Rebecca Catterall’s professional career as an educator was kept sane with a parallel career in clay.
She studied ceramics with Donald Mavros in New York City, where she was a member of 78th Street Pottery. She also studied with Eric Abraham and others at Summer Vail Arts in Colorado, where she was an assistant for several years. After moving to Los Angeles, Rebecca joined the Pot Shop in Venice, and is currently studying with Melody Cooper at Pierce College. Over the years she has taken countless workshops, including one with Maria Martinez and more recently, one on image transfer to clay.
After viewing an exhibit including paint cans by Robert Rauschenberg at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, Rebecca had to take that object to clay. “My cans are rough, sometimes raku-fired, which gives them a used, left-in-the-corner look, but not overlooked as we are reminded of everyday objects.” Her work also intersects an interest in politics by violating the expectations of the viewers with tromp l’oeil ceramics. What we see may not be real just as political spin can try to fool us by telling us we are safer by being spied on. The viewer is reminded to take a closer look.
Rebecca maintains her own studio in Topanga Canyon and is the past president of Topanga Canyon Gallery, where she shows her work.
Describe your first experience with clay.
I threw my first pot while studying in India for a semester in college. We were visiting a village that had monsoon damage so we were helping rebuild some of the mud walls. After our work, a local potter gave a demonstration with an object that looked like a wagon wheel poised on a pointed triangle, while the potter squat on the ground and turned the wheel by placing a stick in one of the holes as the wheel turned. An incredible feat in itself, but he also had a perfectly-formed vessel on a wheel that seemed out of kilter. When he finished, he placed another lump of clay on the wheel and indicated that one of us should try. I did not hesitate. I loved it. I threw a low bowl and was pleased, and then the potter placed indentations on the rim making it an ashtray. I was crestfallen. Regardless, I wa determined to find my own way with clay when I returned home. So I began taking lessons and bought a kick wheel.
What have you learned from other artists recently?
I am a big believer in workshops. Classes are great for practicing and perfecting a style, but at workshops I become a sponge to absorb any and all new ideas. I spent a week this summer at Sierra Nevada College in an alternative firing workshop with Linda and Charlie Riggs. I don’t think anyone in that workshop stopped moving–we did one- and two-step naked raku, mummy and traditional saggar firing, horsehair with ferric chloride, and ferric chloride foil firings. And they wanted us to know what we were doing so after the first firing for each technique we were encourage to do more firings. Charlie also gave throwing tutorials and many of the participants took leaps in their throwing skills. I plan on incorporating a lot of what I learned into my work and am excited about this new exploration into techniques and creativity. I am also taking classes with Melody Cooper at Pierce College and can count on her wisdom and support to help guide me in the process.
What are you trying to communicate with your art?
Lately, I have heard a number of artists describe their work as a self-portrait, even if it is an abstract or a landscape painting. I am challenging myself to bring more of a personal narrative to my work and pull from images that have meaning or are part of my history. I also have a strong interest in politics and find that much of my work has a political voice. I don’t want to be silent. I am quick to march, work on a political campaign or call my congressional representative. I am equally motivated to give voice to my views through clay. Political art is not commercial, but the issues we are facing today are too important to ignore. I feel lucky to have a vehicle other than the Internet to reach people.
Where do your ideas come from? What’s your creative process?
I think ideas are able to enter my brain or consciousness when my mind is relaxed. Listening to classical music or that time between sleep and waking up have been very productive for me. The trick is the discipline to write them down. But sometimes ideas are so penetrating that I feel haunted until I bring a form to life. As for the creative process, I think part of it is intense focus and finding multiple solutions for a problem – that’s why creativity exists in all endeavors. Asking myself, “How else can I do that?” leads to more ideas that build on each other. Ideas become a dialectic which can exist independently or in conversation with others. I am often inspired by others.
What advice would you give to someone who wanted to pursue a career in the arts?
It is not uncommon to have multiple careers. If someone has passion for the arts, I say, “Go for it.” You also have to ask yourself if you want your art to be your main provider. The new patron of the arts is the educational system, so setting yourself up for some teaching may be your answer. I also had a passion for teaching history (and bossing others around) so my primary career was as a school administrator and high school teacher. I love it and in many of my summers I was able to continue with clay when not raising my family. I think tending to multiple passions or interests is the key so you don’t put all the pressure of day-to-day living on your art and you don’t neglect your creative side by drowning in a job. Find a balance.
If you were conducting this interview, what question, other than the above, would you to want ask?
How do you define success? It is easy to get discouraged with a solitude studio existence. Seeing the work of another artist at a show can lead to the “Why Bother?” syndrome. Having multiple definitions for success is important to me. An individual pot can be successful, a firing can be successful, setting up a gallery show can be successful, and a sale is successful. I also rely on the playful aspect of creativity. I can entertain myself for hours not just working on pieces but in thinking and scheming about them. Right now I am plotting how to add color to the garden area outside my studio in the middle of a huge drought. Duh, make colorful pots, make them on a totem for height and variety, make them with holes on the bottom so the pole will slip through, make them with colorful glazes (low fire if necessary) and seal them from the elements, make the rims and bases similar sizes so they can easily stack… I have work to do–better go to my studio now!