You could say that Stephen Carter is a quilter – he patches together material to tell a story the same way his aunt and grandmother before him did. Then again, you could also call him a scientist, carefully determining the temperatures that will yield the perfect palate of colors. As a ceramicist, his medium demands as much careful attention to creative impulse as to predetermined variables.
Carter’s ceramic works embrace the legacy that shaped him – he uses a medium both aesthetic and functional to tell a story, communicate a history, to start a conversation. Though he was born into a family of artisans, his passion for art started in a most serendipitous manner; he took a clay class for an easy A his senior year in college. Today, he’s not only a respected artist and authority on Dave the Potter, he is also nearing his twentieth year as a professor of ceramics at the University of Vermont.
Carter took the time to sit down with me and talk about just about everything - why he listens to the Roaches every time he steps into the studio, his academic passions (and obsessions!), making telescopes and the dilemma of passing personal and cultural history onto his children.
What are you currently working on?
That’s a good question. At this point, I just finished a series of platters. Traditionally, my work has been about texture, about color, and I’m exploring that a little differently, primarily with temperature change and seeing what other images I can get out of it.
What do you mean by temperature change?
Well, clay traditionally fires at a number of different temperatures to maturity. Each has its advantages and disadvantages. My work up until maybe a year ago had been at a lower fire temperature. The advantage is that a huge color palette opens up to you. But my background…You know, I started off wanting to be a production potter, firing high-fire stone-wear, and still love some of those earth colors so I decided to try doing what I do now at those temperatures and see where that might take me. The advantage to higher firing is that the work is more durable. The downside is that it cuts down on your palette. It just gives you different choices to make.
How would you characterize your technique?
A year ago I had an exhibition down in Baltimore. It was a group exhibition, and the curator decided at the beginning of the opening to gather all the artists together, without informing us, and have us talk about our work. Situations like that can force you to think quickly and without a lot of the crap that gets in the way of sitting down and trying to write a statement. One of the things that occurred to me about my work then was that my work was very related to the art form I saw growing up. I come from a family of quilters.
The way I construct my pieces is very much like quilting. I’ll make a forty-inch platter, but it’s generally composed of small pieces. I’ll roll out a slab, break it up, put texture on a specific section, lay it in, and then go to the next. It’s patterned together like a quilt.
I’ve always loved quilts; I’ve studied quilts a lot. I have more than fifty of them made by my mother, my grandmother, my aunts. Every kid has a quilt in our family. I come from a family of makers. There has always been that need to make.
Going along with that urge to create, what is the creative process like for you?
It’s like going to work. Some people have this weird gestalt thing that they do. I go in and decide what I’m going to make for the day and I start making it and if it works, it works, if it doesn’t, it doesn’t. I do some planning in my head and part of a way I construct a piece, but I actually don’t see a piece until it’s done. I work on molds. I cut out this piece of clay and lay it face down so I don’t see what the whole pattern will look like until I flip it over. Hopefully, it will look like what I planned it to look like. Sometimes it looks better, and there are times it looks a hell of a lot worse. For the most part, I’ve done it enough that I can get a general idea of what’s going on. For me art in general is like that. It’s this conversation that goes on between you and the medium.
How does that conversation begin?
I have some quirks about it. I have to listen to the Roaches. When I took my first ceramics class, the Roaches appeared on SNL that weekend, and I went out a bought an album and played it continuously. Now, whenever I hear that particular album, I feel like I need to work. So I start off my work time with that album.
What else do you need in your studio to get to work?
Coca-cola and cigarettes. And audio books. The last one I listened to was for my daughter. It was the last Harry Potter book. It was like twenty-five hours. I got a lot of work done during that one.
What inspires you creatively?
A chair of a department once said I was a historian. I love history. A lot of how I view art has to deal with how art has been involved with history. I look at a lot of old things. I love a lot of the old crafts, with a particularly African-American art and African-American ceramics, my area of specialty. So I gather a lot of inspiration from that.
I gather information from kids, dealing with the whole quandary of what do I have to offer a child. I have teenagers now, 14 and 16. My daughter was having those questions of heritage and what are the important things that one has to pass on to children. It was something I had to work out through my artwork. That’s where that constructionist technique that I use started and it may subconsciously have tied into what I saw growing up, making connections that way.
I also go out to see things like stupid movies and find imagery and statements. Wisdom can be found everywhere if you’re willing to look for it.
How do you think art can change people or their perceptions?
