Where the Art Is: An Interview with Ceramic Sculptor Miranda Howe

7. Desert Aquifer (detail).jpg

Howe talks about her artistic beginnings in Texas, artist residencies, the role of travel and place in her work, and settling back into her hometown of Roswell New Mexico. For more images of her work, click here>>>.

I met Miranda Howe when we were students in the Art Department at Lubbock Christian University. While I was holed up in the garret studio above the old garage that functioned as the art studio on campus, painting for my senior exhibit, Miranda, a freshman, was downstairs, wavy hair tied up in a bandana, throwing clay pots on the kick wheels. After I graduated and went to teach at Dunbar High School, I took Ceramics II at LCU during spring afternoons as a continuing education course. My clay class was “stacked” with Miranda’s Ceramics III (this simultaneous offering of separate-but-related classes is not uncommon in small university art programs). While I struggled to turn out decent pieces that had thicker walls than I’d have liked, I watched in secret envy as Miranda produced lyrical pottery that seemed like delicate whispers against the clumsy blurts of my own work.

Miranda hung out with a distinctly bohemian crowd, a loving, supportive, and tightly knit group of students who traveled, worked, and played together. In the summers, she and the more intrepid members of their group traveled to Alaska to work the fish canneries. The tales of the rugged beauty of the Alaska landscape and the drives to and from, juxtaposed against the smelly drudgery of the hours working in the cannery, seemed simultaneously romantic and miserable. Heaven and hell. Each fall, she’d vow never to do it again, and each summer she’d set off to the reaches beyond the Great White North.

Miranda transferred from LCU to Texas Tech University to complete her BFA in printmaking and eventually received her MFA in ceramics from Montana State University. But her wanderlust has never left her. Her work and travel have taken her to Italy, Greece, Turkey, Oregon, Colorado, and annually to Montana—a homage to that Alaska route from her undergraduate days. I recently had the chance to catch up with her when Lubbock Christian University hosted Unearthed: An Exhibition of Works in Clay by Miranda Howe, in November 2014. She and I talked about her artistic beginnings in Texas, her artist residencies, the role of travel and place in her work, and the effects of settling back into her hometown of Roswell, New Mexico.

Michelle Kraft: Miranda, your work draws heavily from geological references. Where do these inspirations come from? How did your time in Lubbock, while a student at Lubbock Christian University and Texas Tech University, inform them?

Miranda Howe: Although I have always been drawn to nature—making mud and leaf “fossils” as a child and spending most Christmases looking for the local Pecos Valley diamonds with my family—the geologic interests didn’t play directly into my artwork until much later, when I was a graduate student in Montana.

Traveling became an important part of my life when I was a young adult, mostly in trekking up to Alaska in the summers to work in the fish canneries. This experience was tremendously altering and influential. The contrast of West Texas to Alaska was extreme, and water patterns and fish bones became central themes in much of my work. I would also bring back boxes of found treasures from the beaches—driftwood, wormwood, vertebrae, and agates. These objects captured my attention and became focal elements in my drawings, prints, pottery, and sculpture.

What I valued the most from my education in Lubbock was the awareness I gained from simply being exposed to various media and processes in the studio arts. LCU was where I learned to throw a pot, mix a test glaze, and load a kiln, little knowing at the time that that would be the field I would work in. In a transitory point in my schooling, I was even allowed to live above the ceramics lab (unbeknownst to the university administration!), an arrangement that gave me free rein, night or day, to work in the facilities. [LCU professor] Karen Randolph was a great mentor to me in ceramics and in life and continues to hold a dear place of highest esteem in my heart.

As my appetite for art increased, I transferred to Texas Tech, where I was able to investigate metals and jewelry-making, glassblowing, and figure drawing. But it was printmaking and the exciting possibilities it offered that stuck with me. And now, twenty years later, the combination of ceramics and printmaking is still vital in my work.

MK: In your sculptural work, we see your background as a printmaker, but you and I also talked about cultural references that are evident in your pieces, such as Minoan- and Aegean-like colors and patterns, as well as Moroccan influences. How do you see the interplay of these tighter, refined elements against the rougher, natural, earthlike ones?

MH: I’ve always been captivated by ornamental and decorative surfaces and am enthralled with things like Italian papers, quilting fabric, wallpaper, and brick walkways. These interests were heightened after I had the opportunity to study in Greece and Italy and to travel to Turkey. I was able to really look at the marble floors of cathedrals, the floor-to-ceiling tile work in mosques, and the mosaics and frescos, and architectural details found everywhere, from the simple to the grand.

The contrast of the organic and unrefined natural world against the calculated structures of human-made environments has been a theme throughout my work for about the past fifteen years. Each of these directions holds a wealth of inspirations of its own, but paired together they create a tension within my work. I often use geologic elements—fissures, crevices, voids, fault lines—to interrupt the purposeful rhythm of ordered arrangement.

A repeated pattern could go on indefinitely, but sometimes the interest lies when there is a break in that cadence, an unexpected hiccup. Metaphorically, the parts of our lives that what we planned, the curveballs, often become the areas within ourselves that highlight the most poignant events; the voids and cracks become the unexpected areas of interest and the moments or changes that we later embrace.

MK: During your exhibition at Lubbock Christian University last fall, you made it a point, in your gallery talk, to visit with undergraduate students about artist residencies. How did you start?

MH: I completed my BFA in 1995, moved back to Alaska for a year, and then returned to Roswell. Floundering with what to do, I set up my potter’s wheel in the dining room, and Mom wrote two grants to hire me to come do special projects with her high school art students. Then in 1997, still not ready to embark on a master’s program, I wanted to travel while building up my portfolio to later use in my graduate applications. I settled on an independent educational opportunity through the Aegean Center for Fine Arts. My concentration was in printmaking.

