Ceramicist Jen Mills: Making The Unseen, Seen

by Marcus Harrison Green

Conjuring concrete objects from the abstraction of imagination, culling scattered salvos of thought into a burst of creative

Jen Mills at work
Jen  at work

expression that abides in reality, it is this ingenious alchemy that is the hallmark which blankets most artists (or creative professionals should you prefer the current vernacular), however, none more snugly than the ceramicist. Those gifted enough to possess the enchanted ability to, with their hands, breath life into the dullest of materials, crafting them into a provocative articulation of form, and conceiving in their bowls, vases and vessels, art which functions in the everyday.


A paragon who fiercely pursues this craft is found in South Seattle’s accomplished ceramist Jen Mills, past recipient of several visual art residencies and a current instructor at the Seward Park Clay Studio. It is in speaking with Jen, her collegial appearance and Liz Lemonesque glasses, a consistent companion to her youthful face, which belies her depth of thought, and creating a small wonder that she isn’t more often confused for one of her students, that you find yourself entertaining the same perspective of art as she does, not just as a lone manifestation of creativity, but as hallowed practice of self-discovery. An appropriate vehicle of inward exploration for the former Religious Studies Major, who counts Buddhism amongst her favorite theologies.



Jen's Ceramic Installation "Drift"
Jen’s Ceramic Installation “Drift”

Her artwork, primarily forged from clay, is the result of an attentiveness to those moments in life which are oft ignored by the majority of us. It is her work that polishes them to reveal a  profound significance. Thankfully, for the artist and layperson alike, her approach to art is employed just as fully in her life. So be forewarned that her words may just inspire a revelation of meaning in your own:

Emerald: Most people’s association with ceramics/pottery begins and ends in high school, or if they’re fortunate, as an elective at a liberal arts college.Can you share the value of ceramics/pottery and why it should capture a person’s interest? For instance why should someone go to a ceramics showing?


Jen Mills:  Everyone has an association with ceramics. Right now we’re in a coffee shop and we’re both drinking out of ceramics mugs. Most everyone picks up a mug, especially in Seattle, usually filled with coffee everyday, and they eat off the material. They bathe in a bathtub made out of this material. Ceramic tiles are on space shuttles and prevents them from blowing up. We all have a familiarity with this material, so to go see a ceramics show that makes you think about this material that you frequently encounter in a different way, that’s really exciting. It makes you open to seeing the everyday in a different way.

Emerald: You were originally a religion major, how did you go from that to making art as a ceramicist?


Jen: Both religion and art motivate everyone, everyone from around the world tries to answer the question, “Why are we here?” Every country, everywhere from around the world is inspired to create. There is a lot of intersection between religion and art because you have a lot of art created, until recently, that was religiously inspired. From  Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, to the ancient paintings in the caves in France, it was all about expressing, ”where are we going and why are we here?” and doing it in a visual way. Both are universal to me, so it was a very short leap to go from one to the other.


Emerald: So then is making art, in a way, a religious practice for you? How much does religion inspire your work?


Jen:  I do try to practice Buddhism in my personal life, but I’m not too successful, so I would say the making of art, using my own hands, takes the place of that. Through my studies in comparative religion was that (religions) have a lot of fundamental differences, but they also have an incredible amount of similarities once you get to the esoteric level. I think of it as climbing a mountain, once you reach the top it all looks the same.


I remember a Christian text, where a priest had written a letter to a nun about how to pray the rosary. The priest said, “You have to lose yourself, until there is no you there, and there is only one, and if you lose yourself you become one with Christ.” That’s very similar to Buddhism…there is no “I”. Again, you get to the top of the mountain, you get a lot of similar answers. Now how you get there of course every religion has a different answer, but they’re going for the same goal.


I think a lot of artists are trying to do the same thing. They’re asking, “How do I visually represent this concept that I’m trying to communicate?”  It’s really kind of a leap of faith as you don’t have words; you’re not trying to write an essay like,  “here’s what I think about x,y and z.” You’re trying to depict this concept in a visual way, and there’s a gap. That’s what I liked about studying different religions – history, poetry, politics, everything is all right there, and I really responded to that. Art is the other piece, the other side of the coin in expressing those things. So you get the leap of leaving the known and going into the unknown, so a lot of my work is trying to make the unknown known, are the invisible, visible. I try to be in that inbetween place, where I think a lot of people find uncomfortable, but I find very interesting. So religion and art occupy that unknown place very well for me.


