Filling the Well: Katie Thompson’s Love of Learning Ceramics
Katie Thompson’s work is favored by her clients, fellow ceramicists, and curious sculpture fans alike. She hand-builds using mostly clay and relies on her gut (or, in rare times, some otherworldly influence) to shape and sculpt playful, lifelike forms. She has been crafting since college and has now amassed a vast portfolio of works, yet she sees her process as less a means to display skill and expertise but more a continuous learning experience. She humbly believes in keeping her well full to draw from and grow.
When did you start to build ceramics?
I took my first class in college. I had loaded up my schedule in my previous semesters and finished most of my requirements so, by senior year, I was able to take classes out of pure curiosity.
A semester was not nearly enough time (for me, at least) to develop any skill, but it was enough time to realize it would take a considerable amount of time (that I didn’t feel I had) to develop it. Several years later, I started seriously thinking about how I wanted to decorate my home, and all I knew was I wanted to make as much of it as I could, which brought me back to clay. I took wheel classes, but hand-building was the thing for me, and I began by making dishes, pots for plants, and small shelves.
I'm attracted to clay because it's endless—you can make anything with it: small things, big things, purely decorative pieces, completely functional objects, and on and on. I’m always trying to build my skills so I can continue to push past the limitations I’ve perceived for us both.
What was the first piece you created? Do you still have it?
I abandoned my very first pots when I moved from Seattle to Los Angeles. I had held on to them for no real reason, except that they were something I had made, and it was time to part.
I do still have a set of pinch pots, which are probably the first pieces I designed thoughtfully, as a cohesive group. They are small and simple, each with different legs and tops, but the same basic shape repeated. They mark a change in my ability and the moment when I had an electric experience of transformation and how I thought about clay. Those little pinch pots came from the first real conversation I had with clay (as compared to the clay pretty much running the show), and I began to understand the language and build my vocabulary.
What inspires you?
I am constantly trying to feed my curiosity and hone my skills by learning more, reading more, seeing more, and traveling more whenever I'm lucky enough to do so. I'm always trying to “fill the well” and expand. I think it's a little tricky to talk about, but I think that pursuit while stimulating and influential is different from being inspired.
I recently learned a German saying that translates to “let your soul dangle.” I love the idea and the image it invokes. I think it's in those moments of quiet and stillness without strain or effort when I stop trying so hard to learn more or do better work, and my brain is just braining on its own, that I get really truly struck by something. Those moments when, you know, my soul is just dangling and I am clear-headed enough to get the electric kind of ideas for forms and shapes that I would call inspiration. It's when I’m not asking, that it comes—when I'm falling asleep, dreaming, on a walk, waking up, on a long car drive, shavasanaing. Not always, but sometimes, and those times are so very invigorating that I can’t compare it to any other feeling. It's what’s it all about.
I don’t want to interrogate the hows and the whys of it because I like the mystery too much. I have a bit of a formula that I need to maintain to maximize my receptivity to these lightning strikes, but I mostly just remind myself to dangle.
How does living in California influence your work?
I don’t know if I can fully acknowledge the influence—it is my childhood and foundation. I grew up outside of Los Angeles, left for school and spent my early adult life in Washington State, and came back a couple of years ago. I left southern California because I thought the Pacific Northwest would help me develop a level of depth that Southern Californians were supposed to lack. I studied English and thought it would make me a better writer to live in a moodier climate. However, all the stories and poems I wrote were about nature verse California Suburbia—droughts, coyotes, earthquakes, valley fever in McMansions. Turns out, being in the rain doesn’t change your story. I think I tried to force that for a bit too long, and coming back, I realized that California is home.
Growing up in the desert of Southern California, I spent a lot of time in the dirt; the hills behind our suburban home were a little bit of weird wilderness in an otherwise extremely manicured world. I like to go back there in my head when I am in the studio—10 years old and daydreaming, playing in the dirt.
Do you sketch your forms before you begin to build or do the shapes come to you during the process?
I very rarely come to a form through drawing and then make that form in clay. That is not to say I don’t draw. I am a constant doodler.
The way I coil build my pieces requires a lot of rest for the clay while each coil sets. It's a very slow process, which means that I am constantly working on several pieces at once so that one is always ready and waiting to be attended to while the others are resting. To keep track of it all, I log my pieces each day by drawing each piece and the progress I’ve made to date. Because hand-building is slow but fluid, the daily progress drawing of a single piece will change vastly from start to finish. I started thinking I’d make one thing and, through the incremental changes of daily work, made another thing entirely. My drawings document these developments instead of acting as true models.
A few times, I've had an image communicated from the heavens that I couldn't draw but could make in clay. The image was strong enough that doodling didn't matter—I could make it real in clay in the world. Those times are rare gifts.
Do you name your pieces? If so, how?
I very rarely name them. I like to avoid it. I don’t want to provide context that might constrain them. I think they are so much more welcoming that way.
Naming can come in handy as a reference point, so I’ve relied on some naming conventions in the past. For instance, I named a whole series after the women in Greek mythology who were transformed into other things. It seemed well suited because one of the great fascinations of ceramics is the transformative process. It was also a large series and that is an endless list of women but ultimately a depressing one.
I also did a recent series where I felt comfortable providing somewhat generic names to add a little color to the pieces, but I hope not too much. I made a series of creature-like sculptures with caves for them to reside in. Years ago, I went on a biking trip with my partner, parents, and sister in the Loire Valley, and we visited these amazing habitations in caves. So, I named my little sculptures Troglodytes and their caves, Domiciles, after that trip.
Are all of your pieces made to order? Where can we go to purchase your work?
Most are made-to-order and one-of-a-kind. I love to work with people on custom orders to fit their space. I like to keep pushing toward new ideas, and aside from some of my furniture, I don’t do too many repeats.
In Los Angeles, I have ceramics for sale at Merchant Modern, Mohawk General Store’s SMOCK store, and a collection of bronzes at LoQ’s shop.
We love your new metallic sculptures—what sparked the idea to cast in bronze?
Ceramics can be all kinds of things, but for me, clay is a means to experiment with forms. I am interested in other materials, but the addictive nature of hand-building is a true fixation for me and very unique. So, while curious, I haven’t tried my hand at working with other materials, yet.
Casting in bronze felt like a natural progression on the transformation spectrum—from a lump of clay to stone to metal. I think the forms translate really well to metal and the sensation of the sculptures in each material is so different but has a similar satisfaction to it. The ceramic originals are pale, almost anemic, and hollow and light, whereas the bronzes are so bold and solid and heavy. They are the same shape, but so opposite experientially. Magic!
What are you working on now?
I am collaborating on a collection of ikebana-inspired ceramics for floral arranging that have been so fun to research and experiment with. I’m continuing to experiment with clay furniture, and I’m working on new bronze sculptures.
For myself, I am planning and designing a clay oven for my backyard and lots of pizza making.
How would you describe your style/work in a few words?
Inviting? Humorous, maybe. I like to leave that a bit open to interpretation. I will say, making things allows me to channel a natural impetus to order and organize the space around me in a fulfilling and expressive way. Without such a channel, that impetus can veer into a dangerously uninteresting paralyzing perfectionism. I am so happy to have found clay.