On most summer mornings in Long Island City, an inescapable sun is accompanied by the whirling mechanical sounds of a neighborhood in flux. The block that houses ceramicist Simone Bodmer-Turner's studio is no different from the outside, but it's a world apart once you cross its threshold. When entering Sculpture Space NY, the air seems to change and the light diffuses, casting a divine glow on the recently sculpted forms that sparsely populate the mammoth interior. Given the space’s accommodating beauty, it is unsurprising that Totokaelo hosts two of the studio's current occupants in the Art–Object section (Simone herself and fellow ceramic artist Nancy Kwon).
On this particular trip, we met Simone in the hopes of better understanding the mental and physical processes behind her work, to try to decipher how one can craft these profoundly beautiful pieces that seem somehow both totally extraterrestrial and created by Mother Nature herself. As you might suspect, her unique approach comes from a well-fed imagination, alongside a practice that has been tirelessly perfected both stateside and abroad. While sensitively tending to her creations, a conversation began that yielded some fascinating insights.
What are the steps you go through to bring your ideas to life? Do you sketch frequently, or is your process more hands-on and intuitive?
It usually starts with a form catching my eye — whether it’s at a street market while I’m traveling or in the permanent collection at the Met, which is my favorite place to go when I’m feeling lost for inspiration. I rarely get attached to an entire form, though the Peruvian Stirrup Vessel which morphed into the Single Stem is a notable exception. That form caught me off guard — I had never seen a form so sensual despite its functionality. It moved me. More often it’s not a singular form but a collection of parts: a chunky foot, a certain curve of a belly, an angle of a lip, a funky arm. Then these parts that separately intrigue me get combined into one piece that draws from multiple original forms, leaving room to fill in the gaps with unintentional and unexpected connecting bridges and walls.
I sketch constantly, usually after a visit to a inspiring space or time spent with a particularly good book on sculpture. But sometimes something will just come over me when my mind is wandering absently and I have to practically run to my notebook to get the gesture of it down before it’s gone. But often, when I sit down to build, what I make is not precisely what I’ve drawn. The sketch serves more to ingrain the piece in my head, and I build from my memory of the sketch, only referencing it if I get stuck building and am not sure what feels off.
Much of your career has followed the path of artists who worked within California’s ‘back to the land’ movement, which includes traveling extensively to places where craft is simply a way of life for some of the local people. As a ceramicist, Japan and Mexico seem like the most logical places to start. Can you tell us a little about how entrenching yourself in those artistic communities has helped shape your practice?
Much like the shattering realization I had when I was briefly working with textiles and creating garments about the complications and dark realities of the supply chain of the fashion industry, the realization about the clay that studio ceramicists work with was equally unmooring. The clays that most studios use across the world are manufactured in factory-like clay mills and far removed from the romantic ideal I had about it emerging out of the earth raw, full of organic material, and capable of rendering unexpected and beautiful results.
Though this milled clay is crucial to create a reliable body of work, a lot of the magic and mystery of the craft is given up in favor of precision. To find this magic within my practice I do my best to travel once a year to work with communities whose clay practices are tied much more closely to the earth.
My work was more independent in Japan, something I very much needed at the time to explore my inclinations in form and style, and my work was much more regimented in Mexico, working under a group of women masters to learn their methods. The experiences were radically different, though both were very formative to my style and both allowed me to work in an incredibly pared-back studio space and fire in outdoor wood kilns. No running water, very few tools, no slab rollers or extruders or spray booths or any of that extraneous machinery.
The forms of both places were and are very influential in my work, and I still work with very few tools, and do most of my slabs and all of my coils by hand. There has also been an interesting balance struck in my mentality around my work and the clay itself from two communities whose perspectives on clay are so fundamentally different. In Japan, the clay and the objects formed from them are so deeply precious and valued, the bottom of each work is perhaps more important than the piece itself, where the shape of the foot and the artist's signature determine the piece's worth. In Mexico, the clay is simply a way of life, and valued solely based on its functionality and durability over an open flame — one artist's unsigned pot blending in with all of the other pots from her village that are made exactly the same way and have been for 60 generations back. Equal measure of both reverence and detachment has served me well.
Your pieces recall Eva Zeisel’s a bit in the way that your individual works feel like segments in a larger whole, or more accurately, like atoms or molecules within a larger being. Is that a conscious aim of yours?
It is not a conscious act to make multiple parts of a whole, but as many of the pieces were birthed out of an original form that is included in the collection, it makes sense that they all work together as they are variations on each other. As the Single Stem was born from the Peruvian, both the Aortic and the Parisian Saucer were born from the Parisian — just with variations on the belly size and shape. I do love the way Eva’s pieces all seem to be in conversation with one another, though.
Way back in 1940, MoMA put on an exhibition called Organic Design in Home Furnishing. As an artist who aims to bring a more natural element into people’s homes, does it frustrate you that so much time has passed since then and yet most interiors still feel so disconnected from nature?
Completely. Using natural materials to construct a living space and furnishing it with organic materials and objects does not merely have a visual effect, but smells of the places the materials came from reflects and holds light in a way that manmade materials cannot. Most interesting and beautiful to me is how materials age with use. I want something that will take in dirt and scratches and become more beautiful and worn over time. That is what I try to make, because those are the objects that I want to live amongst.
For many ceramicists, an aim to produce designs born out of the natural world has led to the creation of forms that feel somehow otherworldly. Have you ever theorized why that might be? Do you feel this applies to your work?
When I’m not looking at ancient vessels, I’m looking at branches, fungi, or curves in architecture and furniture design. Everything mutates quite a bit in the building process, and almost always takes on its own life as I build. The surfaces I’m most interested in creating are close to stone, rock, and raw clay. I try to strike a balance between something that looks like it emerged out of the earth, but also very clearly couldn’t have.
So far you have almost exclusively used ceramics in your work. Do you see yourself ever moving to wood or bronze — possibly in the pursuit of creating a total living environment?
I like carving very much, and would like to explore that more. Wood ages so humbly and beautifully. It’s incredibly rewarding to take a knife to a buttery piece of wood, and can be quite cathartic to really hack away at a difficult piece. I gave it away, but I used to have this very fine-boned spoon I stress-whittled listening to the election results come through in 2016 when I was in Japan. Definitely needed to part with that object.
I can’t fathom how I’d even begin, but I’ve always been very interested in furniture design. Well, mostly chairs. Ok, just chairs. Wooden chairs. All the artistry in the joints and curves of a relatively small utilitarian object is so poetic in its simplicity. I have this smoking chair I found upstate that I’m dying to work with someone to fabricate a set of. It was designed so that you can sit on backwards and rest your arms on the back rest while you smoke, equipped with a little ash tray that swings out of the back. I sit on it backwards to write or sketch and use the ashtray for my coffee. It’s all over my Instagram because it’s pretty much the only piece of furniture I have in my room besides my bed.
I’m also really interested in glass blowing. I would love to blow some really wonky functional work — the more lopsided, the better.
I also collect a lot of found objects, manmade and from the natural word, and sometimes stack them on top of each other, toying with the idea of attaching them someday.