By Joe Bartram
John Souter received a BFA in Crafts from the University of the Arts, Philadelphia in 2012. He has been an artist-in-residence at The Clay Studio, Guldagergaard International Research Center, Anderson Ranch Arts Center and currently The Archie Bray Foundation for the Ceramic Arts. He was a 2012 Windgate Fellow and has been published in American Craft, Ceramic Review and CFILE. This interview examines some of John’s interests and influences for his solo exhibition Forbidden Fruit, currently on view at Snyderman Works Gallery through January 30th, 2015.
Joe Bartram: Did anything inform your identity and taste growing up? What were your artistic references?
John Souter: I was born in Scranton, PA in the late eighties. My parents ran a funeral home. Growing up, we went to church quite often. The orthodox parish we attended was filled with ornate, enameled objects, sun-soaked stained glass windows, a bellowing choir, and dozens of flickering candles. This setting was my first encounter with hand labor and the mystical experience of an object.
My environment growing up has, in many ways, shaped my current basis for reference and influence. In Scranton, there were many areas filled with waste from coal mining: big mounds of culm from anthracite coal lying in black silt. The silt was a deep, rich, almost a kind of velvet black. It was extremely soft, both visually and physically. When the sun would shine, the silt would sparkle. Juxtaposed with large pieces of coal, I saw these arenas as dynamic, monumental sculptures of nature. The presence of tension between the rocks and silt, the natural and the forced, the remnants of industry, paired with my curiosity to explore, became influential in my work. Roots and the Sludge Series became, in some ways, homage to those experiences.
Simultaneously, living in a funeral home has shaped my outlook. I viewed the life and death of human energy everyday. The questioning and exploration of this energy has been ever-present in my creative practice.
JB: When did you begin making work? When did you start getting serious about it?
JS: Years later, I moved to Philadelphia to attend Temple University. In my second year there, I got a job making ceramic kiln parts. This was my first experience that involved industrial, manufacturing processes. What I found most fascinating about it was the act of taking nothing (clay) and turning it into something (the product). After work and class, I would go to another building in Kensington to throw pottery and draw. The following year, I enrolled at University of the Arts and started taking art making seriously. I became obsessed with making things, almost exclusively pottery. Later on, I left pottery and began making sculpture.
JB: After graduating from University of the Arts, you traveled to Denmark on a Windgate Fellowship to work at the International Ceramic Research Center at Guldagergaard. It was during this time that you first went to Paris to examine Gothic and Islamic architecture at St. Chapelle, St. Denis, Notre Dame, and The Grand Mosque. Can you expand on this?
JS: Specifically, I had an interest in the spatial and structural relationships between high Gothic and Islamic architecture. Most of my interest at the time was focused on the exterior of these buildings. The contrast between vertical and horizontal, the interplay of positive and negative space, and differences in structural elements such as arches, towers, buttresses, and spires all fascinated me. I wanted to give animation to something that I perceived as static. In my mind, I would rearrange parts of the buildings by stretching, squeezing, and playing with the fluctuation of proportion. By shifting parts around, I created new architectural compositions in my mind. This exercise in imagination allowed me to view things from a non-static viewpoint.
JB: How did these places affect your interests in the studio?
JS: Prior to my departure, I had my first solo exhibition at Snyderman. In this show I had, in retrospect, created a very linear body of work. While each piece was unique, there was little dialogue between the objects. The bases on which the objects sat were secondary. They were separate parts with little interaction.
I left the US, and things changed. Structural elements of buildings I would visit interacted with one another in ways that were dynamic, unconventional, and not quite obvious. I began to relate this way of thinking to other things I would see, such as fruit stands, fashion displays, and pastry shops. Everything became alive, and I wanted to embody these thought-experiments in to my work, such as in Hang Tough. Being star-struck by these experiences and ones that would follow, this was the beginning of tearing apart my practice. During that time, I made a lot of terrible work that was thrown out during the next year or so.
JB: You have said that color helped you experience physical space in a completely different animated way. Is this true?
JS: Yes. The interior of these sacred spaces—specifically St. Chappelle—were arenas to view color in action. Through the refraction of light, color spilled onto the floor, walls, and every nook and cranny available. One could see it floating in the air, being sprinkled around like a disco ball. In this experience, it allowed me to realize that color itself is a material. It has physicality and a mass to it. In this matter that is color, there lies potential energy that can become volumetric. Color is a quasi-physical, elastic substance. It can be bent, pulled, squished, so on and so forth. In Bend, Pull, and Hang, I explored a lot of these thoughts in different ways. Each one focused on thinking of a different action that color could take.I saw the materials as colors, begging to be manipulated. Putting them together, they became, for me, animated, intimate experiences using color as material.
JB: Did this begin your obsession with using color as a material?
