We are very excited to launch our new Featured Artist spotlight, a monthly feature dedicated to spotlighting an ACGA exhibiting member and learning more about their work, studio practice, and philosophy. Want to be featured in an upcoming spotlight? Email us to have your work featured in an upcoming post!
Our featured artist this month is Malia Landis, an Oakland ceramic artist who juried into the ACGA as an exhibiting member in 2015. She is both a sculptor and a potter, is a member of the Neo Cali Clay group, and runs a functional ware business, Salt + Earth.
Tell us a bit about yourself.
Born and raised in the rural hills of St. Helena in Northern California, I grew up with my hands in the dirt. When I was twelve I moved to the Big Island of Hawaii, where I undoubtedly fell deeper in love with the natural world. I decided to move back to the mainland for college, and completed my Bachelors of Art at Humboldt State University in 2010, and my Masters of Fine Art at San Jose State University in 2014. I currently live in Oakland California where I share a work/live studio with my husband Wesley Wright, who is also a ceramic artist, and our fat cat Baloo. I love to make art, fire kilns, garden and hike.
Tell us about your work and how you got into ceramics.
In my sculptures I create environments of eccentric juxtapositions, combining visual elements such as plants to represent growth, birds to illustrate flight, migration, and nesting, and braided hair to symbolize the passage of time. The type of flora and fauna I use is specific to my experiences living in California and Hawai’i, and most importantly, being a coastal resident for most of my life. Both of my parents are avid gardeners and lovers of nature, and my admiration for plants and animals manifests from how I was raised.
I took my first ceramics course as a freshman at Humboldt State University and quickly found myself dedicating every waking moment to the craft of clay. It was not until I entered the “Honors Room”, a back room where like-minded ceramicists have 24 hour studio access, that I truly devoted myself to my medium and practice. It was in that studio the ritual began; late into the night art making, go to sleep, wake, and do it again. I dedicated all my time learning how to sculpt, fire kilns, mix glazes, and run a successful ceramics studio.
Describe your studio.
Our studio is in an old furniture factory in Oakland, a big industrial space with funky brick walls, exposed beams and high ceilings. We have a large Skutt kiln and a smaller Cress test kiln that we pack to the gills routinely. Alongside the approximately 500 square feet of workspace, we have a “dirty room” for mold making, glaze mixing, spraying, and slip casting. We also have “clean room” where no wet clay is allowed, and meant for art storage and packing.
What are some of your favorite aspects of making and what do you find the most challenging?
I am fortunate to spend my time as a maker, and blessed to have found an audience that my work resonates with. I would say my favorite aspect of making is process. I am often not very attached to the final piece, but rather the moments spent making them. Stepping away from the studio to reflect and find inspiration is fundamental to my productivity.
When in the studio, my process is composed of both the curiosity for the medium’s complex chemistry and the clays inherent ability to take any form. Although ceramics can be unbelievably versatile, it also has its limitations. I often ask myself why I spend so much time on something I could easily drop and break on the way out of the kiln. Well, first of all because it makes me happy, and then secondly I find this duality intriguing, a combination of temporality and archival longevity. There is a constant risk when working with clay, it has an unpredictable nature and presents many variables along the way that can make it hard to acquire consistency. But what I have learned is that the richness found in a good glaze firing can satisfy years of faulty attempts.
How has your work evolved over the years?
My artwork has always been a reflection of my personal history and experience living in coastal California and the Hawaiian islands. As an undergraduate student, I quickly realized that I needed to fund my making, and so began my production line Salt and Earth Ceramics. I have learned that I am a multitasker, and enjoy the balance between the meditative process of creating utilitarian wares for Salt and Earth, alongside the more technically challenging and conceptually driven sculptural work. Over the years I have had to work really hard at developing professionally with my business while taking the time to evolve conceptually. Graduate school had a positive effect on both studio practices, forcing me to expand on a vocabulary in which I could talk about my work, and understand what it takes to be a production artist. My work has shifted, from bold colors to monochromatic porcelain, from literal to surreal, and back to literal again.
How do you make ceramics work for you– is it a full or part-time pursuit?
Finding routine as an artist can be a challenge, and both my husband and I have a hard time deciphering work from life. I exhibit my work regionally and nationally, and occasional make a big sale. Most of my income comes through relationships with retail shops who carry Salt and Earth goods, but recently I have been supplementing my income more and more with teaching. Approximately 40% of my time is in the studio (creating both Salt and Earth goods and my sculpture), 30% of my time is teaching classes or workshops, 20% in the office or on the computer (organizing, emailing, promoting, shop management and handling sales), 10% in networking/socializing, or ideally, hiking in the woods.
What’s the best advice you ever got from another artist?
A mentor of mine, Lou Marak, once said, “When in doubt, just keep making. Never stop making. The questions you have about your art will only be answered as you push yourself and your work in the studio.”
Tell about a favorite piece you have in your studio right now.
My current favorite is part of a body of work that has been in the making for a few years now. ‘Ililma in the Kiawe is a wall piece composed of an ‘Ilima lei resting in the thorns of a Kiawe branch. The lei is made up of hundreds of pressed porcelain flowers, strung together into a floral lei that is draped across a sculpted Kiawe branch made of stoneware clay.
See more of Malia Landis online: