The Experiments and Design of Vivian Shao Chen Ceramics

VIVIAN SHAO CHEN, Ceramics, Glaze Magazine
There is a strength in the delicate pieces by Vivian Shao Chen.  The proportion of the forms are both familiar and yet unexpected. The surfaces of the pottery are rustic yet refined. These contradictions play into the ethos of Chen’s creative process. A happy accident with the glaze or a basket that doesn’t function the way it looks.

Since starting her ceramic journey about five years ago, Chen acknowledges the element of chance and surprise as part of her design. With humility, she does not claim to be the author of a beautiful mistake. She continually recognizes the vast knowledge to be learned about ceramics, but it does not stop her from experimenting.

Here we talk with Chen about her experience and experiments with ceramics.


GLAZE: How did you get into ceramics?

VIVIAN SHAO CHEN: I started making ceramics in 2013 when I was teaching architecture design studios at Cornell University. There were leftover slipcasting materials from a previous class that was free and available for me to use. The shop tech generously offered to teach me the basics of how to make a mold and helped me pour my first ceramic cup. Since then, I took a wheel throwing class earlier this year and became obsessed with the process of throwing.

I come from an architecture design background, which is often more cerebral than it is about making. Though materiality is very important to architects, we can be very removed from it since we aren’t the ones who actually build our designs. Making objects with clay is a totally different design process than I was used to. My favorite pieces are those that happen while I’m throwing on the wheel, intuitively. What I like is finding the subtle nuances in shape and detail that make a piece interesting and beautiful. These are things I could never design on my own and that come from the process itself. I tend to make a lot of functional pieces. There is something satisfying about making something utilitarian that also makes you appreciate your physical environment more. I look for simple shapes with refined details that blend easily into the background. I like that ceramics is a very humble and humbling craft. Mistakes and accidents are always happening, even when I think I did everything ‘right’. I will continue to learn and refine my skills, and I look forward to seeing what else the process reveals.

G: Tell us about your forage collection… what was the inspiration behind it?
VSC: I weigh all my clay before throwing functional ware. I was tired of the rigidity of the process one day and wanted to just be loose on the wheel. I think the forage collection was a way for me to make functionless vessels that appear to be useful. I like the contradiction in that. They would not be practical to rummage around the forests with to pick wildflowers and berries, but they embody that idea. I am always wishing I could spend more time outdoors so I think this collection comes from that in one way or another.

G: With your glaze experiments… what was the biggest challenge with working with glaze? And the biggest surprise?
VSC: Glazing has always been a challenge for me. The choice of glaze and glaze application technique can make or break the piece, regardless of its shape or how perfectly it is thrown. The biggest challenge is to understand the glaze is not as surface decoration but as an equal partner to the clay body it is paired with. I’m slowly learning to be more comfortable by trying multiple techniques over and over again. The biggest surprise is in the accidents. Some accidents come out terribly and I make a mental note to never make the same mistake. The happy accidents are those pieces that I feel most proud of, even though I was not really the author. Recreating those mistakes is a challenge in and of itself. It is a constant reminder of how much there is to learn in this craft.

G: Where/how can we buy your work?
VSC: I am working towards a goal to have an online shop mid next year, so look out for that! Otherwise, I sell directly via email and Instagram, as well as in person at my community studio space called Artshack in Brooklyn.

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