Sculpture is about transformation. Effort manipulates material and transforms it into sculpture. The question for the sculptor is, when does the work stop? How does this material suddenly or slowly transform into an artwork? What action creates that transformation and what does that action communicate? Then, how does that artwork’s being express how it feels to be a human being?
For the last two years, my practice has revolved around building ceramic sculptures based on drawings that my grandfather made for me between 2011 and 2016, the last five years of his life. The drawings were first based on pottery he had seen on Antiques Roadshow but gradually pulled more and more from of his imagination. In translating these drawings into forms, I am looking for a way to materialize the imagination - - to make a sculpture that looks likes a sketch, feels like an idea, and embodies the the power and potential that clay offers to reshape our experience.
Interview with Trevor King
Questions by Andreana Donahue
Hi Trevor! What was your earliest exposure to art or art-making? When did you begin to identify as an artist?
When I was growing up I had very little formal exposure to art and art making, but I did have plenty of creative influences. My mother has always enjoyed going to craft shows and had a small selection of handmade ceramic tableware in our house. My cousin, Randy Grosclaude was a big influence on me. Throughout the 90’s he was a lighting designer and rave promoter. He opened the door for me to begin thinking about counter-cultural ideas.
The biggest gateway for me into visual arts was through music. In my late teens I was in a punk band. Our name was Esophoria, which referred to a medical condition that describes the inward deviation of the eyes, a play on the idea of introspection I suppose, and the music we made was most similar to bands like At the Drive-In.
Anyhow, at some point we all pitched in a few hundred dollars, bought some cheap equipment, and recorded a CD in our drummer’s basement. We were all pretty much out of money when it came time to actually produce the physical CDs, and so our singer came up with the solution of making fabric sleeves and screen printing the covers at our local art school. We snuck in to the print shop with a friend of a friend who was in the program and spent the whole night printing. Working in this print shop was really my first time in an art studio and I was immediately in love. I think I fell in love with the atmosphere, and the tools, and the energy of art-making before falling in love with any specific works of art, and ideas about what it is for.
Your father was a steel worker where you grew up in western Pennsylvania, an area of the Rust Belt particularly affected by industrial and economic decline. In what ways is your work informed by this experience, as well as other issues surrounding labor and identity?
I feel like many aspects of my work have been shaped by my father’s work experience. He has always carried the job title of steel worker with a lot of pride even through the disillusionment that was present in the deindustrialization of the region. And that has always led me to think about what it means to have artist as a job title.
When I was in art school, I spent one semester studying abroad at the Academy of Fine Arts in Poznan, Poland. There, I was really struck by a different attitude that people, artists and non-artists alike, would bring to the role of artists in society. Whether art was looked at as a means to heal the wounds of the past, or to create innovative new ways to think about the future, artists were waking up each day and examining how complicated it is to be a human being, and the job was taken very seriously. This is when I really began identifying as an artist.
When I returned to Pennsylvania, I wanted to make work that bridged the gap between manual labor and art making, to make something that my dad could identify with. During this time, I had been working on my university’s painting crew, so I would literally go from drawing class, to painting work, stepping from one way of thinking to another, from one social class to another. Out of this experience, I made a piece titled, Three Painters. The work is a three channel video piece, where I interviewed three of my coworkers on the painting crew. I asked them each to discuss their childhoods and how they became painters, and how that line of work shaped their life. Their stories were not necessarily unusual or unique. Like all of us, they shared stories of dreams both achieved and unfulfilled. The work never explicitly describes what type of painting they’re doing, but through their discussions about painting we hear meditations on how it feels to be alive.
For every piece I make, I have to ask myself, “Does this work touch on the very complicated but also very basic and universal idea of being a person in time, aging?” I also ask myself, “Is this work relatable to someone who has no preexisting training in art appreciation?”
You’re currently based in Queens. What are the benefits or challenges of living and working in this community? Were there any significant shifts in the direction of your work after relocating to New York?
Yes, I moved to New York with my partner and now wife Clara McClenon about two and a half years ago. She is an artist as well, and I think that we both moved here looking to be a part of a larger infrastructure of artists, galleries, etc., and that has certainly been beneficial and exciting.
