Describe the art form(s) you work in and the art you produce.
I make one-of-a-kind stoneware and porcelain vessels. Most recently I’ve been exploring a gold glaze and multiple sprayed applications of under-glaze.
|Fellman used gold glaze and multiple sprayed applications of under-glaze on this bowl to achieve its interesting color variations. (Sandi Fellman photo)|
I’ve also decorated in terra sigillata. Roughly translated that means “sealed earth,” and it has its origins in the black decoration on ancient Greek pots.
When a big batch of clay is made, terra sigillata is the silt that rises to the top—the finest particles, finer than slip and silky smooth, sort of like softened cream cheese. It would take thousands of pounds of clay to make it naturally, and these days a formula is used. I apply it with a brush, and seeing other people work with it is what drew me to it. There’s something about it before it’s fired; it’s so matte and luminous even before it dries.
|Variations of white stoneware vases Fellman banded in terra sigillata. (Sandi Fellman photo)|
I also have an established career as a fine art and commercial photographer. My fine art photography is housed in private collections, as well as at the Museum of Modern Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, La Bibliothèque Nationale, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Commercial clients have included Bill Blass, Saks Fifth Avenue, Clinique, Charlotte Moss, and many others.
Fine art insect photos from the series “Sometimes With Shadows.” (Sandi Fellman photos)
How did you get started on a career in the fine arts?
My parents first carted me off to drawing classes when I was four. Though I grew up in a family of doctors and lawyers, I declared myself an art major early on at the University of Wisconsin. I was on a waiting list to take photography because there was only one, very sought-after instructor, Cavalliere Ketchum. I finally got to take a class with him my junior or senior year, fell in love with the immediacy of the art, and eventually earned an MFA in it.
From The Japanese Tattoo (Sandi Fellman photos)
Work for my graduate degree included a documentary series of photographs of prostitutes working at the Mustang Ranch in Reno, NV. I was also privileged to use a large-format Polaroid camera to explore the Irezumi tradition of Japan. These photos were published in the book The Japanese Tattoo, which is still in print.
Fellman digitally alterated the tongue of her pomeranian, Smudge, in this photo that appears on her website next to a commercial photo she took of lipstick. Smudge also has his own Instagram account, maintained by Sandi’s husband. (Sandi Fellman photo)
I also taught photography for 10 years, the last five at Rutgers University, which culminated in tenure. While teaching I had my first one-person show in New York and was approached by an agent. I ended up doing a job for Danskin that was a springboard into another area of adventure.
I resigned my teaching job the next year to pursue commercial photography full-time, inspired by the photographer Duane Michals who said, “Trust that little voice in your head that says, Wouldn’t it be interesting if... And then do it.” So I did.
Fellman took the orchid (left) and magnolia (right) photos in the 1990s. (Sandi Fellman photos)
As I think back about why I followed the path I did, I liked the idea that making art is the only area of study where there is no prescribed answer. Students today really have no idea what photography was like before the digital age and on-screen editing; the experience of watching your photos emerge in the darkroom was sensual and exciting. In pottery, I make something from nothing, and that returns to me that initial sense of wonder.
When did you start making ceramics?
I took my first ceramics class at Greenwich House Pottery in New York City five years ago on a whim. I like to say, “I drank the Kool-Aid,” which means I fell in love with the clay, the mess, the quite literal hands-on of the process. In many ways, for me, it is photography’s opposite, particularly in the digital age.
|Fellman’s bowl, ”Gold Sky with Thundercloud,” (above) received an honorable mention at the Tokyo-New York City Ceramic Exhibition at the Nippon Gallery, New York, last year. (Sandi Fellman photo)|
I didn’t intend ever to be serious about the pottery part of my life—one medium seemed like plenty—but now I find myself having just launched my ceramics website. Two stores in New York also sell my work, and I had my first one-person show of my pottery at a Los Angeles gallery in 2015. More recently, I received the Director’s Choice Award at Greenwich House’s “Those Who Make” show.
