Can you tell me a little bit about you?
I am originally from Northwest Indiana and I am currently in the process of completing my MFA in ceramics at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence. I have had a very formal education in the arts. After high school, I attended SAIC in Chicago and received my BFA in Ceramics. I also completed two post-baccalaureate programs before coming to RISD for my MFA.
When did you first discover art, or realize you wanted to make it yourself?
Art was kind of engrained in me at a really young age. My mom was, and still is, really into art. She would take my brother and I into Chicago all the time to go to the Art Institute, Natural History Museum and really all over the city. I also remember taking art classes at a young age but I don’t think I really considered being an artist until high school. I went to a really small international boarding school, Verde Valley School, in Sedona, Arizona. We had to take an art class and I knew I couldn’t draw very well so I tried my hands at ceramics. Needless to say I instantly fell in love with the immediacy of clay; how it allowed me to become focused and block out all the unnecessary things around me. Having been raised in Indiana I was really into basketball and I actually almost took a scholarship to go play basketball in college but there was something about ceramics and art that was starting to fulfill something in me that basketball wasn’t. Now here I am, fourteen years later, still working with clay.
What do you like most about working where you do?
Apart from having the time and resources to really thinking about my work, being in grad school at RISD has allowed me some pretty amazing opportunities. I was able to travel to Morocco for a month to work with Master craftsmen at an artisan center in Fez, as well as, explore many beautiful cities while there. Being there really helped reconnect with my Judaism, clarify my ideas and provided me with a ton of inspiration to bring back to the studio. I don’t think I would have had the chance to do something like this had I not been at RISD. I’ve also had the opportunities to discuss my work and get critiqued by some pretty respectable people in the ceramics field such as Glenn Adamson, Nicole Cherubini, Francesca DiMattio, Linda Lopez and more. I was even able to get Glenn Adamson to be a part of our graduate thesis committee this year. In the beginning I was not really a fan of being at RISD but once I started to really take advantage of everything they offer, I was pleasantly surprised to see how my attitude changed.
What ideas are you exploring in your practice?
My current ceramic work has been influenced by past experiences growing up Jewish in Indiana and a reintroduction to my Judaism while exploring Mellahs in Morocco. Using the language informed by these experiences and my surrounding environment, I create installations and objects which reflect my reality and attend to identity, isolation, place and a connection with others.
My practice has tremendously changed in the last year. Ceramics has always been an emotional release for me and I feel like after my trip to Morocco I have finally come to terms with a lot of the awful experiences that happened to me while growing up in Indiana simply because I am Jewish. This acceptance, along with the hateful and tragic events that have been taking place–like in Charlottesville and the now two Synagogue shootings–has just helped me realize that this is something that cannot be ignored. My practice has shifted into a deeper meaning than what I am usually comfortable sharing with others. It has been an interesting transition and as I continue to share my experiences I also have received many messages from others who have experienced similar tribulations simply for being Jewish.
What is your process like?
My research has come in the form of my personal experiences more than anything, as well as, my family’s experiences. When I realize specific topics in my work then I will start to do a little research or double check things that I recall from memory.
The work that I make throwing on the wheel usually doesn’t take me too long. That being said, it really depends on how complicated the form is to make. I recently completed a large vessel on the wheel that stands around 4 feet high and 22 inches wide. It took me around 36 hours just to make the form. I then took that same vessel through 8 firings before I considered it to be completed and each one of those firings takes anywhere from 10-14 hours just to reach peak temperature and then maybe another day to cool down after that. I usually just work on one vessel at a time so I can devote my full attention to that piece.
I created a functional line of work that I call Mini-Brickware, which also takes an ample amount of time to finish. I will work for about a week, just slip casting miniature clay bricks until I have at least 1,000 or more. I’ll then be able to make maybe three vessels from all of those tiny bricks. The firing process for these is not as elaborate as my other vessel work.
The resulting forms investigate, renew and upend traditional opinions of the vessel, calling attention to the complex and fraught connections between history and contemporary culture. I see the Jewish people as a melting pot of cultures and I have been using the idea of the Jewish Diaspora as a way to explore the creation of a new hybrid vessel, or maybe even a Jewish vessel. Most recently, I have drawn influence from Egyptian Libation vessels (used for offerings to the Gods) Greek Lekythos vessels (used to contain oil), as well as the shape of a Torah. Combining these elements together I am able to make hybrid forms with relations to Jewish histories.
The installation work I made with the bricks took a fair amount of time to complete as well. I worked for maybe a month just to hand press around 400 clay bricks, which I then used in several installations while they were still unfired. I eventually wood-fired all the bricks, which took three firings that were 24 hours long just to complete. That was very intensive work because you have to be constantly adding wood to the kiln for 24 hours straight. I think most everything ceramic related is pretty labor intensive.
Is there any subject or theme you’ve been particularly interested in lately?
The theme of Judaism, along with the confinement and isolation of tradition, not just religiously but within the ceramics field as well.
What is the strangest thing you’ve ever had to do for art?
I thankfully have not had to do anything too strange, yet.
Do you have a day job or other work that you split your time between?
