Artisan Interview: Kristi Sloniger, Oak Park, IL
There is a beautiful orchestration of steps in a pottery studio. The flow of work between throwing, trimming, bisque, glazing to final firing is the repetition of the same actions over and over. Potters spend hours in quiet concentration, working with raw clay, refining it at each step, working towards the final stages where form and glaze are revealed.
In a very similar way a musician spends hours repeating the same actions and practicing for a performance. So for studio potter Kristi Sloniger the connection between her training as a musician and her 30 years as a studio potter can be seen through the discipline of practice and her newest body of work exploring repetition.
Kristi Sloniger invited Illinois Artisans Program staff to her studio in Oak Park and explained each step of production, and what being a studio potter encompasses. Sloniger started throwing on the wheel 30 years ago while living in Houston, TX. Taking a community college wheel throwing class, she had an affinity for the wheel. She studied under Lebeth Lammers and learned how to set up a studio practice. Identifying as a potter not just an artisan, Sloniger explains:
“I am proud of being a potter. It is fun to look at the end of the day and see everything that you made.”
Setting up her own studio practice in Texas and now Illinois, Sloniger controls each component of the pieces, from making her own glazes to firing her own work. One important distinction behind a studio practice is the deliberate focus on producing a collection of cups, vases, or tiles in batches. Sloniger spends the day working on a single form, but emphasizes it is not about identical forms. Pointing to a shelf of 12 cups, she explains:
“These cups. They are all different. All feel different when making them. If not, then I need to stop doing it for that day.”
Looking closer at the shelf of seemingly identical cups, there is repetition of form but also small variations. Each piece is the result of an individual interaction of the potter with clay on the wheel. Behind the wheel is a bulletin board of inspiration and order notes scratched on scraps of paper. But watching Sloniger at the wheel, her focus is entirely on the form and that moment. So while the forms may be similar, by the time it is fired for the final time each piece is distinct.
Before pottery, Kristi Sloniger trained as a musician, playing flute and working with composers as a music copyist. She developed a visual understanding of music by transcribing single musical parts of an orchestra score. Music copyists isolate a single instrument’s notes from the entire score, requiring an complex understanding of music composition and attention to detail.
Sloniger sees the connection between the work style of potters and musicians, “You spend a lot of time by yourself in a very concentrated state.” Additionally she gained an understanding of pattern and repetition from music informs that translates into her newest body of work.
Each January and February Sloniger breaks from the studio practice to experiment and develop new ideas. Five years ago, Sloniger started playing with slips. Using mocha diffusion and pushing the reaction between acid and alkaline, she paints the glaze onto the side of vases letting the reaction feather and spread.
“I’ve never seen anyone do what I do with it. I started playing with other colors, wondering why can’t I do this with it. For some reason it fascinates me. A lot of potters have never seen it done like this.” Expanding on that work, Sloniger began painted with the glazes on flat tiles which are arranged in groupings on the wall.
Each tile a small composition within the larger piece, music like stanzas in music. At first painting on square tiles, she is also working with more fluid shapes and she playing with the space between the tiles. The resulting body of work hints at floral imagery or watercolor scenes.
Kristi Sloniger is the feature artisan at Illinois Artisans, Chicago July 2013. Both Sloniger’s mocha diffusion and functional pieces will be on display. Visit The Illinois State Museum, Illinois Artisans Program’s Facebook page throughout the month to follow a ceramic vase in video and photography from start to a finished mocha vase.
Images by Cindy Trim
Shelves & sketch book images by Illinois Artisans Program Staff.