Through Aug. 5 of this year, my photographs and ceramics are being shown combined in an exhibit at KMR Arts in Connecticut, entitled “Back to Black.” It’s the third exhibition of my photographs at KMR but the first to feature them alongside my ceramics and suggest a discourse between the two art forms.
Fellman collaborated with ceramicist Jessie Lazar on these pitchers. They’re signed, along with other pieces the two have done together, “Fans of Dave,” which refers to one of their teachers at Greenwich House Pottery. (Sandi Fellman photo)
How has your experience as a photographer influenced your ceramics?
The more I pursue ceramics, the more I appreciate how much my photography informs it. Simplicity of form and palette rule my creative process, regardless of which art form I’m working in. The clay spinning on the wheel is not only meditative, but it reminds me of the blurry fashion photographs I was so honored to make for Josie Natori, Chado Ralph Rucci, Bill Blass and creative director Russ Hardin.
Above, Fellman at work on the pottery wheel at Greenwich House Pottery, which, she says, reminds her of the blurry fashion photographs she was known for. One of those, taken for Chado Ralph Rucci (now Ralph Rucci), appears below.
I think it’s the film maker Lawrence Kasdan who says he makes the films he wants to see. I have always made the images I want to see by pursuing my own quirky curiosity. And now, with my ceramics, the measure is: Do I want that? Would I use this? And ultimately: Would it look well in my home?
Whereas it’s always a thrill to be in a cab going up Sixth Avenue and see one of my photos in mammoth scale on the side of a building, I find it visceral and intuitive, as well as refreshing, to now make things that are both beautiful and functional. I consider myself extremely fortunate to be an artist and to have spent my adult life pursuing my passions. It’s been quite a ride!
Tell me more about your “quirky curiosity” and where it’s taken you.
I started doing photography in the early 1970s when the women’s movement was taking off fast and furious. I got a job as a cocktail waitress at Diamond Don’s, a topless/bottomless bar, because I was curious what went on there. Even though I wore clothes for my job, I observed very quickly that the women performers were in charge, and the guys throwing money at them seemed like dopes.
Fellman (left) with famed photographer Ansel Adams at a workshop in California in the 1970s.
I wondered if there was a more extreme version of this and eventually read about Mustang Ranch, which was, at the time, the world’s largest legalized bordello. I wrote the owner a letter to see if I could visit and take photos.
He never wrote back, so a friend and I just drove out there one summer and knocked on his door. He remembered my letter and said If I came during off hours, established my own relationship with the women, and stayed out of the way of the customers, I could come and go as I pleased. So I made friends with the women and took my photographs.
|Fellman shapes a large vase on the wheel at Greenwich House Pottery, New York City.|
Describe your art-making routine, along with your studio or workshop.
My photo studio for 35 years was three blocks away from my home until I got evicted so a store could move in. Now I do that part of my work on the top floor of my loft, where there’s a wall of windows and a skylight. I’ve pared down my equipment a lot, and it’s all super neat and tidy. But then I go to Greenwich House and make a GIANT mess at least three days a week with my ceramics. I prefer the marathon approach to both art forms. I really need to immerse myself in what I’m doing.
|In a more recent exploration of assymetry, Fellman created this bowl, which she says resembles her crooked bones, as a gift for her doctor. (Sandi Fellman photo)|
How is making ceramics similar to and different from making photos?
The thing about photography that drew me in so many years ago was its immediacy: Magic! When I started doing color work, it was continuously sponsored by the Polaroid Corp., which allowed me use of its large-format camera. So I became a real addict for immediacy. I had no patience and no darkroom at home.
Throwing clay on the wheel has a piece of that immediacy, but it has also taught me tremendous patience. I’m usually not going to get to the final look of a piece for weeks.
