Q: Have you always lived in Central New York?
A: I was born, raised and choose to live in Central New York. Just to help orient you, if your only image of New York is New York City then let me introduce you to my hometown. I usually say I am from Syracuse because it is a mid-sized city many people have heard of before (record annual snow fall, the Orange basketball team, Dinosaur Barbecue). But really, I am a Central New Yorker (CNY) firmly rooted in the very heart of New York State. Over the course of my life I have lived in many places in the area: North Syracuse, Chittenango, Cicero, Syracuse, Liverpool and I currently live with my wife, Brenda Pierce, in Bridgeport a small, rural-like suburb of Syracuse. CNY has many charms and I plan to enjoy them for the rest of my life. One great attraction of CNY is that I have strong family ties to the region. I was born here on June 10, 1979 to Kevin and Heidi See, and I have a younger sister Melissa. Our sometimes raucous, always competitive, and fun-loving extended family gathers together frequently for “hard core game nights”, camping and our famous annual cookie bake at Christmas. More than anything else we support each other by lending a hand with whatever needs doing. The reasonable pace of life here makes that possible.
Q: Did your parents encourage your pursuit of art?
A: My Dad liked to play “Art Class” with my sister and me. He had a big box of supplies – watercolors, pens, drawing supplies and we would mess them up! My Dad liked watercolors best. My parents never fought my interest in art. My room had lots of tack holes all over it because I covered the walls with drawings and paintings.
Q: When did art start to become a focus in your education? Were their teachers who had a significant impact on your development as an artist?
A: Two experiences from elementary school stand out. In first grade our teacher created a competition to see who could build the biggest tower out of oak tag. I won the first prize – a silver dollar – and that was a big deal to me. In sixth grade our art teacher offered us extra credit for every drawing we would bring in and I filled sheet after sheet after sheet with patterns that are similar to what people call Zentangles today.
In the last three years of high school I had a great art teacher, Mr. Van Houven who was also a practicing artist. I took sculpture and figure drawing but not a ceramics class. Clay was incorporated into both the sculpture and figure drawing classes and somewhere along the line I did some slab work but never coil or wheel work. Mr. Van Houven was open to me experimenting with materials in unique ways which kept me motivated. Other high school art teachers were influential even if I didn’t officially have them for class. I gravitated toward Mr. DeJezer who also happened to have been my Dad’s art teacher.
In 1997, my junior year, I won a Gold Key in the Scholastic Art Awards for a soapstone sculpture of skates and at graduation from high school in 1998 I was given an award for art as well.
Q: Why a sculpture of skates?
A: I was a speed skater for more than five years and competed on a team called the Syracuse Sprinters. I hurt my knees in 1998 and then made it worse by cross training on a bike which aggravated the injury further. I had to quit within a year which was a big disappointment.
Q: You take a scientific approach to ceramics - always experimenting and testing. Where did that mindset come from?
A: I was always the kind of kid who liked to build things and take things apart to see how they worked and whether I could put them back together again.
I had a unique experience in high school that made a big impact too. I was enrolled in a state pilot program for all four years of high school called “Applied Math and Principles of Technology”. Essentially it was a math-based physics curriculum. We did not take traditional math (algebra, trig, calculus) or science (bio, chem, physics) classes but instead spent a comparable amount of time developing topics to study and then figuring out what we needed to know to answer our questions. It was all hands-on experimentation using the equipment in the labs. I remember learning about fluid dynamics, heat transfer, and solid fuel combustion, among many other topics.
Q: Did you go to college after high school?
A: I went to Onondaga Community College (OCC) in the Syracuse area. I started out pursuing an associate’s degree in art. The first semester was mostly focussed on painting but in the second semester I took a design and sculpture class with Andy Schuester. There were wheels in the sculpture classroom and I asked if I could use the wheel and he said, “no.” So, after he left, I got on the wheel and made a mess! I have been making messes with clay ever since.
I spent four years as a full time student at OCC. Andy Schuester was the only person I actually took clay classes with for a grade but there were other OCC professors who also were influential – Paul Molesky, Keith Penning and Dave Webster. Even when the class was on another subject I tried incorporating clay into the assignments for ALL of my classes. I was putting in 12 – 14 hour days there every day – EVERY day- weekends, holidays, EVERY day. OCC was my laboratory.