I got really lucky when we moved here, because I landed a Job at Greenwich House Pottery and a residency at Sculpture Space NYC, so I had access to two incredible ceramics studios. At the same time, NYC is gigantic and there is some much artwork here to influence you, I have to admit I may have been a little bit overwhelmed. This is when I first began really working on Notions as a body of work, and thinking about how it could exist as an exhibition. Notions is the body of work featured in Maake Magazine. It is a series of ceramic sculptures based on drawings that my grandfather had made for me in the last 5 years of his life. He had been a truck driver, and was trying to make sense of how an artist could have a career. One day he was watching Antiques Roadshow, and saw a pot that was appraised at three or four thousand dollars, so he had the idea that I should make that pot, and sell it for three or four thousand dollars. He drew it for me, and his drawings were absolutely wild and incredible. I encouraged him to keep making the drawings and began interpreting them into 3D forms.
For me, as I was going through a lot of big changes in my life, it was a relief to focus on a series of work that is both very personal and very physical. The pieces really deal with form, balance, texture, weight— how can I imbue these forms with the same wild character and charisma as my grandfather’s drawings? Eventually, the project grew into a larger gesture, that I hope makes the argument for artwork being a verb rather than a noun. I hope that this collaborative project emphasizes our interconnectedness, and our need to continually reinterpret and reinvent the world we want to live in. So in a way, while I felt like I was isolating myself in this very personal work, I think it was also a response, and a comment on being in New York, and looking for something that I was surprised to be missing in the capital of the art world.
Who are some of your artistic influences? Is there any source material you keep returning to, that continues to provide inspiration over time?
Most of my ideas come from small moments that I observe, that I think I see some larger implication in. Sometimes it is just something that I notice that I think is descriptive of the moment we’re living in right now. So I let those thoughts stew for a long time until I figure out what to do with them.
A reoccurring theme in my work has been the use of familial material, like my grandfather’s drawings. I enjoying working with material like this because I can’t doubt its significance. It’s material that I resonate with on an emotional level that gets the work started, and getting the work started is the hardest part.
Some of the first ceramic objects you made were enormous beer mugs for your roommates. Can you talk about your initial interest in pottery through the idea of gifting? Are you still compelled by the desire to create an object for a specific person to use and interact with in a specific way, as a means of affecting that person’s daily experience?
Sure, yeah, I wrote about that as a way to negotiate this idea of what art does. When I was making those big beers mugs, it was maybe not a sophisticated gesture, but at the same time, here I am giving someone something that actually impacts their experience. I like that art could do that, that it could address and affect the rituals of our lives, and maybe make them more thoughtful or in this case less thoughtful but more absurd, more ridiculous.
I’ve always liked that with pottery and you can really identify how it will be interacted with an interpreted, and I still make specific pots for people for specific people for specific purposes. It affects all of the work that I make. When I’m working through a new piece, or body of work, I am asking myself, “Who or what ideas is this addressing? How does it function? How can the artwork reshape our perceptions of the world we live in?” Sometimes a work of art needs to be made simple to document something, to draw attention to something incredible. I think this is the case with a short movie I made titled Profé. Profé is a film portrait of my college ceramics professor, Richard Wukich, the film features writing from his 1968 thesis, interview footage with him, and ambient scenes from around his studio and far in Slippery Rock, Pennsylvania. In the video he discusses a lot of important ideas about ceramics, and really emphasizes the idea that artists are part of and old, old tradition. I made this piece because I think that his ideas are very important and they needed to be preserved and shared with a broader audience.
Profé, a video exhibited in Listener at 9338 Campau, features your mentor Richard Wukich; among other things, he discusses Ken Ferguson claiming that “if you don’t like people, you can’t make pots”. What is your interpretation of this statement? Do you find truth in it?
Well I think that it’s the truth, and I think that if you don’t like people you can’t make good art in any form really.
Clay, and pottery especially, associates itself with sensitivity. When someone puts care into making a good handle, they can’t be working from an idea of what a good handle might look like. To make a good handle you have to be empathetic and think about how it is going to feel for someone else who is holding the handle. To make a good handle you probably have to close your eyes and really feel the thing. Making pots and making art should be a generous activity. It is saying, “This is how I feel and this is how I imagine you might feel. Can this medium create a place between us to share those ideas?”
