We are thrilled to introduce our exclusive interview with Jen E, a renowned ceramic artist with a passion for merging artistry with the old and the new. Jen, who originally hails from Los Angeles, now resides in the Bay area, is well-known for her unique approach to ceramics. In this conversation, we will dive into her fascinating collaboration with Parks Project (for a third time!) for a special holiday collection of both her incense holders and ornaments, exploring her craft, her connection to national parks, and the process. Check out her website for more info!
Q: Can you share with us a bit about your background in ceramics and how your journey led you to this unique intersection of art and meshing the old with the new?
A: The abbreviated story is that I started ceramics as physical therapy for my chronic back problems I developed while working on the computer as a graphic designer/art director. A friend suggested we take ceramics wheel-throwing classes together as a way to get me off the computer, do something a little more physical and have a fun excuse to hang out. My love for clay was born. And although I painted before I started working in ceramics, I didn’t start applying underglazes onto my pieces until many years later--after living in Japan.
My love for blending old and new was born during my time in Japan. I lived in Yokohama and Tokyo for three years and while there, I studied ceramics and was a teacher’s assistant in two different studios. One of the studios did only mid-firings in electric kilns and the other studio was in the mountains and fired work in a wood-burning kiln called an anagama. Even the juxtaposition of just the two studios opened up a gate of appreciation for old and new, living and breathing simultaneously. Japan is a country of contrasts and is able to blend seemingly contradictory elements so smoothly. Therein lies a world of beauty.
Q: Your collaboration with Parks Project for a holiday collection is intriguing especially since we last left off in 2020! Could you tell us about the inspiration behind this project, how it aligns with your personal and artistic values, and how your craft has evolved since our last collaboration?
A: I love working with Parks Project because our goals and motives are very closely aligned. I love the outdoors and our National Parks and my holiday collection reflects that. The incense holders are a new addition and they are directly informed by our collective time in our parks, Death Valley and Yosemite to be more exact. The team at Parks Project proposed a couple of incense holder designs and I created many iterations and prototype designs to get the final pieces presented in the holiday collection. Since our last collaboration, my work has become more centered on my cultural and familial background. My father instilled a love for the mountains and fishing, taking us to the Eastern High Sierras every spring and/or summer. And as I learn more about the Asian diaspora, I want to highlight and celebrate my place in it. In keeping with my family’s remembrance, I have become increasingly focused on the food that has fed us for generations. I even started studying herbalism which has brought me even closer to the earth. All of this learning is in many ways being folded into my new work.
Q: How does your connection of old and new in your work tie into the connection of the national parks for these pieces?
A: Living in Tokyo, ironically, taught me to slow down and enjoy what was right in front of me. The city is a wonderland filled with the many dichotomies of the old world up against the new. You can see generations-old tofu makers next door to neon-filled pachinko parlors or mohawked punk rock kids bowing down to elders. I found beauty in the clashings, the mix of old and new. It is important to engage the next generation to the essential work of caring for our national parks, and nature in general. I’m hoping new ways, new messaging, new technologies, new products, new ways of educating can help our connection to nature. Honoring the old and being flexible to the new will help our world and its people, including the national parks.
Q: We’d love for our community to gather some insight on your creative process, how do you begin? What are some moments a part of this process that are crucial for you to be successful?
A: I started off as a 2-D artist, so sketching is always my comfortable starting point. At this point, I am also experimenting with colors and their combinations. There are some limitations because I high-fire all my work and some colors burn off in the high temperatures. But from there, prototyping is the key step in the process to find which pieces will be produced, which will be shelved for more experimentation later and which will be killed. Another important aspect to consider when prototyping is how feasible a design will be when produced in larger numbers. Depending on the client/customer, a range of consistency is key, so that will also inform the design and in turn, the process.
Q: What’s one thing that helps hold your focus while creating in the studio? That could be music, a type of food, getting outside for breaks, other moments of mindfulness, etc.
A: Every day is a little different. Some days I listen to audio books (always with headphones), sometimes podcasts (never with headphones) and other days I watch different TV series or movies. Something light that doesn’t distract but still entertains. I’m in the studio for a huge bulk of my day so it helps keep me focused on my work. I eat my meals outside of the studio, take mini breaks during the day to water and tend to my backyard garden and I take neighborhood walks in the early evening. Most days, I actually go back to the studio after dinner.
Q: If you could choose one national park to create in, which would it be and why?
A: Ever since I was a small child, my family would travel to the Eastern High Sierras every summer. Most summers we stayed in June Lake and would take day trips from there. We’ve sat on the banks of so many peaceful alpine lakes, spent many days watching magnificent bald eagles sharpen their beaks on rocks, and I’ve filled many sketchbooks with all the beauty. But despite the crowds, when I first went to Yosemite (not too far from June Lake), my mind was blown. The sheer scale of the mountains and meadows and valleys is breathtaking. Yosemite is a fount of inspiration.
Q: Looking ahead, what other exciting projects or creative endeavors can we expect from Jen E Ceramics in the upcoming year, and during these projects, in what ways are you staying mindful about the environment and leaving it better than you found it?
A: I’m always thinking about how I can make less waste and constantly trying to improve my process to be more efficient and responsible. Currently, I’m using locally made clay and my firing studio recycles all of its water and clay. I try to use and reuse as much of my own clay as I can but any remnants are recycled at my firing studio. It then gets processed to be resold as recycled clay. I will continue to explore my familial connections and history as well as build a catalog of my family’s history through food and traditions. I will further my studies in herbalism and more specifically Asian American herbalism. I will continue to apply all of this information, history and storytelling in my art practice. I’m hoping to collaborate with more folk in my community and continue to educate others about a healthy environment = a healthy people. Thank you Parks Project for doing what you do and collaborating with me!