Design & Make

Helen Levi

by Laura Palmer Peach January 06, 2016
ReadHelen Levi

As a young girl, Helen Levi was enrolled in an after-school ceramics program. It was there that she first worked a lump of smooth clay from Pennsylvania into a form, and developed and lifetime love of ceramics. Levi continued her classes, and began teaching the art to burgeoning potters throughout her high school and college years. “I have a very familiar knowledge of ceramics, because I learned as a child and have been doing it as long as I can remember,” Levi relates.

The New York-native now runs her own studio, creating pieces that evoke a certain whimsy and charm, yet retain an elegant and artistic sensibility. “Each time I learn about a new process, it inspires a body of work, just from testing out different aspects of the medium.” These collections include plates and cups with mesmerizing swirls of tidal blues that evoke the churning waters of the ocean, mugs with Jackson Pollock-esque splatter motifs, and planters with complex mixed-clay composition that mirrors stretches of desert sands. Levi still works with the same clay Pennsylvania clay she first learned to make pots with, throwing each piece by hand on her wheel. After Levi finished the last firing of a limited edition run of planters and colanders she created exclusively for us, she gave a tour of her Brooklyn studio and talked about how ceramics has shaped her.


Mugs in process. Photo by Johnny Fogg.

What does it mean to you to be a craftsperson?
As a craftsperson, I want each piece I make to be special, but not too precious to use. That line is a really interesting one to me… because it is important to me to have each piece be hand made by me, as the artist, but I also don’t want the work to have such a high perceived value that results in people leaving it on a shelf, afraid to use it.

Are there ceramic pieces that you’ve made that you like to use in your own home?
I always am bringing home planters that are ‘seconds’ (a ceramic piece with slight imperfections that develop as part of the firing process). My windowsills are covered with them; seconds make great planters because it doesn’t matter if there’s a crack, or if the glaze looks bad on one side, since you can just face the bad side away from the room, and no one is going to pick it up and inspect it the way they would with a cup. So I like finding a use for the real mess-ups. And you can never have too many plants.


Helen Levi holds one of her ceramic tumblers. Photo by Johnny Fogg.

Talk about the items you collect and keep around you in your studio as you work. How do they inspire you?
I found this birds nest in a nearby park where I often take my dog to before work. I love that in the city, birds use bits of refuse to build their nests–this one has a thread of some kind of plastic woven into it. I grew up in New York City, in the East Village, but my parents also have a house on a dead end road in the Catskills. My dad loves nature and whenever we go on a walk he’s the one to notice an interesting object and pick it up. So the nest reminds me of him. There’s also this floral mask made by my friends who run the design company Fredericks & Mae. We went to college together, and I find that mask an oddly comforting piece to keep around.

Are there any larger life lessons that you’ve learned from practicing your craft?
The biggest lesson I get from pottery–over and over again–is patience. Inevitably, when you try to rush any step of the process (and there are many steps), your piece will warp, crack, explode, collapse, or get a glaze defect that you could’ve avoided. This is a lesson I continue to be reminded of, when I try to push the boundaries because of a deadline or just my own general impatience.

Pottery also teaches me to be flexible with my expectations. There are a lot of unpredictable outcomes when working with clay, and so often pieces come out different than you had imagined. Most of the time this is a frustrating hurdle to overcome towards your end goal, but sometimes, if I allow for the possibility of the unexpected, I discover a pattern or shape I wouldn’t have known I liked. There’s a lesson in there of letting go of control a little, and trusting the process.


Helen Levi at the wheel. Photo by Johnny Fogg.


All images by photographer Johnny Fogg.

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