In addition to ceramics, you’ve incorporated sound, light, photos, and video into your solo exhibitions. Can you elaborate on the dynamic nature and underlying intentions of your installations?
When I am making an installation, I am thinking about the experiential quality of encountering the work. I want it to affect viewers physically, as well as bring in a sequence of references for them to think through. With Listener, an exhibition that I made in Detroit, I wanted to draw a comparison between the work of mill workers, which with automation is becoming more and more obsolete, and the work of potters, which was once functional, and necessary in any community, and now more of a novelty. Walking into the room, you were encountered by a series of 40 porcelain moon jars that I had made. In the back of the room, there was a large steel structure emitting a low droning sound. The sound was sourced from recordings made from within the bellies of the vessels, and coming out of the structure it feels somewhere between a meditative ohm and the hum of industry.
My favorite part of that show was the way that visitors to the gallery interacted with the steel. The sound was making it slightly vibrate and so a lot of people were tempted to touch the sheet metal, at the end of the show it had finger prints all over it, similarly to the jars in the front of the room.
think the key word in your question is dynamic, and that might have something to do with growing up with Emo music, where you would have this extremely sensitive fragile moments and them these huge crescendos, and thundering cataclysmic waves of sound. I think that a good experience with art should stir you on many different levels.
Your ceramics are primarily monochromatic and often painted to appear as if they’re unfired, a quality you describe as “forever clay”. Can you talk about this concept and how you achieve it?
I think that a lot of artists that work with clay might be able to relate with this. So many times I have been working on a piece in the studio, and in its soft raw clay state it feels so fresh and alive, like a reflection of an idea that could go in any direction. Then, I’ll fire it and it will come out of the kiln and feel very static, finished, and absolute, like its lost some of that dynamic ambiguity of an object in formation.
I began painting the pieces so that their forms could be preserved, but yet they still feel soft and sometimes hopefully a little bit clumsy, like me, like they could fall over at any moment. To get this effect I tried all kinds of smart ideas, including mixing dry kaolin into a transparent paint medium. Eventually, I realized that I could just take a lump of clay into Home Depot and have them match a paint to it using their color matching machine.
Notions is an ongoing collaboration with your late grandfather, who was a retired truck driver. He made drawings depicting pottery seen on Antiques Roadshow, which you later realized as sculptures. He ultimately gave you hundreds of drawings. How did you narrow down which forms to create? Or do you plan to continue this project until they’ve all been made?
I’ve spent a lot of time looking and re-looking at those drawings. The most exciting ones to make are the most confusing, where I’m not certain I know what he was describing with the drawing, or when the drawing describes something three-dimensionally that seems totally in line with the language of pottery but simultaneously totally surprising.
I make several iterations of each drawing until it feels right, and I think that is defined be making an object that makes you look at the drawing closer. I always show them together.
Lately I’ve been enjoying looking at a single page of drawings, and think about how a group of objects can mimic the composition of the entire page. With Notions, the installation at Sculpture Space NYC I use studio-like shelving units to create those compositions and in STILLNESSNESS and Emmanuel Barbault Gallery, I used a temporary table on saw horses.
How did you approach the endeavor of translating his minimal, yet inventive sketches into three-dimensional objects? What was the most challenging or unexpected aspect of this?
There is a fair amount of invention and interpretation in this process. I am trying to bring the same casual attitude to interpreting the drawings as he brought to sketching them—nothing is absolute. The most important thing is making sure that the pieces are as lively and spontaneous as the drawings. They need to feel like possibilities, so I have to be careful not to overwork them and refine them.
Many of the drawings appear like they are floating in space, so the point at which the forms address the table is very important. Many of them look like they are affected by gravity or fighting against it. Some of the sketches are technically very difficult to make in clay. Because of this, I’ve adopted some aspect in my process that are outside of traditional pottery techniques. I make some pieces in parts, and then epoxy them together later.
Do you envision engaging in other collaborations following such a meaningful and personal one?
Absolutely. This has been and continues to be a very fulfilling project, and I think that it makes an important argument about what art is for. I’ve made a lot of pieces with close family members and friends, or sometimes with materials sourced from the people closest to me. Lately I’ve been working on a photographic piece. When my brother was in high school, he made a large series of Napster mix CDs. He even designed custom labels for a lot of them. I’ve been thinking about how CDs were these real life physical products of creativity, I miss carrying around my big folders of CDs. Anyhow, I’ve been photographing all of his Napster CDs and at some point I am going to make a light-box that is one large photograph of his whole collection of CDs, just to document that moment.