Emerald: You grew up in Colorado what influence did that area have on your art process?


Jen: Our surroundings affect all of us, some of it is very conscious, and some of it is unconscious. In Colorado, I grew up on the Front Range where you are literally on the edge of the Rocky Mountains. Turn one way and you see flat, flat land, and that’s like Kansas, the Great Plains, literally ramming right up into the Rocky Mountains. You then turn the other way and you’ve got these 14,000 foot peaks, so you’re living on the edge, where this transition takes place and I found this really exciting.


I was really fortunate to grow up in a really beautiful part of the country. When it snowed you had this blanket that covered up everything, and you wondered was that a pile of garbage underneath all of that snow or is that a rock? You don’t know. Snow makes everything beautiful – it’s like this frosting or glaze over the land. So I would get up in the middle of the night, and when the moon was full it was brighter almost than it was during the day because the light would reflect of the snow and I would be the first one to go walking in the snow, and I’d think to myself, “no one knows I’m out here,” and I would come back home and find another set of footsteps, and it would startle me. “Where did this person go? Who was it? Where they old or young?”  All I have is this trace of footsteps, this seen thing, that is now unseen, and this is all the evidence left behind.


So that thought left a mark on me, and so I go on to be a religion major, and try to make the unseen, seen, and at first I didn’t think my art was influenced by any of that at all.  I thought, “that religion degree is in the past,” but of course my art is influenced by the sum of my experiences, and what’s come before in my life. My art isn’t autobiographical but I’m the lens and of course it’s going to come through me, and that’s the way Colorado filtered through me, the snow, living on the edge, the snow covering things up and taking it away. The accumulation over time of snow, first an inch, than an hour would pass and it would then be a foot, you could literally see time in physical form. You’d measure the snow on the ground and discover, “Oh wow, it’s four inches and I can’t see my bike anymore.”


Emerald: What is your process? Some artist say they just have an innate compulsion to create. Does that describe you?


Jen:  Creating art is something that I need to do. I love sketching and researching and letting my mind wander, letting it be free to make associations that I can bring into my work. I almost see it as a collaboration with material, the concept I’m exploring and myself. There are those times when you get frustrated, and every artist has these moments, when they ask themselves, “Why am I doing this? This is so hard.” and you don’t really get recognized for the work that you do. Art making and art isn’t really valued, at least not in this country. People say, “Oh you’re an artist… What else do you do?” or “Oh that’s nice, but what pays the bills?” And that can be really disheartening, it’s not like we’re constantly living in a state of total bliss, and I just have this ‘need” to create. Sometimes just getting in the studio is the hardest thing to get done in that day, but that is what you do. There are days that I get into the studio and I can’t wait and it’s amazing, but then sometimes, I’m like, “okay, what’s going to get me in the studio today…”. So part of my practice is discipline. It’s easy to get into the studio, or anywhere, when you’re excited. but what gets you to the studio when you’re not excited, and it’s the last thing you want to do? So that’s the discipline; those artist I know who have any degree of success are incredibly disciplined, rational, business people, because they have to be, there’s no other way to do it. The notion of the successful crazy, weird artist is largely a myth.


Emerald: Stepping back into the intersection of religion and art, some artists say all spirituality is just going beyond a routine way of seeing life, and ultimately that’s what art is, do you agree with that assessment?


Jen: I would agree, though I don’t know if every artist would. Many artists describe making art as a kind of a trance. I think anyone who creates talks about it using a religious language  – a small “r” religious language – a state of mind that you can get to when you create. Not all the time of course, as there are some times that drudgery is the name of the game and you’re banging your head against the wall because the ideas are coming, you have the idea, but you can’t figure out exactly how to do it but there are times we get into the grove, and we know it’s happening, and we hit the target and we know it’s worked and  then you’re trying to do it again, you’re trying for that same spot over and over again and I think that’s what keeps all of us going no matter what kind of artist we are, writers, artists, or musicians.


Emerald: What influence has the South Seattle area had on your art and you personally?


