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On ceramics and performance: Interview with Carrie Ohm

from Carrie Ohm's work at the President's Gallery, Chicago

Carrie Ohm is an artist who combines ceramics with performance, an unusual combination that produces striking results. Since graduating with an MFA in Ceramics from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2000, Carrie has taken part in numerous group shows, solo shows, and artist’s residencies—most recently at Harold Washington College in Chicago. She is a University Lecturer at Governor’s State University, IL. 

Q: Can you describe your current work, and how it came about?

A: During the spring of 2009 I was a visiting artist at Harold Washington College. During that time I threw several non-traditional forms as demonstrations for students. I also discussed with the students possibilities for clay work beyond functional pieces and pedestal display. For the pieces I made at that time I was thinking of shapes as containers and pieces that fit together. They reminded me of buoys and ideas about grand presentation. I invited 12 students to arrange the objects I created as they saw fit. The pieces could be stacked together, nested inside each other, organized according to shape, or even spread out. While they were arranging I asked each individual to tell me about one of their favorite places. Some spoke of places they visit every day and others discussed places they have only visited once. I asked for colors, textures and other details from their memories of that space. When the individuals completed their arrangements they were asked to draw an outline around the borders of the shapes.

These drawings are the scaled down outlines of each participant’s arrangement filled with marks inspired by their memories of the spaces they described to me.

Q: What would you say have been the main concerns or preoccupations in your work?

A: Travel and place have a reoccurring role in my work. I have a currently unquenched wanderlust. In this current piece I guess I am doing a bit of traveling vicariously through others. I am very interested in everyday events and the ability for even the most benign events to become spectacular when viewed in the right light. I love it when things serendipitously synchronize or line up just right. I really enjoy absurdity and anytime I can be stopped in the midst of day-to-day routine to notice something new. For a long time every piece involved some form of holding on and letting go and attempts at both at the same time. I think that is still there, but less prominent in my current work.

Q: Do ideas lead to specific pieces, or do ideas and concepts emerge from the process of making something?

A: Both. Generally I have ideas that I dwell on and allow to fester in the back of mind while I am working on objects. I am drawn to certain objects then use those as inspiration for new forms. While I am working on them any holes in my ideas seem to get filled in. The objects act as sort of buoys or markers for my thoughts. I think my enjoyment in and occupation with the process of making allows my mind to wander freely.

Q: What is the relationship between the sculptural and performative elements in your work?

A: I have never felt that my sculptural objects make sense standing alone on a pedestal. I am very interested in activating the objects. That might in some part be due to the functional nature of ceramics. I feel a great deal of pleasure creating the objects and even more when watching others interact with them. During “La Stravaganza” a synchronized swimming piece I worked on in 2000, the performers became totally activated, engaged and animated when the props and costumes were brought out. I love that.

'La Stravaganza', 2000

Q: Your ceramic pieces are very satisfying in terms of texture, shape, and colour. Does this mean that there is still room for ideas about beauty in contemporary art?

A: Yes, I believe there is still room for beauty in contemporary art. I like to work with forms that are enticing and attract attention. The forms that I gravitate towards usually have very tactile qualities and are either smooth or have interesting textures. They demand to be touched and held. I want the viewers and participants to interact with the work. 

Q: I wonder if your teaching has influenced your work in any way – particularly in the way that you seem to desire interaction with the spectator to produce or ‘complete’ the work.

A: Not necessarily. I love teaching and interacting with people but I think the participant involvement in my work comes from my conflicting natural instincts. I have always wanted to be involved in performing in some way yet constantly am fighting a deep-seated shyness and insecurity that causes me to stay in the back row or in the shadows. By recruiting others to perform with me or interact directly with the work I am able to appease these conflicting parts of myself. I also just really get a kick out of watching people interested and invested in the ideas I have and things I have made.

Carrie Ohm's work is on display at the President's Gallery, Harold Washington College, Chicago, until April 9th, 2010. To see a web album of Carrie at work during her residency there, click here.

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