I think these types of exchanges will always exist in my practice. For me, it is an extension of observation, what are the things I’m noticing that seem to resonate with this moment, so most of these observations grow out of my personal life, or personal history.
You tend to combine throwing with hand-building, or in the case of the Aluminums series, lost wax casting. What is lost wax casting? Can you talk about these decisions and your process more broadly?
Lost wax casting is the traditional process a sculptor would use to make a classical bronze sculpture. It is also used in metal smithing and jewelry making processes.
In lost wax casting, an original form is made in clay, then a mold is taken off of that. This mold is used to produce a wax copy of the original form. The wax copy is then totally encased in a ceramic, plaster, or sand shell. This shell is often referred to as the investment. The wax is then melted out of that investment, and molten metal, like bronze or aluminum, can be poured into the investment. It is the method used to create an exact copy of a clay form in a more permanent material, life bronze. It is very labor intensive and requires quite a bit of material and equipment. I love laborious processes like lost wax casting and wood firing because they typically require a team and also create this real sense of intensity as the work is being made.
The Aluminums series is about combining the wheel throwing process and lost wax casting. To make these pieces, I throw a moon jar form on the wheel. Then, instead of firing that pot, I use it as a mold. I line the interior of the pieces with a thick coat of casting wax, by pouring the wax in and out just like you would if you were glazing the interior of a pot. Then I can pull the clay away, and whats left is a copy of the interior space of the original vessel— a physical representation of the space inside of it. For me it acts as a metaphor for our interior worlds. The wax is then used with traditional lost wax casting methods. An important detail is that typically, I do a somewhat shabby job of doing the investment. This leads to a lot of surprising issue when the metal is poured into the investment. The best pieces from this series are defined by there errors as they were being made.
This is an idea that I continue to chase after— having a mistake or an accident for the piece. I like when things are a little bit out of my control, and the chaos of the process does the mark making on the work. Aluminum #4 is my favorite example of this so far.
No matter what process I’m using, I am always looking for ways to cut corners, or intentionally misinterpret how it is supposed to be done. This just makes the working process a lot more experimental and surprising, and I think that it makes the artwork more like us, affected and shaped by the unpredictable circumstances of our lives.
I did a major project based on these ideas, titled Athem. At one point I became obsessed with demolition derby cars. Demolition derby cars are extremely evocative and emotional because they are shaped by going through this intense physical trauma, both in the build out where the cars are being altered and reinforced and in the derby event itself where they are crashed into one another. So I decided to make a sculpture of a demolition derby car. My old sculpture professor, Tom Como, used to say that every idea demands a specific material and resolution, so I thought about modeling it in clay, or carving it in foam, but ultimately decided that to make this sculpture, I had to get a real car, and drive in a real demolition derby.
You often employ the stacking and joining method associated with forming Korean Moon Jars. Why are you attracted to this specific vessel?
Korean Moon Jars are beautiful because they address the clumsiness, or fallibility, and elegance of human experience. I was just looking at the Korean Moon Jar on display at The Met and it is stunning. The stacking and joining method creates a situation where is it possible to find a balance between the top and the bottom, but the form is almost never perfectly symmetrical (I’m sure there are potters that could make them “perfect” but they wouldn’t be as nice). This asymmetry captures the consciousness of the potter working. It demonstrate the humility in the work. The simplicity and milky white glazes on the surface of these pots draws attention to those details. It impossible for me to look at a Korean Moon Jar and not try to imagine the moment that it was being made.
What is your relationship with the physical act of working with clay and its capacity to leave a visible record of its manipulation?
In Profé, the video I described earlier, Professor Wukich mentions this thing about looking at an ancient Minoan jug, and seeing a thumb print on the handle—it’s just that. Clay can tell you how it was handled, what its history is. I like leaving a lot of my pieces unrefined so that they can give you a window into seeing how the mind is working through the hands.
Can you tell us about your studio? Do you maintain any daily rituals?
