Studio Visit with Ceramicist Peter Scherr

I drove down to Bellevue to visit Peter Scherr's studio, which shares an acre of land with his home, garden, and chicken coop. CSArt shareholders will be able to visit Peter's studio tomorrow during the "CSArt studio tour" from 1-4pm.

As Peter Scherr showed me around the place, he pointed out the less-than-glamorous features of his setup. I don't think he realized that I was in heaven.. a backyard "hut" studio brimming with tools and materials, oversized garage work area/kiln room, junk pile, land, chicken coop, and an angel-haired boy running the length of the place in overalls and rubber boots.

Scherr uses local clay, mixes his own glazes, and fires the work in his computerized kiln. He used an older kiln for years, but says it was so temperamental he was loosing too much work. He has to keep a time/money balance to his studio practice to make sure he is coming out on top. He has three kids after all! Scherr told me he is going to use some of his CSArt commission to buy a clay mixer, which will save him 25% of his hand-on studio hours. It was great to hear that the program was benefiting him in such a tangible way.

Tell us a little about your process.

I use a red stoneware, mid-range firing temperature, iron-rich clay from the brick plant at Endicott, Nebraska. In order to make it more plastic - able to hold its shape and not crack - I wet it and agitate it in a barrel with a large drill. Then I pour it through a screen to filter out the limestone and gravelly bits that cause cracking and make it difficult to throw on the wheel. This refining process takes a sizable amount of my time and energy. Ceramic materials can be a black hole of exploration but this is a rich clay that I have learned to work with aesthetically and technically. By testing a local clay, I've formulated what I need.

My glaze materials come from all over North America. I use a simple base glaze and elaborate on it when I have time to experiment and test. I have found that if I deviate much things quickly become too complex for my short bursts of studio work. I throw and trim, paint, glaze and fire everything at my home studio.

You mentioned that you have "monetized" your art career in the past few years, can you tell us what you have changed, and how it is going?

We all hear about time and money. I came to the realization a few years ago (maybe when baby #3 came along) that I only had time to pay myself for the work I made. My training as a potter did not come through a Master/apprentice situation, though I have thrown many pots in the last 20 years. It's been through an academic method of making things and analyzing them, and starting again. No one sat me down and required hundreds of handled mugs or tea bowls. I do feel a detriment in my work because of this 'self-taught' nature. The isolation of working by myself creates a bias as well; if no one is here to critique your lack of skill, will anyone notice?  

Taking into account the scale of my studio space and my time, making pots works best. My potting vocabulary is straight forward and strives towards basic place settings for the table. Bowls, cups, plates and vessel forms. Occasionally, I make sculpture that is suited to the gallery but pots help monetize my time the best. I would also credit my family and clay community, the internet, and a group of supportive patrons for helping me get work out into the world and for supporting my time in making the work. I've never had a business plan, more like a busy-ness plan. If I may use this quote by the artist and producer El-P "I've never thought I was particularly talented, so I have to work really hard."

You have a small but very high-functioning studio! Is there anything you would change?

I’ve found through my experience – working for Jun Kaneko and later while finishing my degree at UNL – that everything derives from a physical facility that enables one to positive and productive outcomes. The next part of that experience is taking ownership of a space, organizing it and working through the logistical problems of workflow. Between the small studio space and the larger utility building on my property my goal is to keep what I do 'in house'. I've yet to figure out a space that is clean and dedicated for photographing the finished work, though for now I use a small space in my studio storage area. I would also add more natural lighting, a larger kiln, and a larger work space. I do hope to build a small gas kiln and experiment with atmospheric firing techniques this summer.

What drives your art making?

I try to say "yes" to every opportunity and affirm each time I work that I'm continuing my education in the arts, materials, logistics, business or whatever happens to be the task at hand. Over the years, I've continued to sort of fall into my art opportunities. So, if I try something then I know more, even in failure – there's plenty in ceramics. There was a short period of time when I was counting hours spent in the studio, translating that to an hourly wage, and it sort of killed my creative drive. Just having my hands, head and heart in the process counts for a lot. The financial aspects usually fill themselves in. They aren't always pretty, but it hasn't stopped me yet.

Peter's three-year-old son came strolling into the studio after about forty minutes of unsupervised backyard romping. He was given a lump of clay to play with, and he quickly sat down and got to work making indents in it with a stick. Soon he was rummaging under the counter and reemerged with a potter's wheel. Peter said he hasn't shown him the proper way to use any of his tools, which surprised me as the kid spun the lump of clay around like he knew exactly what he was doing. Peter has been the one at home with all three of his kids growing up, able to get some hours in the studio while they explore the backyard, feed the chickens, and poke holes in lumps of clay. Maybe not everyone's idea of heaven, but surely they've got something figured out.

-anna nance