There was a group of about 6 enthusiastic students who also devoted a lot of time to clay. Dave DeBrouliak was one of them and the woman who later became my wife, Brenda, was another (although she was married to someone else at the time). We encouraged and offered ideas to each other. While there I was President of the Art Club for 2 years and we fundraised for trips to DC and NYC to visit museums and galleries. We also hosted a simple version of what is now known as an “Empty Bowl” event by selling our bowls to the OCC community. I didn’t officially graduate from OCC because of not finishing one required class but I still wanted to learn.
Q: What came after OCC?
A: One summer I took a class at Syracuse University’s (SU) University College (UC) which is the school for part-time adult students. SU had better facilities and more equipment – which is what you would expect from a large, private university. Brenda, still just my friend, was completing a degree in art education with a minor in ceramics at SU. She helped me complete all of the paperwork to apply to SU and I was accepted.
Tuition is less expensive through UC, but, you can only be a part time student. I began as a ceramics major in the fall of 2002 but managed to fit in a full year’s course load of 40 credits by taking the maximum allowable credits of 11 in both the fall and spring semesters and 18 credits over the summer when that was allowed. UC accepted a lot of my credits from OCC. The advisors really worked to give me credit for my accomplishments. I took a couple of science classes and more art history but my focus was on ceramics.
I also became very involved with the ceramic student’s organization, Shaped Clay Society. I was the Treasurer and Brenda was the Secretary. We had annual sales of our work which became another good learning experience for what sells and at what price. Brenda and I also wrote our first grants through the Shaped Clay Society which enabled us to go to a work shop on pit firing with Peter Valenti.
At SU I continued to approach learning primarily as an independent study by putting in long hours and taking advantage of the resources available. I also took courses in geology and mineralogy and read on my own. My brain takes a tidbit of knowledge and smears it across other planes of knowledge.
I admired David McDonald who was teaching at SU at the time. I gave myself the challenge of pairing myself alongside him and tried to match his speed. Eventually I was able to do that – though quality took longer to achieve.
I started working the kilns. At the time no one was using the Junior B gas kiln so I decided to learn it. In my first tries I couldn’t get it to temperature. Once I closed the flue it worked though! I learned about flame and temperature. One day while the kiln was humming along, I took a lunch break out of the studio with Brenda and we got held up coming back. When I got back everything was melted. I learned never to leave my kiln alone even for lunch! Another time during a pit fire I almost melted the vapor proof lights under the canopy. SU was another good laboratory for me – it was big enough to get away with stuff.
Q: Where was all of this headed? What was your career goal?
A: I had been thinking about this since my days at OCC. My OCC teacher David Webster said that the only way to make a living through ceramics was through production pottery. We toyed around with me becoming his Studio Assistant but he realized he could not pay me enough. He also took me on a field trip to another production potter’s studio who generously showed me how things worked. Something about it did not sit well. The products seemed soulless. My goal became to become self sufficient as a production potter without using production methods. I wanted to throw fast – but not have the process become mechanical. I did not want to make soulless pots for a living. I never did that. I never just made a product.
Teaching became a part of my work early on. My first teaching experience was at the local Stone Quarry Hill Art Park in Cazenovia, NY. I had 40 kids between the ages of 3 and 12 and I was the only adult. Four teenagers under the age of 16 were there to help with the group. In our first firing the kiln blew up all of the pieces. I remade them all because the kids would have been so disappointed otherwise. I did not know enough about kiln repair at the time to fix it so we couldn’t fire. Instead we made “ephemeral art” which really was cool. We made a big installation of large sticks and big balls of clay that looked like puffs and we placed them on a hillside where they eventually disintegrated back to the earth. Stone Quarry Hill Art Park has a number of installations created to decompose back to the earth so it wasn’t too far out of the box.
Brenda helped to shape me as a teacher. As she was completing her education degree we talked about what she was learning and I picked up ideas and methods from her. Brenda started teaching in a community-based setting and I unofficially assisted and occasionally subbed for her. Then I started teaching at the YMCA in Fayetteville, NY in a new program. I was less focussed on the students having fun, or what enrollment I attracted, than on the quality of work of the students. I was a hard ass for quality. This was an important setting for figuring out what worked for me as a teacher. It really was a discovery process. If something didn’t work for one student, what adjustments could I make to reach the most students? It was like a test kiln!
Q: When did you begin teaching at Clayscapes Pottery Inc.?
A: I started teaching in 2006 at first just on Tuesdays and Wednesdays and at some point a Monday class was added. I currently teach Monday through Wednesday evenings and Tuesday and Wednesday morning. I picked up additional teaching techniques from my fellow teachers at Clayscapes who at the time were Shawn McGuire and Sallie Thompson.