I am very sporadic and I drink too much coffee. I also do not maintain a consistent schedule. I work in my studio, I teach, and I work for other artists. My friend Chauncy once told me that I am always “arting,” because I got distracted by some idea while we were out one night and I couldn’t concentrate on whatever we were supposed to be discussing.
Who are some contemporary artists you feel your work is in conversation with? What non-visual works of art - from literature, music, or film—are important to you?
I don’t tend to think about this a lot, but I think there this is an interesting overlap between some of the collaborative or exchange based pieces I’ve done and some things happening in the area of social practice. I like artwork that blurs the boundaries between art making and other fields, and so I am interested in artist like Sharon Lockhart and the Lunch Brea pieces that feel almost like documentary, or Sam Van Aken and his Tree of 40 Fruits project.
There are a number of artists whose work and ideas I continually return to, probably most significantly is Antony Gormley. Maybe as much as the work itself, I really appreciate his generosity in unpacking how material and encounters with art can unlock these existential meditations. There is a Polish sound artist, name Konrad Smolenski, who I constantly look to for inspiration.
It seems like I’ve been doing a lot of writing lately, and that has made me think about Anthony Bourdain. I so appreciate how the spirit and writing of his shows opened up the world to me.
One thing that I am very interested in are these broad humanistic gestures in art making, and projects that deal with time and the life story. I like figures like Studs Terkel and his oral histories series Working, or the Seven Up! documentary series that follows the lives of fourteen British children over 49 years. Right now I am reading a nonfiction book by journalist George Packer, The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America. The book describes a changing America by reporting on the lives of several different citizens for 1978-2012.
For the better part of a year, I have been haunted by the album Benji, by Sun Kil Moon. The CD describes a series of tragic circumstances involving the singer’s family and acquaintances in Ohio, and there is a quality of oversharing in it that I really love. I also enjoy ambient music, so in my studio you would typically hear something like Russian Circles, Explosions in the Sky, or occasionally John Luther Adams.
In 2014 you were awarded an International Institute Fellowship to work under Antony Gormley and you’re currently the Ceramics Technician for Tom Sachs (I just recently left this position). How has the opportunity to work for these artists strengthened or otherwise impacted your own sculpture practice?
I’ve been incredibly lucky. Both Antony Gormley and Tom Sachs deal with ideas of craftsmanship, the history of making sculpture, and what it means to make objects today, and they’re both mystics, they both explore very spiritual ideas through making and material.
These experiences have left me with a stronger motivation to do the hard work in my practice, which is really looking for the crucial ideas, the things that are sometimes hardest to access, and push those to the forefront. It’s also motivated me to think about how people, on a broad level, can relate to my work. Both Sachs and Gormley make incredible objects, but they also make sure that they’re accessible and interpretable. It’s a powerful thing.
I’ve just recently left the position at Tom Sachs’ studio, and right now I’m working for another sculptor, Peter Lane. Peter makes these incredible monumental ceramic works. I’m learning a lot from him about how clay can be handled on a much larger scale. He is a great mentor.
Over the past several years you’ve attended Haystack, Touchstone Center for Crafts, Ox-Bow School of Art, and Sculpture Space NYC as an artist-in-residence. How do you usually approach your time at residencies? Were any of these experiences distinctly important for you or your development?
For me every residency experience has been very different. Sometimes a residency is a crucial period of reflection, or research. Other experiences have been more generative, and I’ve just been producing work. I typically try to outline one goal for the residency, that might be something like finishing a body of work, creating something experimental that I couldn’t otherwise do, or figuring out what direction I should go in next. I think they all influenced me and it’s hard to imagine how I would be affected if I hadn’t done them.
My residency period at Sculpture Space NYC was particularly important to me. This gave me a place to work when I landed in New York City, as well as a new community to share ideas with. The residency period grew into the first exhibition of Notions and everything that I have been doing since. It’s all been very fluid and organic and I’m very grateful the Sculpture Space NYC gave me that platform.
What are you working on in the studio right now? Do you have any upcoming projects, exhibitions, residencies, or other news you’d like to share?
I am working on a new installation now that deals with ideas around aspirations in the American cultural consciousness. There are a few things brewing in terms of show opportunities, but nothing set in stone right now, hopefully very soon.
Thank you for these very thoughtful questions Andreana!
To find out more about Trevor and his work, check out his website.