Jen: I’ve always enjoyed a group learning experience, because I enjoy conversation. I think that when you encounter ideas, people, things, that are different from you, that have a different point of view than you do, you are forced to look at the assumptions you’ve made, reevaluate and grow. That’s the only way to grow, to meet resistance. Our bodies are actually meant to encounter resistance.  That’s the reason that astronauts’ bones and muscles deteriorate in outer space, because there’s no resistance. We get stronger by lifting things that are outside of our comfort zone. We respond in a positive way to being challenged outside of our comfort zone.


I think that ever since I was little I enjoyed class discussions where people expressed different points of view and I was in that uncomfortable in-between place. That’s why a lot of my work has more than one part to it, so there’s a conversation that’s happening between multiple parts that then makes a sum greater than the individual parts. South Seattle has always been that to me with it’s diversity. Hopefully Seattle can find a way to preserve that, that conversation, because it seems to be disappearing. It’s what’s going on now with people only watching Fox News or MSNBC, if you’re only talking to the people who agree with you, it’s bad. Any place, whether online or South Seattle, where you can bump into and encounter those different conversations and point of views is a great place. I have to keep myself open to different points of view because otherwise I’d be bored, and I hate being bored!


Emerald: Is ceramics undervalued as an art form?


Jen: I do think in comparison to other disciplines that ceramics is the underdog, although that’s changing, and has been for the last few years I think. It’s being seen more and more, for its great conceptual possibilities as well as its functionality. There are now more galleries that are picking up ceramic artists, in addition to painters, and other disciplines. They are seeing that ceramics can contribute to the conversation that the larger art world is having.


Ceramic artists have differing opinions on whether or not that’s a good thing, as with any discipline there’s people who don’t want to interact with that large conversation, and you’ve got potters who are saying, “Why should I?” But I choose to work with clay because this material has everything that I need. It’s a really exciting time to be working in ceramics, and I’m really excited about its history, from porcelain in China that are thousands of years old to the new artist today who is using challenging our ideas of what a permanent piece of art should be by not firing the work to make it a permanent form, and letting it disintegrate back into the ground, creating a temporary ephemeral piece. That’s a huge range and a potential for conversations that ceramics can have that not a lot of other art forms can have.


Emerald: In producing art, when do you encounter your, “aha moment?” When do you know you’re finished with a piece?


Jen: That’s a good question. Sometimes you have to go over the finish line. Working on art is sometimes like looking in the rearview mirror, like,” oops that stopping point was back there.” There is an element of subjectivity to art. The artist has their opinion and you have your opinion. It’s wonderful when we agree. But there are those who are with you, and those who think you’re on a different planet. You can always know that something is well crafted, and that the skill is there. But when you’re finished with a piece it’s when it answers the questions you are asking the work. Does this say what I want it to? Does this communicate the questions I’m asking? For example, does this ceramic cup (she holds up an ordinary looking coffee cup) provide an answer to human anguish? Well no – this “artwork” will fail. It’s purpose is to hold liquid and to drink out of.  So it really matters what questions are you asking the work. The answer can sometimes determine whether you are finished or not.


Emerald: You’ve had a great amount of success, with several artist residencies and awards. What advice do you have for those artist who are just starting out or who have persisted without any success?


Jen: You have to show up. In order to make the work you have to be there to make the work. So to the new, younger artist I’d say keep going, even on those days you don’t want to, or you get that 20th rejection letter, you’re not going to succeed if you quit. Sounds obvious, but if you don’t apply you’re not going to get the opportunity, you might as well apply because you’ve got nothing to lose. What’s the worst that can happen? You’re not going to get it? If you don’t apply, you’re certainly not going to get there. You’re not going to make the work. So just do it, just show up.


The second thing is to take risks. The more you put yourself out there, even if every fiber of your being is afraid, and saying oh my gosh who is going to like this? Someone is going to respond to it. There’s something for everyone. Now is it going to be the best thing you ever made? Maybe not, but if you don’t put it out there you’re not going to get any feedback to get better. You’re not going to encounter any resistance to get better to make you stronger. Just keeping putting your work out there, and if that’s at a local coffee shop, just so you can see it outside of your studio on the wall, or outside of your living room or wherever you’re working, the work benefits because it’s encountering a new thing, you’re benefiting because you’re encountering a new thing, and you will see your work in a different way.
For more information on Jen Mills, including views of her scintillating ceramic pieces and future exhibitions, please visit http://www.jen-mills.com