Art at its purist form is just another form of communication. We communicate some ideas that somehow need to be communicated and this is the medium we do it through. I find art to be very much like Hegelian dialectics. There are a number of dialogues that come on. There is a dialogue that I have between the medium and me and there is a dialogue that somehow happens between the viewer and the finished product and, hopefully, it’s all completed. I don’t necessarily think that art is complete until there is some dialogue that takes happens between the artist and the viewer. Now, the piece is just a medium for that to happen. We communicate through the piece. Hopefully between all that there is some truth.
How has that dialogue surprised you?
I may intend something to be there; the viewer may see something quite different. It may be the viewer who actually tells me what is there. Case in point, before my daughter was born I was doing these art marks, what I thought were very interesting art marks all over my pieces. A student came into my office and said, “Why are you putting sperm on everything?” It was so patently obvious, but I couldn’t see it. I had to have that dialogue happen.
What drew you to study art?
I took my first art class as a senior in college. My degree was in language and philosophy, and I did a thesis in bioethics in my junior year. It was like 178 pages – I tend to research things relentlessly. I got done writing that and I wanted an easy A class. I was tired and I had busted my ass so I took clay and I took to it like a duck takes to water. I absolutely loved it, and I became obsessed with it. The next semester I took two more classes and at the end of the semester I decided I was going to study it. Somehow I applied to and got into Alfred and the first few weeks were the most intimidating of my life. I looked around my first day at what other people were doing and said to myself, “You got a lot of god-damned nerve.”
You currently teach art at the University of Vermont. What is it like to teach?
I’ve been at University of Vermont nineteen years this July. It’s different from class to class and semester to semester. I teach Intro Throwing a lot and that can suck the life out of you. You see a lot of bad pots…every student has to go through that stage. It can be tiring, but at other times it can be wondrous. Students will come up with phenomenal ideas or stumble over things you never thought of. They’re eager and not as jaded as I am and remind me what it’s like to be young and the world is yours to conquer, not your world to have a mortgage in.
I love teaching. I like sharing ideas. I like watching students progress and figure things out. What annoys me is when students want me to give them an answer. They want me to tell them what will make a pot perfect and I think it frustrates them when I say, “Try it.”
What do you pursue outside of art?
I do a lot of things outside of art, some more recreational, some just interests. One of my major interests academically is research on slave pottery. I’m one of the authorities on Dave the Potter; there are only two out there so it’s kind of easy (laughs). I’ve lectured at the Smithsonian and other universities.
Could you talk about Dave’s work?
He put poetry on his pots, generally two lines. A third of his work includes these couplets that deal with all kinds of things. In some cases, they were fairly mundane, for example, “Made in stony bluff, for lard and beef enough.” Sometimes they dealt with slavery. He had a few that dealt with his dissatisfaction, others that were poking fun at stuff. One talks about a young girl’s breasts. Rhythmically, they are related to early jazz couplets. In the time period he was writing these, it was punishable by death for a slave to read or write. Yet, his skills were such that he could get away with it. He got burnt a few times badly. He lost his wife and daughter at one point and never saw them again. In a fit of depression he went out and got drunk, passed out on a train tracks and lost his leg. He is a fascinating figure.
Have you written about him?
I’m actually in the midst of writing a children’s book about him. I’ll probably take a sabbatical in a year and have time to work on it then.
How important is culture and history to your work?
How art and history are interrelated are real interests to me. You know, I never liked Picasso; it was during a class that a date for one of his paintings coincided with the publication of a book by a Spanish author by the name of Miguel de Unamuno. All of a sudden it made sense. He was part of the Generation 98; his work was fractured because Spain was fractured at the time.
In my own work in particular, history, mythology and culture, particularly African-American history and the West African mythologies of Shango and Udon, are referenced very strongly.
What do you do outside of the studio?
I’m an avid fly fisher, play tennis, read a lot. I bought a scooter last year, primarily because it gets 90 miles to the gallon. So I joined the Vermont Scooter League and that’s a blast. I would love to scooter cross-country. And I have kids – that takes all your time.
I build telescopes too. I like to do astro-photography. I like physics. Someone once asked me if you could do it all over again, what would you do. I’d study astrophysics. It’s a lot more like philosophy than anything else. You know, you try to explain gravity. Gravity is an extremely weak force when you look at all the other forces in the universe. The question is why. One of the possible answers is it’s leaking into other dimensions and if that’s the case, how many other dimensions. So that takes you into bubble theory and string theory, none of which can be proven but it can be theorized. It is very much like philosophy.