity is a large part of what inspires me to look, wonder, and make.
What was the first ceramic object or sculpture you can remember falling in love with?
I would say Michael Hall’s public sculptures were the first artworks I remember falling in love with. As a child my mother would drive my siblings and I to her mother’s house in Southfield, MI. On the way we would pass a few of Michael Halls works displayed on the lawns of office buildings along Northwestern Highway.
Can you tell us about specific artists who have influenced you, whose work you keep returning to? What qualities do you tend to admire or be most drawn to?
There are a lot of artists that influence me but I would have to say my interest covers whole periods and isms. The mystery of looking at a historical object, the smooth simplistic lines of modernism, and newness of contemporary sculpture all keep me coming back for more.
Your early work focused on sculptural abstraction, quite different from your current ceramics. How has your body of work developed over time, whether architectural sculptural or utilitarian?
I have always been interested by past cultures. Even though my work has visually evolved I believe the common thread is my interest in early civilizations.
How do drawings inform your ceramics? Do you always consider them to be preparatory studies or do they have the ability to be seen as self-contained works?
In the past I have exhibited drawing and painting but recently I would classify my 2D efforts as studies.
You have an ongoing attraction to “vessels formed from clay for eating and drinking, storing and preserving,” such as gathering baskets, bowls, planters, and ewers. How has coming from a family of grocers contributed to your affinity for this subject matter?
To me, food is the great unifier. Every race and ethnicity celebrates food. This is the reason I keep returning to the vessel as subject matter.
You’re currently based in Pontiac, Michigan. What are the benefits or challenges of living and working in this community? Are there everyday objects or materials typical of the region that have impacted your aesthetic?
I have a day job and a family so getting to the studio can be a challenge, but because my studio is only 12 minutes away I am able to get there often.
Everyday life inspires me. I may see something at work, at home, or when I’m out and decide to incorporate an aspect of it into a piece. Tony Hepburn my graduate school professor would often say “your art should reflect your life”. This in now my baseline for my artistic practice.
You draw upon both the utilitarian and narrative capacity of objects. Is there a connection between the two? What stories are you most interested in telling?
The story I’m most interested in telling is of human past, present and future. Utilitarian Artifacts are a large part of how we reconstruct what we know of the past. Today, we continue to create objects of utility to help us reach future goals.
You often reference various cultural histories associated with ceramics and how they relate to one another. Can you elaborate on how you form hybrid objects that combine Native American, African, Middle Eastern, Greek, or Asian traditions?
One of the main reasons I became interested in making vessels again was to reconnect myself with history. It’s pretty humbling to contemplate your own brief life in the timeline of existence.
Some of your vessels have a structure that undermines their commonly understood purpose to contain (baskets with exaggerated ocular handles or holes in the bottom come to mind here). What motivates these particular works?
I subvert the function of vessels to push the viewer to understand the works as conceptual objects.
What is the significance of this recurring ocular motif?
The ocular or eye motifs in my work represent introspection.
You seem to spend time speculating about nebulous concepts through art-making. Are you searching for answers or is it an exercise in admiration for the unknown?
I guess both searching for answers and admiring the unknown. I think about mortality a lot.
Can you tell us about your current studio? Do you maintain any daily rituals?
I like to listen to music, dance, drink coffee and sparkling water while I work….lol. I share 1000-square-foot space with a buddy. Because he and I are on opposite schedules, I am mostly alone working.
Do you prefer working on the wheel or hand-building? Can you talk about your overall creative process and material choices?
I hand-build on a banding wheel. I guess I could throw some of the things I make on the wheel but I prefer the look of a hand-build form over a wheel thrown one.
You often place ceramics on top of pedestals you’ve fabricated from hewn cherry and raw poplar wood or gridded steel shelving. Is it accurate to classify these as pedestals or are they integrated components of the work? How do you usually approach installation decisions for exhibitions?
In the past I would use pedestals to isolate objects within a narrative. Currently, my aim is to not use a pedestal. I’d rather my work have the opportunity to chat with whatever is around.
Can you share your perspective on craftsmanship, especially with regard to the decreasing presence of handmade objects and traditions in our current culture?
Craftsmanship caters to function. Historically craftsmanship has carried a lot of weight in ceramics. Today, ceramicists don’t have to wrestle so much with it because new materials and processes have filled the void clay once occupied. Craftsmanship is no longer a requirement but an aesthetic choice. In a way the holes that pierce my pieces could be conceded poor craftsmanship.
Are you highly critical of your own work, at happens to pieces you aren’t satisfied with?
I am highly critical of my work. I don’t give up on a piece until I feel I have exhausted all options.
Do you collect works made by other artists or ceramicists?
Yes, I collect all kinds of work.
What non-visual works of art—from literature, music, or film—are important to you?
Religious teachings, hip hop, and sci-fi flicks all top my list of inspiration.
What’s next for you? Do you have any upcoming exhibitions, projects, events, or other news?
Currently, I am working on a large public sculpture that will be installed this spring in Southfield, MI.
To find out more about Laith and his work, check out his website.