Fellman was commissioned to create this group of vessels and is cleaning the insides with a finishing sponge before adding further embellishment.
Working in a communal studio has its pros and cons as well. I learn from my colleagues every day, but sometimes I wish I could throw at 2 a.m. in my pajamas, all alone in my own private space, with my music blasting. But that’s the trade-off for access to clay, glaze, kilns, technicians, and oh, did I mention, a spray booth?
|Fellman embellished both these groups of vessels, above and below, in spray booths to create the subtle shifts in color. (Sandi Fellman photos)|
Where do your ideas for art come from and why do you think that has influenced you so much?
The play of dualities—light/dark, inside/outside, shiny/matte, modern/ancient, and perfect/flawed—are a constant discourse for me in my creative process. If you deconstruct it far enough you go back to photography, particularly black-and-white photography. I don’t go into the work with that in mind, but that is the perspective that comes from looking at the work after the fact and considering what’s strong and interesting about it.
|Fellman likes to work in series. For instance, this collection of sprayed vases in teal and black ties in with the blue-and-black and red-and-black sprayed vessels—all recent work—in the two previous photos. (Sandi Fellman photo)|
I actually go into my creative process with very little in mind. Often when I start a new series I don’t really believe that’s what I’m doing. I’m dabbling, I think, and it lets me off the hook. You may have things in mind you want to create, particularly over time as your consciousness as an artist develops, but it deserves to linger in a deeper place and not be forced into the verbal, conscious part of the brain.
How long does it take you to complete a piece?
I’m not in the studio every day because I’m so sloppy there. I don’t want to have only three hours to work because of cleanup, so I only work on days when I can devote a full eight hours. Clay has to dry, and no matter what you do, you can’t rush that. So usually it takes me a day to throw, then dry, then another day to trim and bisque fire, and still another day to glaze before the piece is fired the final time. I may have five pieces going at the same time in different stages—five waiting to dry, five waiting to be glazed, five in firing.
Fellman made these tiny pots to test underglaze, color bands, and how putting different tones on top would affect an underlying glaze. (Sandi Fellman photo)
What do you most like making? Why?
I love bowls. People sometimes ask if I’m throwing a bathroom sink because I like to make BIG bowls. To me they are a big, blank canvas with depth and motion. People always say my bowls look like they’re going to take off.
I’m always struggling to do the perfect bowl, the perfect photo, the perfect vase. So much so that the first time I took photos to the late John Szarkowski, famed MOMA curator, he saw that striving to be perfect in them.
Your work, both in photography and ceramics, has been called sensuous. Is that intentional?
I’ve heard and read those things, but I’m not specifically trying to do that. As I said before, I make what I want to see, and others want to touch it. They want to reach into the picture or touch that bowl. That’s what makes something sensuous. I do love those descriptions!
|Fellman’s dining room table as it appeared while she was packing for a show in Los Angeles. (Sandi Fellman photo)|
What other artists or places have influenced your work?
Among the many things I learned from my mentor and beloved photography professor Cavalliere Ketchum were self-motivation and an intense work ethic. Cavalliere is the most nonmaterialistic person I’ve ever met. He slept on a bedroll in the college darkroom, his clothes in paper bags in his car, and brushed his teeth in the darkroom before us students arrived.
He always said to spend money on our cameras, rather than on stuff. You can always go to the five and dime and find a light bulb and a pie pan and figure out how to light something, he said. Ceramics itself can be expensive, but making and firing my work is not the place to pinch pennies. I think what he meant was never to pinch pennies on moving your artwork forward. If that involves a piece of equipment, then so be it. Economize on the other stuff you buy, which, for him, meant living out of a paper bag.
Stylist Sharon Ryan, a friend, arranged the fireplace mantel in Fellman’s loft using this collection of her vases. One of Fellman’s flower photos hangs overhead, providing a gauzy backdrop to the vignette. (Sandi Fellman photo)
I was also greatly influenced by the year I spent in New Mexico. It really is, like the license plate says, the land of enchantment. A few years ago I went back and toured Georgia O’Keefe’s home, and I felt so connected with that spot.
