When she’s not hard at work in her shared New York pottery studio, professional potter Judy Jackson can be found at her weekend home in the Connecticut countryside, hiking with her two Springer spaniels and scheming up new designs. This balance of craft and creativity is also apparent in her line of handmade stoneware pieces.
Jackson’s extensive studies at such institutions as Corcoran School of Art, Penland School of Crafts, and Greenwich House Pottery—plus her nearly 30 years of professional experience—have made her an expert on nearly every aspect of her craft, from wheel-throwing and slip-casting to mixing her own glazes. We caught up with Jackson in her Long Island City studio to talk about her space, her process and her road to becoming a full-time potter.
How did you become interested in ceramics?
I started attending a ceramics recreational program in Washington D.C., where I was living at the time. I was 29 years old and had never made ceramics growing up.
When did you transition ceramics from a hobby to a full-time career?
For a good 20 years, ceramics was just an avocation while I worked at Time Inc. I always managed to have a wheel, though, and I always managed to have something I could do at home. The board at my first apartment said I couldn’t have a kiln, but I had one anyway and I did my own work. Then I got my first studio, a shared space on the Lower East Side.
Why a shared studio?
Every pottery studio needs a kiln, slab rollers, glazes and vents—we all get to share those while having our own little space. So economically we can afford to be here.
Tell me about Tribeca Potters, the shared pottery studio space you helped found?
Most of us are experienced professionals and we do our own work, but every once in a while we collaborate. We get commissions and sometimes the projects are adaptable to two people rather than one—someone throws extremely well, or someone else knows a lot about glazing, for example. Most of us have known each other for quite a while, and the balance of the studio is the common space that’s available to everybody with the glazes and the kilns.
Are you inspired by sharing a space with other artists?
Yes, I like designing. But honestly 80% of any potter’s work is just plain grunt work. It has nothing to do with creativity or design; it’s just getting it out!
What made you choose stoneware over other forms of pottery?
I use stoneware for its durability. I make functional pottery. I also do decorative, but I think beauty follows function, and beautiful, elegant, functional pieces should last. I’ve never been comfortable painting, which you can do with low-firing pieces like earthenware. Far more interesting and satisfying to me is dipping and pouring a glaze on stoneware, following the line and form of the piece.
Why mix your own glazes instead of sourcing them?
Years ago, we had recipes that were passed down to us. Now there are all kinds of commercial glazes, but we have 40 recipes for 40 different glazes, so why change that? Plus, making it ourselves is a lot less expensive and the glaze can be mixed to a specific consistency. We do tests all the time of different recipes—adding this and taking that out—and I think that’s part of the potter’s life: to constantly renew your familiarity with the glaze, the clay and how they behave.
What’s your approach to the form of your pieces?
I wanted to do a line that was reasonably priced and had basic forms. My templates are based on the classic sphere that’s cut in half—or for a serving bowl, cut into a quarter. When I’m making my pieces, I’m throwing them and making sure to keep this classic half-sphere template. That’s very pleasing to me. It’s hard to break away from!
What about function?
A teapot, for example, has a specific function. I slip-cast mine, which means the handle is hollow. I decided that’s not a great idea; a hollow handle can get hot and it’s also not going to get that clean. Now I throw the handles and add them to the slipped piece—that’s function, trying to maintain the same shape from the original. And you want a teapot to pour properly and you want the lid to stay on when you pour it, so there are certain things you have to do that are very classical to make something functional.
What’s your favorite part of the creation process?
I love throwing. I think because I do it well, and I do it fast, and there are lots of different forms and textures and things you can do on the wheel that won’t look right if you don’t do them on the wheel. People love to watch other people throw, even potters. It’s magic.
If you couldn’t be a full-time potter, what would you be?
I’ve never thought about that! Other forms of making don’t appeal to me. There’s an immediacy to throwing pots that’s very appealing, and I don’t know what would replace that. There’s probably something out there, but I’m not sure what it would be because I haven’t had to think about it…
All photos by Sandra Arenas.