I have been fortunate to have found work relating to my practice almost every where I have gone. After my undergrad I was working at the Lillstreet Art Center in Chicago, teaching and mixing glazes for the studio, while I made my own work and sold it out of my space. When I did my post-baccalaureate programs I was usually working two jobs within the department and even found work as a production potter in Colorado. All throughout graduate school at RISD, except for my final semester, I have worked three different jobs within the ceramics department, on top of completing all the work necessary to receive my MFA. This last semester I have just been the assistant technician for the department, helping to fix everything and anything that breaks, from simply things like the throwing wheels to the electric and gas kilns.
I once tried to take a job that was separate from my art and it honestly started to drive me crazy because I felt like I was missing something. I know many people who can do it but I guess I’m just not one of them.
Do you have a mentor, or a piece of advice (or both), which has influenced your practice?
I have had many mentors throughout my fourteen years working with clay and some of the best advice I ever received was from one of my undergrad professors, Delores Fortuna; she told me not to compare myself with everyone else, meaning, don’t get down when you see people getting shows and selling work when you’re not. Everyone is on their own path and things happen to people at different times. If you continue to grind it out in the studio every day, really hone your skills and concepts, then your time will come too. But then she ended it with, “Unless you’re just horrible at making things, then you’re really screwed.”
Is there any piece of advice you would offer to others?
I have actually been asked this a few times and I usually tend to reiterate the advice I listed above.
I also make sure I tell people that I have truly dedicated my life to ceramics, I have been working with clay for 14 years now and that it doesn’t come easily. I am in the studio every day for at least 12 hours a day or more. It really comes down to practice and the amount of time you actually put into improving your skills and your work. If you don’t put in the time then you shouldn’t expect much.
What does it mean to you to have a “community?”
Community is very important for me because your community usually consists of the people that you actually talk to about your work and bounce ideas off of. A good sense of community in a working environment helps to create a space that is actually enjoyable to work in and when the space is enjoyable it usually becomes more productive as well. I have worked in spaces where you can tell the community does not get along very well and it can really hinder the creative process.
What is your studio like?
My studio is a mess at the moment. I am usually pretty clean and tidy but since coming to grad school I have kind of let the slip a little bit. I’ve got my own throwing wheel and I have three tables which are usually full of both in progress and finished work. All the shelf space is usually occupied by buckets, molds and even more finished work or tests. (I can email images if you want)
Do you have any routines or rituals in the studio that get you into the mode or mindset to make your work?
I like to get started in the morning around 9 AM after having a good breakfast at home. I love working with clay so much that I don’t really have to get into a mindset for working any more as I am usually already anxious and wanting to get into the studio as soon as I can. I usually spend around 12 hours in the studio, sometimes more depending on the work I have to do or how tired I am. I listen to music, podcasts and watch TV shows and movies as well. I’ll listen to almost any type of music as long as it isn’t bluegrass. Recently I have gotten bored with my selection and tend to watch TV shows and movies more, like Friends, The Office, Parks and Rec, those are usually my go to selections.
How significant has attending art school been on your practice?
In my opinion–unless you are one of the few to get lucky and noticed right out of undergrad– the MFA has become the new BFA. I feel like at one point an undergraduate degree was enough to get by or get you certain opportunities but now I think the MFA has taken that over. People tend to take you way more seriously when you have an MFA. I believe it is all about the long run, especially if you want to be a professor or teacher of some kind, which is really the whole reason I went to art school. I feel like pursuing an advanced degree in art just further demonstrates your devotion to the field.
Obviously you can be successful and sell work without going to art school. I have seen and know a lot of people who I done just that. Going to school has allowed me to see and hear many perspectives from various people, learn a lot of art history, helped provide the skills and confidence I needed for my practice, and provided me with some amazing connections and opportunities. I’m sure you can learn everything I did in art school on your own, in your spare time while maybe pursuing something more useful like a Business degree.
What do you find most daunting, challenging, or frustrating about pursuing art?
Getting my work seen and into shows has always been the most frustrating thing for me. When you get rejections it makes you question yourself every time but at the same time it is simply part of what this life is. I have lost count of the number of rejections I have received.
How would you define “success” in art?
I think as long as I can continue to sell my work or work within the arts field in order to continue making my work, then I will consider myself successful.
What is the most exciting thing you’ve done or accomplished so far, related to your work?
I was recently accepted to multiple residency programs and I am still waiting to hear back from a few more. Unless some amazing opportunity comes up that I can’t turn down, I think I will end up at the Morean Center for Clay in Florida after I graduate for a year long residency. I also just recently found out that I have been juried onto a growing and prominent website of some pretty amazing ceramics artists, Artaxis (www.artaxis.org). They are still working to put my personal page together.
What are you working on right now?
My time has been devoted to finishing and editing my written thesis, along with finishing a few details for the Thesis exhibition which we began installing on May 16th, for the opening on May 22nd. I am also trying to finish up some commissioned Mini-Brickware pieces, as well as trying to negotiate getting work into a gallery that I just recently met with.
Find more at jonahfleeger.com and on Instagram @jonah_fleeger!
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