O’Keefe’s eyesight deteriorated as she aged until she couldn’t paint anymore. It was then she took up ceramics. There was one plain, white ceramic bowl on display that she had made. It wasn’t perfect, but O’Keefe said she “quite liked it.” I did, too. People sometimes ask if I’m referencing her work in some of my work. Another large black piece done by Juan Hamilton, her long-time assistant, was also an inspiration to me.
Some of Fellman’s white bowls, which hearken back to one she saw by Georgia O’Keefe on a visit to the painter’s New Mexico home. (Sandi Fellman photos)
How do you market your work?
Social media has worked. One of stores that carries me—Dear Rivington—saw my work on Instagram. My first clay show in Los Angeles was at a photo gallery because the gallery owner saw my pottery on Facebook.
Some of Fellman’s work posted on Facebook that drew the attention of a Los Angeles gallery owner, who eventually exhibited it. (Sandi Fellman photo)
It was a huge amount of work to ship all those pieces to LA and back. It took two solid days of back-breaking labor just to get everything ready for the shipper, which made me want a store in New York I could drive my stuff to. Flair New York is just around corner from where I live. I’d been in there to buy a lamp for friends and mentioned my ceramics. They said to bring in pieces or photos, but I didn’t follow through.
Then a friend at Greenwich House suggested I go there, thinking my work would fit the store’s aesthetic. So I finally took some pieces in, and we’ve had the most extraordinary relationship. I had a show there last November, and they’ve had great success selling my work.
|A selection of Fellman’s earrings. (Sandi Fellman photo)|
I also started making jewelry not very long ago. It all goes back to loving black, and it seems like I could never find any great black earrings. So I decided to make some out of white porcelain painted with black terra sigillata. It’s another project I can do without a wheel. The porcelain is surprisingly light, sensuous to the touch, and sturdy.
Do you ever get blocked? If so, how do you deal with it?
Oh yeah. Blocks are devastating. There are days when I feel absolutely incompetent and think I’m never going to do anything again. To get unstuck, I work. I often tease that I’m going to teach a pottery class called “Drinking and Throwing.”
You have to do other things—read, look, travel—that gives you a reason, that puts enough inside the tank to want to come out. This is one of hardest things to understand when you’re young because you’ve been on a relatively straightforward trajectory through school.
These black-and-white vases get their sensuous look and feel from stoneware painted with black terra sigillata. (Sandi Fellman photo)
Sometimes people have some sort of special experience in their life that gives them something to say through their art and pushes them to say it. But I don’t want to get too academic about ceramics. I want to be open—go to shows, take workshops. I don’t want to intellectualize it for myself too much, and I feel I’ve earned that right.
As well as juggling my personal photography and making ceramics, I satisfy my creative needs with gardening, helping a friend redecorate, cooking a lovely meal, setting a beautiful table, or throwing a great party. It’s all connected.
If you want more…
- Explore Fellman’s photography and ceramics websites. Contact her through the website for purchase information.
- If you’re in the Washington Depot, CT, area this summer, check out the “Back to Black” exhibition of Fellman’s photos and ceramics at KMR Arts.
- Browse a 2015 exhibit of her vessels at Los Angeles’ Kopeikin Gallery.
- Shop a curated collection of her wares at Flair New York. If you’re in the New York City area, Fellman’s vessels are also available at Dear Rivington, and her jewelry is at Michele Varian.
- Follow Fellman on Pinterest, Instagram, and/or Facebook.
- Use the (affiliate) links below to explore books in which Fellman’s photographs appear.
- Shop (and follow!) my new Etsy store, BoHo Home By Susan, for vintage finds and a few of my boho DIYs. I have items for sale on eBay as well. New merchandise gets added daily, so check back often.
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