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Interview: Jean Cotton of Making Faces Pottery

Do you like ugly mugs? Jean Cotton is here to provide them. She makes pottery of human faces that are often silly, funny, or terrifying. We featured her work last month. She's kindly agreed to an interview.

Jean is a native of Boston. She attended the Massachusetts College of Art in that city before settling down in Exeter, Rhode Island.

Tell us how you got started as an artist.

I studied Illustration way back when and worked as a freelance artist for years.  I discovered pottery aprox 20 years ago when I took a beginner class.  Throughout the years, I'd work with clay off and on since I got busy with other things -such is life. Several years ago, I sort of fell back into working with clay again.

While watching Antiques Roadshow I became interested in those primitive 19th C southern style face jugs. My work has evolved from that into a more realistic style with as many different expressions as I can come up with for the mugs I'm now making.  My sculpting improved over time time, though I'm still learning new things everyday.  It's all a learning process like everything else.

Clay combines the best of both worlds for me.  The process includes drawing out my concepts beforehand and then going to the next stage, throwing the piece on the wheel - and my favorite, sculpting and painting each piece.  Sometimes it's fun to simply work things out as I go along without that initial sketch.

I belong to a local art association and began selling my pieces at their holiday sale over the past couple of years.  When my mugs sold out at each show, I decided that I'd also try Etsy as a means of selling my work.  See www.etsy.com/shop/makingfacespottery

I'm busy most days, working at my pottery wheel, making even more mugs.  They are made of stoneware with porcelain eyes and teeth - just like those primitive style face jugs that I first started out with.  I can't tell you just how lucky I am to discover clay since it's what I really love to work with.

Tell us about the Southern style face jugs and how they inspired your "aesthetically challenged" pottery.

I was inspired by the history of 19th C southern style face jugs and the fact that there is somewhat of a mystery around them.  There have been a number of theories as to the origins of these early pieces.  Some speculate that they were created with somewhat frightening faces to keep children from getting into the whiskey that they contained.  Others believe that they might have been made by slaves working on plantations and were used as grave markers.

The process of creating these early face jugs is interesting since broken shards of porcelain plates and cups were used for the eyes and teeth.  Their expressions were whimsical and a bit downright scary.

I first began by using the jug shape form and then, onto mugs - either way, both of these forms are perfect for applying the face to.  The features on my pieces became more sculptural over time as I focused on creating as many varied expressions as I could.  The early face jugs, with their primitive expressions, resonated over to the work I now do by evoking a reaction from people when they see them.  Some folks enjoy the more humorous pieces and others prefer the somewhat scary devils and zombies.

Please describe your creative process.

I use a buff colored stoneware clay when I throw my pottery pieces.  When I refer to "throwing" it is the process of forming a lump of clay into a shape on the pottery wheel.  As the wheel spins, I pull up on the clay to add height, while thinning the walls of the clay at the same time to create a mug form.

I'll sometimes sketch out the face beforehand or create something right out of my head.  Once a mug is made, I trim it off of the pottery wheel and begin sculpting by adding clay onto the surface of the mug.  One can begin anywhere - the eyes, nose or mouth.  I have a selected number of sculpting tools to work with that I use most of the time.

Besides stoneware, I also use porcelain clay for the teeth and eyes.  The more exaggerated the expression the better - wide eyes, a grimacing smile.  I prefer a range of "themes" also since it keeps things fresh.  Some days I might work on a few zombies and other days, it's a "cute" look with wide eyes and happy expressions.  I refer to them as somewhat "aesthetically challenged" since they are not the prettiest of mugs, but they will definitely put a smile on your face.

Once the sculpting is completed, a handle is added and the mugs will need to dry for a few days before I paint them with under glazes.  They are bisque fired and fired a final time with a clear glaze.  All my glazes are non toxic/lead free.

What does your studio look like? Do you have any tools or features that you regard as essential to your work?

My studio space is a corner of our walkout basement and is centered in front of two large windows on the south side of the house.  Although it's in a basement, there's enough natural light (along with overhead lights).  I've got to admit, although it's quiet and even cozy, it's not exactly ideal. I dream of a spacious post and beam studio with lots of natural light and lots of wall space (I'm also a painter).  For the time being, my basement "atelier" will do.  Beats paying rent.

Besides my pottery wheel, shelving for glazes and my kiln, my actual workspace is a table where I complete the sculpting and hand painted glazing.

I prefer the quiet, rather than listening to music which I sometimes find distracting.  Yes, even the classical stuff.

I understand that you sell your art on Etsy. How well has the business end of your art being going?

After opening my Etsy store a year ago, I've discovered that it's a lot of work promoting it. You simply can't sit back and wait for people to find you on their own .The question is, just how do you stear potential customers to your Esty shop?  That's the million dollar question. I do have a FB page where I update people with new listings.  I have had repeat customers, with several actually collecting my mugs.  One person has purchased up to around 7-8 of them at this point.  I try my best to maintain excellant customer relations since it's important that they come back for reapeated purchases.

When Neatorama featured my Etsy shop last month, my hits and sales went off the charts.  I actually ran out of mugs since it was so unexpected, but wonderful at the same time.  It's important to get out there and do the occasional show.  It's a great means of meeting your customers and hearing what they have to say.  Feedback is important since it gives you an idea of what people are looking for - whether it's a gift or something for themselves.

Editor's Note:

(Photo: Alabama State Council on the Arts)

Jean mentioned Southern style face jugs. Pictured above are two examples of this Southern folk craft and the artist who made them. The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture traces the origins and development of the tradition in this article.

Here's a more modern expression of the tradition by Georgian artist Michael Crocker. It shows, appropriately, the King of Rock and Roll:

(Photo: Cliff)


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