Sally Jaffee, a self-proclaimed grass roots potter from the ’70s, talks with contemporary jeweler Kathy Frey about the simplicity of her life in Middletown, California and how she got to this point, with little jaunts into the realm of the unknown.

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KF: Sally, can you give a brief overview of your art career arc?

SJ: For almost 40 years I’ve been making a living as a potter. For the first 20 years, I didn’t do shows; I just sold to galleries, did some consignment, and had a storefront with a co-op in Seattle. I just did what I wanted. There were no production demands, and I kept my expenses down.

When I moved to California, I started doing a few shows. Suddenly I wasn’t enjoying my life as much. There were so many deadlines and a constant demand for production. So now I’m at a point where I’m taking a break from shows. I’m enjoying being off the road. I want to be in my beautiful home, spending more time in the life I created. I have a strong spiritual practice.

I’m still creating a lot because I’m in my studio everyday, yet I make what I want. My galleries are much happier since they can have all my pieces, and my sales are great since they have more inventory.

KF: What is your daily life like?

SJ: I wake up, hike for a few hours with my dog, then I’m in the studio the rest of the day. That’s my day, every day. I’ll take a break to walk the dog in the afternoon and things like that, but I’m pretty much a hermit. I can go days without seeing other people.

The thing is, this is my life. There’s no separation between work and play. It’s what I do; it’s what I love. I love being a potter. I want to make pots. I’m so thankful that I get to do what I love and live the life I love.

KF: You mentioned having a strong spiritual practice. Is that something that’s part of your everyday routine?

SJ: 15 years ago I discovered a guru. There’s a strong community of devotees in this area – that’s why I moved here. He is a Realisor. It’s not Buddhism, not Hinduism. It’s his own great tradition.

Nothing is separated out. Whatever I’m doing, I’m invoking this guru. It’s moment to moment participation. I have no highs and no lows; my life is very calm and steady. This might be boring to others.

Even in my work, there’s a lot of repetition; I don’t even have to think. I work 7 to 8 hours every day, yet it’s not work. It’s very calm and meditative. If I wasn’t doing pottery, I would probably be counting prayer beads or something.

I’m so fortunate to be a potter… that connection with the earth, the clay. My home is unbelievably beautiful. My studio is downstairs, so it’s all contained.

My life is incredibly simple. I live alone. I consider myself a “single celibate.” There’s no drinking or smoking, and I mostly eat raw. I’m in my 60th year. I don’t view the world the way most people do. I’ve had many great, passionate love affairs, but now I’m detached from the bodily experience. That’s part of not doing shows; it’s too much energy. I’m in the world, not of it.

KF: How has your work evolved over the years?

SJ: I put together a book of my own artistic journey for myself. I’ve been all over the place! I had some phases that were more about form. Now I’m in a surface technique phase. I’ve been exploring my current body of work for 7 years – that’s the longest I’ve been in a phase.

Recently I saw the work of Jenny Mendes in Ceramics Monthly. I was working with her when she was just getting started. I really admire her and love how she has blossomed. She really does her own thing and has her own voice. I looked at this and thought: I haven’t pushed myself lately to try different things.

My strong point is really form, yet I’ve been focusing a lot on surface. My current designs are strong and can hold themselves. So now I’m spending more time with the clay. I’m tightening up the form. That has been a nice change for me lately.

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KF: How has your artistic path changed over time?

SJ: In the beginning of my career in the ’70s I was in a co-op. At the time it felt like there were two sides: academic artists vs. grass roots artists. I was a grass roots artist. I stayed more behind-the-scenes. I just wanted to make pots and sell them.

These college artists were taking photos, trying to get into magazines… it was a whole different mindset that I didn’t want to be a part of. I didn’t want the attention, and I didn’t want to get known for one style. I wanted the freedom to do what I wanted.

As an artist, you have to stay true to your thing.

We are always adjusting. My clay life, my social life… it’s one overlapping thing. Like in the old encyclopedias when there were layers of acetate to show the different components that make up a body – all of these layers of my life are overlapping to create a whole.

I’ve always liked the idea of being with art all the time, and I’ve admired women like Georgia O’Keefe who spent all their time with their art. And now, here I am, doing that and loving it. It happened rather naturally.

KF: Have you taken some huge risks in your art, career, life?

SJ: When I moved to California [in 2001], I gave myself over to the guru for a year. He was an artist, a photographer. He was creating sets for his photographs, and he demanded some large vessels in very simple black and white. This was a risk, but my Black, White and Red series ultimately came out of that time, so I’m thankful.

About four years ago, I got tired of this series. I needed a change. I started doing collage work on clay. It was a whole different palette of blues and greens. I started inserting these clay pieces into paintings as well. I was getting a monkey off my back; I wanted to work big! And I also did jewelry, reducing images of the collages to that scale. I put 2-3 years into this work, but it wasn’t generating the income I needed.

When I did shows with this new work, everyone was sad. They missed the Black, White and Red and wanted more. That short break inadvertently created a larger demand.

Now I’m back to the Black, White and Red and loving it; I’m not bored. I just needed to get that other work out of my system. I look at those collages now and think they are beautiful.

I’ve always taken big risks. When I was 30, I sold everything and moved to Mexico for a year. I had enough money to live for that year, but after that was a big unknown.

I come from a strong family, so they are my cushion, which allowed me to take big risks. They always welcome me back. I was never afraid to jump passionately into love and risk it all because I know my family is always there for me.

KF: How do you feel about the known vs. unknown and where you are now in your life’s journey?

SJ: Everything’s unknown. It’s all a great mystery. I surrender. I am living from the spacious place of not knowing.

Now I’m at the end of my struggle. And I’m at the beginning of a new acceptance of the unknown. There’s a great peace and serenity that come with that knowing. I could die tomorrow or live for decades in this peaceful place. It doesn’t matter. I’m not wanting, striving, competing.

The struggle and competitiveness in our lives, it’s not true. We can be who we really are and just relax, there are no rules… just freedom to be.

KF: When I first saw your Black, White and Red work several years ago in the window of the Mowen Solinsky Gallery, it was mostly abstract dots, dashes and patterns. Now your work seems to be more figurative. How did that evolution happen?

SJ: Actually it started with realism and then the dots and dashes appeared as lower end options since they are less time consuming.

The very first piece in this series was the geisha. I was traveling in Japan. I feel a strong connection to Japan – like I’ve had lifetimes there – I love everything aesthetically about their culture.

I was looking at a book of old Japanese wood blocks to get inspired for some new work. I cut a window out of a piece of paper and used it to scan the images. The first thing that jumped out to me was just the foot of a geisha. I tried that on a piece, and it wasn’t right. Then I tried the knees down, and that felt right. This piece got an immediate response.

Now I have no incentive to leave this work. There’s no boredom, and the work still gets a response.

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KF: We know that from the gallery. Everyone is always taken with your images and the shade of red. Can you describe your general technique and explain whether your work is glazed or unglazed?

SJ: I’m layering slip, which is colored clay in liquid form. I paint a layer of black slip and etch through and remove most of the black to define the first line. I continue building layer after layer of black slip, filling in between lines and etching away details to leave white. Each image is usually 4 to 5 layers.

I paint the red glaze over the black slip; that’s what makes it so deep and rich. I fire the piece a couple of times after applying the red glaze to take the shine out.

Sometimes I think back to when I was a child. My mom could put a coloring book in front of me, and I would be occupied for hours. That’s a lot like the approach to my work now; I spend lots of time filling in lines.

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