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Em Kettner

Em Kettner

I'm super excited to share the mixed media work of Bay Area artist Em Kettner, whose practice sits at an intersection of folk and world art influence and a melding of contemporary craft and art. Here we chat about the root of her interest in object-making as well as some wonderful insights into advice and experience that has helped shape her work. More info at the links afterward!

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I'd love to know more about you! Where are you from, and where are you based now?

I grew up on the east coast in Philadelphia, worked in Chicago for the past five years, and recently relocated to El Cerrito, CA. In Chicago I lived in several tiny shared apartments—once in a closet and once in a room that I’m pretty sure used to be a bathroom—so I’m really excited that I have the space for a little studio in my new California home.

What first interested you in making art? I notice that your practice spans different types of media, ranging from weaving to ceramics. Do you have a "central" medium, or do you like to experiment?

I come from a family of artists and writers. The walls of my parents’ house are crowded with masks, prints, and textiles from around the world. At the base of one stairwell is an antique wooden door from a Tibetan monastery with the image of a tiger eviscerating a snake; at the top of those stairs, a framed reproduction of Lucas Cranach’s eared serpent from “Adam and Eve in Paradise (1931)” looks smugly down toward its fallen brother.

I’ve always been curious about the natural world and the fraught bonds we forge with animals. My favorite toys growing up were a rat puppet, a realistic rubber lobster that I named after myself (?), and a plastic alien figurine from the 1950s, which, even in its miniature form, was still sculpted to look like a person wearing an ill-fitting frog costume. I think even back then those objects puzzled me for representing impossible composite bodies, both activated and stunted by their respective human components: the puppet animated by my hand, the lobster personified with all of my middling qualities, and the pitiable hybrid frog-man.

I love to experiment with materials, but that’s a relatively recent development. My first and most enduring practices are drawing and prose writing, and I still think of my work as grounded in these disciplines. Over the past year I started applying such faculties to textile production and object-making: the drawn line is made flexible in thread and ossified in clay; colors shift and blend where warp crosses weft, or melt together as tinted glazes. The resulting serpentine forms are at once figurative and calligraphic, with titles that hint at their root narratives.

Can you tell me about your practice? What ideas influence you, or do you explore with your work? 

I sculpt ceramic creatures to function as miniature tapestry looms or shaped cores for woven baskets. I weave on or around the clay with embroidery thread, twine, wire, and beads. I’m developing a companion series of patterned textile drawings that float in ceramic body frames.

With this work I’m thinking about how coverings like masks, casts, armor, and animal skins can both reinforce and challenge stories that equate disabled bodies with animals or monsters. I collect historical and literary examples of fearmongering that have led to the literal exiling of “wrong bodies”—practices like the ritual scapegoating of the lame among Ancient Greeks, the fetishization of deformity in circus freak shows, and stories that condemn “wild men.” My dad and I each have a degenerative muscle disease so it’s important for me to visualize such bodies without pity or shame.

When I study the production of artists branded as “outsiders” due to psychological or physical impairments, I find that many of them, like me, employ a wrapping action or other “ruminating mark” in their works: artists like Judith Scott, Martin Ramirez, Christine Sun Kim, and the Philadelphia Wireman. My tiny wrapped forms refer to this trend, and similarly participate in a long tradition of costuming, amending, and modifying the body to blur the lines that divide humans from animals and beings found in myth. Each clay creature emerges from its bindings with both animal and human parts, or sporting an odd number of limbs. The process is wonderfully tedious and preserves all of my slow movements and mistakes. The thread component is often both decorative and structural: the ceramic bodies, sometimes broken during the weaving process, remain held together by the cotton and silk that adorn them. I want these small, votive objects to present impairment and frailty as also liberatory and desirable physical conditions.

What is your studio space or workspace like? 

My current studio takes up half of a shared living room in my East Bay apartment. It’s very cozy and colorful and, since I’m not teaching this semester, I get to spend every day in there working. My prized possession is a floor loom from the 1930s. It takes up most of the available real estate, so my partner custom built all of the furniture to help divide the room into different stations: a weaving table with yarn compartments to the left of the loom, a clay glazing table to the right by the window, and an adjustable drawing table in the corner. The walls are decorated with masks, textiles fragments, and artwork from my friends.

