Stephen Robison & Kathleen Guss


In my work I focus on vessel formats as platforms for utilitarian, conceptual and spatial investigations. I continue to have a focus on the strictly utilitarian. However, over the last few years one concept that has dominated my work incorporates forms and surfaces related to diatoms and viruses. This work is still meant to function as containers, pouring vessels or drinking vessels, but some of that function may be sacrificed for form and concept. Tactile considerations are still of importance in the utilitarian based work. However, form, surface and concept are my primary focus in this work. The forms and surfaces of some viruses and diatoms have been a great source for abstraction. What viruses can do for or do to our world is fascinating and frightening to me. Genetic virology is not always going to be understood by the viewer, but I don’t find that to be crucial for the work to be appreciated.

My direction in both sculpture and utilitarian ceramics both feed one another. Historical and contemporary use of visual language and utilitarian objects are two main sources for my research. Working within the context of sculpture along with the utility of ceramics allows me to communicate more than purely the use of the object and working outside of purely sculptural considerations I have the addition of utility and an intimate contact between the audience and the piece.

Objects of use and domesticity have a common language, which a large and diverse audience can appreciate and relate to. This may be the initial draw to my work but appreciation of the concepts and esthetics may seep into the viewer after further investigation. The sense of humanity that a well thought out handmade object can obtain is not found in objects that can be purchased at Wall Mart or produced by the machines of industry. Thoughts about the user of objects are often negated for practical reasons such as economic, shipping or durability, and this results in objects that have no life or value of their own but fit very well into our disposable society. Furthermore, the content that use to be in objects of utility has turned to nothing more then trite or kitch reflections of hallmark holiday tributes. I have a firm belief in the connection of the mind to the hand and the hand to the media. Like the lips to a read, technology can not replace or even come close to the sensitivity that the artists has with his or her material. A major intent of mine is to create tactile qualities in these objects that offer an intimate relationship with the user and provide the objects with an inherent value that gives them a life of their own. I cannot do this without my touch playing a part in the creation of the object. Generating a pleasurable and possibly a reflective experience when being used and viewed creates new challenges with each object made. Visual balance by using proportional perspectives, physical balance within the weight and pivot points of the piece along with tactile qualities are issues I address to achieve these goals.

Ultimately, I want my utilitarian objects to be used. This objective is for both my virus pieces and my strictly utilitarian work. With work that is firmly based in utility I still want an esthetic to prevail and at times I want conceptual concerns to also be inherent. It is almost more difficult to work within those restraints of a utilitarian piece because they are just that, restraints. Calligraphic work and textiles influence much of my utilitarian work. Using brushwork with slips and terra sigillata and the use of repetitive marks like a stitching pattern are reflective in much of my strictly utilitarian work.

Purely sculptural work for me still has parameters, so there are sort of rules when I work in that direction. I set those rules based not on an already prescribed vocabulary in the vernacular of the ceramic vessel, such as handle spout, foot, body, belly or neck. However parameters are still set by some prescribe formats that I have mentioned. For instance when I work with the landscape format I set a primarily horizontal restriction. In some virus landscapes I have not gone to far out of the horizontal mode. In some that are still in the drawing stage I have worked out more vertical focal points. In an installation I am planning, one of the parameters will be the space it will be contained in. I like the word parameters rather then restrictions, it sounds more like a guideline not a set of exacting rules. In my work I do allow quite a bit of intuition and evolution to occur in the making of the piece, the firing of the piece and or reductive work or additive work after the first firing. Such as sandblasting or the addition of wax or other materials.

As I am explaining the work and the process I refer to it as my work. I do feel it to be my work but it is also not ever solely attributed to me.

The collaborative process is of a constant in my work. I see our role as artists to be a conglomeration of appropriations and that we never reinvent the wheel we only keep it rolling along. To me one thing always leads to another and in that understanding of growth, (in any discipline), growing with a partner or with a team effort has been part of my thought process for some time. From the time when I was working on my BFA and one of my main mentors Charlie Olson and I worked together on some pieces I was hooked on working with people rather than being a solo artist.

My main collaborator is my partner for almost two decades, Kathy Guss. Kathy and I have been on and off again working directly on pieces on paper and in clay. The off times are still rooted in the collaborative spirit, as the thought process and the conceptual concerns are still in part collaborative. And although I show work at times with my solo name it is also in part Kathy’s work too. In the last few years we have started working together again hand in hand and not just in name. This has revitalized the work and help the direction to move forward, as Kathy has physically re entered the studio, productivity has risen to allow the growth forward at a more rapid rate. Solid teamwork is always more beneficial to productivity. People often ask what part do you do and what part does Kathy do? This is not really very easy to answer because there are times when I do this and she may do “this” next time. Some work like brush work and glazing has almost always been in my hands, and maybe I do more of the throwing. But we are both at a level of understanding and control with clay on and off the wheel and we don’t worry about how to accomplish it, why we are doing it is the main focus.

Some work in the part few years has somewhat stemmed out of the collaborative work but is really solely my work and those pieces are rooted in both the figurative traditions and also in less traditional site specific pieces.

Technical Considerations

Presently I am working with porcelain and stoneware clay bodies. I am using a variety of techniques using slips, under glazes, terra sigillata, glazes and atmospheric effects to achieve my surfaces. I am primarily working with high fire temperatures and using some low temp techniques on top of the high fire surfaces and sometimes using sandblasting to achieve a surface. I have also returned to soda firing and wood firing, having just finished building a new wood kiln and finishing up a new soda kiln. The kiln quite often is the means to the end and using certain types of firing such as soda, salt and wood firing adds subtleties to the surface of the forms. I also have a slight problem with addiction to process and wood firing does have a slight hold on me, but I use the glaze and firing technique that best works with what I want the final outcome of the piece to be.

Building techniques are on and off the wheel. I use throwing, altering forms, slump molding, molds and other additive and subtractive techniques.

— Stephen Robison & Kathleen Guss