It took about 6 years to learn I can’t beat every student into the production potter I want them to be. I got nicer. My earnings at Clayscapes are based on enrollment and I needed to stop scaring away students. Originally I thought, “If you fail, it is my fault. And I don’t fail.” One student took me aside and said she was “not having fun.” Since I wanted to keep students I realized I needed to adjust my approach.
I began applying video game science to my teaching. In video games at each level you need to have a challenge but you also have to be able to reach a level of success to keep you playing. I began developing shortcuts to assess each student’s learning style, like whether they learned best through visual demonstrations or auditory instruction. I learned not to hover over the students but to give them some space.
Most students have touched clay before they come to Clayscapes. I give them a chance to show me how they do what they do. I admit I like to start someone at the beginning and then take them through the various stages. I tend to teach very specific methods which I know the pitfalls of and then I am better able to give suggestions on how to change the approach a student is taking with those specific methods.
Evolving as a teacher seems to be working. The percentage of students who take additional classes with me has been increasing. I have numerous students who have been taking classes with me now for many years. Some students are selling their work directly and some have work in galleries. Some are not trying to sell work but are most interested in developing their skills and learning more about clay. There is space for students with many different goals around the table.
Q: You make a distinction between functional and sculptural pottery. Can you explain what the difference is in your opinion?
A: If it can be used in some way it is functional. Almost all of my work is functional. Sculpture has to do one or more of the following things: it explores clay in a way that is technically interesting or experimental, it says something or has a narrative, or it is cool or pretty.
If you want a sculpture, make a sculpture. If you want a teapot, make a teapot. The beauty of a teapot is in its function.
Q: Have you been able to make a living through pottery?
A: Yes, but like all ceramic artists I depend on multiple sources of income. Sales, whether through shows, galleries, on-line or, commissions, is only one source. Teaching is obviously a significant source for me. I make a little bit from You Tube and also teach workshops of varying lengths.
Over time my net income from sales of my work has increased as a percentage of my total income. I make a very small amount of money from sales of glazes I have developed and tested thoroughly. The more diversified your funding sources, the better off you are as an artist.
My wife, Brenda, teaches elementary art in the Syracuse City School District which in addition to her salary, provides us with all-important health insurance!
Q: What standards or principles guide your ceramic work?
It is important for ceramic artists – all artists – to be in a constant state of evolution in design, form, decoration, etc. I do not want to get stuck in a rut of plagiarizing myself. An example would be to work on an idea and then stick with it after I have exhausted the possibilities for creativity in that idea.
Say I make a mug that intrigued me and then attracted customer interest. Now, I could go on making that mug repeatedly just to sell it. But there is a point at which making that same mug will get in the way of me having a new idea and then making a new mug. Plagiarizing, or copying, one’s own work is usually an economic decision not an artistic decision.
Creativity in art is often divorced from making money.
The hardest way of doing something is also the way that gives you the most freedom. People say, “Tim always does everything the hardest way possible.” I can make a stamp as a quicker way to add decoration. But now my decoration is limited by the “thing” that is the stamp. That “thing” is used to make another “thing.” That “thing” becomes soulless in my eyes.
If you are doing something that someone has already done, you are plagiarizing. There is a difference between being inspired by something and reproducing it. Mimicry is cheating. Students come in and the first ideas they want to use for decoration are ideas that they have seen many times already. If it is being made over and over again by lots of different people, why do it? I strongly discourage them from using ideas that have been exhausted.
Another thing that I have come to discourage is decals. Everyone says they will use them to create their own work but then all I see are commercially sold decals used in the most basic of ways. It is different when someone has created the artwork for a decal and uses it in creative ways.
Everyone is capable of creativity. Creativity is using the power of observation to take in information, connecting it to what you already know and reinterpreting it and putting it out as something else. Surface decoration is where creativity comes in most clearly. You can change a variable each time.
My students do not always follow my suggestions but I plant these seeds. If nothing else it changes how they look at a potter’s work and helps them appreciate the artistry of someone who chooses not to go the fast and easy way.
It should go with out saying but just in case it doesn’t, I believe in working toward very high standards of quality. Trim everything!! Pay attention to the details. Think though the decision points – clay selection, making method, decoration, firing.
Q: What role does electronic communication play in your work?
A: In my roles as potter and teacher I am engaged with many communities: different groups of students, professional colleagues, customers, patrons, and, donors. But I extend my reach beyond my local community as well.
