A Conversation With Kansas City Artist And Ceramicist Erica Iman

 In Culture, Feature

Hold a piece of ceramicist Erica Iman’s work in your hands and you’ll have a feeling not unlike picking up a perfect stone: that sense of sudden calm when you’ve stumbled upon something with an ancient and powerful story, an enigma that you’ll never fully know. The Kansas City artist has a deep reverence for her materials—a reverence which guides everything she makes, and often forces her to accomplish feats that were formerly impossible. Her vessels are made in hours, but often they look like they’ve been shaped by eons of slow geologic shifts. They’re shaped by elemental processes that are primal and physical and sometimes frightening, but also by Iman herself: a woman in a studio bending the forces of nature into art, and the forces of art into something as awe-inspiring as nature itself.

We spoke with Iman (pronounced EYE-man) over the phone about what aging cities of the Midwest have in common with the Mongolian steppe, why reading poetry is one of the best ways to learn to be a sculptor and more.

How did you become a ceramics artist and sculptor?
I went to school for art education originally at the University of Missouri in Columbia. I knew I was interested in the arts, but I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do. So, I dabbled in lots of different things and took a couple of ceramics classes. I had a teacher who really got me into it; he talked so poetically about the emotional side of pottery, how it was a really physical material to work with and why that was important. He’d assign us these unusual poetry readings and really thoughtful articles about the art of drinking coffee out of a handmade mug. Those things really started to draw me in, and hooked me. I decided to get my ceramics degree and study with that same teacher for my second undergraduate degree, essentially.

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You seem to gravitate toward materials and shapes that evoke geology and powerful natural processes, rather than clay in easily recognizable shapes—even though many of your pieces do work as functional vessels. Have you always been attracted to that palette?
I feel like it’s come in little bits and pieces over the years. Most people who take a clay class tend to make the kind of simple pottery you’re describing at first. That was my initial introduction to it, and my skill-building. But as I went along, I got more interested in the glaze room with all the raw materials and started to experiment with those. I started to see the cracked surfaces that a lot of potters would think of as a glaze fault, and I started liking those textures: that cracking, the things that were happening that would make most people say, “Throw the mug away.” I started experimenting with it.

I’ve always been one to kind of dig in the dirt, anyway. The raw materials just intrigued me—what their natural processes were, what they did when you heated them up and cooled them down at different rates, maybe freezing the clay and letting it naturally crack open as it thawed.

I know you joined the Peace Corps after school and spent a couple years in the Eastern Steppe of Mongolia. How did that experience impact your work?
The part of Mongolia I was in is this vast, open, infinite landscape. The earth itself—the mountains, the desert, the infinity of steppeland with no buildings or billboards or anything I was used to being around—it had a real effect on my psyche. I loved taking walks and finding little fragments of rock or chunks of wood, little pieces that intrigued me and had the emotional sense of vastness, that really get you thinking about infinity.

I also lived out in Oregon for a couple of years after [my time spent with] the Peace Corps, in a town by the coast. The ocean out there is extreme and impressive. It’s not one of those ‘vacation’ beaches. It has these cliffs that look like they’ve just fallen off into the ocean, these large black chunks of stone, and the waves are constantly crashing in. Those emotional landscapes get me in a good mindset, a thoughtful mindset. There’s something calming about it, even though it’s so extreme and can be so violent.

I’m exploring all those things in my work—trying to find similar emotions that I felt in those vast landscapes. And I find that most often in the raw materials that are inherent in clay—the feldspars, the silicas, different stones.

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You live in Kansas City now, which is obviously a much more explicitly man-made environment. But these old, brick Midwestern cities do have their own kind of erosion and weathering and powerful elemental processes on display. Do you think of the middle of America as a kind of extreme natural landscape in its own right?  
You know, I haven’t thought about that, but now that you bring it up, that’s interesting. I actually grew up in a small town in north central Missouri; it was a farming town, and most of my family came from farming communities and were farmers themselves. Running around on a farm—or maybe, even just living in a small town—you see a lot of deteriorated things. There’s a sense of age and use. I’m thinking about, say, an old metal bucket that was used in the milking barn—really, it’s a piece of iron, and watching those materials change as they oxidize and flake and turn various shades of red during a hard freeze or a thaw in an extreme summer.

My husband and I grew up in the same town—he was raised in his family’s antique auction business, which he now runs. Over the past twenty years I’ve gotten into antiques with him, and of course a lot of the things we own and love are worn and have a history to them. Whether it’s just weathered by the rain because it was sitting outside, or—well, for instance, I’m sitting in my kitchen right now and our kitchen shelves still kind of look like the barn wood that they used to be. I’m very interested in the deterioration of things and how they wear naturally.  

That’s something that has taken me a long time to perfect in my work—to create something that looks aged, ancient, even though I’m creating it in this very small window of time. How can I use the things that I’ve learned from from looking at naturally aged objects and create that same surface in a new object?

What’s next for you and your work?
We’re actually getting ready to sell our house here in Kansas City. We’re moving into an Airstream and heading out to Oregon for the winter, and then the Southwest and California after that. Our house is going on the market tomorrow, and we just sold a bunch of our antiques and most of the stuff in our house. We’re downsizing and refreshing a lot.

In that vein, I’m trying to refocus a bit in my work. I’m experimenting with larger pieces, kind of architectural stuff—like huge tile pieces that might be stacked to create a wall in a space. I’m playing with larger platters, big statement pieces that might feel a bit more monumental.

So you’ll be building these monuments in an Airstream?
[Laughs] I have studio space waiting for me in Oregon, so no, not quite. They’ll have a home soon.

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