JS: Yes. The glass and the tiling were vehicles for color to become kinetic and active. Or were these materials actually color themselves? This was something that I toy with still. Maybe it is both.
Conceptually, viewing the exterior as an animated object laid the groundwork in my mind for what was held on the interior. The whole time inside these buildings, there were people everywhere, staring and gawking at everything.
Color is accessible by everyone. However, it is more than something that is seen. It can be felt, touched, smelt, and experienced. It is something that has no beginning and no ending. To think of creating things out of color is quite boundless. It is the ultimate freedom.
JB: You have spent the majority of 2015 as a resident at The Archie Bray Foundation in Helena, Montana. You have also spent a lot of time in the deserts and mountains of California, Utah, and Nevada.
Is there something really appealing about isolated areas of the west? Would you rather be dealing with the elasticity of city life? Does the work ever become location-specific?
JS: Living in isolation is isolating. It is an opportunity to be alone. I wanted time for reflection and the freedom to play with the thoughts in my head. While these experiences have been somewhat temporary, they have been fruitful for the development of my creative practice and my growth as an individual.
I let go of pre-conceptualizing the outcome of my work. There is an ever-present sense of vastness in the western US. It is an expansive unknown, constantly in fluctuation at the mercy of the elements. It is death, creation, and everything in between. In turn, the works have been a response to this expansive unknown and the energy that exists within it. Part of my focus has been on the experience of being while standing, lying down, and immersing one’s self within a large body of physical space. It is quite humbling and ontological in nature. Pink captures the elastic space of no beginning and no ending with something that isn’t quite right in between.
My mental energy shifts from place to place as a response to environment. It has become paradoxical and opposite to the environment I exist in. Living in Philadelphia, my practice was slower and more methodical. In Montana, I became more immediate, more physical. I became less fixed on the outcome and more infatuated with exploring the action of making. Living a transient lifestyle has presented feelings of being uncomfortable. Philadelphia became comfortable for me. I needed to step out of that in order to develop.
JB: You have mentioned that your work takes longer to make now then in previous years, but you are becoming more physical and immediate. Can you expand on this?
JS: Prior to Montana, I had a very predetermined view of how things were going to manifest themselves. Anything else and I would find myself in distress. My work was becoming forced and almost contrived. To edge away from that, I needed to let go. I needed to embrace process and the experience of creating.
JB: You are making more paintings and collage than ever. There are also more synthetics incorporated into the ceramics than before. Do you feel most at ease with clay and have a need to try new things, or have new materials found a way to better describe what you are feeling, and clay can no longer do this?
JS: Both. I have found a need to explore other materials, as I wanted my practice to encompass a broader range of artistic output. This desire has been pushed even further as I have found a recent love for textile arts. They are quite opposite of the inherent qualities that ceramic materials posses. Very soft, very malleable. Quite contrary to the hard, stiffness that lies within fired ceramic. This juxtaposition was something I became interested in as it presented an opportunity to create tension and a sense of questioning. Such as in Hang Tough, Slut, or Ideal?, there were things that did not seem quite right, to me, because of the material juxtapositions in these specific works. In turn, these perpendicular materials, when combined, created and spoke of a different vernacular than if they were independent of one another.
JB: Are you beginning to use materials that are considered for their historical context and/or contemporary usage, or are you mostly interested in a language where surface qualities, texture, and color are a primary means for building compositions that are metaphors for how you live your life?
JS: I am creating a visual language, not a material language. While I acknowledge historical reference and purpose, I am interested in my intuitive response to these materials. Each material is chosen only when I cannot quite put my finger on why I am responsive to it. It is this unknown desire that is created between the material and myself that is enticing to me. Seeking out various random materials and interacting with them independently of one another is an obsessive pleasure. Applying force through arranging has become fetishism for me. In turn, my work is metaphorical of this experience. Simultaneously, I impose and project personal observation, philosophy, and emotive connotations in each work.
JB: Are you interested in how these materials were manufactured, processed and used in contemporary culture?
JS: Not currently, but maybe in the future. I don’t want to stray away from the spontaneous and raw. Getting into context of materials, their layered meanings, so on and so forth, becomes about ideas and notions that are already present. They are answers and can become a starting point for commentary or the like. I am over ideas at the current moment. I want my work to be something, not about something.
JB: What is the future of this body of work? Do you see it continuing?
JS: Of course! I have started to work in series, using individual works from the exhibition as means for continuation into larger, more progressive groupings. In particular, the Sludge Series works are the first two of a new series. Lately, I have been piling colored clay and “soft” fabric to create mounds and wells. I am also exploring other materials that I have begun to respond to such as Formica, Quartz, and Brass. While I am not certain where anything is heading to, I am most certainly excited.
Joseph Bartram is working in Philadelphia. He received his BFA in 2012 from the University of Akron where he studied sculpture.