Monday, March 25, 2013

Beyond Decorating a Cup: A Conversation between Molly Hatch and David McFadden

I wanted to share this interview that David McFadden  Chief Curator of the Museum of Arts and Design in New York recently wrote up for my catalog of REVERIE which is my show currently up at the Philadelphia Art Alliance through April 28.

“So It Goes Beyond Decorating a Cup:
A Conversation between Molly Hatch and David McFadden"

 -David McFadden

Arguably one of the most significant developments in the arts of the 21st century is the eradication of artificial boundaries and enforced hierarchies among disciplines.  This has resulted in a vital synergy that merges art, craft, and design theory and practice, a synergy that has inspired a new generation of creators worldwide.  Molly Hatch is a prime representative of that generation.  The artistic territory she inhabits ranges from her unique ceramics and installations to wallpaper, textile, and furniture design.  I sat down with this multi-talented artist and asked about her artistic vision and goals.

DM: Your installation at the Philadelphia Arts Alliance reveals your in-depth research into the history of ceramics.  Can you tell me about what stimulated you to think about an installation that bridges the past with the present?

MH: Sometime ago I learned that there was a curator working in the Nordic Museum in Stockholm, Sweden, who spent thirty years hand cataloging every item in the museum’s collection, making small colored drawings of each. I was so intrigued and inspired by this idea and her passion that I wanted to create a body of work that merged my interest in history with my commitment to my own art. I loved that they’re the work of a potter who’s looked at this historic cup collection who’s then reflecting them back as paintings – so it goes beyond decorating a cup.  I was first able to realize this vision at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, which owns a wonderful historical ceramic collection, from which I derived many new ideas.  What started out in homage to the history of my chosen medium and to this eccentric and yet visionary Swedish woman ultimately became an archive of over 300 drawings, which I am exhibiting along with the ceramics in this exhibition.

DM: I can understand and appreciate your interest in such a process as a way to build a bridge between history and contemporary art, a phenomenon that I have become more and more aware of in my interactions with a young generation of artists working in clay, textile, wood, and metal. But, to make this interest into a broad artistic vision suggests a personal context as well. What was your family like and how did your personal history become interwoven into your art?

MH: I have always had a sort of nostalgic reverence for the craftsmanship of historic objects, as well as
the patina of use they acquire over time. I grew up on a dairy farm in Vermont, born to parents who were well educated and came from a family of privilege and amongst elegant decorative arts.  My ancestral family--the Metcalfs--were early founders of the Rhode Island School of Design in the years just after women got the vote. In fact, it was leftover Suffragette money that was used to help fund the school initially. My childhood was on a dairy farm things were acquired shopping at thrift stores and getting hand-me-downs; while I felt like I didn’t have a lot, the things that were around me and which defined my world were decorative objects--velvet-covered sofas, amazing paintings, grandfather clocks, silver, and antique ceramics. These objects represented wealth and status to me in those early years.  Some of my love of the past must grow from a fascination with history and memory, as embedded in objects. I think that there is an interesting survey of my family's history and taste in the objects that are left behind and which I inherited. Much of my interest in history is personal in this way.

DM: Talk to me a bit more about this process of self-discovery, and how you transformed  a personal and family-centric narrative into works that speak to broader issues of creativity, history, and invention.

MH: I feel that my relationship to my own work is distinctively different from that I have with antiques. Once I make my objects, I don’t want to necessarily live with them. Whenever I create my work, I feel like I’m teaching myself by looking carefully at historical ceramics.   For example, I spend a lot of time looking really hard at surface decoration, like on a Dresden plate. It is then I recognize how amazing these pieces really are. Whoever did the enamel painting was an incredibly skilled craftsman, who could paint that way and have it be fresh and clean, do the one stroke, and it’s done. And I’m going to do my clumsy version of it, sort of a na├»ve version of it as a contemporary artist, but the more I do it the better I get at it, the more I incorporate it into my work. I’m teaching myself how to do it.”

DM: But when you make your drawings of “historical” ceramics and the ceramics themselves, how do you make them relevant to the present time? Do you have the same kind of wistful passion for your own work that you have for the ceramics that have been part of your heritage?