I don’t feel that my first real art residency was until 2004, two years after I got my MFA. It wasn’t until I visited the Archie Bray Foundation for the Ceramic Arts [in Helena], and had art residents from the Bray come visit the university during my graduate program, that I really began to clue in to what residencies were all about—what a wonderful step they provide in an artist’s journey.

MK: Can you briefly trace your history with artist-in-residence programs? What types of residencies have you encountered? What advice might you give to undergraduates or graduate students who may want to follow similar opportunities—what do you wish you had known going in?

MH: There are really just a ton of residency opportunities out there. Some are suited to a particular media, which are wonderful to participate in, given that there is already a common framework for the artists, and you can learn a great deal from each other within your chosen medium. On the flip side, being involved in a residency that houses artists from many genres offers different perspectives. Both [types of residencies] provide wonderful energy and engagement. Working as an artist is often a solitary path, and I find it very important to balance that solitude with occasions to interact with other artists in meaningful ways. Depending on what you are looking for, there are short-term residencies, for two to three weeks, long-term options for a year or more, and many time frames in between. I have found it beneficial, the more I grow, to apply for specific residencies that I know would challenge me in a particular way, or to be able to focus on an idea or project that I want to complete that is different from my normal studio working endeavors.

I’ve had the opportunity to participate in four different residencies. [The first was with the] Bray, from 2004 to 2006. For ceramic artists, this is a fantastic residency. My focus was the development of my wall-mounted “box” forms, and really where my interest in the natural world and geologic elements became central to my content.

In 2007, I was an artist with the LH Project. I was there three months. This is also a residency for ceramic artists in the mountains of eastern Oregon, in a very remote studio with only one to four other artists working there at the same time. It is a stunning environment, which allows for a time of introspection and focus without a lot of distraction. Here I continued with my box forms, but with a more celestial focus, using constellations and phases of the moon as my subject matter.

In 2009, [I completed] ten weeks at the Anderson Ranch Art Center in Snowmass Village, Colorado. This was my first residency experience residing with working artists from all different fields—woodworking, digital media, painting, printmaking, sculpture, metals, etc. We worked independently, but shared meals, outings, or evening time together. My focus was to take the aesthetics of my wall pieces and work through the challenges of creating sculptural work. It was here I created my first “pedestal” pieces.

And 2013 [was my] one year at the Roswell Artist-in-Residence program. In my early twenties, I really wasn’t aware of the importance of this program in my hometown. But finally getting involved with it years later, and being accepted into the program, I came to recognize the impact that such a generous type of residency can have on an artist. Being given a private house, private studio, and a monthly stipend, with no teaching obligations, allowed for a very enriching time of exploration. With eight other artists [including Texas artists Ryder Richards and Natasha Bowdoin] from varying backgrounds and media—each in their private spaces—you could choose how much or little you wanted to be socially engaged with each other or in the community. My focus here was to revisit the large structures I had made during my thesis work, and embark on monumental ceramic sculpture.

I do wish I had known about these opportunities as an undergraduate, as they would have been valuable during the four years I spent before going to graduate school. There is also something called Special Student Programs that many universities offer. I wish I had known about these, as well. They are geared to students between schooling, allowing one to work and use the university facilities in exchange for teaching or studio maintenance. Those are really wonderful learning options before embarking on a MFA program.

MK: You’re currently living and working in your hometown of Roswell. After your years in Texas and Montana, how did your move back affect the nature of your work?

MH: With my sense of adventure, and a desire to not be too tied down, I never thought I would move back “home.” But after five years of living in too much isolation, [I found that] Roswell provided the ties to family and community that keep one healthy. After my Roswell residency, it made sense for me to stay, and I must say, feels good to make plans for my future here. I’ve purchased an old red-brick warehouse that I’m converting into a studio, teaching, and living space. I really enjoy teaching, though I’ve chosen not to pursue that as a full-time career in order to keep my studio practice my primary focus. But I want to provide something more to my community as well as stay connected with the Roswell Artist-in-Residence program.

MK: Roswell’s only a few hours away from Lubbock, and both have active arts communities. What might you envision as some collaborative opportunities between Lubbock and Roswell artists?

MH: There are a few Roswell artists who have participated in the Llano Estacado Wine and Clay Festival over the years. I think there could be more of that interchange with artists and area events. Roswell hosts the annual Pecos Valley Potters’ Guild Arts and Crafts Show every November. It would be great to have some of our Lubbock neighbors represented in that event. With my new building endeavors, I am personally becoming more aware of looking beyond Roswell to tap into the resources of regional artists, opportunities, and ideas that would create ways to allow for a greater exchange.

MK: What’s next for you, Miranda? Any five-year plan?

MH: Bone Springs Art Space! That is my main pursuit right now: the development and evolution of my studio/teaching facility/gallery space/flexible event center. Serving on several nonprofit boards, I am also concerned with helping elevate the arts in Roswell and help bring more awareness to the city leaders. This past year, I was involved with saving an historic building from demolition. [Since its] key location is on the corner of the proposed Metropolitan Redevelopment Area and the Arts and Culture District, much of my time is, and will continue to be, helping transform that space into something vital and engaging for the community.

Times of more purposeful concentration and focus are also important for me to maintain. Coming up at the end of this year, in September through December of 2015, I will be traveling to Wisconsin to be part of the Art/Industry Program through the John Michael Kohler Foundation. The residency at the Kohler Factory will be a wonderful time of personal creative growth and challenges. With [the program’s] emphasis on slip-casting in a factory environment, my time at the fish canneries will prove to be a good prep for this residency!

Image couretsy of Miranda Howe (Desert Aquifer)

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