Brett Freund is an artist living and working in Maryland. He recently was awarded the Lormina Salter Fellowship at Balitmore Clayworks and last year he was featured as one of Ceramic Monthly's Emerging Artists for 2012. While Brett was bunkered-in awaiting the arrival of superstorm Sandy, we met up at the intergalactic cafe known as 'online chat' to discuss his work a bit more in depth. His use of traditional technique, non-traditional material, and contemporary imagery have created an exciting body of work that grows in many directions, quite like the crystals he references. I look forward to seeing where his work takes him in the future.
Brett Freund: Sure, I grew up in Pittsburgh, PA during a time when a lot of the old steel factories were being torn down and the city was reinventing itself. Pittsburgh is big enough to be exposed to big city ideas but small enough that as a child I could spend time running around in the streets with friends.
My parents grew up in homes where the men worked in the factories and the women stayed at home. There was a strong element of working class ethics in the city as well as a strong emphasis on education due to the large number of universities in the city.
JL: Blue collar has a loose connection to lowbrow as well. What's the connection in your own work? I've read that you are thinking about commodity, value, low-brow versus high...
BF: Yeah I think there is a strong connection that happens mentally while I work and one that affects how I look at objects. I think about hierarchies between low and highbrow art a lot. For example who buys what and what context certain objects are created for. I make work based of formal qualities that I consider highbrow but I always want my work to look loose and chaotic. It's funny how so many aesthetics that came from low-brow culture become fashionable for being outsider.
I want things to look a little out of place but at the same time I want there to be a sense that I know what's going on either around me or historically.
BF: I think that's an interesting way to see it but it's something that I haven't thought of. After undergrad I moved to Florida for a residency at St. Petersburg Clay Company. The first seven or eight months I was there I worked for a company applying rhinestones to dresses for Dancing With the Stars, all the while making folk-inspired, atmospheric pottery at the clay company. I began to see a difference between the environment that I was living in and the pottery that I was making. Living in Western Pennsylvania it made sense to work in that style, but after I lived in Florida things never felt the same. I think some of the best pots made reflect the environment that they are created in but also that sometimes trends in society can conflict with one's own taste. My work is currently reflective of a world that emphasizes precious objects, or any object that people use for identity purposes.
These are the just the things I think about but when I work there is generally a lighter mood in the atmosphere.
So... let's talk about the crystal. It's kind of a big deal in your work. Where'd it come from?
BF: I began using diamond forms in graduate school by gluing Swarovski crystals onto ceramics objects, the same rhinestones we used in the dressmaking sweatshop. I found that I didn't like the connection that the real rhinestones made so I began to use gem forms with slip cast parts. This concept evolved into the crystals because I liked that the work looked precious without being too refined.
JL: Hmm... again, a kind of dichotomy of value. 'Rhinestones' in and of themselves represent this intermediary position between the classy and the trashy, hi versus low. Let's talk about this in a different way...
You were one of Ceramic Monthly's 2012 Emerging Artists. (Congrats, by the way!) In your nomination introduction you said this:
"It's hard to ignore that I've felt hierarchies btw functional and sculptural objects from external sources."
Do you ever find it challenging to be a sculptor who uses ceramics and a contemporary potter at the same time?
BF: First off, thanks. The Emerging Artist was award I felt really honored to have, especially after so much hard work. I don't think you should ever have to define yourself, because if you do I think the end is near. I don't ever want to pinpoint exactly who I am because then it makes it harder to change. I feel as though working as a sculptor and a contemporary potter are the same thing. What I do find challenging is the kind of scale that you associate with sculpture and the resources and energy that it takes, not to say that smaller things have less importance. I have often worked in places that had limited space, for instance, all of the work that I made for the Ceramics Monthly Emerging Artist award was made in my kitchen.
A few times people have commented, after seeing my work in person, that they always imagined it bigger. Most people see my work through images.
You mentioned a kind of dichotomy before and I do think that's what can be tricky when talking about what I do. So many parts can be understood in different ways and in the end I don't really have any answers to the questions that I have with high-brow and low-brow issues but I find them really interesting to look for.
What I like about vessels, rather, that always keeps me coming back to them is the initial connection a pot has with a viewer. That basic form is easily understood and from there you can begin to expand on meaning. Some of my art friends complain about archetypes but I find them to be useful and unavoidable. I also like doing both types of work because anytime I explore my sculpture further my vessel work gets stronger, too.
And I agree... there's a reason certain concepts, objects, or styles have become archetypes.
So, I'm going to be cheeky in regards to functional versus sculptural. Which came first in your work, the chicken or the egg?
BF: I'm not sure if the chicken is functional ceramics and if sculptural ceramics is the egg, but I do think sculptural ceramics historically happened first. For me, though, it may have been functional work that came first. The first piece I ever made was a pinch pot in high school and I specifically remember having salsa bowl in mind while I was making it. The next project, on the other hand, was a ceramic pumpkin assignment that had no function besides being festive. I had no idea what ceramics really was when I started but it quickly became my favorite class. I tried throwing towards my senior year and couldn't manage it for the life of me. When I started art school I thought I could never make it as a potter, and never considering ceramics as a serious sculptural medium, I got heavy into steel and concrete. That is, until I took an introductory ceramics course. It was at that time I learned to throw and became serious about clay. So I suppose I didn't really start out throwing but didn't become a ceramist until I did.
JL: I guess that I meant to ask if you started putting crystals onto your pots before you started making crystal sculptures. Maybe you did it at the same time?
BF: The nugget aspect of my work started even before I began applying the slip cast crystal parts onto vessels. I have only realized my current work within the last year and mostly by taking all the aspects of my graduate work that I liked and mixing them together.
BF: I've been over saturating borax in boiling water and then soaking my ceramic pieces in them overnight. It's fun to find what has occurred in the morning and makes waking up more enjoyable. What l like about it, besides giving the porcelain pieces a faux natural appearance, is that it creates a moment in the work where I don't have very much control. I know generally what the outcome will be, but not how the particular crystalline structure will grow.
BF: My favorite aspect with making work is connecting with people and I'm constantly impressed with how certain artists have that ability with their work. Ron Nagle is somebody who comes to mind when I think about work that is small and intimate yet engaging. Another example is Brendon Tang and the way his work makes tradition feel so contemporary. I can see my work becoming more sculptural but maintaining its intimate qualities. I like watching trends and I can see myself mimicking some modernist aesthetics in the future.
A huge thank you to Brett for bearing with me as publishing this interview hit a couples bumps in the road. If you're reading and you happen to be in the Baltimore area between January 18 and February 17, Brett is showing some of his work in a group show, "Multiplicity: More than the sum of the parts," at Julio Fine Arts Gallery.