Do you have any daily routines or rituals in the studio? 

I do a lot of free-form image and history research and I eat a lot of triscuits and dried mango. Right now I’m flipping through several books: 300 years of American quilts, big-eyed stone sculptures from the ancient Sumerian city of Ur, Betty Woodman’s vases, and Nick Cave’s sound suits. I’m looking at how the pictured items distort and protect bodies, how they amplify strangeness and deformity. I keep a notebook of potential titles, most of which refer to phrases and figures that exemplify these characteristics: Quasimodo, Caliban, Siren Song, and The Boy in the Iron Lung, to name a few.

I listen to books-on-tape, terrible music, or Netflix shows where the narration is so thorough that I never have to look up from my loom.

What is the best advice you've ever received? Have you received any advice that you're grateful you decided to ignore?

One of my favorite undergrad advisors said, after enduring my lengthy art-school explanation for an in-progress piece, “…your hand is way ahead of your head.” I think it was her way of telling me to shut up AND to look with fresh eyes at my own work for the things I hadn’t planned. Her advice, once it sunk in, convinced me to delight in intuitive play and to not always set out with a fully formed plan. I find myself telling this story to my own students a lot.

I had a teacher in grad school who made a bizarre claim during a heated class discussion that not one of us could possibly know more than she did because she was the oldest and therefore had endured more meaningful life experiences.  Her comment abruptly shut everyone up—and not in the productive “trust yourself” way I cited above. This incident definitely stuck in my craw and now that I’m lucky enough to work as a lecturer, I apply what I see as its indirect lesson: learning occurs not via the unilateral dispensing of knowledge from teacher to student, but as a generous exchange among learners.

What do you need most as an artist?

I’m in almost constant contact with several friends from my MFA program. We share in-progress work, feedback, and job or gallery opportunities. It’s been great to sustain our grad community virtually now that we live in different cities. I don’t want to think about what my work would be like if we weren’t all still collaborating, supporting, and challenging each other.

And, this might sound obvious given my current body of work, but I need access to ceramics facilities, my loom, and libraries.  I used to pride myself on only needing a tiny sketchbook and a bic pen but I’ve since become far more high maintenance.

What do you feel is the most challenging thing about pursuing art, either creatively or professionally--or both, especially as an MFA graduate relatively recently out of the university setting?

#1: Consistent employment. I’ve had my dream job teaching in the Painting and Drawing department at SAIC for several years, but at the lecturer level it’s hard to count on work for more than a semester or two at a time.  

I think it’s possible to become disenchanted with the art world if you have trouble identifying your subject, community, or reason for making. A few years ago I listened to Neil MacGregor’s A History of the World in 100 Objects on tape and – I don’t mean for this to sound melodramatic—it restored my sense of purpose as a maker. 

How would you define "success?"

In terms of the big picture, success for me is being able to continue working in the arts, in almost any capacity. I’d also love to acquire enough skills to go into any room and understand how everything is made.

In terms of a specific art piece, success is harder to define…but, vaguely, I think it’s achieved by works that both provide an answer and leave me with another question.

Do you have any upcoming exhibitions or projects you're currently working on?

Right now I have new work in two Chicago gallery shows that run through February 25th: ceramic-textile and ceramic-drawing hybrids in “Close to Me” at Roots & Culture with Mel Cook, Allison Reimus, Celeste Rapone and Ryan Richey; and works on paper in “—on the bank of what river?” at Roman Susan Gallery with Maryam Hoseini, Gulsah Mursaloglu, Kayla Risko, and Erin Washington. I’m currently cooking up ceramics for a forthcoming solo-exhibition in Richmond, CA at NIAD, which is an awesome facility that provides studio space and classes for adult artists with disabilities.  I’ll also have work for sale on the new and incredible http://www.fauvist.org/ where 40% of the proceeds go to animal conservation organizations. Outside of these projects, I’m weaving a weird narrative blanket for my brother and collaborating on a fossorial animal-themed tea set with my friend at a local ceramic studio.

Anything else you would like to add?

Thanks so much for providing this platform and doin’ what you do, Kate!

Find more at emkettner.com and on Instagram @em_kettner!

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