MH: I think the artists and crafts practitioners of the past are the people who really taught me and were my mentors. Some of the classes I took as an undergrad were literally “Art as Process” which was our foundation. “Drawing Breath” was one of the classes where you listen to music and responded on paper. I was like, “really?” I couldn’t believe it was like a semester of listening to music and responding. But sometimes it’s an amazing way to learn how to create line and not be so contrived about what you’re doing. Maybe the result is working in a tight, contrived manner, and within those boundaries finding freedom to express your ideas in a different way. For me, there’s so much available on the internet and research online that wasn’t available when I was a student, I can go to a museum website and download high resolution images and work from them in a way that I couldn’t have ten years ago. I am relishing the freedom artists have today to move among fields and historical periods.

DM: Some people may think that artists like you are simply “copyists,” making reproductions of historical works, and therefore have removed your own voice from the dialogue between past and present and between artist and audience. How do you respond to this point of view?

MH: Coming from being grounded as a studio potter in my career, I feel like anytime I touch clay I am part of a continuum that links past to present.  For example, I might consider an enamel painted cup. You need to know what you’re looking at, what you’re reacting to; you need to know where you’ve been. That cup has probably been made before, so how is it yours? And why do you feel compelled to make something new when there’s so much that already exists. So I think by going straight to history and sourcing that, and having a conversation with a specific time period, specific aesthetic and incorporating that in your own work, you’re part of a dialogue within those boundaries.

DM: I am intrigued by your use of painted porcelain, specifically multiples of ordinary dinner plates, to create large-scale wall installations that blur the lines between decoration, form, and architecture. This seems to be an international phenomenon, with notable works by such artists as Robert Dawson, who also makes use of traditional blue and white patterns in his imposing wall compositions.  How do you see your work relating to such work, or do you feel you have an entirely different approach?

MH: I am aware of the seductive power of history as a source of inspiration for new work by artists like Dawson.  Our approaches to installation work overlap, to be sure. In my own compositions, I rely on personal narrative as a stimulus for new ideas. I call my format “plate paintings” that make use of grids or groups of plates as a “canvas” for my paintings. Like Dawson, I do appropriate ideas from historical sources, ranging from historic prints to antique ceramics. My large installation in this exhibition extends my ideas about art as personal narrative; I sourced the pattern from historical pieces from my family archive.  These are china plates that I actually ate off while growing up! In fact, all of the work is derivative of some inherited family object.

DM: Do you see any conflict between your work as an independent artist making one-of-a-kind pieces and as a designer for commercial retail?

MH: Not at all. I admit up front and freely that I’m straddling two careers, one in the fine art world where I’m making $10,000 plate paintings, and also designing $24 dinner plates or $16 mugs for industry. I’m still operating in these two worlds.  In fact it gives me great satisfaction to know that by designing for Anthropologie I can achieve a sort of Bauhaus ideal of producing good things at affordable prices. I am able to provide what I hope will be beautiful things to serious and well off collectors and for friends and family that now say “I can finally afford to buy your work!”

DM: What do you hope people take away with them after seeing your work?

MH: For me, the overarching goal in my work is to encourage the viewer to look at functional, everyday utilitarian ceramics as one might look at a painting or a drawing. My hope is that the viewer can begin to value ceramics as a valid art form. By sourcing historic material that the viewer is familiar with, and making it mine through playing with scale and color shifts some of the time, I hope there is a familiarity with the surface material that the viewer looks at in a new way. Experiencing the familiarity of both the surface and the plate in a new way.

In regards to my wall pieces, I have a similar hope. In repeating silhouettes of "fancy" historic cups and placing the repeat pattern on the wall the cups are formally presented. In the PAA installation, they are framed by the architecture in elegant domestic environment.  I hope that viewers will contemplate them in the same way one typically would in studying wallpaper pattern. At the same time, the patterns become the background to daily life.  They become part of the noise of the day-to-day—taking on the same role in our daily life that a cup in the kitchen might have. This makes the work both accessible and even subversive. In this current installation, the artist in me is exploring the relationship of the museum the artist and the collector. What I hope connects the three is a love and respect for a medium and for objects.

DM: In the PAA installation you have achieved something you have never done before—your work is now on a new plateau.  So what does this lead to? What is next for you?

MH: I think this installation reflects my role as a designer as much as it does as an artist.  I have never envisioned my work ending up in a museum or in a formal gallery setting as its final resting spot. I always think of the work living in a home. Though the work is exhibited in those environments, I find that I am always thinking of it going to a home—things that people can with. This is precisely why the PAA is such a fantastic exhibition space for me since it was a home at one point. I can only hope that this exhibition has laid the groundwork for future works that explore the intimate links between art and craft and between craft and design.

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