Social media, specifically YouTube and Facebook, have proven useful for this. I believe everyone who wants to should have access to pottery education and so I have produced almost 100 YouTube videos that are accessible to anyone with a computer. I belong to a few Facebook groups – Clay Buddies, Ceramic Recipes, Glaze Craze, and my friend Shawn McGuire and I have also recently restarted Pottery Critique. I am in it for the discussion and to learn. Okay, I admit, I am also in it for the laughs.
I view it as a COMMON GOOD that potters – professional and hobbyist – talk with each other about how we do things. It is really important that we advise each other to avoid hurting ourselves or pottery consumers. I am direct and have opinions based on science and practice.
Sometimes people are just doing things that are plain dangerous! But not everybody wants to know they are doing something wrong. There are people who have objected to something I said or how I said it. That is okay with me. If the dialogue is worth anything we have to be honest.
As a profession we have a problems with safety. There are just so many ways that we can put out work that is unsafe for customers. Too many potters produce without testing. Too many potters choose to ignore what we know about safety. And, too many potters do not know about all of the things they need to take into consideration to ensure safety.
Q: Did you begin making You Tube videos as teaching aids for your students?
A: At first I began making You Tube videos for students who missed classes. Then I made them for students who requested them so they could view demonstrations repeatedly.
Next I began posting them for anyone who doesn’t have access to ceramics teaching. Based on the feedback I get, there are a lot of people who have used them as their primary source for ceramic education.
Q: Philanthropy seems to be an important part of what you do year-to-year. What is your motivation?
The Empty Bowls event in Syracuse has been growing every year. It is sponsored by Clayscapes Pottery Inc., Syracuse University (SU) and the Inter Religious Food Consortium (IFC) with donations from about 12 restaurants. The bowls are donated, the soup and bread are donated.
Volunteers organize it and staff it. For $20 attendees get to choose a bowl, select a soup from an area restaurant and know that they are giving to a great cause since 100% of their donation will go to IFC which helps stock many food pantries to feed hungry people in our county. In 2013 we raised about $15,000, in 2014, $21,000 and in 2015 $20,000. I really like this event because I know I am giving to address basic human needs.
The Independent Potters Association, of which I am a founding member, organizes an annual event, Cups for a Cause. The first 2 years we donated proceeds from sales of our cups to breast cancer services at Upstate Medical University (UMU). Between 2014 and 2015 we donated over $12,000 to UMU’s Upstate Cancer Center for prostate cancer awareness.
Along with my friends and colleagues from Clayscapes and the IPA I am a judge for a day-long competitive event for high school ceramics students in our region, called Feats of Clay. Teams of students come from local high schools to Onondaga Community College to test their skills in challenging but fun events. It is a lot of fun for everyone! My competitive juices get revved up.
I also like to volunteer in schools. Sometimes I assist Brenda with the students directly, other times I just do some chores like keeping their classroom fish tank clean!
Q: What is it with you and cats and all of the meowing?
A: I like cats!!
Brenda and I have a cat named Viggo. He was given to me by a student who also likes cats. The first year I was sweating bullets since he was living with us on only a trial basis. Brenda was willing to give it a try but she wasn’t ready to commit to keeping him for the long term. Luckily he passed probation!
The meowing goes back a few years. There was a cat doing a dance in a YouTube video that a few of my friends and I got a lot of laughs from. We started meowing to each other as a joke and then it just became a greeting. There is a lot of meowing in our studio now!
Q: What do you do besides ceramics?
A: Homemaking takes time. I do the food shopping and cooking. Brenda and I like to garden and every year we make large batches of different kinds of pickles. I like to build and fix things too.
Whether it is building or rebuilding kilns or a studio, car and tractor repair, I like diving in and learning with hands-on projects and toys – I mean tools!
Brenda and I like to camp too. For several years we have been taking an annual camping trip with members of my family. One of the benefits of living your life in one geographical area is that you stay connected to family. My family is a very competitive bunch! We like to play board games – but we take our games very seriously!
I also like to binge watch television series. One criteria I have for selecting series is if there is enough episodes to really draw me in to a complex story. How visually distracting is it – can I paint illustrations while watching it? The dialogue has to be good. And if it is a horror series it should be really horrible. Some I have watched are Dexter, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Walking Dead, and, Trailer Park Boys. You haven’t heard of Trailer Park Boys? It is a dramatic Canadian show and there is lots of swearing in the 30-minute episodes. But you have to give it a chance – at least four episodes to really get it.
Musically I am always searching. If I find music that is studio-appropriate I play it until I have exhausted my interest in it and then move on.